The Messengers

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.

The Boy Who Cried Rap

The Boy Who Cried Rap

Rarely are we treated to an African giving us a firsthand account of Africa. Accounts of African life are typically relayed by “outsiders”, interpreted and filtered through layers of culture, and sometimes bias. Fela Kuti’s willingness to share his “African-ness”, something like James Brown’s proclamation “I’m Black and I’m Proud”, represents a revolutionary step in terms of identity, self-concept, and social awareness. When it comes to confronting and subverting expectations, the last full song on the Fela Kuti episode is “Africa”, drawing a surprising analogy between a woman and the continent itself. Kind of clever, actually.

Episode One’s insistence on helping us to revise our image of the African continent runs counter to the prevailing isolationist streak in US hip-hop. Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, connecting with Africa as an “African-American” was a popular trend. It was reflected in the style of dress, from Nefertiti earrings and ankh necklaces to Queen Latifah’s regal headdress and attire. At other times, the connection manifested in rhyme, as demonstrated by X-Clan’s discography or LL Cool J’s “Def Jam in the Motherland”.

Every now and again, you hear that connection reemerging, as in dead prez’s “I’m an African” or in the Roots’ worldwide viewpoint for their Rising Down LP, or in benefits and charitable projects. I don’t mean to suggest that people have been completely ignoring Africa, but there’s also been a change in outlook between now and the days of protesting the incarceration of Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s Apartheid regime.

Lately, there have been lyrics like the line from a guest rapper in Serengeti’s “Cauc’s Remix”: “The government is sideways / They’re sendin’ money to kids in Zimbabwe instead of those by my way”. And although this lyric from the Hard Truth Soldier’s posse track “Down with Us” was aimed at the repercussion of a war in Iraq, and not at all about any country in Africa, it nevertheless illustrates our slight shift toward thinking locally but ignoring globally: “They already talkin’ ’bout rebuildin’ their cities / I roll around the ‘hood and sh*t still looks sh*tty”. Themes like “We are the world” and “we’re all brothers and sisters” aren’t necessarily automatic.

One last point about Western misinterpretations of Africa. The function of art and music in African countries seems to be another example our (see: Western) disconnect. Somalia, K’naan tells us on Episode Two ‘s “War Through Poetry” interlude, has its share of war and violence, but it is also rich in art and poetry. The Somali people talk about war and violence, but they “prefer to talk about war through art and poetry”.

That’s a fascinating concept, because it positions art and music as forms of discourse, more of a dynamic process than an end result. The journey to create the art is more important, then, than the finished product, and since the process itself is alterable and cyclical, an artist’s songs are facilitating a marketplace of ideas in which sound and lyricism are traded in exchange for audience participation, inspiration, and critical analysis.

In the second episode, K’naan and J. Period switch gears to take on the legendary Bob Marley. It is here that K’naan reveals Bob Marley as his inspiration for sharing his own culture. Bob Marley spread the culture of Jamaica and the spirituality of Rastafarianism across the planet, a feat that K’naan says he wants to mimic with respect to his own experiences and background. Intentional or otherwise, all of K’naan’s insights help to sell him to us as a rapper who identifies with the “true school” aesthetic of hip-hop culture, as a lover and consumer of music, and as a tour guide shouldering the task of interpreting the intermingling of sound and cultural significance.

Let’s not kid ourselves. K’naan shapes our image of him with each episode in this series, simply by his choice of honoree. Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan are weighty subjects, loaded with historical importance and musical acumen. Critics don’t use the term “Dylan-esque” lightly, although there are a couple of magazine articles out there that arguably prove me wrong by comparing Lil’ Wayne to Bob Dylan and, in making a comparison to Prince, claiming Lil’ Wayne’s The Carter III is the Purple Rain of this decade. Wow.

But the point is that Kuti, Marley, and Dylan are important to us. Speaking of which, K’naan opens the third episode for Bob Dylan with his first encounter with Dylan’s music. It occurred after someone suggested a line in a song from the The Dusty Foot Philosopher was “Dylan-esque”. He admitted not understanding the term, and was subsequently “floored” when his research into Bob Dylan’s discography brought him a treasure trove of material.

Being “real” or “true” is less of a challenge for K’naan despite the fact that his “socially conscious” rhymes and “positive” messages could be equated with “alternative rap”, “emo rap”, or being a “backpacker”. None of these labels are bad in and of themselves, but hip-hop listeners sometimes use them pejoratively. What has worked for K’naan is his back story, and in particular his upbringing in war-weary Somalia. As a witness to violence on a grand scale, K’naan asking “What’s Hardcore” on The Dusty Foot Philosopher resonates. It gives him a certain currency of character that buys him the sort of legitimacy we might equate with rappers who have been shot, arrested, or formerly involved in criminal activity.

Though not in the spotlight of the series, K’naan’s back story, already well-established by his retail output, figures prominently in the background. In this context, his comments throughout the series paint him as a musician concerned with the crossroads of music, message, and heritage. Sporting a select number of guest voices (Zumbi, Netic the Rebel, Kardinal, Steele, and Bajah), J. Period and K’naan clearly set out to guide the action.

At the same time, J. Period and K’naan weave samples from various artists and historical figures to accentuate the presentation. Episode One’s “Got a Dream” samples the Notorious B.I.G. and Martin Luther King, Jr. Likewise, K’naan’s lyrics are heavily laced with references to famous rap lyrics — from Nas’s Illmatic, Slick Rick’s “A Children’s Story”, and Rakim’s opening line “I came in the door / said it before…” from “Eric B. is President”. Bringing this back to the Bob Marley mixtape specifically, K’naan quotes Marley’s sage statement that rain doesn’t just fall on one person’s house. “[These are] the words of someone who understands the impact that unity and division have on the world,” K’naan points out.

Just as music can be used as a form of discourse, this series offers music as a tool for inclusiveness, providing geographical and stylistic unity. Otherwise divergent and varied voices, sounds, and genres are merged into glorious statements of tribute.

Finally, the Bob Dylan mixtape (Episode Three) finds its heart and soul in its theme of courage. K’naan’s reflection on Bob Dylan begins with what might seem like a bold admission; namely, that the rapper had not heard of Bob Dylan until after he had released The Dusty Foot Philosopher. It hardly seems possible that anyone would not have heard of either Kuti, Marley, or Dylan. But that’s where the educational effect of these tapes rears its head once again. There are some folks who simply must not be ignored. If, many years from now, there are people who have never heard of Justin Timberlake, I suppose I could live with that (sorry, Justin). But a world in which no one knows Bob Dylan, Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, or James Brown? Please don’t let that happen.

The real courage is Bob Dylan’s. K’naan takes us back to the murder of Medgar Evers, which prompted Bob Dylan to write and perform a song to chronicle the situation and the issues. In the midst of the United States’s struggle with human rights, K’naan marvels at Dylan’s skill in taking stories from “the other side” and putting them in his songs in spite of the potential repercussions for doing so.

I find it interesting to see how social climate and environment play out in music. K’naan’s research brings us an earnest Bob Dylan writing songs emanating out of the Civil Rights Movement, speaking as the “voice of America” in the process. He describes Bob Marley as a messenger who spreads his culture and faith on a global scale. Fela Kuti exhibits pride in his heritage. Meanwhile, K’naan himself is inspired by these messengers to share his own culture.

To me, the interesting part is how all of this resembles the familiar argument of the US rapper who says he or she is merely channeling their environment and upbringing. Joy and violence in rap, the argument goes, is a reflection of the joy and violence in the cities and the ‘hoods. It just so happens that rappers are frequently met with skepticism when they advance this argument. I suppose that’s because the argument has been advanced too many times — a phenomenon I like to call “The Boy Who Cried Rap”. But I also wonder if it has something to do with our hesitancy to accept the “inner city” or rap as a whole as “cultures”, with accompanying traditions, rituals, and mores.

Further, don’t you think it takes guts to mix folk and rap? C-Mone, a female emcee from the UK, worked the folk vibe pretty well into a few songs on her 2009 mixtape “C-Mone vs. The Indie Boys”, but it doesn’t match the intensity of K’naan rapping to a Dylan tune, sometimes alongside Dylan’s vocals. That’s kind of ambitious. Another ambitious project is Eligh and Jo Wilkinson’s On Sacred Ground. On this release, Eligh, a rapper from the Living Legends crew, joins forces with his mother Jo Wilkinson, who brings the folk vibe. The result is a curious experiment. I’m not totally sure how I feel about it yet, but I do think it’s worth checking out.

As for The Messengers, it’s an easy project to admire, delightfully executed and chockfull of fresh ideas and stellar music. Download it, if you haven’t already.