Written by: Eric K. Arnold, Oakland Local
One of the major criticisms applied to rap music these days is that the genre has become too corporate and/or gotten away from meaningful social commentary and activism. However, that may be a matter of perception; on an underground level, there’s plenty of messaging which speaks to those themes, yet listeners may not know where to find it.
In a perfect world, the same attention being given to Jay-Z or Kanye West would be extended to Young Gully, an Oakland-based rapper who teamed up with journalist Pendarvis Harshaw for The Grant Station project, a concept album honoring the memory of Oscar Grant, and part of a campaign to rename the Fruitvale BART station in Grant’s memory.
The project—available as a free download here — comes not only on the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict, but also at the same time that “Fruitvale Station,” the Oscar Grant movie, debuted nationally to respectable box office numbers, but perhaps more importantly, has opened up long-overdue conversations about race in America, such as this recent opinion piece by the Washington Post’s top film critic.
Grant Station begins with the familiar sounds of a train arriving, followed by a voice-over announcement: “Welcome to Grant Station,” a single gunshot, and sound-bite snippets recounting the Mehserle verdict and imparting that Grant’s death not be in vain.
What follows next are 10 impassioned tracks—interspersed with commentary from Harshaw—on which Young Gully does precisely what Jay-Z won’t do: address the state of black life in this country in a way that is humanizing, heartfelt, and unquestionably real.
On “Grant Station,” Gully raps, “since Oscar died the whole city been in crisis mode/ so many lives is sold but it’s not surprising though/still I despise it so/how can we survive and grow?/ when they throw us in cuffs, another life is taken/ another cop that’s off the hook, another mama pacing/another shirt made, seems like it never stops/the Town ain’t really been the same since Lovelle was shot/I just want for my people to shine/but sometimes, I get the feeling my people are blind/ they see what they wanna see/but still we gotta take a stand/how can I respect a cop or even shake his hand?/when they so against us/ it’s like calling a snake a friend/ giving policemen immunity/ is what you rate a plan/shit is crazy and it just amaze me/how we get treated but I never let the system break me.”
An interview with Grant relative Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson informs “Letter to Oscar,” which attains a Tupac-esque level of poignancy, offsetting its depressing subject matter with a cheery, uplifting guitar loop. Other tracks, like “Stereotype,” “By Any Means,” and “Here I Stand” speak directly to the crisis facing African Americans today, a dichotomy defined by misinformed perceptions and a repeating cycle of undereducation, incarceration and inequality.
Gully’s raw, street-level rhymes go hard over beats which eschew both the EDM and trap music trends currently dominating commercial radio. Yet “underground” doesn’t mean “inaccessible”; were urban radio interested in addressing such topical subject matter, “Dream” comes complete with a catchy, R&B-styled hook (“is it all but a dream?”), sung by a female vocalist.
Mindful rather than mindless in its content, Grant Station not only upholds the ethos of “reality rap” first referenced on Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s 1982 classic “The Message,” but avoids the contrived, pseudo-agitprop of Kanye West’s “New Slaves” and “Blkkk Skkkn Head.” Instead, it drills down into the heart of the conflict and the struggle, showing the anger and frustration black America feels over police brutality, but also the need for advocacy and, one hopes, eventual change. If you’ve lost faith in hip-hop recently, a listen to Grant Station might just trigger a rechristening.
**Cross Posting with OaklandLocal**