Kind of Red

January 12, 2013

Sho Baraka Talented Tenth Interview

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 8:33 pm

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In the fall of 1903, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois famously penned an article entitled “The Talented Tenth” for the Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative Negroes of To-day. In it, he argued, “the Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” In writing his article, Du Bois found it his duty to demonstrate that this “talented tenth,” these “exceptional men,” were worthy of leadership, and that with the proper education and development, they too could remedy the problems plaguing the Negro. Over a century later, Du Bois’ words still carry great weight. They also served as the inspiration for the title of Sho Baraka’s third studio album, which bears the same name.

The release marks a watershed moment in Sho Baraka’s career, as it is his first solo release since he left Reach Records in March of 2011. Conceptually, the album itself promises to offer listeners a more in-depth perspective of Sho’s worldview and passion for remedying ills that plague urban communities, as he compels “exceptional leaders, who have the time, talent and treasure to take initiative for the benefit for others,” similarly to how Du Bois once did over a hundred years ago. Sonically, the album is the capstone of a steady evolution in the Atlanta-based emcee’s career. It is sure to leave listeners well pleased.

Sho recently sat down to talk with me about the album, its inspiration and his maturation over the course of the past few years. Throughout the course of the interview, we discussed everything from W.E.B. DuBois, Sho’s departure from Reach Records, 2Chainz and the merits of Kobe Bryant’s legacy compared to that of Michael Jordan’s. What follows is the better part of that conversation.

Red: It would appear as though you solved the mystery as to who stole your notebook. I suppose the more important question to ask at this juncture is did your wife ever find her wallet?

Sho: (Laughs) I don’t know man. (Laughs) That’s to be continued. You can never trust brothers some times, they do some sheisty stuff, so you never know. You might have to find that out later. I am appreciating the responses to the video though. I’ve gotten some great feedback from it. And by the way, that was not my wife. That was a friend playing a role for the video.

Red: Oh, okay. Speaking of Johnnie Cochran, were the characters in the video metaphorical representations of “the Worst” who contaminate “the Mass” that Du Bois spoke of in the Talented Tenth? Are they representations of you at different stages in your life? Are they based on people you know or have encountered through the years, or some combination of all of the above?

Sho: Ah, good question. I like to leave some mystery there. Ultimately what I want people to walk away from is a dialogue. Why are we so quick to pass judgment on others? Who is the real jerk in the situation? If we investigate ourselves we will find there is a jerk in all of us. I find myself in a bit of all of those guys. I see the ignorance and freedom in those guys, and in some instances I find it liberating. Ultimately I want people to evaluate themselves after watching the video. So there’s a strategy involved [in making the video]. There’s a reason why. What I want people to walk away with is the question of, “What is the message?” Who is the real crook? Who is really wrong in the whole situation?

Red: Yeah, okay. That makes sense. What about the idea that these characters are simultaneously misguided and misunderstood in that while their flaws are readily apparent, you assuming the worst in them (that they stole your notebook) proved to be problematic?

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Sho: Exactly, exactly. This is the reason why you are the professor. You got that exactly right. When you look at it it’s a lot of what I see. In urban communities, when you see a male wearing certain attire, and there is an assumption that is made. There is a perception and a rap sheet that is formed almost. When we see them, we should understand, even if it is not a cultural intelligence we appreciate, we all should admire that there is a high level of cultural intelligence there. We should see that he knows life and communicates life, although it is a different expression. In the [Johnnie Cochran] video, I seem to have it all together but I am just as flawed as the other individuals. My flaws might not be as visible. The judgments I am imposing on others could just easily be applied to me. I am flawed too.

Red: Indeed. In previous interviews leading up to the release of Talented Tenth, you speak a great deal of maturation over the course of the three years since you released Lions and Liars. What does that look like for you? How does it translate in your music?

Sho: Ah. (Sighs) Like all growth, it’s been hard. I’ve been learning about areas I need to grow in, learning areas I am strong in. I’ve been learning how not to use my gifts and talents to make people subservient or feel lesser than, but rather use them as a blessing, as a gift. I’m constantly dealing with insecurities, constantly dealing with the idea of feeling significant. How it plays out in the life of an artist, once you get that first taste of blood—the approval of man, it becomes intoxicating. You always want more. So there is a constant struggle of feeling relevant, whether it’s likes on Facebook or having my name mentioned in tweets or whatever. I’ve come to learn that just because I am not on trending on Twitter [at the moment] or have an album that is heralded as the album of the year, I am no less important. A pastor in Atlanta that I follow—Crawford Loritts—once said, “Good leaders slay their insecurities.” That is what I have been trying to do, learning when you are not important to people at a time does not mean you are not important.

Red: That is powerful.

Sho: It is.

Red: You also said in a previous interview that this—Talented Tenth album—is the first time that you have the “courage” and the “bandwith” to show all that Sho Baraka can do? What do you mean by that? What is different now?

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Sho: ‘All that I can do,’ hhmm, it’s really ‘more of what I can do.’ I now have the ability to release more videos, like the Johnnie Cochran video, there are more videos to be released. I can now deal with more issues and rather than try to just be palatable for people. There are issues that I did not address before; I want to deal with them. I want to say some things; I want to show the roledex that is Sho Baraka—to be meek but fierce.

Red: So you decided to release an album on Dr. King’s birthday, no pressure.

Sho: (Laughs)

Red: All jokes aside, considering this is your first solo studio album since you left Reach Records, some would argue this is your most important album to date, or at the very least your most important album since your debut–Turn My Life Up. How do you respond to that suggestion, and how did you juggle the weight of that pressure with the desire to create the music God has given you?

Sho: I see it more as an honor, releasing an album on that day is an homage [to Dr. King]. The title is an homage to the Du Boises, and the Robesons, the Douglasses, the [Harlem] Renaissance, those who do not always get the credit they deserve because the Christian culture we live in does not like to give credit to their type of accomplishments. It likes to give credit to a different type of individual honor. So in releasing Talented Tenth, I wanted to honor them and of course honor the Lord, and not pull punches. The easy thing to do would be do business as usual and still be hurt everyday. I couldn’t do that any more. There is a difference from someone who has no experience with oppression from someone who feels it, you feel the pressure, the pain and say nothing. I could not ignore it any more. There is large amount of apathy in our culture. I wanted to combat that.

Red: In a recent CNN article about the relationship between Rev. Charles Stanley and his son Andy Stanley, John Blake wrote that shortly before Andy Stanley decided to leave his father’s church he was reading Gene Edwards’ book about David and Saul—A Tale of Three Kings. Specifically, they said Andy stopped in his tracks when he read, “Beginning empty handed and alone frightens the best of men. It also speaks volumes of just how sure they are that God is with them.” Would you say that sums up some of your experience in deciding to leave Reach?

Sho: Yeah. Yup. My man that thing is right on. [When I left Reach] I did not have . . . I knew what I was doing had to be of the Lord, because only an insane person would do that. No sane person would do that . . .

Red: True.

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Sho: This was not a week decision; it was a two-year decision. I dealt with [the idea of] I cannot do this any more. Everything in my body was like “It’s like a Isaiah 42 thing.” I physically I do not feel good. I think part of that can be like a depression. When you feel like you are not operating the way the Lord wants you to, you can experience chemical reactions in your body that cause depression. When I broke out this, I felt so much peace. I knew this is of the Lord, this is clearly what God called me to do.

Red: I completely understand. The Church has a long history of shunning what it deems amalgamations of sacred and the secular, particularly within the arts, even if it eventually embraces those whom it previously chided. Mahalia Jackson exemplifies this quite well, in that she and Thomas Dorsey received more than their share of criticism in their day only for her to be widely heralded as the greatest Gospel singer of all time. Would say there is a parallel criticism of you and those who adopt similar stances that you have with regard to how you desire to impact the culture and present the Gospel?

Sho: Yes, I do. There were artists before them, artists after them, that revolutionized the genre, and only five to ten years later, it’s acceptable. Kirk got the same thing. Rance Allen got the same thing.

Red: The Clark Sisters too.

Sho: Yeah, the Winans got some of that too. The main goal is to please the Lord. My heart’s desire is to please Him. I can’t juggle the idea of wanting to please God and please man. I’m not trying to compare myself to Dorsey and Jackson, but I do believe there is a similar criticism in our little genre. I knew that once I made the decision I would probably have that. I did not make the decision sooner in part because of fear of criticism. I cannot let that worry me now.

Red: It makes sense in that often times those closest to us do not fully understand our work in the moment. It is widely held that Jesus’ half brother James did not come into faith in Christ until after His ascension. To further that point a bit, Church Clothes was admittedly Lecrae’s first deliberate attempt to reach nonbelievers. It’s hard to fathom now, especially considering the shifting approach of Reach and the continual emergence of other like-minded artists. What does it say about the insular nature of CHH that its most prominent artist has never made such a deliberate attempt to reach nonbelievers previously? What does it say about the genre’s expectations of its artists?

Sho: I think it’s tough when people say the goal is to reach the Church and reach the streets. We don’t write our music in a way to reach the streets. To be clear, it’s not just nonbelievers; it’s those who are not churched, those who are not a part of church culture. Church culture is the conferences, Christian clothing, Christian websites, et cetera. There are people who love Jesus who do not go to John Piper conferences every month, who don’t go to Rapzilla everyday. They have a life rather than what’s the latest in the TMZ culture of Christianity.

They’re not listening to CHH in part because it all sounds like John Piper stuff. It then becomes a struggle [for some CHH artists] making music not part of Christian culture. [For Lecrae] To say it’s the first deliberate attempt shows some maturity. I don’t know to what extent the perspective is evolving [at Reach]. I am not in contact with them as much, outside of Tedashii. I do believe it’s greater than making an album. It’s about placing oneself in circles, writing intentional lyrics that deal with life people deal with outside of reading scriptures, going to conferences. If I’m a single mother and find out daughter is pregnant, I don’t want to be “crunk for Jesus.” I want to hear how do I deal with that. We must ask ourselves, “How do we write prevalently about issues people deal with on a regular basis?” And when get older, we will start to realize some of the things we deal with in life are different, and we will write differently.

Red: That is so true. When I first began listening to Christian rap, that was one of my primary issues with the genre as a whole. It seemed like most of the artists did not do anything but read the scriptures all day. While I obviously have no qualms with reading the Bible obviously, I wanted music that would address issues I faced on a regular basis. Especially now that I am older, I’m thirty; I’m married; I have two children; I’m a professional. I just hate it when rappers who are older do not make music that relates to their current place in life. For example, 2Chainz is thirty-seven and raps like he’s seventeen.

Sho: (Laughs)

Red: He does. Aside from my objections with his content, I also hate that he raps like a child. All of his songs sound like a sixteen year-old who hit the lotto.

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Sho: Yeah, that’s true. Have you had a chance to listen to the album?

Red: Not yet. I spoke with [your management team] about that, but they weren’t able to get it to me before the interview.

Sho: I ask because that’s what Peter Pan talks about.

Red: I thought that’s what that song was about! I have not heard the album, but I had access to the track-listing. That is what I thought when I saw that title.

Sho: Peter Pan talks about this artist I grew up loving that still talks about the same thing he did when I first started listening to him years ago. In a nutshell hip-hop has not grown up with its audience. We need more artists who talk about things I struggle with in my thirties, but almost all the music I hear is what was relevant when I was eighteen, fifteen.

Red: I’m glad you mentioned Peter Pan. In looking at the track-listing, I noticed you identify several prominent figures in African American history—both real and fictional—who seem to embody key ideas and characteristics (e.g. Ali (individual greatness), Mahalia Jackson (pioneering spirit), Cliff and Claire Huxtable (stability and upward mobility), Denzel Washington (excellence in one’s craft) and who I presume to be Michael Jordan) in addition to other notable figures in recent news or literature (e.g. Peter Pan, Bernie Madoff). How did you go about selecting these people/themes? Why are these particular individuals important to the message of Talented Tenth?

Sho: At one point I knew I wanted to name all the songs after proper nouns, which would cause the most intrigue. 80% of the songs do not say the name of the person it is named after in the song. The song is more of a representation. As you see the title you have a reference for some of the people. Some people may have no clue who Mahalia is, no idea who Madoff is. There may be others who are not as familiar with Christian history. They may not now what Bethesda is. My hope is they will relate that title to the concept I am speaking on in the song. When I was working on the songs, I went back in forth some things. Ali was one of those songs last song I titled, and one of the last songs I recorded.

Red: That’s a great song by the way.

Sho: Thank you sir. My buddy, whose name is Ali, who is on the song, said, “You should name the song Ali. Muhammad Ali always talked about he’s the greatest.” I was like, “Cool. Let’s do it.” So there was definitely some intentionality. For people who may not be familiar with some of the names, I wanted people to research names, like Jim Crow. They may say, “What the heck is a Jim Crow.” That was an important time in our nation’s history. For those who might not know much about Bethesda, they may learn about it after hearing the song then researching the place. The song also has Wade in the Water in It.

Red: Oh wow. That makes a lot of sense.

Sho: Mahalia is a church feeling song. It is very old school black church type of mood.

Red: Again that makes perfect sense. Does the Michael represent Michael Jordan o r Michael Jackson?

Sho: Michael Jackson. It’s not really about Michael Jackson. I say Michael Jackson in the hook but it’s not about Michael Jackson, it’s more about fatherlessness. In the hook I say, ‘On and on I know life goes/I’m mourning the death of Michael/Not Jackson, but one missing in action/One who was shot over his fashion/Who lost hope when his dad split/Who got AIDS from a self proclaimed bad . . ./Watch your mouth homie /Gather around, my culture’s going down/Gather around, my culture’s going down . . .”

Red: That’s dope. I asked about Michael because for all your considerable gifts and your depth of wisdom, you have terrible taste in basketball teams and players.

Sho: Ahh (Laughs) I rebuke that Satan.

Red: (Laughs)

Sho: So tell me who’s your team? Who do you root for, so I can see where this hate is coming from.

Red: Well, like I told you before, I was born in Memphis, but grew up right outside of Atlanta. I went to college in Atlanta, so I cheer for all Atlanta teams pretty much.

Sho: Oh, okay.

Red: But I am not a delusional fan. I know at the start of the season that our peak is a graceful exit in the second round.

Sho: Okay. Good. So you are not delusional.

Red: I am not, but it also seems like you are not one of the crazy ones that I have to remind that Kobe is not better than Jordan. I will say that I have a tremendous level of respect for Kobe and his seventeen years of sustained excellence.

Sho: Seventeen years. It has been a lovely seventeen years. Jordan is probably the greatest player of all time

Red: So you do understand.

Sho: I said, “probably.” I said, “probably . . .”

Red: That is still progress, I am praying for you.

Sho: (Laughs) Let me tell you why. I tell you why Kobe cannot be greater than Jordan. He’s [Jordan] a shadow because everyone exalts the statue of Michael Jordan so high that no one ever will be able to ascend to his height. That is why I say he is probably the greatest player. I didn’t say it was definitive. We all have to admit a lot of his legacy is nostalgia. If he played today I am not sure he would be great as he was. . .

Red: Whoa. Slow down there . .

Sho: He definitely would have won championships, but he would not have dominated as much. Everyone is as athletic as he was now. What would still set him apart is that mental aspect of the game, that tenacity, that killer instinct. Only Kobe can match him in that.

Red: I will give you that Jordan would face more athletic competition on the perimeter, so his physical advantage would be diminished to some degree, but he would still dominate. We also have to consider that he had better statistics than Kobe in every meaningful category, was fouled more (Jordan Rules anyone) and played stiffer competition . . .

Sho: I disagree with stiffer competition.

Red: You do?

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Sho: I would say in his day he played those New York Knicks teams. They played well for a nice amount of years, but the perimeter players he played against were, meh. It was Jordan and nobody else. The next best player on the perimeter was on his team. From 2000 to present day, the League has seen Kobe, Lebron James, Kevin Durant, A.I., Tracy McGrady, et cetera. Thos guys on the perimeter exceed anyone Jordan faced in his day. He came in on the tail end of Magic, Bird and Isaiah and Barkley. In his career he met Boston, he met Detroit and got bounced. Then he finally beat Detroit and started winning championships.

Red: You just made the Roy Jones, Jr. argument in that people criticized his legacy because he arguably faced inferior competition. The whole, “who did you beat” argument. You cannot belittle Jordan’s greatness because he was that much better than everyone else.

Sho: True. I’m not trying to belittle Jordan’s greatness . . .

Red: Besides, Jordan did face tough guys on the perimeter, Clyde Drexler. . .

Sho: Maaaannn Clyde Drexler was ninety years old when Jordan met him in the Finals.

Red: (Laughs)

Sho: And who else? Let me see. He played the Paces, and you know Reggie Miller played noooooo defense.

Red: I will give you that the last two finals when he faced Utah. You or I could have guarded John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek, but Jordan did face Gary Payton and the Sonics, he faced Barkley at his peak. He faced some tough competition. What I will give you is that Kobe has maintained a high caliber of play for seventeen years, that’s a long time.

Sho: That’s what I’m saying. After seventeen years, Kobe is still winning championships! Man you got me heated!

Red: Kobe has not won a championship in two years! Another thing you must take into account with Kobe is that he has always had a dominant big man on his team who could demand a double team. That will certainly add years to your career. Jordan never had that.

Sho: You mean Pau Gasol?!! That trade does not look so bad now.

Red: Pau Gasol was a perennial All-Star who led a 50-win Grizzlies team before he went to the Lakers.

Sho: That was like one year!

Red: It was at least two. Remember, I was born in Memphis. I was following them. And do not forget, Kobe did play with this guy named Shaquille O’Neal. I heard he was pretty good. I know Scottie Pippen was a Top 50 All Time Player, but you must admit that a dominant big man is more important than a dominant perimeter player in basketball.
Sho: Yeah, but another dominant perimeter player could provide more space on the floor, et cetera. We could probably go back and forth like this for a while. I have to cut this short though. I will have to get my daughter soon.

Red: I will have to do the same. I am just glad I do not need to send you some Jordan highlights like I have to do with my other friend who is a Laker fan.

Sho: Naw, I’m good. (Laughs)

Red: Thanks for spending some time with me.

Sho: It was my pleasure.

Talented Tenth is now available on iTunes. You may also order a physical copy from http://www.lionsandliars.com

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