There is no one Virginia. The state is not a singularity. It’s a complex fabric, a multiplicity spanning mountains and maritime, the Ages of Discovery and Information, agriculture and industry. From North Carolina to NOVA and Bristol to Chincoteague, Virginia is a patchwork of contradictions.
Yet the ugly reality is that the Virginia experience — it’s history, culture and society — can be divided into one of two categories: white or black.
Awareness of this schism is not necessarily a strongpoint in the Virginia consciousness. For many Virginians of one category, the narrative of the state is the development of available resources into open opportunity trade, which enabled the rise of a patrician landowner class that gave birth to a political/philosophical consciousness that is unrivaled in the western world today.
To probe African-American history in the Commonwealth, however, is an entirely other thing. After all, African slavery was introduced to the future United States in 1619 via Dutch traders who sailed for Jamestown. Lifetime slavery became a formal legal institution in the colony in 1640. Just in time for the tobacco boom. Those bodies that produced Virginia’s cash crop became commodities themselves after the International Slave Trade was abolished in 1808 and the future Cotton Kingdom in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas opened up in the early 1800s. The invention of the cotton gin turned Virginia into an unwitting warehouse for Deep South slaves.
Then came the Civil War — that moment of national reckoning we today like to pretend was the end of slavery. Still, the legacy of oppression did not end with the 1865 Battle of Appomattox Court House.
The Equal Justice Initiative reports that Virginia had the least lynchings of any Southern state in the Jim Crow years. That a “mere” 88 extra-legal slayings qualify as a badge of honor is, of course, a disgrace.
Jim Crow itself did not just poof and disappear into a paradigm of enfranchisement with the arrival of Civil Rights. Virginia political boss Harry F. Byrd, Sr. coined the term “massive resistance” in February 1956 when he called for white Virginians to actively subvert desegregation in state schools. Not until the 1967 Supreme Court Loving v. Virginia decision were state anti-miscegenation laws lifted. From 1983 to 2000, school students across the state celebrated Lee-Jackson-King Day to honor two Confederate generals (and a Civil Rights icon).
Today African-Americans comprise only 20 percent of Virginia’s population. Yet, they account for 60 percent of the state’s prison population.
Historical consciousness of ethnicity is, unfortunately, a luxury. In a state built on the metrics of quantifiable mercantilism, the true language of record is power, and power is best expressed through wealth.
In 2002, two brothers from Norfolk, Gene and Terrence Thornton– aka Malice and Pusha-T of Clipse — dropped their LP debut, Lord Willin’.
Born of Tidewater street culture and nurtured by the now-legendary Neptunes production duo, the album is a stylish love letter to status. Raw, honest and inventive, Lord Willin’ is a creative amalgam of lyrical gymnastics clothed in bouncy beats worthy of a Pharrell Williams Best Of sampler.
There’s absolutely no mistaking the album’s through line. In the first moments of the intro, Pusha-T inaugurates a chain of vocational boasting that goes unchecked for the next hour, “playas we ain’t the same, I’m into ‘caine and guns.” The ensuing slew of creative references to “rock,” “cooking” and “sniffles” plumbs new metaphorical depths in its description of the drug trade. This is an unequivocal document of cocaine in Virginia.
On the iconic single “Grindin’,” Pusha-T elaborates on his given profession with boastful discretion, “From ghetto to ghetto to backyard to yard / I sell it whiped un-whipped, it’s soft or hard / Call me subwoofer, cause I pump base like that, Jack.”
Malice follows Pusha-T with a peacocking verse eager to impart a sense of self-importance as a windfall benefit of moving cocaine, “excuse me if my wealth got me full of myself / cocky something that I just cant help / ’specially when them 20’s is spinning like windmills / and the ice 32 below minus the wind chill”.
Though rooted in the practical day-to-day of drug trafficking and distribution, Lord Willin’ is not a grim lament of the toll cocaine takes on communities in the Tidewater and around the world. Far from it. It’s a celebration of the material wealth available to those with the capacity for violence and the taste for power necessary for holding turf and pushing weight.
The lyrical dichotomy juxtaposes a simple one-for-one relationship: there’s a market for a given commodity that many would do just about anything for, Clipse knows this world well enough to profit from it, and thus they achieve a position of renown and comfort. Though the trappings may be different to an almost unfathomable degree, the rhetoric layered beneath Lord Willin’ is a borrowed form of dubious justification that reeks of the Virginia slave system.
What Clipse built of rhymes and references is mostly undergirded with a sense of guilt-free prosperity. They flaunt their wealth without any regard for the human toll with which it was acquired. Lord Willin’ serves as a sort of plantation house in album form.
In a 2002 “Virginia Drug Threat Assessment” from the National Drug Intelligence Center, the terms of the state’s cocaine trade are elucidated in pure bureaucracy-speak:
Cocaine, particularly crack, is the primary drug threat to Virginia. Powdered cocaine and crack cocaine are readily available in most large population centers in the state. Cocaine abuse is associated with more drug-related treatment admissions to publicly funded facilities than is abuse of any other drug. Nearly two-thirds of all drug-related federal sentences in Virginia in FY2000 were cocaine-related. Crack cocaine is the drug most often associated with violent crime in the state. Colombian and Dominican criminal groups based in New York City and Philadelphia and, to a lesser but increasing extent, Mexican criminal groups based in Atlanta and Charlotte, transport wholesale quantities of powdered cocaine into Virginia and distribute the drug at the wholesale level. Virginia-based African American, Caucasian, and Jamaican criminal groups and local independent dealers travel primarily to New York City, and also to Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Miami to purchase wholesale quantities of powdered cocaine and return to Virginia to distribute the drug at the retail level. Cocaine typically is transported into Virginia in private or rental vehicles. Retail distributors usually convert powdered cocaine into crack in Virginia on an as-needed basis. Wholesale crack distribution usually is limited to multiounce quantities. African American criminal groups based in Virginia and African American local independent dealers and street gangs distribute crack at the wholesale and retail levels. Retail distributors typically sell crack at open-air markets in Virginia and at public housing projects in the Central Virginia and Tidewater areas.
Strictly speaking, there are no pharmacological precedents to the crack epidemic in Virginia. The substance is both incredibly potent and incredibly destructive. It immediately interfaces with brain receptors to create resilient dependency structures that irreparably alter cognitive functions and eventually physiology. Individual crack use segues into larger social implications as family and community systems deteriorate with increased use.
The crack economy is in many ways a mirrored phenomenon to Virginia’s historical tobacco trade.
An Old War Between Profit and Guilt
Crack, like colonial cash crops, is the product of complex international trade configurations rooted in commodities that are dependent on powerful hierarchies as a facilitator of market desires. A chain of production links coca fields in South America with importers in Central America, wholesale distributors in major North American metropolises and regional distribution hubs that feed into local marketplaces.
Though international cocaine movement and the early tobacco trade benefited or harmed many discrete parties along the supply line, it’s safe to say that the biggest losers in both industries have been those of African descent. Both crack and tobacco have benefited from a triangular interplay between commerce, power and sorrow. The market value of a hogshead of Virginia tobacco (as well as Caribbean sugar cane, southern indigo and a host of lesser cash crops) in mid-1600s London was justification to invent a category of sub-humanity convenient and convincing enough to legitimize the chattel enslavement of millions of Africans.
To ensure compliance, a brutal duality of violence and paternal Christianity was liberally applied to the African slave’s mind. As the First Families of Virginia accumulated vast fortunes, the slaves that worked their fields were re-fashioned into objects of subjugation. Many argue that the epigenetic memory of broken families, savage violence, and bred subservience remains in the subconscious structures of African American society. Meanwhile, inside the vast plantation homes, the clamor for luxury goods, increased political prestige, and social acceptance provided a useful distraction for slave owners eager to distance themselves from the dirty terms of the labor that tilled their fields and made their fortunes.
In crack cocaine, the relationship changes slightly as an inter-ethnic hierarchy imposes a similar commerce / power / sorrow relationship on new social dynamics that enable African-Americans to benefit from the exploitation of their own in-group. The trappings are not dissimilar. The Machiavellian philosophies roll off the tongues of crack pushers with the same cunning ease that flew off the pens of early Virginia slave owners. The sorrow of the black body is an identical by-product that goes largely unaddressed by those who profit from a commodity market. Like the planation masters of yore, rampant social toxicity is a small price to pay to elevate a select few to material prominence.
On Lord Willin’, Clipse achieve an eerie synchronicity with their homeland’s former plantation ethos. “Virginia” is a sorrowful ode stocked full of resignation and realpolitik. The two MCs unintentionally embody the figure of the old master in a track that pays obliging respect to the ancient system of racial spite spiked with profit.
Now famous “Happy” crooner, then Virginia Beach based producer and MC Pharrell kicks off the track with an ominous keynote, “it’s Virginia, nigga / we do this in broad daylight / it’s a whole different degree of homicide, nigga / you ready?” Pusha-T delves right into the nitty gritty of crack production, “I’m from Virginia, where ain’t shit to do but cook / pack it up, sell it triple-price, fuck the books”
With that chorus, Clipse establishes the root objective of life in Virginia: money. The accumulation of wealth requires a certain amount of due diligence, “In my ‘home sweet home’ I keep chrome next to my bones / alters my walk to limpin’.” Here Pusha-T crafts a spooky corollary to antebellum Virginia when slave revolts like Gabriel’s (1800) and Nat Turner’s (1831) created an air of paranoia amongst white slave owners.
Virginians quite literally took an interest in keeping chrome next to their bones in their home sweet homes as whites armed themselves and began to organize the militias that would make the Southern armies so potent in the coming Civil War. Worse yet, the early 19th century found whites reinvesting in their supposed God-given right to enslave Africans they viewed as inferior. Christ as kindred spirit to purchasing power appears also in Pusha-T’s line, “but my faith and my money helped me rise above”.
The song then moves towards notes of Old South nostalgia and straight-up social Darwinism. “In that ol’ Virginny”, Pusha spits in his best auctioneer’s impression, “out of ten niggas, nine are guinea” .
The chorus runs again. Malice adds his two cents with an understated twang of resignation, “I reside in VA, ride in VA / most likely when I die, I’m gon’ die in VA.” He goes on with a warning about the cost of business, “Virginia’s for lovers, but trust there’s hate here / for out-of-towners, who think that they gon’ move weight here.”
In a final haunting refrain, the track’s realism merges with a stark and ghostly reminder of the historical terms that cast ugly shadows over the prestige available in the drug trade: “ironic, the same place I’m makin’ figures at / that there’s the same land they used to hang niggas at / in Virginia”.
Dig past the gritty boasts and Lord Willin’ reveals itself as a tragedy. An age-old format for exploitation created and perpetuated the chasm of opportunity that separated the white Virginia from the black Virginia. The ultimate end product of that precedent is the vicious, profitable and crack addled 20th century Tidewater that Pusha and Malice so skillfully render here. In that last menacing verse in “Virginia,” the dam cracks if only briefly and the unpaid toll of four hundred years of sorrow begins to flood the riverine bottoms of the Tidewater soul.
Though Lord Willin’ finds Clipse making an art of skirting the human cost of the crack trade, the butcher’s bill remains. For Terrence and Gene Thornton, the great losers of the contemporary cash crop are not a distant abstraction. They are friends, family, acquaintances and potential customers who have become casualties of chemical dependence, incarceration or drug violence.
Whether consciously or not, Lord Willin’ marks an emotional high point in the career of both MCs. The good times did not last. Clipse’s follow up album, Hell Hath No Fury (2006), much of Pusha-T’s solo work and Malice’s “Amazing Grace”-styled memoir, Wretched, Pitiful, Poor, Blind and Naked (2011), all have the feel of atonement.
Lord Willin’ is a potent albeit brief zenith in a system of sadness that Clipse and the Neptunes carefully translated into culture. In doing so, they created an almost timeless document of another typical Virginian phenomenon: the quest to undo the hurt of history.
In their own unique way, Pusha-T and Malice created a monument to the futility of greed in allaying the spiritual weight of exploitation. Considered in these terms, Lord Willin’ joins the Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue, the former Richmond slave markets at Shockoe Bottom, the Monticello slave cabins and countless other sites as a memorial where Virginians can go to understand the terms of a four century old war between profit and guilt.