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.
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.