How “Ha” Sings the Blues

When I was a kid, around 14-15, I was in my parents basement in the summer trying to bench press a measly 50 lbs when a new video came on BET. I never put the weight locks on, so when I heard what I considered trash at the time, one arm gave in, tilting the bar to the right as a 25 lb weight slid off and ran into the wall. My mother screamed down from the kitchen, “Derek, what was that?” I was appalled. It was the official video for what became a breakout hit, “Ha,” by the rapper Juvenile.

I was used to a different kind of MC. I was tuned into the type that was influenced by the likes of Rakim and Kool G Rap. I was used to the powerful delivery of KRS-One, the cadence of O.C., or the smooth and monotone voice of Guru. Juvenile’s sound was foreign to my ears.

A kid who had grown up on the Golden Era of hip hop, creative wordplay and thought provoking lyrics over boom bap beats, I thought Juvenile couldn’t rap. How wrong I was, thinking back now. Here I am in my late 30s and I can the hear the influences of the blues in his music.

Watching The Howlin’ Wolf Story recently, a documentary about the great blues musician, then shortly thereafter hearing “Ha” by Juvenile got me thinking about how connected their music really is.

Howlin’ Wolf was born in Mississippi during the terrifying Nadir Period when thousands of Black Americans were lynched by racist mobs decades before the Civil Rights Era. In adulthood, he moved to Chicago. On the other hand, Juvenile is a Cash Money Millionaires rapper from New Orleans. On the surface, there appears a picture showing two different experiences, but if you look a little closer, you’ll find hues and colors that make those experiences share much in common.

To hear Howlin’ Wolf (aka Chester Burnett) tell it in The Howlin Wolf Story (2003), directed by Don McGlynn,

“…I’m gonna tell you what the blues is: when you aint got no money, you got the blues. When you aint got no money to pay your house rent, you still got the blues. A lot of people’s hollerin’ about “I don’t like no blues cuz when you aint got no money and can’t pay your house rent and cant buy you no food, you damn sure got the blues. If you aint got no money, you got the blues, ‘cause you’re thinking evil.”

On “Ha”, Juvenile’s lyricism meets the Wolf’s definition. He’s “thinking evil” as he raps in second person.

“You full of that diesel, ha,
You duckin’ them people, ha
Your face was on the news last night, ha
You the one that robbed them little dudes out they shoes last night, ha”

But on the hook, he evolves from one of the traditions of blues music, that of expressing one’s grief, howlin’ about having the blues, to not letting the factors that lead to the blues, hold you back:

“You a paper chaser, you got your block on fire
Remaining a G until the moment you expire
You know what it is, you make nothin’ out of somethin’
You handle your biz and don’t be cryin’ and sufferin'”

In much the same way that Howlin’ Wolf explains what it means to have the blues, Juvenile’s “Ha” speaks to the same mood. “When you aint got no money, you got the blues” says Howlin’ Wolf, while Juvenile raps “you gotta go to court, ha”.

On Howlin’ Wolf’s track “Back Door Man,” Howlin’ is talking about sleeping with another man’s woman and sneaking out in the morning.

“When everybody’s tryin’ to sleep
I’m somewhere making my midnight creep
Yeah, in the morning the rooster crow
Something tell me I got to go
I am a back door man”

– “Back Door Man” by Howlin’ Wolf, written by Willie Dixon

The story shares a lot in common with the kind of sleeping around that Juvenile talks about in “Ha”.

“That’s you with that badass Benz, ha
That’s you that can’t keep your old lady ’cause you keep [expletive] her friends, ha” – “Ha” by Juvenile

Juvenile’s personal life reflects the soul of the blues, a musical genre rooted in the hearts, minds and spirits of the descendants of African slaves. He’s had legal troubles, and personal tragedies, including the murder of his 4-year old daughter. Though I’ve never listened to much of his catalog, my research into this connection has piqued my interest.

I can remember in the wake of Hurricane Katrina catching his video for “Get Ya Hustle On” (2006). The video opens with the message: “This is a tribute to those who died in the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. The storm may have passed, but for thousands, the struggle is just beginning.”

It goes on to spotlight a neighborhood where homes were destroyed and cars turned over, where crosses adorned with framed pictures cover makeshift grave sites like the scene of fatal accidents, while face masks of President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the Mayor of New Orleans at the time, Ray Nagin, are worn by young Black kids. As one of the boys turns a mask over to put it on, the words “Help is Coming” are printed on the inside. As history shows, for many, help never came, or at best, came too late. The attitude and point of the song is: no one is going to save you. Your federal government failed you. It always will. Get your hustle on.

“Your mayor ain’t your friend, he’s the enemy
Just to get your vote, a saint is what he pretend to be “

“Everybody need a check from FEMA
So he can go and sco’ him some co-ca-llina
Get money! And I ain’t gotta ball in the Beemer
Man I’m tryin to live, I lost it all in Katrina (damn)”

“[Expletive] Fox News, I don’t listen to y’all ass
Couldn’t get a nigga off the roof with a star pass
Talkin’ y’all comfortable right now to your own land
Till a nigga catch ya down bad, starvin’ and want cash”

The song and video reminds me of the award winning documentary that I only recently watched this past February in honor of Black History Month, Trouble the Water (2008).

The documentary centers around Kimberly Rivers Roberts–and her husband–who filmed herself the day before the storm, as well as the morning that it hits. She’s eventually forced to the attic of her home. She continues to film after the storm and flooding recedes as she looks for her neighbors in the Ninth Ward, all of them vulnerable, including a man, who appears to be an addict, that she spotted asleep on the steps of a porch the day before the storm and had woken up to warn about the hurricane. Though she and her husband survive the storm, their neighborhood was never the same, and they eventually relocate, attempting to get help from FEMA.

Roughly 80% of the city was flooded after the levees broke. At least 1,800 people died. The way the poor, much of them Black Americans, were left without a means of evacuating or immediate help from the government, is reminiscent of the aftermath of the end of the Freedmen’s Bureau near the end of Reconstruction in 1872, a national tragedy regretted by W.E.B. Du Bois in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, for both its obvious neglect and its costly mismanagement, the same type of criticism that FEMA and the George W. Bush Administration rightfully received.

Juvenile’s hip-hop may not be the sample-based, east coast hip-hop that I grew up on, but his poetry and the root of his music is just as relevant and poignant, and its relationship to the soul and simplicity of the blues, as well as the historical experience and present reality of Black Americans cannot be overstated. Now you’re gonna give it a listen, ha.

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