Twenty years ago this summer, when Public Enemy dropped "Fight the Power" — the wake-up call of an anthem laced with 400 years of black angst and pent-up aggression — Kalonji Jama Changa was sitting behind bars for engaging in illegal drug activity or, as he now refers to it, "selling plantation poison."
Born into a family of activists, his misguided sense of rebellion led him astray as a teen, "almost like the preacher's son," says Changa, who still went by his birth name Nigel Korsnick Brown at the time. "I was like the white sheep of the family."
Locked away in prison for nearly two years, Changa finally heard his calling.
"Everything my mother and father ever told me came to me all at once. It came to me when they talked about slavery. It came to me when they talked about the prison business. Everything just started popping in my head," he recalls. "I could not believe that I was really running from myself."
He runs in the opposite direction now, as founder and national coordinator of FTP Movement, the several-years-old community activist conglomerate with an exchangeable acronym: "For the people. Free the prisoners. Formulating the plan. Fuck the policies," Changa says, rattling off the endless options. "We wanted something that was interchangeable for any given situation."
When "fuck the police" is suggested, Changa laughs. "Usually, I don't say that. We don't want to appear to just be some mad, ranting, raving lunatics."
Indeed, the movement is about 30 years overdue for a much needed makeover. And Changa, along with his burgeoning FTP Artist Collective, has set out to do just that with the mid-August release of an impressive cache of beats and rhymes. The double-CD compilation Food, Clothes & Shelter: The Street Album commemorates the 30-year anniversary of Black August — an annual display of solidarity with political prisoners throughout the nation. Besides a few featured stars, including Kanye West, Adam Levine (of Maroon 5) and KRS-ONE, most of the material on the CD is produced by local, unsigned talent. And it's a far cry from the swagged-out, trap house trope that's given Atlanta such a big, bad rap.
Just as Changa hopes the compilation will help popularize the plight of the oppressed, it could also serve as a calling card for Atlanta's woefully overlooked independent hip-hop scene. And that would be just the sort of revolution the city needs, too.
A dimly lit home recording studio with yellow paint on the walls and a lit stick of incense serves as FTP's production headquarters. The only plot in progress, however, involves the ongoing challenge to whittle the 100-plus submissions for the double-CD down to a final tracklist of 44 songs. With musical contributions from a virtual roll call of Atlanta's brightest MCs and alternative artists — Ekundayo, Boog Brown, Ozy Reigns, Señor Kaos, StaHHr, Rita J, Clan Destined, Khalilah Ali, Doll Daze and so on — making some cuts was harder than others.
"There is an overabundance of 'revolutionary' music that just sucks," says Amond Jackson, a recent Florida transplant who co-hosts the "Beatz & Lyrics" show with Jayforce on WRFG-FM (89.3) and serves as co-producer of Food, Clothes & Shelter with Changa. It was the one thing they sought to avoid with a passion. "It's noble to make music that inspires change, [but] I can't tell my kids not to listen to a [Lil] Wayne track when the Wayne track is doper than the revolutionary joint. You've just gotta make good music or you can't expect people to listen to it."
Call it the "conscious rap" curse. That label, and the preconceived notions that go along with it, has killed more careers than "neo-soul" — another term that inevitably leaves artists boxed in and boxed out. "A lot of times, people think 'conscious' [equals] headwrap and vegetarian and red, black and green," says StaHHr, who's been typecast as all of the above. "But that's just the external."
When tasked with spreading the word to artists she felt could make strong contributions to Food, Clothes & Shelter, StaHHr reached out to those willing to play their part — whether they looked the part or not. "Rather than preaching to the choir, we want to reach, as the church would say, the nonbelievers," Changa says regarding the mission of the FTP Artists Collective and the CD.
Likewise, the CD features a range of voices, from the revolutionary but gangsta Mike Flo — who commandeers Jay-Z's "Death of Autotune" track (produced by No I.D.) to create "Death of Amerikkka" — to Detroit native Boog Brown, who "talk[s] about real-life shit" like relationships and money, or the lack thereof, Brown says. That, in itself, is a revolutionary concept considering the sex/money/murder mantra that mainstream rap obsesses over nowadays. "You've gotta be able to make sure that you have change being talked about in enough different languages that everybody can be included in that change," says Boog Brown, "or else, you're kinda not doing anything."
Some could argue that progressive hip-hop and the movment alike suffer from out-of-date PR and bad imaging. Even Changa has been the victim of a Web-based smear campaign at the hands of former disgruntled comrades, who created a website in his name to post anti-revolutionary allegations against him. He denies the majority of their claims and categorizes the attack as a high-tech character assassination.
At the time, Changa, who didn't even have a MySpace page, had no way to counter the online propaganda. He was a street activist outclassed by new-school tactics. In some ways, the incident serves as an accurate metaphor for the movement's struggle to remain relevant. It's an odd time in America. No sooner than a black graduate of Harvard Law gets elected to the White House, a black professor at Harvard gets arrested for breaking into his own house. Still, it hardly seems like outdated revolutionary rhetoric is the proper response.
"We need to have a more sophisticated way of explaining to young people what the hell's going on and how they're being oppresed," says Akinyele Umoja, an African-American studies professor at Georgia State University, who helped lead the startup of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement during X's resurgence in popularity in the early ’90s, shortly before hip-hop's Afrocentric era began to wane.
Just as COINTELPRO effectively targeted and imprisoned much of the radical black leadership of the ’60s and ’70s, an assault on progressive hip-hop, whether concerted or coincidental, smothered the music at its height.
In 1991, MTV yanked Public Enemy's "By the Time I Get to Arizona" off the air because the video depicted an assassination of the state's governor for failing to recognize the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday, recalls Umoja. Around the same time, presidential candidate Bill Clinton criticized the artist Sister Soulja for saying, "Two wrongs don't make it right, but it damn sure makes it even, " in response to L.A.'s Rodney King uprisings. Even Vice President Dan Quayle contributed his two cents, suggesting that Tupac's first album be pulled from stores because of the sociopolitical content on the song "Soulja's Story."
"So, it was just a big assault on hip-hop during that time," Umoja says. Of course, the music industry responded in kind.
And whether they realized it or not, rappers en masse began to censor — or at least adapt — their art. "You know how they say you start to police yourself," says stic.man, one-half of the duo Dead Prez. "Your own creative thoughts are [stuck] in the box that radio has programmed in [you]."
Stic and partner M-1 broke out of bounds in 1999 with the release of their first single, "It's Bigger than Hip-Hop," the first overtly political rap in nearly a decade that resonated in the streets and was marketed and distributed by a major-label affiliate. When asked how they pulled off such a coup, stic explains how they back-doored their deal with Loud Records. "We literally didn't play certain songs when we went in to get our deal," he says. "We didn't play our most revolutionary sentiments. They had no idea we were trained by international activist Omali Yeshitela [chairman of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement]."
Changa credits much of his personal evolution to Dead Prez. He spent the better part of the ’90s pursuing his own fledgling music career, first as a rapper, then a promoter, and finally as an owner of a small-time label. Meanwhile, he was dabbling in community work in his hometown of Bridgeport, Conn. But he ultimately felt forced to choose between the movement and the music. "Up until Dead Prez, I didn't think I could do both," says Changa, who started FTP, first as a rap group, before relocating to Atlanta.
Now he uses his promotional pedigree from music to propel FTP's grassroots programs such as Feed the People, Behind Enemy Lines (a group that supports the falsely convicted) and Cease Fire (which supports victims of police brutality). "I've taken those skills from the music business and brought them into [the] struggle," he says.
As the East Coast coordinator of the Black August Organizing Committee, Changa and the members of FTP hope to spread the word about a multitude of lesser-known political prisoners, such as Veronza Bowers, in addition to such well-known prisoners as Mutulu Shakur (Tupac's stepfather). FTP also remains a vocal supporter of those who don't always fall under the traditional definition of political prisoners, such as Troy Davis, who remains on death row, supporters argue, due to unjust politics.
In the coming months, FTP plans to organize a tour to promote Food, Clothes & Shelter. In a sense, the organization is playing the same role a record label would by offering marketing, promotions and national distribution via the 10 other cities in which it's established, from Oakland to Brooklyn, L.A. to D.C. Considering the state of the industry, it's a viable alternative — and a wide open backdoor.
The project represents the rare convergence of some of Atlanta's most skilled and slept-on MCs. And it's happening at a time when the the city's true-school scene is truly deserving of some shine. Señor Kaos, who admits he gets frustrated with the narrow expectations people outside the city have of Atlanta hip-hop, says the CD will help "expose people to more things."
"When you meet people and you say, 'I'm from Atlanta,' they automatically think, 'Oh, this is gonna be some bullshit,'" he says. "And then if doesn't sound like that, they want it to sound like that. They're like, 'Well, you're from Atlanta, it doesn't sound like Atlanta.' I'm like, 'You ain't been to Atlanta, how the fuck you know what Atlanta sounds like?' You're just basing your judgment of Atlanta from the five records that you hear on the radio."
Jackson and Changa were so overwhelmed with so much good music, they're already promising to release future volumes. In the meantime, they're readying themselves for the release — and, hopefully, the success — of volume one.
"What we wanted to do with this project is to bring in the popular masses, make what we do popular, make it hip — without all the fashionable militancy and the hardcore rhetoric and all that bullshit," says Changa. "It's almost like the cherry cough drop theory: Make it taste good and they won't even know it's medicine."
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