The voice — strong, soft and feminine — is composed of calibrated tones of mockery and disgust: ”You think you can rhyme over this nigga?You think you can sing over this playa?What . . . you think you can flow over this hustler?Oh yeah . . . I forgot to tell you the rulesBy rhyme I don‘t mean nurseryFlow don’t mean get your smoke onsing means . . . well . . . nigga just sing the songNo Crissy, no thongsno baby boos or baby daddysno tricks, no whips, no weight pushin‘and absolutely no platinum or iceno guns, no lies about your ghetto repand please . . . the term playa hater . . . well I hate to tell you, but . . . it’s played . . . out.“ The beats are hip-hopjungledrum-‘n’-bass, stripped of geek-DJ artifice while underscoring artful protest: Why has soul music — hip-hop, R&B, the sounds that American Negroes make — become an oxymoron? The question is at least a decade old but feels increasingly pressing, urgent.
The song is ”What???,“ one of the more stunning tracks on underground poetspoken-word artistfledgling icon Ursula Rucker‘s assured solo debut, Supa Sister (K7). An even more incendiary, far-reaching take on the state of contemporary black music than Lauryn Hill’s ”Superstar,“ and a seeming companion piece to Me‘ShellBashir’s much-delayed disc, Code Word Cookie: The Anthropological Mix Tape — which includes songs like ”Dead Nigga Blvd.“ and ”Hot Night (Revolutionary Soul Singer)“ — ”What ???“ both outlines the problem and, in next-level activism, offers a solution: ”So now what you gonna dowit‘ your rhyme, wit’ your flow?Well how about talkin‘ about the injusticesthe numbersthe blundersof black males in jailOrwhy not speak truthabout our misguided youththeir daily dyingfrom thugging and drug sellingthat leaves them yellingfrom behind barsfar . . . from the glamour you pimpleaving scarswith that dope cutYou might as well be saying . . . Fuck the masseslong as my ass isgetting paid.“ The song is hip-hop in the greatest sense of the word: Discontent is transformed into content, into social commentary and unblinking political stance.
On the phone from her home in Philly (with her two young sons’ voices floating in the background), the 33-year-old Rucker speaks with an openness, a gentleness that reaffirms the impression given by her work. Despite the toughness of both her subject matter — rape, racism, child abuse, the state of black life and love — and her interpretations of it, there‘s a tangible empathy in her writing and performance. There’s heart in her rhymes. Inquisitive, funny and willing to go deep for an answer, she sighs heavily when asked for the inspiration behind ”What???“
”It‘s just being totally flustered and frustrated with the state of black music,“ she says, ”which includes R&B — what used to be R&B or soul, what used to be hip-hop, to me. I still would like to enjoy these things. I’m not too old that I can‘t enjoy them, you know what I’m saying? I‘m still a consumer, still a part of the audience. But I’m not gonna just accept this stuff. I‘m a mother, and I don’t want my children to listen to it. I don‘t want my children to have the moneymakers that are making the music now be their idols or their role models. I’m bored with the music, offended by the content — I‘m also bored with the content. It’s from a cookie cutter. I cannot understand how each artist continues to come out and have no shame about sounding just like all the others out there. Where is the individuality?“
The real irony is how the music celebrates a lifestyle (ghetto fab, shorty), but is so anti-life. That it barks success and victory but reeks of defeat. It‘s a hopeless surrender to myths and misconceptions, as though Negroes woke up so weary from the struggle that they no longer had it in them to resist. Like they went to a Klan rally, listened to the most caricatured renderings of their lives and mistook the lies for a blueprint: Yo, I’ll be dat.
”Exactly,“ she says forcefully. ”They puff this persona up before the world as though they‘re so confident — I got these ho’s and these cars and I‘m the shit — but the music doesn’t exude confidence at all. All it says to me is that they‘re puppets, that the industry told them, ’You need to make this kind of stuff to keep the money flowing. We‘re keeping most of the money, but just to get the little bit of money that we give you, we’re going to tell you how to present your black self to the world.‘ That is so fucked-up, to me.
“I have gone to colleges,” says Rucker, who herself holds a degree in journalism from Temple University, “where the student body was all white, and I’ve done my poetry, then talked about it, and they were like, ‘Wow, we didn’t know that black people knew these things or could talk about these things.‘ They really have no concept of us beyond what they see in the media. And I wasn’t mad at them, because they were really honest. They were just being truthful. They admit that they rely on the media to give them a view of black people and how we are. And we have to bear some of the responsibility for what they‘re seeing.” Her fierce critique takes on added resonance when you listen to her song “Brown Boy,” a sort of hip-hop updating of “Strange Fruit” in which — without providing easy outs from that responsibility — she delves into the psychology of despair and deprivation that is at the crux of what ails the music, what ails the community: “Tuskegee Airmen and experiment recruitsStrange fruits and Strangers in the VillageRecipients of paleface pawing and pillageBlack not beautiful, black like oil spillageDiminished to 35 of whole . . .How would anyone . . . feel . . . dealafter centuries of . . .humiliation, displacin’, castration . . .discrimination . . . separated himfrom manhood and kin . . .”
Rucker, who has built up a loyal following based on her collaborations with U.K. cult darlings 4 Hero — who produced some of the tracks on her album — and hip-hop legends-in-the-making the Roots, fleshes out the disc with songs like “7,” “1 Million Ways To Burn” and “Spring,” which dissect the thornier sides of romance. But, she says, “They‘re not really about love lost, they’re about love getting misplaced and confused, and then you have to do what you need to do in order to figure it out.”
The closing track, “Song for Billy,” is disturbing in its own right, but becomes absolutely harrowing with the knowledge that it‘s based on a true story. A photojournalist friend of Rucker’s who did an expose on children whose parents are drug addicts inspired “Song.” It tells the story of a baby, not yet a toddler, who is pimped out to pay for her mother‘s drug habit: “So these menthese monsterstook their turns at fuckingand rippingand tearinginto their fleshy paymentuntil they had all been paid . . .until they had all busted a nutand Mommy’s in the corner getting drugged upand now Baby is all fucked upand Mommy will never need moneyas long as she got Baby.”
When asked about the emotional toll it must take on her to perform the song in concert, Rucker pauses for a moment before answering. “I actually don‘t have a problem doing it live,” she says, “because I feel it so deeply. See, it’s all about change for me. I used to feel like, ‘What’s the use? Can I even make a change?‘ And I’ve learned that I can. And everyone else can. That‘s what I’m committed to. Every building block you contribute is worth something. If it just changes one person‘s life, it’s been worth it. It‘s important, and I don’t want people to give up on that. I still have hope. I can‘t just live my life, be in my box, do what I do daily in my ritual, without caring about anything else. I may not literally go out and carry a picket sign, but my work is my little way of once in a while holding up my picket sign.”
Ursula Rucker performs at the Knitting Factory on Saturday, September 8.