If you asked hip hop artist McKinley Dixon to name the greatest rapper of all time, you might be surprised by his answer. The Richmond Virginia-based musician, who grew up in Maryland and New York City, is unequivocal: the late American novelist, essayist and poet, Toni Morrison.
“She’s the greatest rapper of all time. Even being as prominent as she is, people don’t give her her flowers,” Dixon said in a recent conversation.” Beloved, (Morrison’s 1987 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) was pretty much horror. As big as Get Out was (the 2017 film by Jordan Peele), this kind of resurgence of Black horror, it can be traced back to her. Jordan Peele is influenced by Toni Morrison. A lot of people are influenced by her and I think I’m no different. She’s the greatest rapper of all time.”
Morrison also unlocks Dixon’s writing muscles when he faces his notebook and the words fail to flow. He told me that when this happens, “I’ll crack open one of her poetry books, or one of her quote books and they give me the language” to continue.
Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, looms large over Dixon’s latest album, For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her, a beautiful, cathartic collection of songs in which Dixon processes grief over a friend’s death and emerges at the album’s end to embrace life, in both its sadness and its joy. It is a cycle of songs that moves from the depths of despair to a kind of reluctant reconciliation with the world at large, and the artist’s place in it.
The album opens with “Chain Sooo Heavy,” a song in which Dixon raps about the literal and figurative chains that oppress Black people in America and can transform what should be ordinary routines into brushes with death and common interactions into indignities and micro-aggressions that chip away at one’s sense of well-being:
“So if I yell/Forehead to ya lap/We ain’t playin wit that/Can’t/Afford to lose/The dreams/Of these kids/Cause it means/The neighborhood/Will live/Without/What it/Really really needs/Yeah/I don’t know if I believe in that/The seed adapt/But that means the fruit in his trees might have/Bees attached/That need to act/At all times/Cause paranoia/Got em afraid of the sounds/Boom, bam, and brap.”
Surprisingly, Dixon flips the script in the song, and the chains become a super power, a source of strength that steels the song’s narrator for the challenges on the road ahead. He transforms the chains from something that weighs him down into something that allows him, and others, to take flight:
“I can’t give you wings/But this chain on my neck/Is my power of flight/So, you know what it brings/You can hear it sing/Listen to it/Orchestrate the way that we live/Maneuver through the pain that they give/You stronger than what they say you is/Little man/This chain will make you big/It’ll change your life/For better or worseMake something of you fore you get in the hearse.”
The song hits hard, a post-bop explosion of sound. A saxophone squawks and drums propel the music forward, allowing Dixon to glide over the beat, his voice another instrument in the mix, rising and falling, a counterpoint to the players who accompany him. Listening to the song, and all of Dixon’s music really, is like being in the eye of a hurricane.
Dixon said that “the chain is this sort of thing that gives me confidence to act. It’s sort of a physical manifestation of my success, a sort of physical manifestation of the weight I’m carrying because it’s a chain, literally. It gives me confidence to maneuver very easily in this world.”
Dixon works with a band, mostly eschewing samples, and this gives his music a rich, full sound, the sound of veteran players with the chops to handle whatever he throws at them. Early on in his career, Dixon found samples too confining. “I always wanted to have a band, maybe not a band playing live, but at least a band on my records, able to sort of manipulate the sound with me, and provide the organized chaos as I dictate,” the direction in which the music travels. “I always felt like stories should be bigger, that they should be as best represented in the moment as they can.” As a result, Dixon’s band’s plays loose on For My Mama and it swings with abandon.
This abandon sometimes veers off into territory staked out by iconoclasts like free jazz pioneer Albert Ayler. Like Ayler’s purposeful misdirection in his playing, Dixon’s organized chaos is one of his strengths and it keeps his music interesting and challenging; it takes surprising twists, lyrically and sonically, and not always by design. The music sounds free because it was created freely.
“I’m notorious for not having metronomes,” Dixon said with a laugh. “That’s why [on “Chains”] the drums stop…and jump start. I switched the rhythm on [my drummer, James Gibian] by accident. So then he kind of stops and then he comes back into it. That’s why when the breakdown happens, it sort of takes the drums a little bit to be like, ‘oh, we’re having a breakdown now.'”
The Berlin-based ambient-electronic artist Onirologia has collaborated with Dixon since the two were living in Richmond, although initially their working relationship began on-line. Onirologia executive produced and mixed and mastered Dixon’s 2018 album, The Importance of Self Belief, and produced six individual tracks on that record. “Sitting on Wire,” from The Importance of Self Belief, even features Onirologia’s father on trumpet. Onirologia also listened to early drafts of songs from For My Mama, and, from Germany, “chiseled and sculpted at the mass until the shape [of the music] became more evident.” Onirologia believes that one of Dixon’s gifts is allowing his band room to play, with his overall vision steering the direction and sound of the music, but not caging it in. If the music feels organic, that’s because the process of creating it is.
“McKinley has an incredible skill in understanding the strengths of the musicians he works with, and he lets those musicians exhibit [those] strengths through his music, unabashedly. He doesn’t try to contort their skills to some pre-conceived notion of what a track should be,” Onirologia said in an email. “He lets the individual choices of each musician ‘grow the track’ on its own.”
Dixon also possesses an elastic flow. He can wrap his voice around the snap of the high-hat and use it to push himself off the beat, like a runner at the start of a race, after the sound of the gun. Once he’s off, he raps like a jazz artist plays, inside and outside, breaking free of the melody until he’s ready to sink back into its embrace. The enveloping storm doesn’t fluster him; he guides it until recedes, leaving quiet in its wake, as the song comes to rest.
Dixon can rap in a straight forward way, or in sing-song, like a Jamaican sing-jay and sometimes, he can sound as though he’s about to burst into tears. This especially happens when his voice jumps in register. Then, a slight, almost undetectable tremor kicks in, like butterflies fluttering in his throat. He’s also the kind of artist who leaves it all on the tape, or in the studio or on the stage, when the players around him finally stop.
Dixon is not just a facile spitter; his writing is painterly and lyrical. Peel away the broader brush strokes and the words reveal his meditations about his inner life, and the world around him.
Where “Chain” is encumbered by the weight of the world, “Twist My Hair” is intimate. In that song, which bookends the album with “Chain,” Dixon takes a deeply familiar gesture, the act of braiding hair, and transforms this act into a personal communion with another, a person who understands the inviolable trust required to touch another human being. The act itself is a sign of connection in a disconnected world; you must submit yourself to the laying of hands or the act loses its intimacy and meaning, and both people need to feel safe. For Dixon, this act is redolent of home. The chorus of the song encapsulates these ideas:
“Baby you can twist my hair/Just don’t forget to pick it out/And if you get caught over there, Don’t forget what you about/I know that you might be scared/I know you might be filled with doubt/So baby you can twist my hair/Just don’t forget to pick it out.”
“I wanted to find a moment that was so intimate, but was also so specific to the Black experience,” Dixon said. “These are moments you share in your house, once you’re already home, something that you can even make more like a home. It’s taking moments to do your hair, talking to people doing your hair, just being in the presence of someone else.”
Dixon became aware of Toni Morrison in middle school, something that he attributes to his mother and grandmother. Both his grandmother and his mother had him read and memorize poetry, which instilled confidence in him and allowed him to speak comfortably in front of groups of people.
“I kind of started with Maya Angelou,” Dixon said, “and from there I was like, who are others who write beautifully like her. And, you know, it’s usually Black women. I came across Beloved, [Morrison’s 1987 novel], and then from there The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and then Sula, and then we’re at the present day. I have almost all of those books, poetry and one of her essay books, and a bunch of different things, artists and authors inspired by her.”
Another influence on Dixon’s art was the rap artist Sean Price. The emcee Guilty Simpson introduced the pair to each other because Dixon wanted to record a song with Price. In 2015, Price, beloved by fans and peers alike, died unexpectedly in his sleep at his home in Brooklyn. He was 43. Dixon and Price struck up an unlikely friendship that deepened Dixon’s own understanding of his art and its context. At one point, the musicians spoke weekly and Price ultimately contributed a verse to the song “Bare Knuckle,” on Dixon’s debut album, Who Taught You to Hate Yourself, released in 2018. Dixon dedicated the album to Price, who passed away before the album dropped.
At the time he connected with Price, Dixon listened to a lot of alternative rock performed by mostly white artists. One of his favorite bands was The Used, a group which Dixon says helped him expand his views about sexuality and sexual identity. His musical orientation started to change when he and Price began to speak. According to Dixon, at that time, Price didn’t own a cell phone. The younger man would call Price’s home line and it was hit or miss if Price answered. “When I’d get him, we’d just talk about things, and it became this dynamic, that it’s like this friendship. We became close at the end of his life.”
Now, reflecting on his relationship with Price, Dixon said it’s almost as though it never existed. “It’s weird how memories, timing and moments work.”
“I’d only listen to these rock artists who were white guys, doing whatever you want. You know, [Price] is somebody who has lived in this culture and is of this identity. And he’s like 40 years old, and I’m like 18 years old. When you talk to a band, you’re talking [about] the experiences of multiple people. When you talk to a rapper, their whole identity is their music and their catalog. I definitely learned a lot from talking to Sean Price, and maneuvering through that kind of relationship at such a young age.”
Thinking conceptually about how a song should sound is difficult, with many different factors to consider. If you are unable to read music or play an instrument, the task becomes more formidable. Dixon is an untrained musician but he can think sonically in great detail about how he wants his songs to sound and how they should be arranged. He keeps a notebook and constantly writes down ideas and sends them to musicians with whom he collaborates. Most of the music on For My Mama was recorded in bedrooms across the country.
Dixon compiles extensive notes when he is working on a song in order to map out the direction in which he wants the song to go, and he draws inspiration from anywhere he can find it. He breaks songs up into sections and then decides the instrumentation for that section and its flow. It’s an arduous process but one that Dixon has been building on since he released The Importance of Self Belief. “Because I have to overcompensate for things like this, [the inability to read music], I don’t want to go into a session, and be like ‘I didn’t think about this enough.’ I’ll write down pretty meticulously how I want to see the bars go.”
For the penultimate song on the album, “Mama’s Home,” Dixon wanted the arrangement to feature a harp.
“I feel like the harp is such a delicate and special instrument and it was not found in rap music. So I had this moment where I thought the harp would be the perfect juxtaposition for the harshness that I’m talking about, you know?”
Dixon posted on Facebook that he needed a harpist. Fortuitously, he discovered that an accomplished harpist lived in Richmond, named Carolyn Bryan. She performed with the American Youth Harp Ensemble, which is based in the Virginia capital. Bryan listened to Dixon’s ideas for the song’s arrangement and then explained to him what the song evoked in her. The multi-instrumentalist recorded her contribution to the song in one session. “[Bryan] is the one to [whom] give credit…for the formation of the arrangement,” Dixon said, and he describes Bryan’s harp as “the backbone of the song.”
The harp opens “Mama’s Home,” then a piano joins in. After a little over a minute passes, Dixon sings the chorus:
“Tread softly/Please tread so softly/These demons haunt me/Mama keep them off me/She says/Everything gone be okay/Whispers to me/I know that it hurts/Sometimes cuts could use more dirt/The songs they sing/In the jump ropes/They have heart/Have heart.”
Frequent Dixon collaborator Alfred handles verse one; Dixon takes over in the second verse:
“Dreaming of leaving/Dreaming of flight/Dreaming of building wings/Jumping out ya window at night/Dreaming of looking out/Peeping such a freeing sight/Do this all for paradise, my n****/ Shit happened so suddenly/It caught me off guard sadly/I know I’m crying baby/Please don’t look at me badly/Tryna process the best that I can/Still be your Peter Pan/Fly you to different lands/Still tryna be a man/But can I break down for a second/Mama taught me bad news to be expected/And pops taught me if it fall on you, go on and deflect it.”
The arrangement for “Mama’s Home” is complex. Halfway through the song, a flute begins to accompany the harp and piano, creating an ethereal sound, filled with longing, desire and heartache, the lightness of the instrumentation in stark contrast to the trauma and pain of the track’s lyrical content. The song ends with a kick in the gut, mundane, random thoughts colliding with the realization that someone you love has died a violent death:
“Think what Ill tell god/If we meet/Prolly that I shouldn’t hit da blunt dat hard/Tell my lil n**** breathe breathe breathe/Holdin’ his chest/He bleeds bleeds bleeds/Wish I could tell his family, that, he’s/Prolly gone be absent from dinner tonight/Fuck.”
“make a poet Black” comes in the first half of the album and it is the song that owes the greatest debt to Toni Morrison. It may have also been the most difficult to write because it directly considers the death of Dixon’s childhood friend, who lived in Queens, New York. Dixon doesn’t like to discuss his friend’s death but writing the song forced him to emotionally confront what happened and even question the decision to write about it.
“Why does death all of a sudden allow me to become a poet, become lyrical all of a sudden?,” Dixon said. “Where does that come from? Why does trauma kind of fuel that [lyricism], especially for the Black body?”
Human beings are complex and trauma, if it exists, is generally only part of the story. A person, or a group of people, shouldn’t be defined by trauma, by the traumatic events they’ve experienced, individually or collectively. In a sense, defining a person by his or her trauma reduces that person to something less than human, simply the sum of their psychic injuries. Even in the midst of trauma there is joy, there is wonder and there is love. While “make a poet Black” is in one sense a metaphor for the collective experiences of Black Americans, that is only part of the story. Writing the song helped with the healing process but Dixon didn’t want to exploit his friend’s death to argue a larger truth in his art.
“I think especially in rap, people put these harrowing tales into their music, make whole albums about [it]. It’s so easy to make this stuff palatable. And outside forces will have you creating that content, just indefinitely, without regard for yourself and your well-being, I think, along with the fact that people who look like me don’t have access to ways to process that [trauma].”
In the song, Dixon grapples with his conflicted emotions and bouts of self-doubt, about himself and his art, particularly in the chorus. It’s not clear in the song if he’s able to convince himself that he has something of value to say, or if he believes is crassly capitalizing on his friend’s death to move records. He’s not even sure he possess the language to recount his friend’s death in a way that effectively honors the man’s life:
“Okay/So how this shit happen/Yo ass is now rapping/I guess we can make that work/The money is stackin’/As long as you snapping/Okay, I guess this got perks/Your music got passion/Your story yeah/I mean, I/Guess it does hurt/
What if we made it alil bit more mmmm/I’m just saying/Think about it like this/(You not the realest/You know that right/They not gone feel this/You know that right?)/You need some healing/This pain you concealing/There’s prolly so much more to life.”
One of Toni Morrison’s most famous quotes is this: “The best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.”
With For My Mama And Anyone Who Look like Her McKinley Dixon has created a collection of music that is unquestionably political, yet irrevocably beautiful. Some of it is the product of trauma, but the album is, in the end, the sum of all its emotions, of all its parts. It is about life as we live it.
For My Mama Is a paean to Black life, Black bodies and Black culture, but it contains universal truths, too. Love yourself, and hold on tight to those you care about. Ultimately, life is fleeting; embrace the hurts and the highs and hug each other. And, keep swangin’. McKinley Dixon says it’s so.