“Just because you don’t understand, doesn’t make it any less real”.
America’s history of racism is well documented and more transparent than it’s ever been, with Donald Trump in office, you wonder how much damage his appointment has done to a country that is still feeling the effects of slavery. As a white Brit, I knew I wouldn’t connect personally with the lyrics on this album as it’s clear it is aimed at young, black Americans that are going through serious issues such as police brutality, racial profiling and systemic racism designed to put the black man (or woman) at a disadvantage to their white equivalents. I can only imagine growing up as a minority in a majority white country such as England, and writing about hip hop (as a guest of the culture, in the words of Lord Jamar) inevitably shines the light on artists around the world going through endless different struggles.
My point is, “SOL of Black Folk” is a record I’ve listened to near enough every day since its release in February (2019). It blew me away and I had to write about it since no hip hop publications are sharing their music, which when you think about what hip hop culture stands for, or used to, doesn’t quite sit right. Sure, YG had his “F*** Donald Trump” song and various artists have either commented or spoken about the racial climate in Trump’s America, but SOL Development live and breathe their teachings. What separates their music from the traditional pro-black sentiment of emcees such as Talib Kweli, is the accessibility and soul running through each and every song. It feels black, but there’s an air of class and maturity beyond their years. A musicality that connects further than your standard beats and bars.
SOL Development is one emcee (Karega Bailey) and three vocalists (Lauren Adams, Felicia Gangloff-Bailey, Brittany Tanner) based in Oakland in the United States. Karega certainly possesses a booming presence not too dissimilar to Chuck D but it’s beautifully balanced by Lauren, Felicia, and Brittany who all have their time to shine. If you’ve ever listened to San Diego’s Deep Rooted, SOL Development evoke the sound of Mr. Brady, Johaz and Brea Joseph but flip the format so you’re getting more of Brea (who was the best member, let’s be honest).
After meeting in Virginia, Karega Bailey went on to teach in Washington D.C. for a few years and his thirst for education is evident.
The high-point is the chest-pounding “Helicopter”. Pursued by police and murdered in cold blood, the criminalization of the black man in America is explained in blunt detail:
“I’m tired of duckin’ from them helicopters
I know they plottin’ tryna bomb us while the world watchin’
We more than Ferguson, them devils ain’t got s*** to prove
1985, Philly drop a bomb and MOVE
If you runnin’ then they gunnin’ better know the rules
Same whip, same noose, same strange fruit
Same Klan same bag, same aim too
They feel you then they frame you
They kill you then they blame you”
The essence of the song reminds us that as important as movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo are, they are temporary means of raising awareness that many (particularly white folk) will move on from when social media algorithms refresh and there’s something else to latch on to. This isn’t a fad, it’s people’s lives. Families and communities have to handle these murders yet social media is broadcasting some of these incidents and they are being treated as just that – entertainment. The impact of gun violence is felt on “Brother” as the group shares the pain of Karega’s sibling having his life snatched away in 2014.
As Karega states on “No Indictment”, one can be militant without being violent. The awareness of the prison system mechanics, as explained in the excellent 2016 documentary 13th, is valuable information for black children who may be none the wiser given the filtered curriculum that’s being taught. The fact that apartheid was only decades ago and the likes of Albert Woodfox spent 43 years in solitary confinement for a murder conviction with no evidence confirms how far we still have to go.
Karega may not be the most accomplished emcee yet his rhymes are potent and in the context of the group, incredibly effective. SOL Development may be tackling long-standing sociological issues with a direct, impassioned approach to the topics, but with Lauren, Felicia and Brittany stepping in before things get too heavy (or just humming in the background), the group’s chemistry elevates “The SOL of Black” to a higher level. Considering it is their first record, count me hugely impressed.