When I spoke to hip hop artist Jabee, via Zoom last week, the Oklahoma City native seemed tired, but at peace. In the past several weeks, he had attended rallies in his city against police brutality, completed three music videos for songs from his new album and readied their physical releases. He also greeted the news of a new police video showing the death of his friend, Derrick Ollie Cole, with a mixture of sadness and resignation.
On the one hand, the new video revealed that his friend’s final words were “I can’t breathe,” a grim refrain repeated over and over, in police killings of black men across the United States. The video, released just over a year after Cole’s death, emphasized the callous disregard within which black lives are held in the US. In response to Cole’s protestations, the cop who squeezed the life out of him answered that he didn’t care, and OKC police officials insist that the officer did nothing wrong. Jabee acknowledged that without the video of Cole’s killing at the hands of the government, the investigation into the death of Derrick Ollie Cole would have been closed the moment he took his last breath.
Jabee’s home state also drew national attention because United States president, Donald J. Trump, decided to resume his campaign for president in Tulsa, on Juneteenth, June 19th, a holiday which celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. Tulsa was also the site of one of the worst racial massacres since the Civil War. In 1921, from May 31st until June 1st, white mobs ravaged the black neighborhood of Greenwood, where they burned and looted the prosperous community, and murdered its residents. Hundreds of community members likely died and in the violence’s aftermath, survivors were interned in temporary concentration camps. Compounding the tragedy, the violence and destruction that befell Greenwood has never been adequately addressed, by the city of Tulsa, the state of Oklahoma, or the United States of America. After a public outcry, Trump rescheduled his rally for the following day.
I asked Jabee what he would say to Trump, if he had an opportunity to speak with him during the president’s visit to Oklahoma.
“I would tell him that he’s surrounded by some black people, but they don’t speak for all of us. That they’re like robots and they tell him what he wants to hear. He needs to get out and hear more.” This was a magnanimous answer that reflected the man providing it. Jabee is always moving forward, always teaching, and always learning, always hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.
Hoping for the best means that, maybe, this time, things will be different. In the United States, the movement to confront police brutality has reached a critical mass. The crowds are larger, and they’ve become more diverse, and, importantly, much of the public seems to finally support the notion that black lives do indeed matter. In this, as in other aspects of his life, Jabee remains hopeful, but he knows from experience that tragedy and heartache can always lurk, just around the next corner.
On “No Allegiance,” a single from his stunning new album, This World Is So Fragile & Cruel I’m Glad I Got You, when Jabee raps “I ain’t religious/I ain’t conscious/I ain’t Talib/I ain’t Common,” he doesn’t mean that his music lacks an important message. “I didn’t grow up the way they did,” he says, referring to rappers Talib Kweli and Common, conscious rappers, who use their art to decry racism, misogyny, poverty and economic inequality. “My parents weren’t teachers.” The truth is that Jabee IS conscious, it’s just that there’s a different kind of consciousness at work in his art, from a different kind of school: the school of hard knocks.
Jabee has experienced more than his fair share of personal tragedy. The 37-year-old rap musician and actor, born Jonathan Blake Williams, Jr., grew up on the hardscrabble East Side of Oklahoma City, the city’s largest black neighborhood. When he was a child, his parents separated, and for a time, his family was homeless; he attended eleven different schools before he graduated from high school. In 2001, his brother Junie was murdered, shot to death in the neighborhood, a loss that has motivated him ever since, and fueled his desire to seriously pursue a music career. That death, and the deaths of other people that he knew, haunt his art, which is still never without hope.
Jabee’s triumphs and challenges have always inspired his music. In 2008, the emcee released his first full length album, Blood Is The New Black, a collaboration with DJ Vadim, a prolific DJ and producer, based in London. In 2009, he and Mick Boogie, now known as DJ MICK, dropped the mixtape, Must Be Nice. Then came Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt, in 2013, an album that began to crystalize Jabee’s sound. The lyrics hit harder and the beats drifted away from conventional, generic sounding trap or Southern hip hop, to a more distinctive and inventive sound. “Stephanie,” a single from the album, which was produced by El-P of Run The Jewels, was a discordant punch in the mouth, that combined nostalgia with braggadocio, and is still one of his most deft lyrical performances.
On the same album, “On My Way To Heaven,” included a introduction and hook from Cameron Neal of the Americana band, Horse Thief, an eccentric choice for a hip hop album that, somehow, worked. Three minutes pass in the song before we hear Jabee’s voice: “more afraid of success/than I am afraid to fail,” as he reflects on his life and imagines his death. “To Whom It May Concern, “ a big, booming track, contains Jabee’s typically introspective lyrics, and a hint of paranoia, another recurring theme in his art: “believe it/I never really planned to/strangers treat me better than my friends do/fake, fake, fake/man they all fake/hate, hate, hate/man they all hate/or at least that’s how it feels/can always keep it going but can never keep it real.”
2016’s Black Future evidenced a further evolution of Jabee’s musical aesthetic. He more directly and overtly addressed the traumas in his own life and the collective trauma of many black Americans. The music became more complex and richer, and Jabee’s spitting became more fluid, his style, always declarative and precise, grew more authoritative. The album also featured more high profile guests. Chuck D was on a track. Statik Selektah produced the song “Exhausted,” in which Jabee raps “tryin’ to change myself/let the world react/if they don’t like it/change it back,” a challenge to those around him. Najah Amatullah’s spoken word vignettes, at intervals spread across the record, established its tone and theme, a world where black creativity can flourish and black lives actually do matter: “in the black future/there’s a place so dangerously absurd/that words remerge as our tools and our friends/ rather than the means by which the man condemns us to ignorance.” Black Future demonstrated that Jabee was creating a different kind of conscious music, and one that didn’t lecture or scold. His consciousness came from a life deeply felt and lived, tragedy and hope the driving forces behind his words.
Black Future established that Jabee tended to skew more towards the literate than the clever. He’s not a master of the punch line, or the witty retort, like the Griselda crew, or rap titans like JAY-Z. This is not a back-handed compliment, or to denigrate his talent. On the contrary, this quality in his music is a tribute to the fact that Jabee mines his personal history, and the history of black people in America, for his inspiration and his teachings, and he examines those subjects with a profound understanding of both. He’s more likely to give a shout-out to Clara Luper than he is to rep Louis Vuitton.
Jabee is the opposite of shallow; he’s a deep thinker with important things to say. He’s more KRS-One than Travis Scott, more of a scholar than a rhymer, more of a historian than a pleasure seeker or consummate consumer. In that, you might argue that he’s old school, a throwback, but that wouldn’t be right, either. He’s prescient in his analysis of America, circa 2020. This doesn’t make Jabee a stiff. It makes him the kind of artist whose lyrics you need to study before you can truly appreciate the wisdom of the man. As he says in “By Any Means,” his “mind is a weapon,” and in his art, he puts that weapon to work. If you examine his creative output as a whole, you can also see that Jabee is a generous performer; he doesn’t mind sharing album real estate with guests, even if they sometimes overshadow him. And, death is always there. You can’t outrun the Grim Reaper forever, and you never know when he might pay you a visit. Jabee knows this from experience.
Now, Jabee releases his stunning new album, This World Is So Fragile & Cruel I’m Glad I Got You, a lean, tightly organized record that is the best of his career. It’s an emotionally powerful album that also seems like his most autobiographical, self-reflective and deepest work. Everything about the project was done with great intention, from the cover art, to the color of the vinyl for the wax edition, to the order of the songs. The album feels even more autobiographical, and more emotionally searing than Jabee’s past projects; in some places, it’s harrowing. It is a record that will make you think and feel. Jabee says that the album wasn’t difficult to make: “I’ve been dealing with these things my whole life. Everything that I’ve been through made me who I am. I am a little nervous, about the release, though. You never know how people will react to your new music.”
Even the album’s cover was designed with thought and attention to detail. The cover is a collage that depicts Jabee’s family, Douglas High School in Oklahoma City, the Civil Rights icon Clara Luper, who was from Oklahoma, and Julius Jones, a friend, who has been on Oklahoma’s death row for twenty years.
The case of Jones, a black man, who in 2002 was sentenced to death for the murder of white business man Paul Howell, has become a cause célèbre because of the scant evidence in the case and because Jones has maintained his innocence since the day he was arrested. Jones played basketball at John Marshall High School, in Oklahoma City, where his coach was Tommy Griffin, father of Blake Griffin, now with the Detroit Pistons. Featuring Jones on the album cover is not an empty gesture; it’s an act of grace consistent with the man who placed him there. Oklahoma halted executions in 2015, but Jabee knows that when the machinery of death gears up again, Jones may be one of the first executed; all his appeals have been exhausted.https://www.justiceforjuliusjones.com
In many ways, Luper and Jones represent two sides of the same coin: the fight for Civil Rights in America, and the substantial work that still needs to be done to dismantle the structural racism that has infected the country since July 4th, 1776. For Jabee, that fight and that struggle are his fight and his struggle, too.
Like Black Future, This World begins with a spoken word introduction, “The Mirror,” which is voiced by Jabee’s friend Propaganda, a musician and activist from Los Angeles. Jabee stares into the mirror and the mirror stares back, forcing Jabee to confront who he is, and what he is about: “Jay, Jabee. I think I can tell, you’ve been spending some time in the mirror recently.” Then, “as if by sheer force of will, you could reflect your desired reality…as if stubbornness could bend light…as if your imagined version of you is so hood…so OG..so gang bang…you have nothing to prove, to me or to us…” And, the mirror tells him, “we’ve been standing behind you the whole time.”
“Clic,” a single from the album, features a rhetorical device that Jabee has repeatedly used in his music. He riffs on the meanings of the word “click” to drive home the point that words may be neutral in intent but loaded in the way people use them. The word “click” can be used to describe the sound you hear when you fasten your seatbelt. “Clique” means group, but its meaning has been twisted to imply gang affiliation when used in connection with groups of young black men. The word can also be used to describe the sound a gun makes when its magazine is empty and squeezing the trigger doesn’t cause the gun to fire. “That cop gonna empty his clip until it click/He gonna ride, I’m gonna die for his clique/Just put gas in my car until it click/I’m gonna keep on telling y’all until it clicks.” And, “using Ellison’s name to mark your streets,” a reference to the practice of naming streets in black neighborhoods after famous icons, an empty gesture that may feel like progress but smacks more like appeasement, not real change. Finally, “[n]ever understood how you don’t see color/That means you don’t see the oppression we was under.” As scholars have pointed out, the concept of “color-blindness” entrenches racial bias, it doesn’t eliminate it.
“Clic” ends with an excerpt from Malcolm X’s famous speech, “Democracy Is Hypocrisy,” at least, that is, how it is practiced in America, and Jabee has included the words of Malcolm X in other songs as well. The video for the track begins with three black children answering a question that seems innocuous: what do you want to be when you grow up? At almost the three-minute mark, Malcolm X begins to speak, and then, the screen goes black, and the names, written in white, begin to scroll, the names of the dead, dead men women and children, black men, women, and children, killed by the police, in the United States of America. It takes thirty-three seconds to scroll through all the names, and the list of the dead ends with George Floyd, although he is not the last black person killed by the police in the US, in 2020. As I write this, that distinction goes to Rayshard Brooks, 27, of Atlanta, Georgia, and other names will likely be added after that name, too.
“No Allegiance,” another single from the album, is an elegy to Nipsey Hussle, an artist Jabee did not know, but was one whom he admired for his activism and his commitment to his community. The song was written in grief, the video itself triggered by the death of Kobe Bryant. The track serves as an elegy for Hussle, who was shot to death in Los Angeles, in front of his clothing store, a star who invested heavily in his neighborhood, even after achieving acclaim. It’s a beautiful and emotive song, with a mournful piano melody, and a disembodied female voice accompanies Jabee’s rapping: “Just ‘cause you speak your truth/don’t mean it ain’t a lie to me…pray the reason you want it is pure.” The piano pops up in other places on the record, too, played by Jabee’s frequent collaborator and creative sounding board, Allie Lauren, and Lauren also sings on This World. The video for the song is filmed in an empty storefront that Jabee is renovating and hopes to turn into a restaurant, in the neighborhood in which he grew up.
Lauren helped to create the moving interlude at the album’s center, “Fragile and Cruel,” the track that gives the album it’s title. Here, Jabee mostly cedes the floor to Lauren’s piano and vocals, and to the voices of people, recorded on an answering machine, describing the way life has hurt or scarred them, but who also acknowledge the things for which they are grateful. “Hope” follows “Fragile and Cruel,” and that was deliberate: “trying to heal wounds…making something out of nothing,” an ode to struggle and perseverance.
“ChecMate,” produced by Statik Selectah, booms, and features Slug, of Atmosphere, and The BaseGod himself, Lil B, perhaps the first such line-up in the history of recorded music: “I’m tryin’ fight the power like I’m Chuck D…Family’s like a million bucks when you homeless/I ain’t tryin’ to die til I really live/Some people had to die so I can really live.” Slug’s conversational style blends well with Jabee’s authoritative flow and Lil B’s own mystical revelations. Statik’s arrangements can sometimes overwhelm his vocalists, but all three men comfortably ride the track, and its intricate layers of sound.
The penultimate song on the album, “Hands Up,” again repeats and riffs on the expression “hands up.” People raise their hands for a variety of reasons and Jabee evokes some of them: robbers in a bank telling their victims “hands up,” congregants in a church with their hands up, while they pray, the image of the Happy Buddha, who is always pictured, belly exposed, and hands raised to the sky, with a mirthful look on his face. In “Hands Up,” however, the Happy Buddha transforms into Terence Crutcher, a Tulsa man, shot and killed by the police there in 2016, although he presented no threat, was unarmed and, had his hands raised in the air moments before he was shot. Jabee is telling us that in America, if you are a black man, raising your hands in the air won’t save you; it could still likely lead to your death.
In “Birth Name” there’s some regret, but paranoia and realness, too: “I can never be a mayor/I got a jail house nature,” and “Gotta Get To Heaven” expresses skepticism about organized religion, a recurring topic in Jabee’s music, where he often alludes to an institution that, in his mind, can feel empty, and is used to support and justify white supremacy. But that doesn’t mean that he ignores the passages from scripture that his mother regularly texts to him; he doesn’t.
“Gotta Go To Heaven,” has a gospel-influenced refrain, and it’s a pointed commentary about the false piety of some who profess to be religious: “sitting behind sinners/in front of the reverend…they gone tell me God is alive/but if I wanna go to heaven, I gotta die…I’m just somebody’s dead homie when I see Christ.” The last words we hear on the album, “gotta get,” are an appropriate coda for an album that sees the world the way it is, and not how we want it to be. We still “gotta get” there. Hope for the best, and prepare for the worst. That’s what Jabee is trying to tell us in his most fully realized project to date. He’s showing us what America is, and he’s going to keep on showing us, through his art, until it clicks, and we change.
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