One of the major criticisms applied to rap music these days is that the genre has become too corporate and/or gotten away from meaningful social commentary and activism. However, that may be a matter of perception; on an underground level, there’s plenty of messaging which speaks to those themes, yet listeners may not know where to find it.
In a perfect world, the same attention being given to Jay-Z or Kanye West would be extended to Young Gully, an Oakland-based rapper who teamed up with journalist Pendarvis Harshaw for The Grant Station project, a concept album honoring the memory of Oscar Grant, and part of a campaign to rename the Fruitvale BART station in Grant’s memory.
The project—available as a free download here — comes not only on the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict, but also at the same time that “Fruitvale Station,” the Oscar Grant movie, debuted nationally to respectable box office numbers, but perhaps more importantly, has opened up long-overdue conversations about race in America, such as this recent opinion piece by the Washington Post’s top film critic.
Grant Station begins with the familiar sounds of a train arriving, followed by a voice-over announcement: “Welcome to Grant Station,” a single gunshot, and sound-bite snippets recounting the Mehserle verdict and imparting that Grant’s death not be in vain.
What follows next are 10 impassioned tracks—interspersed with commentary from Harshaw—on which Young Gully does precisely what Jay-Z won’t do: address the state of black life in this country in a way that is humanizing, heartfelt, and unquestionably real.
On “Grant Station,” Gully raps, “since Oscar died the whole city been in crisis mode/ so many lives is sold but it’s not surprising though/still I despise it so/how can we survive and grow?/ when they throw us in cuffs, another life is taken/ another cop that’s off the hook, another mama pacing/another shirt made, seems like it never stops/the Town ain’t really been the same since Lovelle was shot/I just want for my people to shine/but sometimes, I get the feeling my people are blind/ they see what they wanna see/but still we gotta take a stand/how can I respect a cop or even shake his hand?/when they so against us/ it’s like calling a snake a friend/ giving policemen immunity/ is what you rate a plan/shit is crazy and it just amaze me/how we get treated but I never let the system break me.”
An interview with Grant relative Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson informs “Letter to Oscar,” which attains a Tupac-esque level of poignancy, offsetting its depressing subject matter with a cheery, uplifting guitar loop. Other tracks, like “Stereotype,” “By Any Means,” and “Here I Stand” speak directly to the crisis facing African Americans today, a dichotomy defined by misinformed perceptions and a repeating cycle of undereducation, incarceration and inequality.
Gully’s raw, street-level rhymes go hard over beats which eschew both the EDM and trap music trends currently dominating commercial radio. Yet “underground” doesn’t mean “inaccessible”; were urban radio interested in addressing such topical subject matter, “Dream” comes complete with a catchy, R&B-styled hook (“is it all but a dream?”), sung by a female vocalist.
Mindful rather than mindless in its content, Grant Station not only upholds the ethos of “reality rap” first referenced on Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s 1982 classic “The Message,” but avoids the contrived, pseudo-agitprop of Kanye West’s “New Slaves” and “Blkkk Skkkn Head.” Instead, it drills down into the heart of the conflict and the struggle, showing the anger and frustration black America feels over police brutality, but also the need for advocacy and, one hopes, eventual change. If you’ve lost faith in hip-hop recently, a listen to Grant Station might just trigger a rechristening.
While not overly-focused on political advocacy or social justice issues, Oakland’s Hieroglyphics crew have always had a conscious bent.
The alternative hip-hop standard-bearers and indie-label pioneers recently returned with The Kitchen, just their third group album in more than 20 years of existence. The collective effort showcases the tongue-twisting, super-lyrical flows of usual suspects Del, Tajai, Casual, Pep Love, Opio, Phesto, and A+, with production assistance from Sacramento-based DJ group The Sleeprockers. Track for track, it just might be their best group album to date; it’s consistently engaging musically as well as lyrically. Though the group has a storied history, and is indelibly identified with a bygone era in hip-hop, The Kitchen doesn’t sound dated or mired in the past at all.
On the first single and video, “Gun Fever,” the Hiero crew tackles the weighty topic of gun violence in society. Over a reggae-flavored groove—complete with melodica accents and dubby echoes—emcees Pep Love, Tajai, Casual, A+ and Del make social commentary which provides food for thought without being preachy or didactic.
“Shots echo in the ghetto, we try to keep it mellow,” Pep opens the track, while Tajai relates the hardcore mentality affecting East Oakland and other inner-cities: “These youngsters ain’t asking, they running up and they clacking.” Casual rattles off a list of ballistic weaponry, then declares, “I aint a gangster, got gun fever.” A+’s verse illustrates the emotional numbness which results from environments where gunplay is an everyday reality: “I’ll show you the proper procedure to meet the reaper.” Next, Del alliteratively outlines gun-related paranoia: “Seeing this vicious cycle in my vision/ keeps me suspicious of passer-by’s and citizens/ who pack pistols in they pocket for protection from predators/ you never know when they might set it off.”
Directed by Casual, the video’s imagery effectively switches between military-inspired visuals of camo-clad Hiero members; to surveillance cam footage of armed robberies; to people firing rifles at a shooting range; to newspaper headlines and TV clips of governmental hearings on gun control. The final image, of a chimpanzee holding a rifle aloft, shows the stupidity of it all.
What happens, however, when a ghetto youth is able to transform his life? Look no further than Mavado, who’s been called the Tupac of Jamaica. When Mavado first emerged in the mid-00s from the Kingston slums, he was an unrepentant outlaw, whose lyrics detailed dramatic tales of shootouts, retaliation, and vengeance, contrasted by spiritually-affirming musings on the meaning of life and death in a third-world country beset by violence and the proliferation of guns.
After rising to the top of the dancehall world, Mavado’s grim lyrics became much brighter as his outlook changed, veering toward positive topics like love and romance. Recent hits, like “Caribbean Girls,” “Settle Down (Destiny),” “Luv Me Girl,” “Take It,” and “Star Bwoy” were embraced by his fans, making the “Gully God” a bonafied sex symbol and celebrity.
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Last Saturday, Mavado made his triumphant second appearance at Oakland’s New Karibbean City nightclub, which has become the Bay Area’s premier dancehall club, and a home to the local Caribbean community. As DJ Uni-T pointed out, Mavado usually plays for crowds of 5,000 or more in the islands, so to see him in NKC’s relatively intimate environs was a special treat.
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Emerging from the upstairs VIP section to the strains of his first hit, 2006’s “What Dem a Do,” Mavado proceeded to give a command performance, anchored by a wealth of hit material and a strong stage presence. For over an hour, he relentlessly worked the energetic crowd up into an electrified frenzy, eventually stripping down to a tank top and repeatedly reaching out to touch the hands of his faithful devotees. Even though he wasn’t backed by a band, his presence was so magnetic and arresting, few noticed or cared. His set peaked with “So Special,” a classic from 2009 whose inspirational lyrics speak of striving to overcome adversity, making a plea for humanity to “help poor people with dem bed pon block,” before declaring, “If you see a dutty heart you a go dead from that.”
To some degree, the same problems beset Oakland as Kingston – though it could be argued that gun violence is far worse in Jamaica. And to a certain extent, the same solutions apply, i.e., recognizing that ghetto youth everywhere should be given the chance to reach their fullest potential.
This Week’s Picks:
Electric Kingdom, featuring works by Skeme, Chain 3, Tean 5, Kade, Sak, Slave, Shame125, Web, Stem,Refa1, Cre8, MadHatter, Kufu,Enk1 and Special Guest Soon1, 8/2, 6 pm, free, SoleSpace, 1714 Telegraph Ave.
Funkternal, 8/2, 8pm, $12-17, The New Parish, 579 18th St.
“The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” 8/2, 7pm, The New Parkway, 474 24th. St
“Cosmograms: Visions of Black Matter” feat. Sydney Cain 8/2, 6-9pm, free, Betti Ono Gallery, 1427 Broadway.
Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars, 8/6, $17-$20, The New Parish, 579 18th St.