It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
Meet me where the roads cross—croons Johnny Venus, one half of Atlanta's captivating duo EarthGang. Venus repeats this line multiple times in the chorus of "Old Shit," a cut from the Spillage Village compilation album Bears Like This Too Much, recorded alongside fellow Atlanta-based artists Mereba, J.I.D., and 6lack. When asked "why Spillage Village" to label this group of genre defining artists, EarthGang's other half WowGr8 (formerly known as Doctur Dot) had this to say on his Instagram story:
"Cuz we don't hold nothing back."
Such a succinct, and inflected description does justice to Spill Vill, and reveals the powerful character that drives the collective's most eclectic members. Venus's invocation of crossroads, the sacred juncture between life paths and between worlds, advances a potent theme in the Black Diaspora, informing its ontologies and resonances. This is to say, our position as Black Southerners necessitates availability to the world of Spirit, and this is recognized most clearly in the art we create.
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The cultural atmosphere of the Black South was birthed from Hoodoo/Rootwork/Conjure, an assemblage of indigenous religio-spiritual practices created and sustained by enslaved Africans on Southern U.S. plantations. Katrina Hazzard Donald writes:
"In the process of this research, I discovered the existence of two Hoodoos. One that I designated as 'old tradition black belt Hoodoo' includes the original short-lived Hoodoo folk religion and later, when Hoodoo as a religion became unsustainable, the Hoodoo spiritual tradition that continued to be developed by African and African American captives on southern U.S. plantations. The second I labeled 'marketeered' or 'snake-oil Hoodoo.'"
Tracing the region's cultural history is often synonymous with locating these practices in their varied hiding places as they continue to push our philosophic agendas, battered and almost unrecognizable after centuries of abuse and exploitation, but still kicking.
This is to say, our position as Black Southerners necessitates availability to the world of Spirit, and this is recognized most clearly in the art we create.
Hazzard-Donald goes on to discuss the transmogrification of this fledgling religion into a desacralized exploit of the capitalist machine. We must employ Black-South ways of being and knowing that counter a policy of estrangement between the magical and mundane, the medicinal and philosophical, the spiritual and secular that thrives in the West, in order to delegitimize this consumerist agenda.
For many Black Southerners, particularly in the Mississippi Delta, and for a growing number of U.S. Black folks outside of the South, these fractured and misunderstood practices remain in possession of their power and influence. Delta Blues singer Robert Johnson's status as an almost mythological figure (and a cautionary tale) stems as much from his fated deal with the "devil" at the crossroads as it does from the beautifully haunting music he made. Unlike the music Black Southerners make, our religio-spiritual practices cannot be as easily commandeered by the market.
In the tradition of their musical ancestors, Georgia's very own EarthGang harness and center Black South ontologies to communicate an awareness and a powerful disregard of the ever-present Machine, trained like a drug detection dog to sniff out any Black body, any Black creation, any slice of Black pain it can feed on and turn into cold, hard cash. The duo's art dwells in these crossroads before leading the caravan on the Road to Mirrorland, the title of their highly anticipated, forthcoming album.
During an interview with the folks at Genius covering the lyrics to their song "Meditate," Venus expounds on the track's intensity:
"A lot of people be coming up to me and being like, yo, bro its crazy that we still living in the day and age like this bro, like all this Charlottesville stuff, all this stuff… like a lot of people be like bro I-I never thought that this would happen, I never thought that we would be right back here and stuff. So I just be like aye bro I'm from the South brah like, I see this shit 9 times out of 10."
"Meditate" wades through murky waters to parse out the wildly disarming experience racialized bodies endure in the South, a continuation of generations of trauma, building upon that which we've inherited from ancestors who likely never left the South. From childhood memories of raiding the candy lady to facing the reality that the assignation of criminality to your body is overdetermined and executed by a perturbing white gaze. In this way, EarthGang eschews the linear narrative of progress that so many from outside of the South cling to, using their art to mirror the truth of America back onto itself. That which the national myth assumes is past is the reality of Black Southerners in these very moments.
In the tradition of their musical ancestors, Georgia's very own EarthGang harness and center Black South ontologies to communicate an awareness and a powerful disregard of the ever-present Machine.
Since André 3000 of OutKast got on stage at the 1995 Source Awards and cast a spell on the music industry, Atlanta's prominence as a cultural and economic center of Blackness has been magnified. The site of the Atlanta University system, a cultural juggernaut of the Black South, and theorized by DuBois as an Afro-Futuristic space—the city was not in a bad position to begin with, especially in comparison to rural enclaves. Though, the contemporary ascendancy of Atlanta has come with its consequences.
In the very first track from EarthGang's very first project Shallow Graves for Toys, WowGr8 exclaims that Atlanta is "the city that the industry raped." A harsh descriptor but rooted in experiences and understandings of a brutally exploitative industry. Every rapper may not be from Atlanta, but the sonic character of ATL and other Southern urban centers, such as Houston and New Orleans, has soaked the rap industry's products to saturation. It is now very difficult to find rap music that isn't in some way indebted to Southern aurality.
But EarthGang also makes towards the future. The duo's art allows a new Atlanta to surface, while forcing the industry to reconsider the valuable work that Southern sounds can do.
Shallow Graves for Toys is an exciting first effort from the duo, and just as the title foreshadows, it concerns itself with (stunted) growth, the loss of innocence, and the heavy consumption of Black culture that came to a head in the 90's. For EarthGang, the rapid growth of technology and media that defines this decade catalyzes the most averse mental and psychological effects late capitalism has waged on 90's babies, a generation still reeling from post-9/11 militarization and attempting to adjust to adulthood in an economy defined by transient precarity. WowGr8 trudges through these realizations, expressing them through his memories of watching Kenan and Kel and making an appearance at Freaknik, the infamous and now defunct Atlanta college party. For "the industry," Atlanta's role in this has been as a fertile source of raw materials, not unlike the way European colonizers viewed the West African Coast and its peoples. The city is a living, breathing organism and it feels this. Poverty still runs rampant in a space where Black wealth is highly concentrated and has been for generations. WowGr8 exposes the ridiculousness of this at the end of the aforementioned track, titled 'Momma's Calling;'
"Vibe in the city that the industry raped/Live from the land where yo ancestors was slaves. (Somebody please turn the lights on, on 166! I can't see where the fuck I'm going!)"
These artists communicate a vital understanding that the exploitation of Black bodies continues to this day, and shows no signs of stopping. We are at a cultural crossroads; Western hegemony has attempted to separate us from a life source, cutting us off from methods of surviving that befit our situation as stolen people in a colonized land. And attaining financial success in accordance to American standards, or "getting on," is primarily defined by participating in the dangerous drug trade, making music that people who do not look like you profit from, and often both, one right after the other.
But EarthGang also makes towards the future. The duo's art allows a new Atlanta to surface, while forcing the industry to reconsider the valuable work that Southern sounds can do. The recently released video for "So Many Feelings" illustrates the pair as cyborgs, a commentary on this moment of automation and its attendant social mutilations, designed to transform humans into mini-Machines. Yet in spite of this development, EarthGang's "So Many Feelings" attempts to highlight the varied experiences that still make humanity beautiful. With lines like "sometimes I feel like God on her worst day" from Venus, and "feel like R. Kelly overdid it, and Aaliyah wasn't done yet," from WowGr8, it becomes clear that the duo remains committed to envisioning Black futures, and grappling with a world formed against the Black Southern imaginations they depend on to thrive. All things are possible on the Road to Mirrorland.