A Proud Return
On August 1, Marissa Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford led an action at a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle, advocating for racial justice on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement. The coverage and public response to the two women’s disruption has largely been negative—and primarily slung by white liberals—focusing on their “rude” method rather than their actual message and intent (never mind that the protest—along with the prior BLM action at Sander’s Net Roots engagement—has led to Sanders strengthening and expanding his racial justice platforms).
Case in point: videos of Johnson and Willaford’s initial confrontation with the Sanders’ team went nothing short of viral. In contrast, footage of Johnson’s speech itself—and where a call for silence in memory of Michael Brown is met with “boos” and cries of “don’t tell me what to do” from the predominately white audience—have received next to no attention. In the days following, Sanders supporters (certainly not all; probably not even a majority—but enough to warrant concern) have continued to wag fingers, groan their disgust and develop Alex Jonesian conspiracy theories in response to the brief act of engagement. For some, this has served as nothing more than an example of “the left eating itself”; for others, it illustrates the pervasiveness of white supremacist attitudes even amongst those outwardly identified as progressives and allies.
Less than a week later, Blackalicious drops Imani Vol. 1—the duo’s first album in 10 years. Blackalicious doesn’t care if their audience—including many who could be described as white liberals—think they’re stirring the pot; after an extended intro, emcee Gift of Gab and DJ/producer Chief Xcel roar out of the gate. “Blacker than Marcus Garvey and black nationalism/Ripping the drumbeats/ripping the funk, ripping the rhythm.” Even though its creators are hip-hop veterans skirting middle-age, “Blacka” opens with all the hunger and intensity of a debut. “Harder than prison/Where our population is and no real rehabilitation is given/I am the seat on the bus where Rosa Parks was sitting in/I am Timbuktu, they want to keep me hidden.” If any newcomers to the group thought their nom de plume was a gag, “Blacka” puts the notion to rest. Just as in the late ’90s through early-aughts, Blackalicious’ music is the celebration of black art, culture and identity, regardless of whether their pride makes someone uncomfortable.
Blackalicious doesn’t care if their audience thinks they’re weird. Just as on prior releases, (particularly 2002’s incredible Blazing Arrow), Imani Vol. 1 splits the difference between classic boom-bap and psyche-baroque experimentalism. Here, wormy, blown-out bass lines (“I Like The Way You Talk”) sound natural alongside synth-pop homages (“That Night”); elsewhere, orchestral jazz gives way to psychedelic afrobeat (“Escape”). Each track possesses a unique personality, yet never to a degree the album loses its unified aesthetic; Imani Vol 1.‘s sonics occupy a proudly eclectic spectrum, similar to latter day De La Soul or Slum Village-era Dilla.
Blackalicious doesn’t care if their audience thinks they’re soft. Gift of Gab is just at home talking about love for his family as he is spitting fire (“Loves Gonna Save the Day”). “We’re older, we’re wiser, we’re more mature.” Says Gift, describing the creative space he and Xcel inhabit in 2015. “It’s better now, because we’ve grown as people and artists.” The record is written from the perspective of an aging creator, reflecting on his past while expressing contentment with his present: “It feels good to be living healthy, grown and so gifted/Time will move, I’m going with it/The music flowing so infinite” (“Twist of Time”). Blackalicious doesn’t care whether their audience thinks they’re old; even in an eternally youth-obsessed market, they embrace their later years.
To say Blackalicious does not care about these things is not to imply the duo doesn’t care about their audience. They care deeply. As Gift of Gab has said, “People will come up to us and say ‘Yo, that record changed my life’ or ‘That record helped me to get sober’ or ‘That record started me on a spiritual journey.’ People say personal stuff like that, and we take it seriously.” They so clearly care: about their craft, yes, and Imani Vol. 1‘ 16 tracks stand as only recent examples; but above all they care about human life; the entire spectrum of human life.
But the reason Blackalicious call themselves “Blackalicious” is the same reason the movement is called Black Lives Matter, not All Lives Matter; Blackalicious aims to celebrate and enfranchise those among their audience, their peers and their communities who have long been neglected, tormented and talked down to. Every creative fiber of their records are imbued with this sense of empathy; every line written to enrich, be it through informing, encouraging or just making a listener laugh. They care intensely for human life, so much so they want other people to care, too; and like Johnson, Willaford and other direct activists throughout history, they know that getting others to care sometimes means using calm, even tones and sometimes it means shouting in their faces.