Country Cousins: On MLK, Southern Rap and Racism

As a native New Yorker, “Down South” seemed like a scary place, until a visit to Mississippi forced me to confront my own prejudices.

Northerners sometimes say the meanest things about folks from Down South. Some think that “their accents make them sound stupid” while others cite the madness of slavery, Jim Crow and other racist wickedness as reason enough to stay away from the region. Not that Southerners care what Northerners think anyway.

Back in the late 80s/early 90s, when Southern boys and girls began dabbling in hip-hop music, born and bred on the blocks of my native New York City, I wasn’t pleased. I dug the intricate wordplay and soulful sounds of Outkast and Goodie Mob—both cool, kooky and sometimes politically conscious. But by the end of the decade Southern rap got bigger, and the South’s “country” element took over. Following the lead of 2 Live Crew’s raunch, the new country hip-hoppers were loud, brash and far more ignorant than I could bear. They called themselves crunk, short for “crazy” and “drunk.”

Crunk artists seemed to scream only about drinking cough syrup and Kool-Aid over heavy bass beats. Nothing about it did anything for me, and it seemed as though the “‘Bamas” were winning the battle for Southern hip-hop. To me, most of the crunk rappers recited their crude lyrics as though there were marbles in their mouths, ranting about cold-blooded killings (C-Murder), big booty strippers (Ca$h Money Millionaires), sexual positions (Khia), drugs (Trick Daddy), gettin’ “dem dollas” (Gangsta Boo), the plight of having too many kids (B-Rock and The Bizz) or simply being crunk (Lil Jon).

“They’re setting back Black folks five hundred years,” I imagined my dead grandfather, himself a self-made Southern gentleman, saying. “Was this kind of intoxicated coonery that our forefathers marched for and M.L.K. died over?”

As a rap fan since the days of DJ Hollywood park jams, my disdain for that country boy music ran deep. Crunk opposed everything I believed about Black folk’s representation in pop culture, the troubled history of the South with “people of color” and a love for hip-hop connected to the concrete, soot, grit and asphalt of my native city.

I was born in Harlem on June, 23, 1963, the same day Martin Luther King Jr. delivered an early version of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Detroit. Mom brought me home to Lenox Terrace five days later, into a world of racial unrest that continues to brew fifty-one years later. I was two months old when Martin Luther King shared his the official dream, five months old when Kennedy’s brains were blown out, and thirteen months old when the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which gave Blacks basic rights including employment and housing equality, was passed.

During the late 60s into the 70s, scenes of struggle dominated the television news and PBS specials about segregated busing, the brutal murder of Medgar Evers, picket lines, the KKK, the murder of civil rights activists, Emmett Till’s corpse, blood-stained streets, crazed police dogs, laughing white men, fire hoses and little girls killed by a bomb in their church. Sometimes, it was hard to tell what was worse—Vietnam, where bombs rained regularly from the sky, or the streets of the South where brutal conflicts unfolded in black and white. Long after we turned off the television, the one state name that echoed in my mind was Mississippi.

Witnessing the violence and brutality in beautiful towns named Greenwood, Natchez and Jackson, I watched those television programs with nothing but fear, paranoia and suspicion. Simply put, Down South seemed like a scary place.

New York City was always promoted as a world without racism, as if the town was much too cosmopolitan to worry about skin color. Although my boyhood was one of multicultural innocence that included a Puerto Rican stepfather, a German godfather and various nationalities in the classroom of St. Catherine of Genoa, the realities of race as it applied to Black folks was rarely discussed at home, school or church.

In 1973, I was a shy ten-year-old geek with a massive comic book collection and few close friends. Having moved from the heart of Harlem to 151th Street between Broadway and Riverside Drive a few years before, one of my best buddies was a brown-skinned boy named Jeffrey. Living on the second floor of our Harlem apartment building, he and I hung-out constantly. We were best friends, the two musketeers who together watched cartoons, listened to music, went to the movies, played the pinball and watched when Soul Train on Saturday mornings.

Unlike other pals whose families had been “up North” for generations, Jeff’s people had recently migrated from Mississippi to Upper Manhattan in the 40s and 50s. His entire family spoke with accents that were thick as sugar cane, and Jeff’s mother had the strangest habit of crunching on ice cubes coated with cornstarch. Sitting on the crimson stoop in front of our six-story building, Jeff told me about working on pig farms, drying out tobacco and using outhouses. He constantly told me about the wide wooden porch that wrapped around his grandmother’s house.

“Got a big splinter in my foot on that porch,” he recalled. “But, my grandmother got it out for me.”

Listening to Jeff wax poetic about his hometown, I imagined a lovely place where folks awoke at dawn to the smell of grits, fried eggs and scrapple as the morning breeze carried the fragrant scent of flowers throughout the house. In the evening, fresh squeezed lemonade was served with supper. To hear Jeff tell it, even picking cotton in one hundred degree weather was more of an adventure than a chore.

In 1974, mom brought home The Black Book, a coffee table tome called that documented Black history from Africa to present day, and all the fucked-up stuff we had suffered in the name of white supremacy. Born in Harrisonburg, Virginia, mom had moved with my grandma to Pittsburgh, when she was baby. Once she told me about being forced to sit in the back of the train, a special Jim Crow car, on a few childhood trips back South. Her story had none of the charm of Jeffery’s angelic description of his Southern experiences.

Flipping through The Black Book became a regular obsession as I studied its maps, read vintage texts and slave audition signs. Within those pages, I traveled from the shores of the motherland to the trade ports of Southern cities to the bleeding fingers and bloody backs of the slaves on the plantations. I learned about Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad, Frederick Douglass, and the brutality that Black folks endured during as well as after slavery.

It wasn’t until I became a teenager that I realized that racism wasn’t just a Southern problem. Unfortunately, the folks who made the documentaries neglected to inform the world that one could be called coon on the street corner of Manhattan just as fast as in cotton fields of Mississippi. The older I got, the more of a threat I became. No longer was I a clean kid dressed sharply and holding my mother’s hand as older white women remarked how “cute and well-mannered” I was. When I aged into adolescence, I became just another Black menace.

I finally comprehended that there wasn’t much difference between the country bigots and their big city counterparts.

Hip-hop culture, too, was born out of Northern prejudice and injustice, created by aerosol artists whose styles weren’t accepted by art schools, breakdancers who were never going to allowed to perform at Lincoln Center, and DJs/MCs who were kept out of downtown New York City nightclubs because of racist door policies, which contributed to them creating their own spaces and music. If only for a few hours, bombing subway cars, breakin’ in the train station and going to park jams was where we could escape from “the chains of discrimination” that MLK talked about and simply be. It was within the music, movements and clouds of spray paint where we found freedom.

The older I got, the more it was clear that I didn’t have to travel to Mississippi to be treated like a second-class citizen, it still wasn’t a place I ever wanted to visit.

Twenty-five years later, still living in the Big Apple, I was writing for music magazines when the Southern rap began to rhythmically rise, except this time it was young hip-hoppers “gettin’ crunk.” At the time, I preached that rap music as I knew it was a was an innovative art form that was becoming a crude minstrel show led by a posse of interlopers strutting through videos like Stagger Lee, high on weed and cough syrup. Those boys, as writer Miles Marshall Lewis parodied them in the guise of a fictional country rapper named Ace Boon Coon in his brilliant short story “The Wu-Tang Candidate,” were just loud and wrong. East Coast rappers might’ve made songs about the same subjects for years, but my disdain for crunk and country stemmed from a belief they were dumbing down the music.

Mississippi rapper David Banner

In the spring of 2003, publicist Tresa Sanders, who worked with record executive Steve Rifkind, called me about her boss’ newest artist, Southern hip-hop sensation David Banner. Rifkind had made millions in the 90s after signing the Wu Tang Clan, Mobb Deep and Big Pun to his Loud Records; he was a respected record executve who had a keen ear for talent. Although I hadn’t heard of Banner, I figured if Rifkind signed him, then maybe he was good. “We’re taking a bunch of writers on a junket to Mississippi next week,” Tresa explained, “and we wanted to know if you would like to come?”

Looking out the window, I wanted to laugh. “Mississippi? Why the hell would I want to go to Mississippi?” Tresa chuckled. “Banner is from there and his record is called Mississippi: The Album, so we thought it would be perfect way to get to know him.” I sighed. “I don’t mind getting to know him,” I replied. “It’s Mississippi I don’t want to meet.” After a few more minutes of sarcastic quips on my end, Tresa finally convinced me to go. “We’re going to be staying at a riverboat casino hotel,” she said, before hanging-up.

Seven days later, soon after the chartered bus pulled up in front of the Riverwalk Hotel and Casino in Vicksburg, with a posse of restless journalists, I was disappointed to learn that the riverboat was stationary. I wouldn’t be sailing up the water like a Mark Twain character. Leaning over a guardrail, I looked at the mighty, murky Mississippi River. With the sun shining on its surface, this was the same river that inspired Al Green and drowned Jeff Buckley. Standing next to writer Frank Williams, an old friend who was covering Banner for Vibe, I sucked my teeth and muttered, “I should’ve stayed home.” Frank laughed and called me an “East Coast elitist.”

Later, we met at the bar and decided to take a walk. Under the blazing sun, the desolate sidewalks were dusty and deserted. We saw liquor stores, check-cashing joints and families lounging on their porches. A side of me, the uptight side that needed a strong drink, imagined tobacco chewing Klansmen burning crosses in the woods and nasty cracker shopkeepers refusing to take money from my hand. Of course, I saw nothing of the sort. “This must be the Hardtimes, Mississippi that Stevie Wonder was singing about in ‘Living for the City,’” I joked. “Loosen up, Mike, it’s all good,” Frank said, as we entered the liquor store. “I’m cool,” I lied.

That night, our entire group was bussed to meet David Banner at Terminal Studios in his hometown of Jackson. A towering mountain of a man, Banner came across as a very cool and funny guy. A few people, myself included, were impressed that he had gone to college, not something most rappers can claim. Brimming with charm, Banner was so proud to be a Mississippi homeboy that he tattooed the word across his broad back. “That’s one thing about Mississippi,” he said later, passing me a blunt, “we may have our problems, but it’s blood down here. And that runs deeper than anything else.”

Having worked on Mississippi: The Album for more than a year, he discussed with the roomful of writers the first single “Like a Pimp,” as well as the tracks “Street Life” and “Cadillac on 22s.” Released as a second single months later, Banner rapped, “I ain’t did nothing in my life but stayed true, pimp my voice and mack these beats, and pray to the Lord for these Mississippi streets.”

Mixing soulful beats and down home blues, guitar solos and gospel influences, Banner’s lyrics varied from country boy thug rapping about blunts and bitches (his single “Like a Pimp” was pure country mackadelic) to educated musings about poverty, politics and the state of Black folks in his home state. While I enjoyed some of the album and appreciated David Banner as an artist, I still wasn’t convinced that Southern rap in general, and Mississippi specifically, had much to offer.

The following day, after a chilling tour of Medgar Evers’ house that left me speechless and near tears, I wanted to blow off going the local nightclub Freelons. But, after losing twenty bucks playing the slots inside the casino that smelled of sweat and bad luck, I changed my mind. Banner’s DJ Fingerprints was spinning at “da club,” and the big man himself was scheduled to perform. After ordering a rum and cola, I surveyed the scene, nodding my head to the music as the bass boomed inside my chest. While taking a sip from the strong drink, Fingerprints put on Lil Jon’s “Get Low,” and the club went wild.

David Banner carries the state of Mississippi on his back

Suddenly the man of the night, David Banner, leapt on the stage to perform. Shirtless beneath the hot lights, he was no longer the laidback ambassador of Southern hip-hop, having transformed into the hardest crunk country cat below the Mason-Dixon Line. The audience loved it. People were dancing hard as sweat dripped down their faces, booties bounced to the beat, arms waved in the air, and the excitement level was somewhere in the danger zone. These kids were losing their mind, and shredding frustrations under the influence of aggressive basslines. The intensity level of each dancer reached the verge of explosion.

With sweat steadily dripping, the waitresses from Waffle House, the bellhops from the Holiday Inn, the gas station owners, the former strippers, the unemployed dudes selling weed, the school janitors all got crunked. The reprieve from life’s constrictions might’ve been brief, but it was complete. As writer Charlie Braxton, himself a native of Mississippi, would later tell me: “Crunk is the music the slaves would’ve made. Crunk is the music that relieves tension and listening to it is like hearing a revolution.” While DJ Fingerprints flowed from bassline to bassline, I loosened up a little, let go of my own prejudices and simply got lost in the music.

Ten years after my Mississippi journey, almost fifty-two years after MLK’s speech, America’s issues with race, police brutality and injustice hasn’t changed much in the North or the South. We’re still being denied, lied to, beat down and killed. Every day my Facebook feed displays headlines of racist incidents throughout the country. Obviously, King’s dreams have been deferred, I think, as I try to catch a cab in East Village. As yet another yellow ride zooms by, I recall the flow of the Mississippi River and think about my New York “country cousin” Jeff, hoping he always stayed connected to his roots.

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Michael A. Gonzales is a columnist at soulhead.com. Follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.

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