For the past two decades, the Mississippi Mass Choir, founded by the late Frank Williams of the Jackson Southernaires, has developed and maintained a reputation as an ensemble with impeccable musicianship. More importantly, they are known for their collective evangelic nature, which takes the Sunday morning worship service everywhere they go. The First Twenty Years, the choir’s newest release, celebrates their longevity in the gospel music industry. This twelve track compilation illustrates both of these characteristics. The songs are taken from five earlier albums that present the songwriting talents of well-known artists and producers such as David Curry Jr., Walter Hawkins, Dorothy Love Coates, Frank Williams and Rev. Milton Biggham, amongst others.
While most compilations possess two or three real musical gems, this project is full of hits. Simply play the CD from beginning to end and it will be a rewarding experience. For instance, “Near The Cross” presents a timeless interpretation of Fanny Crosby’s popular hymn via Frank Williams’ solo vocals and the choir’s tight triadic harmonies in the traditional gospel quartet singing style. “Having You There” has an infectious medium tempo groove and meaningful message of gratitude for God’s presence in one’s life. This is a quintessential example of vertical praise.
“Your Grace and Mercy” positions the listener in a Sunday morning worship service. The song’s lyrics highlight God’s goodness reflected in His abundant grace and mercy that shields all from hurt, harm and danger. It is a declaration of God’s works in an old time fashion that resonates with past and present saints (Christians). Frank Williams’ solo vocals are carefully placed in such a way that they create space for hollers and shouts of the audience as the spirit of God is ushered in.
“When I Rose This Morning,” lead by Mother Mosie Burke, is a handclapping, foot-stomping testimony of faith in God. If you like gospel quartet music, African American call and response tradition, the blues, the vamp, improvisation (ad-libbing) and shout music, this song is your lecture/demonstration workshop. Finally, “Jesus Paid It All” takes us back to the days when the late Rev. James Moore dominated gospel radio. His lead vocals, particularly in this song’s introduction, illustrate the true essence of gospel singing that mirrors a core-Black preaching style. His vocal quality shifts, his “appropriate” use of melismas or runs (as they call them in the Black church) and his gradual buildup to a climax are all characteristic of this phenomenon.
The Mississippi Mass Choir has released an artistic and evangelical treasure of songs that illustrates their ability to maintain their iconic sound and style in an industry that tends to change with the newest trends. More importantly, for two decades the ensemble has given the listener a meaningful tool to use when reflecting on the magnificent presence of God in the lives of Christians. One can only wait with great expectations for “The Second Twenty Years.” Until then, The Mississippi Mass Choir: The First Twenty Years will keep us busy praising!!
In the forty-five years that Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been together, the group has served as South Africa’s cultural and musical ambassadors, breaking color barriers during the Apartheid era and introducing the rest of the world to Zulu isicathamiya vocal harmonies. Most Americans first encountered Ladysmith Black Mambazo from their 1986 collaboration with Paul Simon on Graceland, which brought them international acclaim; since then, their performances have ranged the cultural spectrum from singing for Nelson Mandela’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, to appearing on Sesame Street. This month, Bloomington residents could catch Ladysmith Black Mambazo performing live, first in person at the IU Auditorium on March 2, then on WTIU’s March 3 re-airing of the 2007 PBS special “Paul Simon: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.” If you missed either of these, or you just can’t get enough, the new DVD Ladysmith Black Mambazo Live! offers a full live performance, rich enough to make you think you were there.
The main set comprises ten songs plus two encores, equally in English and Zulu, and representing Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s diverse influences from pop, freedom songs, and gospel. The lyrics to “Hello My Baby” are pure bubblegum pop, but with the group’s warm harmonies and playful storytelling choreography, it becomes a celebration of the giddiness of new love. “This is the Way We Do (Ekuhlupekeri)” showcases the group’s integration of gospel hymns, alternating half-spoken full-ensemble sections with a soloist softly floating above a supporting ostinato on the phrase “the way we do” by the rest of the group. “Long Walk to Freedom (Halala South Africa)” commemorates Mandela’s Nobel Prize, and urges South Africa not to stop moving forward out of its dark past and towards equality. No set would be complete, of course, without “Homeless,” the group’s breakthrough piece from Paul Simon’s Graceland, and one of their encore pieces is a medley of “Amazing Grace” and “Nearer My God To Thee,” illustrating again Mambazo’s gift for combining American hymnody with Zulu vocal harmonies.
While the musicianship is everything one might expect from hearing a Ladysmith Black Mambazo album, one of the real advantages of having a live performance on video is the visual factor-and what comes across here is how much these men are not only cultural ambassadors, but also veteran showmen. Dance is an important element of their performance, both to deepen the narrative expression of the song lyrics, as well as to add humor and excitement when appropriate, and their costumes (colorful shirts, black pants, and bright white shoes) highlight every kick and step. At times, however, the choreography takes them away from the microphones while singing, leaving a gap in the audio, which makes one wish they had headsets instead of stand microphones. In “Thulanhliziyo,” they stage a mock isicathamiya competition between themselves and the audience-the audience wins, though not without a lot of humorous protests about dancing and women from the younger members of the group.
This performance was filmed in Ohio at the University of Akron (a fact not advertised on the external packaging of the DVD), and the stage is set simply enough that it could have taken place anywhere. While this may seem less prestigious than some of their other live DVDs (Live at the Royal Albert Hall, 1999, or Live in Montreux, 2005), having less emphasis on the place allows for more emphasis on the performance itself. The camerawork is cleanly edited, comprising just a few different angles, and a tasteful mixture of close-ups (mainly on soloists) and full-group shots. The disc comes without any liner notes to speak of, but does have one bonus feature, a lengthy series of interviews with the members of the group. The first and longest of these is the interview with founder and director Joseph Shabalala, who speaks of his youth and musical start in the town of Ladysmith, the founding of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and his vision of a new style of harmony, and the long history of the group.
Early in the performance, Joseph Shabalala says,
“Indigenous music is a mirror. It tells us who we are. Traditions are like trees whose seeds are planted by God; through many generations, they grow strong and have many branches, which reach upwards towards the heavens. It is my wish to plant seeds and secure the roots of our tree very deeply in the earth, so the strong winds of change cannot make it fall. The deeper the roots, the stronger the tree.”
After forty-five years, Ladysmith Black Mambazo certainly has deep roots, stretching around the world and across musical genres. Ladysmith Black Mambazo Live! shows this depth, and the blending of tradition and innovation that has made this group a musical force for almost half a century.
Artist: Charley Pride
Label: Music City Records
Catalog No.: 05297
Release date: January 20, 2009
There is no dearth of Charley Pride collections in existence. Thus, the questions surrounding any new collection are: what is so special about this one? And how does it measure up to the leading standard, in this case BMG Heritage’s 2003 Anthology.
Thenewly released Ultimate Hits Collection, a double-disc of 32 tracks of good quality reissues, but with limited notes, provides a good retrospective of Pride’s career without any major omissions, but the problems of this collection are deeper.
Music City Records, a small label (perhaps a personal project of Pride’s, though unconfirmed) is making a concentrated effort to sustain interest in the once great country music star, and this compilation includes material from his heyday, beginning in 1966, through his latest gospel effort in 2006. During his reign as a hit maker (mid 1960s to early 1980s), Charley Pride was the only black mainstream country music star, and it’s not insignificant that after years of such isolation he has turned to gospel music in the 21st century, where blackness is the standard. Yet this transition remains mostly ignored in this collection, including only two tracks from recent gospel works, “Jesus, It’s Me Again,” and “Amazing Grace.”
The problem with reissuing Charley Pride is twofold– there are no new perspectives presented here, and the disc fails to cast Pride in a light that makes him seem relevant. Charley Pride was a major force to be sure. As a member of the Grand Ole Opry with 24 #1 Country hits, back to back winner of the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year (1971-1972), and Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, he doesn’t have to worry about his place in country music history. He does, however, need to worry about his place in country music today.
Compared to other country music icons such as Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Loretta Lynn and Marty Stuart, Charley Pride (and this collection) have done very little to connect his pioneering work to contemporary audiences. In an era where gospel music has become a major secular musical form, and at a time when Darius Rucker (of Hootie & the Blowfish) is providing the country charts their first black performer since Pride, the importance of examining Pride’s career would seem prime for deeper understanding. What we are given here are such platitudes as “As of 2008, Pride continues to tour regularly throughout the United States and Europe… he also enjoys playing golf, spending time with his family and working out with the Texas Rangers.”
Yet even if the packaging, liner notes, and general presentation fall short of something significant and new, a light shone on Charley Pride is always welcome. This double-disc collection includes all the hits that made Pride a household name, and further proves that he deserved every accolade garnered in his career, reminding us of just how good he was. The Ultimate Hits Collection reminds us of the huge appeal of hits like “Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger,” “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” and “I Know One.” His powerful baritone against back-up singers, steel guitars, and string arrangements, creates a nostalgic appreciation of the trajectory of the mainstream country sound. Though often surrounded by different country sounds, Pride is never bested by production, a claim that cannot be said of all 1970s country stars. Pride makes the song his, whether he’s nostalgic, in love, heartbroken, or singing praise, Pride has the ability of all great country performers to make you think these songs were written on the edge of a motel room bed, or on a barroom cocktail napkin.
Pride is poised for a crossover comeback along the lines of Johnny Cash’s late American recordings with Rick Rubin, or Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose, produced by Jack White. What would serve him best at this stage is to tap into the incredible creativity and force behind gospel music today, and highlight the long-standing connections between country music and gospel. Yet to do this, he would first have to come in from the golf course, and really get to work.
Title: Word, Sound and Power
Artist: Soul Syndicate Band
Label: FOCUSED; distributed by MVD Visual
Format: DVD (5.1 surround, 60 min.)
Catalog No.: MVD4634
Release Date: 2008
Word, Sound and Power is an impressive documentary that captures the essence of Jamaican music and spirit by featuring one of Jamaica’s finest instrumental and studio groups, the Soul Syndicate Band.
Formed in 1963, the Syndicate has worked with all the great Jamaican recording artists, including Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and Lee “Scratch” Perry. Director Jeremiah Stein combines a mixture of performance and interviews to bring forth the talent and insight of lead guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith, drummer Carlton “Santa” Davis, rhythm guitarist Tony “Valentine” Chin, and bassist George “Fully” Fullwood. The film also features vocalists Earl Zero and Tony Tuff to help round out the performances by leading the band out of the purely instrumental realm.
The film opens by introducing the Syndicate with an ensemble performance in a Kingston yard. After quickly establishing the origins of the group, the film moves to connect roots reggae with Rastafari. Stein employs Jamaican Dallas Rogers to conduct the personal interviews and provide contextual information. The presence of Rogers seems to put the artists at ease and gives the interviews creditability that might have been lost if there were conducted by the American director.
The interviews are shot riverside, in the lush interior of the Jamaican jungle, suggesting a connection to land, to the roots. Blended with acoustic performances, the interviews combine brief lessons on the evolution of Jamaican music with Rasta philosophy. What is truly remarkable about this film is that it captures the connection between the music and the culture that is felt in Jamaica. The shifting back and forth between the Kingston yard and the river locations is representative of the dichotomy of urban and rural life in Jamaica. The music itself exemplifies the connection of African musical roots and post colonial ideology. The film culminates with the performance of None Shall Escape the Justice, a Rasta anthem that expresses the rhetoric and love that a Rasta man must balance in day to day life. Following is a brief promo clip:
Word, Sound and Power was originally filmed in 1980 and has been reissued for the first time on DVD. The documentary has a 60 minute run time that will leave you singing the closing song long after the film is over.
“The best album I ever produced that nobody’s ever heard”—David Axelrod.
William Edgar John, better known as Little Willie John due to his short stature, was born in Arkansas in 1937 and spent his formative years in Detroit with his sister, Dr. Mable John, a former member of Ray Charles’ Raelettes and the first female artist signed by Berry Gordy. Something of a prodigy, Willie began touring with Paul Williams & His Orchestra when he was just 16. Two years later he landed a recording contract with King Records in Cincinnati where he produced a long string of hit records including “Fever,” which climbed to #1 on the R&B charts in 1956 and was later covered by Peggy Lee and Elvis Presley. His 1955 recording of “I Need Your Love So Bad” has been cited as one of the first soul songs, along with Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” recorded by Atlantic the previous year.
In 1964, at a time when Willie’s career was beginning to lag, he stabbed a man during a bar brawl and was sent to prison. Two years later, while out on appeal, Capitol Records organized a recording session for him, produced by the legendary team of H.B. Barnum and David Axelrod and backed by their regular session musicians, including bassist Carole Kaye, drummer Earl Palmer, saxophonist Clifford Scott, and guitarist Les Buie (who occasionally worked with James Brown). The result was this previously unreleased “lost album,” which has been sitting in Capitol’s vaults for years due to contractual issues (Willie was still under contract to King at the time of the session).
Nineteen Sixty Six: The David Axelrod & HB BarnumSessions kicks off with three tracks drawn from the first recording session held on the evening of February 19, 1966, two of which feature songs previously recorded by Willie. An updated version of “Country Girl” (a.k.a. “Home at Last”), originally released in 1955 by King, opens the set. Following are two blues songs subjected to Willie’s special soul-infused treatment-”Suffering With The Blues,” which he originally recorded for King in 1956, and “I Had A Dream” (a.k.a. “Just a Dream”).
The session scheduled five days later took a ninety degree turn. Instead of the R&B/ jump blues combo, the horns were replaced with a ten piece string section, and back-up vocalists were added, including Barnum’s sister Billie. The producers’ imprint is all over this jazz and pop-oriented session, which bears a closer resemblance to Barnum’s 1960s productions with Frank Sinatra and Axelrod’s early work with Lou Rawls, not to mention some of Willie’s early ‘60s tracks for King, such as “Loving Care.” The session begins with a great soul cover of Johnny Ace’s 1954 classic “Never Let Me Go.” Following is perhaps the most incongruous track from this session, a truly inspired soulful rendition of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “If I Loved You” from the musical Carousel, which I didn’t immediately recognize, but now have played multiple times for family and friends (as in “see if you recognize this!”). No doubt the producers hoped to piggyback on the success of Nat King Cole Sings My Fair Lady, released by Capitol two years earlier. Other tracks from this session include the ballad “(I Need) Someone” and a bluesy version of “Welcome to the Club,” which was also popularized by Nat King Cole in a jazz arrangement recorded in 1958. Though this string session sounds oddly retro for a 1966 era R&B/soul singer, it is still very enjoyable and showcases a distinctly different side of Willie as a pop-oriented balladeer.
Later that afternoon the strings were sent home and the band gets its groove back with the smoking blues standard “Early in the Morning,” followed by one of the best tracks on the CD, “In The Dark,” which aptly demonstrates Willies vocal range and flexibility. Willie’s only original song on the album, “Crying in the Dark,” returns again to the blues idiom, and features some great solos by the band. The session concludes with “You Are My Sunshine,” which once again shows Willie’s ability to completely transform a standard into a powerful demonstration of gospel-tinged soul. The remaining nine bonus tracks include alternate takes and stereo mixes.
Sadly, Little Willie John’s court appeal was overturned shortly after these recording sessions concluded, and he returned to prison. Two years later he died in the Washington state penitentiary in Walla Walla, just five months after a fatal plane crash claimed the life of soul superstar Otis Redding. Though during his lifetime Willie achieved wide acclaim, he is seldom mentioned in the same breath as his contemporaries—Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and James Brown, among others—who were also instrumental in transforming gospel and rhythm and blues music into soul. However, recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in Willie’s career, leading to several good retrospective CD compilations as well as an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. At least one biography is also in progress, and Kent may have another project in the works. Perhaps Little Willie John will finally take his rightful place as one of the first soul singers.
Artist: Ice-T/Body Count
Label: Charly; distributed by MVD Format: DVD (2 discs, 192 min.)
Catalog no.: MVDV4807D2
Release date: October 28, 2008
Just when we thought Ice-T was forever relegated to corny and overly ghetto-ized Fin Tutuola on Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit, Charly Records takes us back to the roots of ‘the original gangster of rap’ with a live concert DVD filmed in Montreux, Switzerland on July 10, 1995. An added bonus is a second disc featuring almost two hours of additional footage of Ice-T in concert and in the studio with Body Count.
Born February 16, 1958, Tracy Lauren Marrow (Ice-T) was no stranger to worldly woes, even at a young age. His parents both died when he was still a boy, tragedies that brought him from East coast New Jersey to West coast L.A. to live with an aunt. Grief stricken and now living in South Central Los Angeles, Ice found it difficult to cope with the death of his parents and cruel persecution for “yellow skin.” He ultimately affiliated with gang life to escape these tribulations and identify with a family. Though he admits he was never a “hardcore” Crip, he was highly influenced by this brief and powerful association with the gang, explaining in an article from The Source (April 1996) that “I was the one who would go into the party and it’d be a perfectly cool one, and I’d just be wanting to knock over people’s aquariums and be out in front shooting. I just wanted to be known.”
Soon enough, Ice-T’s dream became reality, and at the height of his musical success (after the controversial “Cop Killer” and “OG” singles, and a Grammy Award for a collaborative track with Ray Charles), fate brought him to the ‘95 Montreux Jazz Festival. On stage Ice boasts the rewards of being professional in a rapidly growing musical market, amusedly awakening memories of hip hop glory days complete with Fila jackets and original high-tops. He reminds us that at a time just before the deaths of Biggie and 2Pac, kids from the block still dreamed big and were happily ignorant of the dangerous lifestyle and loss of integrity in marketed street subculture. Much of his message is directed to kids still struggling in impoverished communities, and while his songs are entertainment first, Ice has always been an advocate of human rights, spreading an uplifting message to those in need.
The concert opens with a highly energized crowd, a spewing bottle of champagne, and a free-style from Ice-T that sounds like he may have spit it before. He introduces himself and fellow performers by asserting that the show “…is different than Onyx and Public Enemy… Ice -T’s show is smooth.” The songs move quickly from one to another, ensuring vitality both on stage and off. In “I’m Your Pusher” (based on and sampling Curtis Mayfield’s hit “Pusherman”), Ice argues against drug/thug life by advocating music as an alternative—”you wanna get high? Let the record play.” By the time Ice, DJ Easy-E, and back-up rappers Shawny Shawn and Shawny Mac get to “I Ain’t New Ta This,” the performers are beginning to vibe really well with the audience; Ice even breaks into a genuine smile when the crowd answers back his rhymes, acknowledging his act and fans. A couple tracks later, he solidifies his bond with the audience even further, requesting fans to join him on stage to try their hand at free-style. Proud of himself for his benevolence to common man, he proclaims “virtual reality-one minute you’re watching the show, the next minute you’re in the show!” Surprisingly, there is some real talent on stage and as the foreign kids rap with heavy accents and in different languages, Ice-T nods his head in approval. He then invites ladies onto the stage for a dance-off to the 69 Boyz “Tootsie Roll” track. Very classy. Here’s a brief promotional clip:
The bonus DVD is a bit more sporadic, beginning with an entirely separate Body Count concert at the 2005 Smoke Out Festival in San Bernardino, California during the band’s revival tour, with a line-up that includes Ice T, Ernie-C (Lead Guitar), D-Roc (Rhythm Guitar), Vincent Price (Bass) and O T (Drums). Filmed in hi-def with stereo and 5.1 surround sound that places you in the midst of the 60,000 screaming fans, the DVD captures a blazing performance of the band’s greatest hits, including “There Goes the Neighborhood,” “Cop Killer” and “KKK B***h” (this concert was previously released by Eaglevision as The Smoke Out Festival Presents Body Count) . Other bonus materials include an Ice-T and Body Count studio video shoot (date unknown), and the making of the “Relationships” video featuring Ice’s wife, Coco (Nicole Austin). Though this part of the DVD was less coherent and less entertaining, the fusion of hip hop and metal elements is quite a feat to behold as black musicians assault the eardrums of an almost all white audience while Ice-T raps, though barely audibly, above the noise.
Formed in L.A. in 1990, Body Count was Ice-T’s side project—a band combining elements of hip-hop and heavy metal, with hard raps from Ice-T mixed over hard riffs reminiscent of Slayer. Body Count melds dichotomies of black and white music, paralleling Ice’s personality perfectly. Everything about him is in contrasting balance—”a collage of paradoxes: the booty-crazed pimp-daddy who’s stood by the same woman for 10 years, the high-rollin’ hustla who spins moralistic tales of the ‘hood, the gangbanger who tries to increase the peace, the Black militant who comes off color blind, the gangsta rapper who plays to white kids in a heavy metal band…” (The Source, April 1996). With the addition of the Body Count bonus disc, viewers are able to gain an appreciation for the many sides of Ice-T.
Overall, Live in Concert, Montreux1995 hits all the right bases, combining hip hop’s triumph in popular culture with Ice’s personal victory as a rapper and performer. The contagious energy on and off stage draws viewers out of their living rooms and into the alternate dimensions of 1995, where in the words of Ice himself, we sit back thinking, “yea, that’s some fly sh** right there.”
Posted by Rachel Weidner
Editor’s Note:This review is part of our ongoing examination of black rock in preparation for “Reclaiming the Right to Rock: Black Experiences in Rock Music,” a two-day conference organized by the Archives of African American Music and Culture to be held on November 13-14, 2009, on the Indiana University-Bloomington campus.
This month Carnegie Hall is presenting Honor! A Celebration of the African American Cultural Legacy, a festival “saluting the enduring vitality, influence, and creativity of African American culture, curated by internationally renowned soprano Jessye Norman.” In particular, the festival draws attention to the many black artists who have performed at Carnegie Hall over the last century. As part of the celebration, two CD compilations have been produced (product descriptions taken from website):
Lift Every Voice! is a two-CD, 21-track musical retrospective featuring historic live performances and studio recordings by an array of great African American artists who have performed at Carnegie Hall and contributed to the rich cultural history of music. This project covers a diverse cross-section of genres from gospel to swing, classical to contemporary, and spiritual to jazz, and serves as an audio companion to the festival. Performers range from Harry Belafonte and Marian Anderson to Luther Vandross and Aretha Franklin.
The second compilation, Honor! A Celebration of the African American Cultural Legacy, is atwo-CD, 25-track set created in direct collaboration with Jessye Norman as a companion to the festival. The first CD is devoted entirely to Norman and features a selection of recordings from throughout her career, including arias and art songs as well as spirituals and musical theater songs. The second disc celebrates a wide range of primarily jazz artists, including Louis Armstrong, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan.
Of particular interest is the History section of the festival’s website, created by our own Dr. Portia K. Maultsby, Director of the Archives of African American Music and Culture at Indiana University, with assistance from other staff and Black Grooves contributors, including Tyron Cooper and Fredara Mareva Hadley. Visitors to the site can trace the development of African American musical styles and learn about the pioneers who helped define various genres, which are arranged chronologically on a timeline. By clicking on each genre, you can access photos and details of related Carnegie Hall performances, read a brief history that describes musical features and performance styles, and listen to audio clips of definitive songs and performances within each genre. Also be sure to check out the List of Honor, an overview of African American performances at Carnegie Hall from 1892-present, compiled with the assistance of Tyron Cooper. In fact, you might wish to print this list as a handy reference tool illustrating some of the most popular African American performers from each decade.
K’Naan is a Somali-Canadian Muslim who was raised amidst the violence and refugee camps of the Somali civil war. Like Native Deen, K’Naan’s seeks to educate the public. Rather than teaching about Islam, however, K’Naan’s uses The Dusty Foot Philosopher to speak out against the horrors in Somalia, particularly Mogadishu, which he frequently refers to as the “hardest ghetto in the world.”
In general, if you’re looking for some feel-good party music, this probably isn’t the album you’re looking for. Even the songs with more upbeat harmonies and rhythms tend to be lyrically somber. The chorus for “I Was Stabbed by Satan” is based around a Somali folk belief that babies cry at birth because Satan stabs them to introduce them to the sin and suffering of the world. The verses of the song describe the difficulties of growing up in the ghettos. “Until the Lion Learns to Speak”-a thinly textured mix of lilting poetry and percussion set to a song by Somali poet and musician Areys Ise Karshe-makes reference to the slums and the need to “free our people from guns.” Perhaps the most optimistic song is “In the Beginning,” which sings about the difficulty of life for people, particularly children in Mogadishu, but then adds “that was in the beginning…. And things change.”
Most of the remaining songs on the CD stay closer to a North American rap style and tend to either treat the current bloodshed in Mogadishu or needle gangsta rappers about their distorted views of hardship. In the former category are songs like “Soobax,” which addresses the gunmen who are responsible for the violence and killings that have torn Somalia apart. In the other category are songs like “Hardcore,” which offers detailed descriptions of the violence in Mogadishu and then asks “So what’s hardcore? Really, are you hardcore?” This question may be, in part, a reaction to criticisms that message rappers as too conservative and out of touch with street life in comparison to gangsta rappers-a view which K’Naan clearly challenges.
Keeping in line with the overall mission of the album, the accompanying DVD contains not only music videos addressing the war in Somali and the hardships of inner city life in North America, but also an episode of 4Real featuring the making of K’Naan’s “Soobax.” The 4Real documentary follows K’Naan’s journey through the refugee camps of Nairobi, Kenya, including his introduction to a nurse who founded a clinic with a donation of $26, attempts to clean raw sewage out of the water supply, and efforts by community leaders to provide local children with a normal and healthy upbringing. Much like the music videos, the documentary attempts to counterbalance the scenes of hardship and suffering with scenes of happy children and positive role models who are attempting to make the bleak conditions more bearable.
Although he doesn’t address Islam directly in his music, K’Naan is open about his religious affiliations when asked and the imagery in both his music videos and his CD packaging make homage to Muslim culture. The artwork on the CD, DVD, and packaging display stylized Arabic calligraphy. His music videos, particularly those for “Soobax” and “Strugglin’” show Muslim women wearing hijabs. Additionally, the accompanying booklet contains a brief autobiography about K’Naan’s childhood in Mogadishu in which he mentions writing verses from the Qur’an on wooden slates at school.
The song with the most obvious connections to Muslim culture on the album is “Hoobaale.” This track opens with calls of encouragement to the musicians in Arabic including “ya’allah” and “ya salam.” Similar interjections as well as ululations occur throughout the song while a supporting instrumentation on ‘oud, acoustic guitar, and dumbek, give the song a definite Middle Eastern flavor. The actual lyrics sung by K’Naan and the other performers are in a mixture of English and Somali and put forth small snippets of philosophy such as “How come you turn your deafest ear when it’s your own brother calling?” and “How can they go to war with terror when it’s war that’s terrorizing?”
When asked by Tony Mitchell during an interview for Local Noise why he doesn’t use his lyrics to discuss his Muslim background, K’Naan explained that “being a Muslim is something that you do, not talk about…. I am doing what a Muslim is supposed to do. I’m trying to spread some good, trying to be good, trying to not offend people; those are the elements that exist for me” (see full interview transcript). He’s clearly stuck to this philosophy for this CD.
Although it may leave more sensitive listeners feeling emotionally drained and miserable, the amount of energy and craftsmanship poured into the music and lyrics of this album is undeniable. The accompanying DVD, however, does have a few problems. There are some minor editing problems in the “Til We Get There” music video with noticeable sound gaps during certain scene changes. The video also spends a lot of time fixated on Stori James, which could be a plus if you’re really into James, but I personally found them distracting since they’re obviously thrown in as mere eye candy as opposed to developing naturally out of the overall flow of the video. As more or less a throw-away bonus, this one video really doesn’t detract from the overall package.
Posted by Ronda Sewald
Editor’s Note: We hope to feature a review K’Naan’s latest CD, Troubadour, later this spring.
Published two years after their first CD, Native Deen’s Not Afraid to Stand Alone also opens with a benediction entitled “Subhan Allah” (Glory to God), which features the profession of the Muslim faith. The rest of the CD is not simply a repeat of the group’s earlier efforts, however. Not only is the sound more polished, but the group has incorporated a wider range of sounds and themes, adding to Not Afraid‘s overall complexity. Perhaps the most notable changes are the introduction of South African style singing, particularly on “Eid Morning” and “Rain Song,” as well as more brooding examinations of the discrimination frequently faced by Muslims living in America.
If Deen You Know was aimed at instructing listeners in the way of Allah, Not Afraid to Stand Alone seeks to strengthen group identity and a sense of hope and solidarity in the face of adversity. “Stand Alone,” the title track and the most widely publicized song on the album, tells two stories of perseverance in the face of religious intolerance. The first story is about a single mother who embraces Islam only to be denied a job because she refuses to give up her hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women as a symbol of modesty. The second story is about a student who is teased for praying, fasting, and refusing to wear clothing associated with gangsta culture. The song urges Muslims to maintain their faith despite pressures to conform. In addition to the CD, “Stand Alone” is also available in the form of an online music video.
“Still Strong,” featuring guest rapper Islam B., discusses the false arrest of Muslims by the US government following 9/11 as part of the war on terror. Many of these Muslims faced illegal interrogations and others experienced months of imprisonment during which they were denied access to a lawyer, a trial, or even a means of informing family members of their whereabouts. Although the tone of the song is understandably indignant at this treatment, it simply urges Muslim to remain strong and unbroken despite these harsh injustices.
A third song tackling discriminatory behavior is “Be at the Top,” which complains about the negative depictions in the media of Muslims as violent and barbaric. Native Deen compares the treatment of Muslims today to that of African Americans in the 60s and the Japanese in the 40s and questions why anyone would trust TV for their knowledge about other cultures. In response to the people who do act on what they glean from the media, the group comments:
You don’t know ‘bout religions
And you don’t know ‘bout the races
You look, see black, think that I’m athletic
And you look and see I’m Muslim and think anti-Semitic
To solve the problem of the media’s anti-Muslim bias, Native Deen proscribes Muslim self-improvement and aggressively training a new generation of Muslim lawyers and journalists.
Not all the songs on the album are focused on countering stereotypes, however. There are still some religious lesson songs, such as “Lord Is Watching” and “Pray Before…,” songs which respectively remind listeners that that Allah is aware of their bad deeds even when no one else is and that there is no excuse for skipping prayer. “Life’s Worth” bemoans the war in the Middle East and how Christians and Muslims are “dying over different points of view.”
On the happier side of things, “Sea of Forgiveness,” “Tala’al Badru,” “Eid Morning” are all songs offering praise to Allah and Muhammad. “Labank” sings about experiencing the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) and the wonders of performing traditional religious rituals beside Muslims from around the world. “M-U-S-L-I-M” is a song made popular by Native Deen’s live performances and is described on the CD as helping young Muslims to get “hyped.” Perhaps the sweetest song on the album is “Zamilooni,” which tells the story about the relationship between the Prophet Muhammad and his wife Khadijah. Khadijah was a successful noble woman and entrepreneur who turned down a sea of suitors to marry Muhammad despite his lack of wealth and status. The title, “Zamilooni” means “hold me” and refers to Muhammad’s cries for comfort to Khadijah after his first confusing encounter with God and in the times of hardship that followed.
This time, the structuring device of the CD takes the form of a radio DJ announcing the release of Native Deen’s latest CD. The call-ins to the release show feature prominent members of the US Muslim community including Dr. Ingrid Mattson, President of the Islamic Society of North America; Imam Siraj Wahhaj, Imam of Al-Taqwa mosque in Brooklyn; and Rami Nashashibi, the executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) praising Native Deen and speaking messages of hope to Muslim listeners. Correcting their mistake from the last CD, Native Deen has moved these spoken dialogues to independent tracks. The person programming the headings for the CDs apparently missed this fact, however, so the song titles displayed by your computer or CD player probably won’t match the actual songs after the first track.
Not Afraid to Stand Alone doesn’t have much in the way of liner notes, so there isn’t a printed translation of the Arabic provided. The lyrics are, however, available online through Native Deen’s website. In place of lyrics, the booklet includes a call out to historic figures who serve as role models to African American Muslims including Bilal Ibn Rabah (the first black Muslim), Hagar (a slave and the Mother of Ishmael), Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali.
All and all, this is an excellent CD. Again, the content is more brooding and many of the songs tackle thornier sociopolitical issues than those from Native Deen’s first release. While I could see playing Deen You Know to pretty much anyone, Not Afraid to Stand Alone might prove confusing and even troubling to children and to non-Muslims who are completely unfamiliar with Islam simply because it contains a number of more complicated concepts and allusions. For these audiences, my recommendation would be to let Deen You Know serve as your introduction to Native Deen, and to move on to Not Afraid a bit later.
Native Deen is an African American Muslim vocal trio formed by Joshua Salaam, Naeem Muhammad, and Abdul-Malik Ahmad. Salaam, Muhammad, and Ahmad have all been actively involved with various Muslim youth organizations and met through their involvement with the Muslim Youth of North America (MYNA), particularly the MYNA Raps project. Combining their dedication to Allah, young people, and ministry through sonic performance, the group has performed for Muslim audiences across the United States as well as in England and Australia. Their two CDs, Deen You Know and Not Afraid to Stand Alone were created with Muslim youth in mind and offer up a wealth of religious lessons as well a strong source of moral support for members of a religion that has been a frequent target of hostility and intolerance within the United States.
For those used to Western pop, Native Deen’s style may take some getting used to. Because of Islamic prohibitions on instrumental music and the nature of the album as a religious CD, the group has purposefully adopted a musically thin texture. Although a few of tracks, such as “The Deen You Know,” “Intentions,” “Small Deeds,” and “Sakina” incorporate xylophone, most of the songs rely solely on drums and vocal harmonization to add richness and texture to the sound. In many cases the drums are pitched to add a slightly melodic quality.
The vocal harmonies and melodic lines often embrace the singing style of nasheeds-a type of Muslim devotional song that sounds somewhat similar to Gregorian chant-intermixed with more laidback forms of American rap. For example, the song “For the Prophets” from their first album alternates a chorus sung in Arabic and a Middle Eastern style accompanied by hand percussion with glibly rapped verses about the lives of Musa (Moses), Isa (Jesus), and Muhammad backed by drum machine and turntable scratching. The overall feeling of the albums is subdued, austere, and very unique.
Native Deen’s first commercial release, Deen You Know (“Deen” is Arabic for religion), take a slightly narrative approach and is structured around an average day for the group members. The first track “Alhamdullilah” opens with the group stopping for gas on their way to the studio to record their next album. To warm up their voices for the session, they decide to perform a South African vocal drill, and to perform it “Native Deen style.” The song, which also functions as a benediction, consists solely of the repeated phrase “Alhamdullilah subhanallah” (“praise be to God, glory to God”) sung in tight, Middle Eastern style harmony over a throbbing bass line.
From here, each song on the album offers up a sung lesson on Islam. “Dedication” praises parents who raise their children to follow the path of Islam and young Muslims who choose to embrace lives of purity and morality. “Paradise” urges Muslim teenagers to pray to Allah for strength against the temptations of drugs, sex, and materialism and includes criticism of other rappers such as JZ, LL Cool J, Eminem and Genuine, warning that “Living ghetto fabulous will lead you straight to hell.” “Intentions” raises the question of whether one is following the path of Islam for the sake of pleasing Allah or to gain status and praise.
Some of the other lessons are relatively similar to ones you would expect to find on a CD of Christian devotional songs. For instance, the theme of convincing a sinner not to give up hope because it is never too late to ask God for forgiveness is treated in “Looking Glass” while “Small Deeds” is about the importance of performing acts of kindness consistently throughout our everyday lives. “Small Deeds” also contains some clever English and Arabic rhyming, including lines such as:
Put a dollar every day in the sadaqah [charity]
It may be small but you do it for the baraka [blessing]
I know you’re saving for the Polo and the Nautica
A poor student but you do it just to please Allah
Other songs may be a bit more difficult for non-Muslims to grasp. Although “Drug Free” with its warnings about avoiding mind and body altering substances because of the risks of addiction, deteriorated health, and loss of self-control may initially sound familiar, the extension of the word “drug” to alcohol and cigarettes (the former of which is explicitly forbidden by the Qur’an) may seem a little odd. The concept of “Sakina,” or a feeling of peace of heart and tranquility sent by God in times of stress, may also be a foreign concept, although certainly lines like “Then when I come and I see my daughter’s face so bright / With smiles there to greet me at the door, like a beautiful light / I can only thank Allah for this blessing on me / For giving me Sakina, this tranquility!” will resonate with many people.
For those concerned about missing out on the meaning of the songs due to the occasional use of Arabic terminology, the accompanying booklet provides almost word for word liner notes with translations. The booklet in and of itself makes use of modern aesthetics and could almost be mistaken for accompanying any recent rap release if it weren’t for the textbox inserts containing verses from the Qur’an.
Despite offering an interesting sonic mix of Muslim and hip hop culture, the CD does have a few problems. The dialog between songs, while at first interesting and somewhat amusing, quickly grows stale. Its longevity isn’t helped much by the stilted delivery of the dialog, which feels a lot like it was pulled straight out of an afterschool special. Instead of relegating the dialog to individual tracks so that the listener could easily banish them from their iPod track list, they occur at the end of almost every track and will probably have people scrambling for the advance track button by the third or fourth time around. “Drug Free” also has a number of musical problems. Not only does it feel like someone clipped off the beginning, but there are some serious pitch problems at points.
Overall, this album offers some fantastic and uplifting listening material for Muslim listeners. For everyone else, this CD offers an excellent overview of both Islamic beliefs and the moral and religious concerns faced by American Muslims during their daily lives.
Holy Hip Hop has gained a following in recent years as a new genre of rap used to deliver the gospel to the streets and to bolster the faith of Christian listeners. The mix of rap and religion, however, has existed since at least the 1970s when the Nation of Islam influenced the philosophies and lyrics of Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation. Rappers including Mos Def, Jurassic 5, Nas, the Wu Tang Clan, and Lupe Fiasco (among others) have continued to incorporate ideas and symbolism from the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters into their works.
More recently, rap has crossed over into more mainstream Islam. Rap’s emphasis on lyrics and its use of thin melodic instrumentation allows for an easy melding both with Islam’s prohibitions of instrumental music and with genres such as nasheeds (Muslim devotional songs) and sung folk poetry. In some cases, rap is used to express explicit religious messages. Most of these albums, however, are released in the form of CD-Rs through smaller religious organizations such as www.muslimhiphop.com. On other albums, the lyrical references to Islam are more subtle, but the influence of religion on the performer’s choice of topics, imagery, and aesthetics may be more apparent. The group Native Deen and Somali-North American artist K’Naan represent both ends of this continuum.
Unfortunately, the post-9/11 climate probably hasn’t done much to encourage the visibility of Muslim rap artists. A recent article by Marian Liu for the Mercury News suggests that Muslim rappers may be disappearing back into the woodwork through name changes and downplaying the religious references in their lyrics. On the other hand, the US State Department is touting Native Deen as a voice promoting both tolerance of Muslims in the United States and better relations between Americans and Muslim communities overseas. Although it’s difficult to imagine Muslim rap artists cornering a huge piece of the hip-hop market, it’s possible that performers like Native Deen and K’Naan may at least be tipping the balance towards the establishment of a recognized genre in the same vein as “Holy Hip Hop.”
The following reviews examine three recent releases by Native Deen and K’Naan in greater detail.
 Walker, Carolee. “Muslim Rappers Use ‘Voice of Youth’ to Promote Tolerance: Native Deen Shows Positive Image of Americans, Islam through Hip-Hop,” http://www.america.gov/st/washfile-english/2007/February/20070201145311bcreklaw0.1939508.html.
This month we’re featuring an overview of Muslim rap, including albums by Native Deen and K’Naan, as well as CD compilations for Carnegie Hall’s Honor! A Celebration of the African American Cultural Legacy, and the accompanying website, which was compiled in part by our staff. Two new concert DVDs are covered— Ladysmith Black Mambazo Live and Ice-T Live in Concert, Montreux 1995—as well as the first DVD release of the 1980 reggae music documentary Word, Sound and Power featuring the Soul Syndicate Band. Also included in this issue is a new Charlie Pride compilation, the “lost” 1966 album by Little Willie John, and another compilation celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Mississippi Mass Choir.