May 21, 2014
Awnaw, hell naw, mane, y’all done up and done it/…them country boys on the rise – Nappy Roots, “Awnaw”
Stop being rapper racists/region haters/…This is southern face it/if we too simple/then y’all don’t get the basics – Lil’ Wayne, “Shooter”
Hope the hook wasn’t too simple/either way, nigga, I wrote it/yes, I made the beat/yes, I made the track…I don’t fall in line/I define what’s rhyme – Big K.R.I.T., “Mt. Olympus”*
“I swear a country nigga snap…” – Big K.R.I.T., “Mt. Olympus”
While “country” is oft-times a pejorative term meant to denote someone’s greenness, lack of sophistication, or backwardness, black southerners have long used country to describe an existence rooted in dirt and power, and the ability to survive and maneuver through a world that would rather them not. Still, in its use as an insult, “country” reflects black Americans’ discomfort with southern blackness and its linkages to historical anxieties about the trauma of slavery, black male emasculation, the dehumanizing violence of Jim Crow, and the continued anti-modernity of the (rural) South. Whether the players are Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, Spike Lee and Tyler Perry, or Ice-T and Soulja Boy, as I argue in This Ain’t Chicago, in the aggregate drama of black representation, black folks would rather excise all country niggas–who are seen as reminders of a past of subjugation–from the narrative of the race.
As a genre conspicuously about place and place affiliation, hip-hop has become an explicit site where conversations about race, space, and representation happen in the black public sphere. Nas, whose father Olu Dara has a song called “Okra,” declared hip-hop dead because Lil’ Jon encouraged us, and rightly so, to snap our fingers and do our steps. In a 2007 Urb Magazine interview, The RZA said southern folks don’t have hip-hop in their blood, despite the fact that the sonic blood and sinew for the Wu-Tang Clan’s classic song “C.R.E.A.M.” came from a Charmel’s song made by Stax Records artists in country ass Memphis, Tennessee. In an egregious instance of a pot calling a kettle black, 50 Cent said southerners’ were ruining hip-hop with their inattention to lyrical content and corporeal obsession with bass, rehearsing the hierarchal dichotomy between mind and body that undergirds respectability politics. While these and other such narratives were brought on by the rapid proliferation of southern artists in mainstream hip-hop beginning in the early 2000s, they are merely a continuation of a century of conversations in the black public sphere about Old Negroes and New Negroes, country and cosmopolitan, South and North, rural and urban, femininity and masculinity, staying and migrating, and subjugation and freedom. Southern hip-hop artists, including Outkast, David Banner, and Lil’ Wayne, have often snapped and clapped back at this discourse, focusing their attention on east and west coast artists and the industry writ large. Outkast’s ATLiens, Banner’s Mississippi: The Album and most everything Lil’ Wayne ever does ever, including responding directly to Nas’s assertion about the death of hip-hop, constitute a southern snapback that challenges the continued marginalization of southern hip-hop.
Yet, as a country nigga from Meridian, Mississippi, Big K.R.I.T. snaps back with dirt, that fundamental weapon of southern redemption and damnation. “Mt. Olympus” articulates familiar themes of the marginalization of black southerners, and black southerners from the rural and small-town South in particular, in black identity writ large. In the song, Big K.R.I.T. assumes the role of a Mississippi Prometheus, building the song’s track out of the dirt of blues, a minor key, snapping snares and high hat, and a hammering bass, rewriting the traditional myth and breaking free from the mountain. He ascends Olympus with the intent to behead and bury the anointed gods of rap on the east and west coasts, as well as the industry that has continued to marginalize southern artists, despite the undeniable talent of these artists. If the reverberations through the region since he dropped the track are any indication, there are many, many shovels digging in the dirt in a southern rap chain gang, Parchman Farm rhythm, their strikes into the earth punctuated by that lusty southern chant: YEAH, HO/YEAH, HO.
And niggas is getting buried in that dirt. K.R.I.T. catches bodies in the studio and preaches from a screwed up southern rap scripture of his own authoring and definition as he saves their souls and buries them underneath his house or in his trunk with his subwoofer and damns them to an eternity of listening to that southern country bass. He turns familiar critiques lodged against southerners against mainstream non-southerners–“another nigga other nigga name on yo chain/and they call me a slave?”; points out labels “wrangling like cattle/keeping niggas shackled/leaving people baffled/tap dance, nigga“–and admonishes them to mind their manners, calls them chil’en, and tells them to get out his kitchen because what he is cooking is not for them. And like a country gentleman, he does not get violent until folks get out of control: “tyrants never keep quiet/they rather be violent/so I’m beheading them all.” The refrain “now they wanna hear a country nigga rap” recognizes the objectification of southerners and rejects the coonery that southerners are often accused of and called to participate in. Sampling The Gladiator’s “are you not entertained?!” after a lyrical tour de force in the final verse, K.R.I.T. captures the irony and lament of the simultaneous success and marginalization of southern hip-hop. The frustration here is palpable and visceral, reflecting the anger of a host of Mississippi Prometheuses unbound for whom K.R.I.T. seeks to speak from the underground. As he does sonically and lyrically on Live from the Underground, K.R.I.T. vows to “recycle the lingo” of the southern artists “mainstream never heard of,” defiantly bringing forth the underground South to the mainstream, underground railroad style.
The black South won’t rise again because it ain’t vertical. It moves steadily through a middle plane, a temporal boomerang coming back around at an incomprehensible velocity increased by the chorus of voices joining the cry that “the South got something to say.” The work about the black South coming out of the black South is absolutely critical and formidable, from Kiese Laymon, Jesmyn Ward, and Regina Bradley to the legion of sociology, planning, and folklore graduate students who are constantly innovating for the black South. K.R.I.T.’s “Mt. Olympus” is the most recent addition to the whirring air around that black southern boomerang, providing a soundtrack for flying as we tell these country nigga stories.
Also see the sistren Red Clay Scholar’s analysis of the importance of “Mt. Olympus.”