In 2007, if you had asked me whether or not I thought the United States of America would elect a black man as president, I would have quoted Tupac Shakur:
“Although it seems heaven sent, we ain’t ready, to have a black president.”
After all, this is a country that used to consider those of African descent to be 3/5th’s of a person.
This is a country that has actively tried to keep black people in shackles, whether they be physical, spiritual, psychological, cultural, geographical or economical.
But the following year, a charming mixed kid from Hawaii caught a wave and history would end up quoting Nas:
“America, surprise us, and let a black man guide us.”
That song, “Black President,” — which samples the Tupac line from 1992 — is off Nas’ 2008 album Nigger.
The legendary Queens emcee was promoting this record during the 10-city Rock the Bells international hip-hop festival, which landed at an amphitheater outside our nation’s capital nine years ago.
That festival — Rock the Bells 2008 — was headlined by A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ), another iconic hip-hop act from Queens, New York.
In 2015, if you had asked me whether I thought the United States of America would elect Donald Trump as president, I would have laughed at you.
After all, the whole rich kid, real estate tycoon, reality TV star, “birther,” “grab them by the pussy” act was preposterous.
But the following year the country swung back, expressing a taste for gleeful ignorance and a distaste for “the other.”
In the shadow of Trump’s rise to power, A Tribe Called Quest reunited to create their first record in 18 years.
Released five days after the election, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service was the first great work of art in the Trump era. It encapsulated and challenged the regressive, reactive attitudes of our time.
On July 15, ATCQ headlined the second night of the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago’s Union Park.
I attended both of these concerts, one buoyed by hope, the other overshadowed by loss.
For a kid who grew up in the inner city, loving hip-hop, aligning with progressive politics, it cannot be understated how exciting the prospect of electing a black man to president was in the summer of 2008.
We had just spent eight years with a president who started illegal, vindictive wars in the Middle East, let black bodies float in New Orleans and threw the global economy into a tailspin.
But in the summer of 2008, the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas was on the verge of rewriting American history.
Needless to say, the hip-hop world was beside itself.
Hip-hop was born out of the New York City ghettos — terrible living conditions meet immigrant know-how meet new world grooves. Throughout its half-century history, hip-hop has given a voice to the voiceless, affectionately referred to as “the black CNN.”
Rock the Bells 2008 was stacked with talent. From The Pharcyde to Jay Electronica to MF Doom to Rakim, the lineup was ridiculously good. Despite the resonance of Nas’ “Black President” performance, ATCQ was the highlight.
Considering the group officially broke up in the late 1990s, seeing ATCQ with my own eyes seemed almost as unlikely as electing a black president in 2008.
But there I was in Columbia, Maryland, among thousands of hip-hop fans, in awe of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi White, and Ali Shaheed Muhammed, with a little help from Mos Def.
Four months later — November 4, 2008 — I was in downtown Chicago wearing a T-shirt with classic ATCQ lyrics “CAN I KICK IT?” emblazoned across Obama’s face. “YES WE CAN!” was on the back of the shirt. A few hundred feet away, Obama accepted his election as president.
There was no shortage of tears, hugs, and dance moves busted on Michigan Avenue that night.
It is absolutely unfair to compare a nine-year-old ATCQ performance to one from a month ago.
At Rock the Bells 2008, the “Five Foot Assassin” (Phife Dawg) was slaying rhymes in the flesh. At Pitchfork 2017, Phife Dawg was a voice coming through the speakers.
Phife Dawg died from diabetes on March 22, 2016.
ATCQ’s sixth and final album brought childhood friends Jon Davis (Q-Tip) and Malik Taylor (Phife Dawg) together after years of contention.
Phife and Tip’s tumultuous relationship was captured in the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, which I saw in Manhattan the summer it was released.
Michael Rapport’s film offered a bittersweet experience. It features footage from Rock the Bells 2008, so it was cool to relive that experience. But it was painful watching Phife and Tip beef on-screen.
There are no such bad vibes on We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service, except those directed at President Trump. Maybe “The Donald” brought them together. Irascible leaders tend to unite brilliant misfits.
“This is our first show without Phife, we’re trying to get through it,” Q-Tip told the Chicago crowd. “Help us out. Don’t fake the funk.”
I couldn’t. Despite Donnie’s accusations, there’s no fake in this news. Kudos to Pitchfork on their Media Tent wifi password: “realnews2017.”
Outside of this subtle dig, the Pitchfork festival was full of overt anti-Trump messages, including the music of ATCQ.
But politics would not dominate ATCQ’s Pitchfork performance. Q-Tip did not deliver an impassioned speech against the president. However, he did walk back to touch Phife Dawg’s image on the screen behind them. Moments later he whipped his hat across the stage and belted out “Phiiiiiiiiife Dawg!”
The last song ATCQ performed before their encore — “Check the Rhime” — includes the following line:
“So play the resurrector and give the dead some life.”
This was written in the early 1990s, yet was never as relevant as in 2017. Phife’s spirit hung over the proceedings at Union Park.
For so long, I had thought of Q-Tip as ATCQ’s leading man, but that night I realized how essential Phife Dawg was to the equation.
If Rock the Bells 2008 was a celebration of the hope of Obama’s election, Tribe’s 2017 Pitchfork performance represents loss. Not just to Phife Dawg, but to sanity, decency and respect in the age of Trump.
LUCK OF LUCIEN
Q-Tip mentioned that hip-hop saved his life at the 2008 ATCQ performance outside of Washington, D.C.
“Growing up in the hood, I used this to help me get out of my mind, it took me on an excursion,” he said, teasing the next song.
We often wonder whether music can change the world.
Maybe. Who can really say?
But I do know that music can change a life and that is why it remains a vital cultural force.
It has been a privilege to write about music for the Wisconsin Gazette.