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Home to Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Rapsody, and J Cole, North Carolina's musical legacy is rooted in activism. Even hip-hop's newest Carolinian chart-topping trap rapper DaBaby has embraced rap as a medium to address racial injustices in America by sharing his personal challenges with law enforcement.
Despite our state's rich tradition of protest music, my adopted home is often overlooked in conversations on Southern rap. But a team of North Carolina creatives—four rappers, a Grammy-nominated producer, a DJ, two videographers and a curator—came together to call out police brutality and to highlight the best lyrical talent the state has to offer.
It was Raleigh-Durham's #1 hip-hop station (K97.5) on-air radio personality Miriam Tolbert (Mir.I.Am) who used her award-winning program, Carolina Waves, as a platform to curate and produce "Black AF," a social justice themed cypher that garnered over 30,000 views on YouTube.
"Around the height of the civil unrest as a result of the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, there were so many protests going on and I went to one, but I was just like, 'I don't feel like this is how I can best use my voice and my platform.' I was like 'Okay, with my specific skill set, what can I do to contribute to what's going on?'" Tolbert said over the phone.
When I heard that Tolbert was putting on Black AF, it was just what I needed to engage with my own rage. The collaborative and competitive nature of the improvisatory hip-hop form prioritizes lyricism which creates space for each individual to call out and name the harmful racial discourses that have targeted Black communities. More importantly though—the aggressive nature of the cypher is the perfect way to address contemporary demands for justice.
Taking inspiration from the structure of XXL cyphers and Genius lyric videos, Tolbert chose local artists who directly addressed the social issues affecting the entire nation. "I didn't choose artists that are just talented, have bars and can ride a 16 about whatever topic. If you listen to their previous music from years ago, or you listened to it in the future, it's going to be on the same subject matters—systematic racism, oppression, police brutality," she added.
Sounding like a perfect horror anthem, the Imani Pressley produced beat created a haunting and melancholic sonic backdrop at the onset of the video. "It's an artist's duty to reflect the times"—words of Carolina-daughter Nina Simone—appeared on the screen as a fitting reminder. One by one, four talented artists took center stage.
Even virtually, it was electric.
Representing Henderson, 2FLY KNG approached the beat with a seriousness that demanded listeners pay attention. The rapper described the racial harm afflicted upon Black communities, but also managed to include inspiring bars that encouraged economic empowerment and generational wealth.
"Seeing countless incidents where people of color have been treated unjustly when interacting with law enforcement made me [concerned] for the next generation. In response, I decided to start a movement in my city to improve local race relations, eliminate racial bias against minorities, and properly educate our children on the history of our nation in a way that is both honest and comprehensive," he shared over the phone.
Raleigh rapper Tagem took a similar stance. "When it comes to music… my goal is to use my voice to highlight the truths we face daily in our community, ugly or otherwise, in hopes to start a constructive dialogue that invokes serious change," he said.
Tagem's approach follows in the trajectory of Golden Age artists such as KRS-One, Poor Righteous Teachers, and Dead Prez and challenges mainstream white America's misunderstandings about rap as a violent art form.
With a conversational style and his high-pitched Eminem-esque voice, Tagem merged sarcasm and vulnerability as he spoke to the ways he has been personally affected by the death of George Floyd.
"When George Floyd was brutally murdered/when he begged for his life I cried like he was my own brother/And I understand a lot of folks were shook like me/But that's a different kind of feeling when you look like me."
Next up was Lena Jackson, who left no space for me to catch my breath. One of the most confrontational rappers of the evening, Jackson's self-identified alter ego of a wolf is fitting.
Jackson performs with her entire body; her aggressive facial expressions and hand movements match the ferocity of her bars as she spent the minute addressing all naysayers and critics of Black social justice efforts.
Proving that she can go toe-to-toe with the best of them, Jackson switched up her flow a minimum of 10 times, even including a quick paced double-time cadence showcasing her versatility.
The daughter of two activist parents grew up well aware of Black people's fight towards freedom and equality. Now, as a mom of a two year-old, she's hypersensitive to the current instances of police brutality and indifference.
"I'm always thinking about my son. Right now, everyone thinks he's so cute, and I get scared thinking about how he will be viewed two years from now, five years from now, ten years from now. Is he still going to be that cute Black boy to the world, or is he going to be a threat?" she said.
With the resurgence of women in hip-hop, I look forward to watching Lena Jackson's journey. She is currently working on a project centered on the complexity and fragility of love that is scheduled for release in 2021.
The cypher closed out with Durham-based artist Jooselord. Over the past three years, Jooselord has established himself as an unfiltered conscious rapper whose style is closely related to punk rap. His local stardom has landed him opportunities to perform at major music festivals such as Raleigh's Hopscotch and Atlanta's A3C.
"When it comes to my platform, I always use my music as a way to let people who don't know what's going on, what's really going on. And to offer a place for people who do know what's going on, and it's happening to them, a place for them to come as refugees," he said.
At the 3:35 mark the beat stops, giving space for Jooselord to outline all the ways he is Black AF.
"I'm Black as big lips, gold teeth, I'm Black Jesus…. I'm Black as Bernie Mac jokes/that mean I'm Black and loud/Black and proud…/I'm Black as slaves' souls/Black as the body of panthers under them gravestones…/Black as Martin getting beat in the streets/Black as murder by the hands of police/That's why I'm Black in the streets/And I'll be happy when I'm Black and I'm free/Until then, I'm gon' be Black as can be."
The evening concluded with another Nina Simone quote. Although their approach stylistically differs from their musical predecessors, these Southern creatives merge and extend through cypher—one of hip-hop's oldest traditions—the truth that Black American music continues to powerfully speak to the injustices of today.
Mir.I.Am Tolbert is planning another North Carolina-focused cypher set this winter. Subscribe to Carolina Waves YouTube channel (@Carolina Waves) and follow the multimedia platform on Instagram (@Carolinawaves) to remain updated on all things NC hip-hop.