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.

In Tribute to Gift of Gab, a Blazing Arrow

Yesterday, June 25, 2021, it was revealed that Timothy Jerome Parker, known worldwide as Gift of Gab, the emcee from the hip hop group Blackalicious, had passed away at the age of 50. Several years ago the man had suffered kidney failure, and reports say that he had to undergo dialysis multiple times a week. Amazingly, he still continued to write songs, record and do shows. The press release stated that there are more than 100 unreleased Blackalicious tracks that we may be blessed with in the future.

GiftofGab2-PowerToThePeacefulFestival2006

I’m actually not quite sure of when I first heard of Blackalicious, the duo comprised of Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel, the producer and DJ. I remember when “Make You Feel That Way” was released in 2002 and my older brother and I watched the video, refreshed by everything from the sounds, lyrics to the direction. It was a brief but important reminder that hip hop could be more than what it had become in mainstream culture, a conduit for commercialization and the cult of the self.

I recall my brother buying the album Blazing Arrow and listening to it in his car in the heat of summer. Highlights for me at the time were the collaborations with Zach de la Rocha (of Rage Against the Machine) on “Release, Pt 1”, as well as Rakaa Iriscience from Dilated Peoples, a group that I was damn near obsessed with in high school, on “Passion”.

Around that time, I read about Blackalicious when they were on the cover of the now defunct but extremely significant underground hip hop magazine, Elemental. The cover story talked about their earlier releases in the 1990s, and that’s when I scooped up Nia from probably UndergroundHipHop.com or SandboxAutomatic.com, the former of which, sadly, is no more, while the latter is impressively still around.

The fact that I went back is an often overlooked aspect of the importance of hip hop and the messages it sends and the lessons it lends. Hip hop taught me to look back and to appreciate that which came before. In high school, I was always listening to classics from the past. If it was the year 2000, I was probably listening to EPMD’s album from 1990, Business as Usual, or Gang Starr’s third album, Daily Operation, released in 1992.

Nia, released in Europe in 1999, then re-released by Quannum Projects in 2000, blew me away. As much as I was impressed by Blazing Arrow, Nia was and remains Blackalicious’ absolute masterpiece to my ears. From the opening track I was hooked. “Searching,” with its spacey guitar strings, soulful piano chords and airy woodwinds, has Gift of Gab accompanied by actress, singer and writer Erinn Anova, as they recite a poem that embodies the cycle of life and the beauty in the struggle that is universal. I recommend you read the lyrics and recite them with Gift and Erinn, just as I have:

Blackalicious “Searching” featuring Erinn Anova

Searching…

For everything already there.

For every thought already known.

For everything that ever was, is and will be.

Struggling. Oh, how we struggle.

And the more we avoid it, the greater the struggle becomes,

until we realize, the struggle is the blessing.

Progressing.

Changing.

Evolving.

Growing.

From a seed to a tree.

From a child to a man [From a child to a woman].

From a man to a spirit to a god fulfilling his plan [From a woman to a spirit to a god fulfilling his plan].

Purpose.

No words can describe the unnameable.

No beginning, no end, just always now.

Marveling at the miracle and all of a sudden it all seemed to make sense somehow.

Searching, for everything already there.

For every thought already known.

For everything that ever was, is and will be.

[Niiiiaa, Niiiiaaaa….]

Gift of Gab would have been in his late 20s when those words were written and expressed. He was wise beyond his years, and the wisdom contained within “Searching”, though often overshadowed and overlooked due to the sheer volume of musical releases and countless other distractions vying for our time and attention, will remain cherished and appreciated for years to come by all walks of life, from hip hop purists to vinyl collectors who don’t usually go to hip hop first; to casual listeners and to anyone who just happens upon it. I think he would have faith in that idea, just like as evidenced by his music and poetry, he had faith in people.

Blackalicious at Paid Dues 3

I’ve taken the death of the artist, musician and poet Timothy Jerome Parker pretty hard, and there’s no question that a lot of fans and fellow musicians are feeling the same way. I went through a similar period of mourning after the deaths of Guru and Eyedea, and more recently, DMX and Double K of People Under the Stairs. A part of that emotional experience with the loss of our musical influences is a result of our collective awareness of their monumental contribution to music and art itself. As Chief Xcel expressed about his longtime friend and musical comrade,

“He’s the most prolific person I’ve ever known. He was all about pushing the boundaries of his art form in the most authentic way possible. He truly believed in the healing power of music. He viewed himself as a vessel used by a higher power whose purpose was to give positive contributions to humanity through Rhyme.”

Reading that quote reminds me of the eponymous title track off of the duo’s third full-length album, The Craft, released in 2005.

This Craft, this beat, this rhyme, this vibe
This style, they say music gives new life
From a source inside that is forever flowin’
This stage, this mic, this crowd, this show
This life, I’ve been given a gift tonight
And for that, I vow to be a vessel

When I put my 7-year-old daughter into bed last night, just a handful of hours removed from learning about the loss of Gab, I played the song “Sleep,” a true original from Nia. Oddly, it’s the first time I played the track for her. I can remember listening to it through headphones as it spun around in my CD Walkman years ago when I was home from college. I’d lie awake, listening to the words, hoping that I’d be as good a poet and emcee as Gift of Gab one day, and maybe, if I had a child, this is how I’d put her to bed to sleep.

The shining lights of stages, after the show are faded
The crowd is gone away, and now the dawning day
Gives way to creatures lurking, can hear the crickets chirping
Only the owls can see for this is when they start their prey
The homeless ask for quarters, for shelter and some water
Say “sorry not today” and turn and walk away
The busy street is empty, whistling winds are blowing gently
Listening intently to all of the things they have to say
A day of work completed, a night of rest is needed
Almost done with a book but eyelids to heavy to read it
The fireplace is kindling, snug with your queen and building
About the victories tomorrow’s gonna bring your way…

“Sleep” by Blackalicious

Sleep, Mr. Parker. You found your purpose and it all made sense somehow. You were, and always will remain, a vessel.

Sincerely,

Derek “Proseed” Postlewaite

http://proseed.bandcamp.com

 

Works Cited:

Blackalicious – Nia. Discogs. (1999, January 1). https://www.discogs.com/master/32311.

Kreps, D. (2021, June 25). Blackalicious Rapper Gift of Gab Dead at 50. Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/blackalicious-rapper-gift-of-gab-dead- 1189400/.

Strauss, M. (2021, June 25). Gift of Gab, Blackalicious Rapper, Dies at 50. Pitchfork. https://pitchfork.com/news/gift-of-gab-blackalicious-rapper-dies-at-50/.

The Myths Surrounding Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Recently during Black History Month in February, C-Span 3’s American History TV aired a history lecture from Wellesley College Professor Brenna Greer. Professor Greer, an African American woman, aimed to deconstruct the myths surrounding Rosa Parks as just a Black woman who had had enough when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1,1955, and that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was short and successfully ended segregated busing.

There are a few major points in her argument regarding Rosa Parks. One, that Rosa’s actions were not done on a whim; that they were deliberate, planned and coordinated. This was also the case of Homer Plessy on a train car in Louisiana in 1892.

Two, that Rosa was not “the first” Black woman to take such an action. In fact, Ida B. Wells, a Black female journalist who publicized lynchings of Black Americans in the late 19th century, had also challenged racial segregation in the 1880s when she refused to move from her seat on a train on May 4, 1884.

Flowing along the myths is the question of why. Why was it necessary to create such myths about a woman and an action of civil disobedience that led to a historic transformation in America’s story?

At one point, Professor Greer asks students to raise their hands if they first learned about Rosa Parks when in elementary school. Most hands went up. But when asked if they learned anything about her in high school, it was a very different story as just two or three hands were shown. Greer attributes much of this to the false notion that children need very simple characters, when in reality, in Greer’s view, children, whose minds are “very flexible,” could certainly understand a more complex character, like the real Rosa Parks.

As for adults in the 1950s, if one pictures Rosa like the sweet, “middle class” and light-skinned Black woman as she can be perceived by the picture below, she is easier for the public to swallow.

File:Rosaparks 4-5 (cropped).jpg
Rosa Parks, 1955

According to Greer, she was typically described as an “elderly seamstress with tired feet” and “many news accounts didn’t even give her name.” Rosa was 42 when she made history. Contrast that with Ida B. Wells, who appears strong and hardened by her experiences in the Jim Crow South. Wells’ own printing outfit was burned down by a white mob.

File:Face detail, from- Ida B. Wells circa 1895 by Cihak and Zima (cropped).jpg
Ida B. Wells, 1895

Additional challenges to segregated transportation from Black Americans in the same year that Rosa made history are also highlighted, including those of Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder and Mary Louise Smith. As Professor Greer put it, “We need to scratch off that Rosa Parks was ‘the first.'”

Professor Greer seems to argue that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s had smartened up to the fact that the press would not show as much attention, and the public would not show as much sympathy, to a Black woman who looked like Claudette Colvin or the other women, who the public would perceive, through media accounts, as “too dark” and “too poor.”

To clear up the myth from the “fairy tale” that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was short, Ms. Greer points out that the it lasted 381 days. She poses the question “How long do you think most people, if not yourself, thought the boycott was?” Answers appeared to range from a few weeks to a couple months. The extensive length of time, over a year, is evidence of just how ingrained segregation was in the South. It took Browder v. Gayle (yes, that’s Aurelia Browder), a lower court case that challenged Montgomery’s racial segregation on public buses, which eventually reached the Supreme Court, to finally see an order for integrated buses in Montgomery. A few days later, on December 21st, the leaders of the movement decided to set foot on Montgomery buses once more.

Watch the lecture here.

This article originally appeared on the blog Right Guy, Wrong Town.