Music

The Messengers

K’naan

K'naan's The Messengers series is a trilogy of episodes designed to highlight the genius of Nigeria's Fela Kuti, Jamaica's Bob Marley, and the United States' Bob Dylan.

The age of the ignorant rapper is done

Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone

The stereotype must be lost

That love and peace and knowledge is soft

-- Boogie Down Productions (KRS-One), "Why Is That?"

It's well-documented that hip-hoppers utilize mixtapes as promotional opportunities, particularly to advertise upcoming projects and as demonstrations of a performer's ability. Fans of the culture get to sample the music and, hopefully, are persuaded that the artist in question has, or still has, the ability to dazzle and entertain.

It's no secret that mixtapes have become integral to the story of hip-hop's development in this first decade of the 21st century. As we've already discussed in previous installments of this column, the mixtape market is taking on a life of its own. Mixtapes have become, and are being treated as, full-fledged albums, finding spots on lists of the year's best music and revealing an impressive amount of staying power. I'd say I probably listen to mixtapes like Little Brother's And Justus For All, Rhymefest's Man in the Mirror, Wale's The Mixtape About Nothing, and Royce da 5'9's Bar Exam series as much as I listen to official retail releases.

Sometimes these mixtapes are conceptual in nature, extending a specific theme across a carefully selected set of rhythms and rhymes. Sometimes they are intricate mash-ups and DJ-oriented extravaganzas, toting more samples and loops than a "legitimate" album would allow. They regularly feature original production and rigorous discipline, along with fresh rhymes and inspired guests in lieu of mere remixes and rehashes. Best of all, mixtapes are usually free, although it's becoming increasingly common for mixtapes to turn into retail products. Here, the retail version of Drake's So Far Gone mixtape comes to mind.

This year, Somalia-born artist K'naan joined forces with acclaimed deejay J. Period to pay homage to three musical icons through a series of mixtapes called The Messengers. The series is, thus far, a trilogy of episodes designed to highlight the genius of Nigeria's Fela Kuti ("Episode One"), Jamaica's Bob Marley ("Episode Two"), and the United States' Bob Dylan ("Episode Three"). Of course, the trio also highlights K'naan's skills as an emcee, and his affinity for musicians who share their messages with the world, as well as J. Period's deejay heroism.

In the same way that Lil Wayne's 2007 victory lap of mixtapes and guest spots elevated the promotional game, I think K'naan and J. Period elevated the mixtape game again with this set of collaborations. Each "episode" in the series is masterful, contextualizing the music and approach of these individual messengers through snippets of biography, audio clips, and K'naan's own impressions. J. Period and K'naan's interpret the music -- Fela Kuti's polyrhythmic afro-beat, Bob Marley's reggae, and Bob Dylan's folk -- through the prism of hip-hop, and the result is more of a well-crafted duet between genres than fusion.

Ultimately this is for the better, I think, because neither side gets lost in the mixture. You can hear, though, how both deejay and rapper explored and expanded their limits as they immersed themselves in the source material. Jimmy Green's mixtape in tribute to Marvin Gaye is somewhat similar in approach, although there's something about pasting Ludacris into a Marvin Gaye song that doesn't sit well with me. And I dig Ludacris.

Overall, the entire vibe of honoring legends in patchwork fashion reminds me of Easy Mo Bee's work with leftover Miles Davis tracks for Davis's posthumous Doo Bop album. The Messengers episodes are quite a bit more satisfying given the collaborative nature of the project. That is, where Easy Mo Bee focused on the immediate task of adding hip-hop flavor to Davis's trumpet work, and finding accompaniment for riffs left behind in the wake of Davis's death, The Messengers seeks to illuminate the greatness of its three musical legends. At the same time, it treats us to the creativity, selectivity, and measured opinions of its makers, K'naan and J. Period.

So, yes, it's a great series. You should download it. But that's the small stuff. The larger picture here is that the crucial contribution of this series is perhaps its educational effect. In the background of each episode in the series is the theme of raising awareness -- about music, about life on the African continent, about famous and fabled musicians such as Kuti, Marley, and Dylan, and even about the possibilities of mixing rap, spoken word, and deejaying with afrobeat, reggae, and folk art.

This inclination to raise awareness or, as the case may be, to teach, makes for an exciting listen, given the decrease in projects that place a premium on this sort of historical and cultural take on music. A trip back to the '80s reveals Run DMC's effort to promote cultural awareness in "Proud to be Black" while subtly insinuating that references to and knowledge of Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, George Washington Carver, Jesse Owens, and Muhammad Ali inspired Run DMC's ascension as hip-hop pioneers. KRS-One's matter-of-fact approach to history on Boogie Down Productions's "You Must Learn" and "Why Is That?", while somewhat didactic, illustrates a similar point: agree with KRS-One or agree to disagree with him, what matters is that he made you think, got you to shift in your seat a little if not motivate you to change positions completely.

Another one of my favorites is Big Daddy Kane's "Lean on Me", a jam dedicated to principal Joe Clark who tackled the fledging East Side High School in New Jersey and reinvigorated it through unyielding discipline. Morgan Freeman played the lead role in the film of the same name, and I am always riveted by one scene in the movie when Clark holds a faculty meeting in the school gymnasium where he demands that the teachers hold their hands up high in the air. Then he tells them that this is the position in which their students will be found (that is, hands in the air at the demand of a police officer) when teachers fail to provide them with a proper education. Bringing this discussion closer to the topic at hand, that scene is a lot like K'naan's Chubb Rock-assisted "ABCs" on 2009's Troubadour: "They don't teach us the ABCs / We play on the hard concrete / All we got is life on the streets".

As The Messengers series progresses, we find K'naan offering his perspective on Kuti, Marley, and Dylan. But, instead of making sweeping, grandiose statements, he pinpoints the characteristics of each artist that affected him personally, the traits that inspired him and made him feel a bit more in touch with the rest of the world.

The first episode, dedicated to Fela Kuti, makes a successful amalgam of rap and Kuti's energetic, danceable afrobeat. Indeed, Kuti's penchant for memorable time signatures is just one of the many things K'naan admires. Countless others have admired it too, including R&B and hip-hop artists. Common, Erykah Badu, and The Roots are lively examples, as they often incorporate the Kuti sound when espousing views of freedom and individuality.

During the interludes sandwiched between the raps, K'naan discusses what established Kuti as an enduring and timeless talent. It was his originality, for sure, but K'naan relates it to Kuti's African identity, and his ability to be so comfortable with himself and his culture that he could share his heritage with any audience.

K'naan also notes the distorted perception of Africa in the "Western" world, and he has expressed his discontent with this on his own albums, The Dusty Foot Philosopher and Troubadour. On Episode One's interlude "Perceptions of Africa", K'naan explains that Africa is viewed in narrow and negative terms. It is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a country instead of a continent. It has been called "backward" and saddled with the moniker "the dark continent", without regard to the fact that Africa contributes more than its share of natural resources to the world and has been vital to the development of world civilization.

Next Page

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image