Two weeks earlier, O.J. Simpson had walked away a free man from his murder trial. An invitation to join a million black men meeting in Washington, D.C. had been extended, but he declined. Many others came. The Million Man March, held on Monday October 16th 1995, was reported to be the second largest gathering in the city’s history with somewhere between 670,000 and a million in attendance. Inspired by the civil rights movement’s March on Washington thirty years earlier and by the Christian Promise Keepers, the rally on this mild autumn day was both a political protest and a ‘Day of Atonement and Reconciliation,’ a collective pledge to assume responsibility as black men.
Several developments had lead up to the manifestation. Socially, African Americans were still disproportionately subject to unemployment and low income jobs. The 1994 census located 10,2 (out of 33) million below the poverty level. Politically, black concerns fought against a conservative backlash. The 1994 Congressional elections had been won by the Republican Party, whose Contract with America foreshadowed the tightening grip during the first Clinton term, which saw the emergence of the three-strikes laws and the passing of the welfare reform bill. In 1996, the State of California would also pass Proposition 209, turning back the hands of time on affirmative action. Meanwhile, in the streets, the self-destruction of young black America continued.
It was a climate that called for unusual measures and favored radical voices. Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam seized the opportunity with the Million Man March. The March’s agenda was broad enough and the situation was urgent enough for many people to support it even if they were far from subscribing to the N.O.I. philosophy.
In his invitation, Farrakhan declared October 16th ‘A Holy Day of Atonement and Reconciliation’ for black people, arguing, ‘We have spent valuable time petitioning government and to a degree government heard us but now government is reversing the gains that our suffering and petition has brought about. We petitioned the wrong source. Our petition must now be to the Author of all creation. For, if we satisfy His requirements, then, He shall return to us the power bound up in His Spirit and Word and the dominion that comes from the proper use of His Wisdom, then, we would not need to beg any man for what Allah (God) has Divinely Ordered as the right of every human being. We will have the power to give these rights to ourselves.’
Although ripe with religious rhetoric, Farrakhans invitational note did spell out concrete political purposes of the Million Man March, such as achieving black unity and getting black people to register to vote. The Million Man March may have been conceived as a spiritual gathering, but it clearly had political implications: ‘We all should register our dissatisfaction with the way that we are being treated. We should not go to work or school; none of us should participate in any shopping, sport or play; none of us should drink any alcohol or use any drugs or do any unclean thing during this Holy Day.’
By emphasizing two key elements of American society – self-responsibility and spirituality -, the event was met with a lot of goodwill. Farrakhan, often too polemic to merit a platform in the national media, couldn’t be denied the attention and appeared on programs such as _Meet the Press_. What’s more, the event, organized with the Fruit of Islam’s security expertise, indicated that even black radicals like the N.O.I. acknowledged federal authority, unlike the white militia types that had executed the Oklahoma City bombing months earlier. The Million Man March was a peaceful demonstration of unity and power, and nothing like the revengeful scenarios of rap that followed the social unrest of ’92 (MC Ren’s “May Day on the Front Line,” Dr. Dre’s “The Day the Niggaz Took Over,” WC’s “Wet Dream”). It especially had little to do with the ominous warning Ice Cube gave in his ’93 song “Enemy” when he rapped, “1995, Elijah is alive / Louis Farrakhan, N.O.I. / Bloods and Crips and little old me / and we all gettin’ ready for the enemy.”
The impressive turnout also addressed the American public, but individually the attendants primarily called upon God and themselves. As Farrakhan wrote: ‘Many of our people ask the question, “Atone for what and to whom?” First, it is Allah (God) who is calling us to come out of the mentality of a slave into the vast world of freedom of thought and action on behalf of self, family, and nation. Our failure to accept the call of Allah (God) to be the responsible heads of our families and community is our principle failure. Therefore, we as a people must atone to Allah (God) for our failure to accept the call to freedom. We, as men, must atone for the abuse of our women and girls, and our failure to be the leaders of and builders of our community.’
At the time, a leading hip-hop publication pointed out that in previous years it would have been inconceivable to stage such an event without the participation of rappers, suggesting that rap had lost much of its political edge by 1995. But a number of rap music representatives must have attended the March, last but not least some of those who participated in the accompanying album. “One Million Strong” was a belated release, hitting stores months after the March, its unattractive artwork and obscure label further indicating that it wasn’t exactly conceived by professionals of political propaganda. However, the tracklisting featured some big names which suggested that rap still intended to be a political force to be reckoned with.
The most substantial contribution was the song “Where Ya At?” Inspired by all-star tracks such as “Self-Destruction” and “We’re All in the Same Gang,” “Where Ya At?” featured several prominent artists rapping for a common cause. Ice Cube couldn’t be there but made sure to provide the intro call from South Africa (where he was shooting _Dangerous Minds_). Producer Jimmy Thomas provided a beat that included elements of both West and East Coast hip-hop, centered around a sampling of Special Ed’s “This is a mission, not a small-time thing.” The speakers themselves represented a broad range of spiritual and political concerns.
Mobb Deep’s Prodigy warned of the tricknology of “Windows 95, updated high-tech lynchin’.” Public Enemy’s Chuck D urged rappers to “leave the Caponin’ alone / showin’ a brother the brother instead of negro.” Ice-T adressed the criminal minds with “Brothers gonna have to put themselves in check / three strikes you’re in the penzo, shank to your neck / your woman cries, your baby grows up alone / talkin’ through a three-inch glass on a two-way phone.” Smooth B from Nice & Smooth expected to see “a million strong doin’ duty,” adding, “It’s our holy day, come sober.” The RZA und Killah Priest imagined “travelin’ back to Nazareth / and raise up the black dead slaves like Lazarus.” Da Lench Mob’s Shorty explained, “I’m a G / but the God inside is that G I chose to be.” The only unknown voice, belonging to a certain DA Smart, was also the angriest: “Somebody sold me, you took me from Kunta to Toby, and mold me / in a way that you freed me but still hold me / What you tryin’ to pull, eatin’ us like cannibals / whatever happened to that 40 acres and that animal? / Now you tryin’ to use integration just to fool us / Like Malcolm said, we been hoodwinked and bamboozled!”
The final call came from the always eloquent KAM, who years before on George Clinton’s “Paint the White House Black” had already suggested to “mob up to the Capitol”:
“Damn, that’s how you know the world about to end:
Rain, hail, snow, earthquakes, and a million black men
up under God, indivisible
with liberty and justice for all, cause y’all done made us miserable
with this American nightmare
That’s why October 16th we gon’ be right there, like yeah
The same niggas that you want gone
well we about a million deep on your front lawn
It’s goin’ on from here to Abraham Lincoln statue
and every brother here thinkin’, yeah, we need to holler at you
about this over-due bidness
with the black Muslim, Christian, Jew and Jehova Witness
To get this out in the open the only way
is for us to declare a black holy day
The homies say that they rollin’
plus we got family, 40 miles up, patrollin'”
“Where Ya At?” was also featured in a less engaging extended version, which eliminated KAM, Ice-T, Shorty, and Smooth B while adding Brand Nubian’s Lord Jamar, Wu-Tang Clan affiliates Sunz of Man and Brooklyn Zoo, and others. Either way, the line-ups for “Where Ya At?” and the album itself made it clear that “One Million Strong” was not a CD indoctrinated by the Nation of Islam. In fact, the executive producers were forced to note that ‘Some of the lyrical content within this album does not reflect the views of the Hon. Louis Farrakhan and/or the Nation of Islam.’
Consequently, the acts dealt very differently with the matter at hand. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony donated “No Surrender” from their platinum-selling debut EP, an anti-police song that suggested that “it really ain’t shit to pull the trigger on a copper.” In a similar vein, “187um” by Dre and Snoop, an alternate version of their debut duet “Deep Cover,” made it clear that “it’s still 187 on a motherfuckin’ cop.”
In regards to black-on-black violence, an all-too popular topic in rap that is often addressed without ample reflection, some contributors remained caught up in the heat of the moment. On Crazy Tee & C-No Gee’s “Hocus, Pocus” “A.K.’s are bein’ pulled out and pointed all kind of ways,” and while they hoped you “make sure you choose the right road,” they lacked the artistic means to escape the glorification of “the mentality you got to have when you’re rollin’ in South Central / where most of the brothers you gon’ come across ain’t gentle.” Despite edited lyrics, Flint’s Top Authority came across much clearer on “Livin’ 2 Die,” concluding: “I guess the same world we was given got us livin’ to die.”
Several cuts on “One Million Strong” dealt with the economical reality. L.A.’s Tone Def Clicc penned a standard hustling anthem with “Meal Ticket,” where they argued, “Since Uncle Sam ain’t the man he supposed to be / we out here gettin’ rich while most niggas baggin’ groceries.” Willing to “do anything to make a mill and be a ghetto star,” they turned to crack, assuming responsibility in a way the N.O.I. would probably not approve of. The general sentiment was echoed by Step X Step on “Out to Git Minez,” although despite claiming “I’m makin’ the greens by any means,” they seemed to favor emceeing over anything else. “Get Up” by Sacramento’s Black Wine took the same line, telling police to “lock your own self up because you’re just as crooked as me.”
Meanwhile on the East Coast, KRS-One protÃ©gÃ©s Channel Live spread a survivalist message as well. “Is it a Dream” stressed the priority of the material world: “Caught up in materialistic you can’t shatter / cause your spirit’s trapped in a body, which is matter.” Interestingly, this insight lead to what could be interpreted as giving the Nation of Islam and other churches the cold shoulder: “What you perceive you believe, and that’s deceivin’ / that’s why they tell you have faith, pray and keep believin’ / believe in self, self-god and you can’t be stopped / got faith in rap and my religion is hip-hop.”
Spiritual imagery had a prominent place on “One Million Strong.” Sunz of Man decried the “Wicked Ways” of you-know-who with what just might be the only openly anti-American song here: “You’re hovered by the eagle, America is evil / Let no man deceive you, beat you, or mistreat you / The tribe of Edom stole your freedom / and Edom means redneck / I’m throwin’ bullets in my Tec…” Again religion was viewed critical when Killah Priest rhymed, “Religion is like a prison for the seekers of wisdom.”
It was up to Smooth B to present spirituality in a wholly positive light. “Mirror, Mirror” saw him discovering divinity within himself on a mythical journey into the past. Meanwhile, like Prodigy Kaotic Sypher got “closer to God in a tight situation.” “Tight Situation” was able to sum up many of the issues you would expect a rap song accompanying the Million Man March to address, last but not least the feeling of being forsaken: “Don’t know what to do / I keep pagin’ old G-o-d, seems like I can’t get through / (…) / We like: Yoo-hoo Uncle Sam / where the hell’s the mule and the 40 acres of land / that you promised to my ancestors when we was emancipated / claimed to have set us free but we were still segregated.”
More mature commentary came courtesy of Tha Alkaholiks and guests. An essential Liks joint, “No Hand Outs” referenced James Brown’s “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open up the Door I’ll Get it Myself).” Phil da Agony said he didn’t “need a county check for government assistance,” as he was “buildin’ knowledge with college.” Xzibit offered pessimistically, “Either way we been set up to fail / throw that nigga in jail if he ain’t tryin’ to see Yale.” Snagglepuss warned, “When the rioting starts, it’s too late.” J-Ro quipped sarcastically, “‘Dance boy, sing boy, run boy, rap’ / We’d all be rich if it was, ‘Boy bust a cap’.” While Tash trusted in the power of his words: “I’m ’bout to have it cause I know I deserve / cause I could get you with the bullets, but I stick you with words.”
Finally, the N.O.I. received its due representation through the group X-Niggaz from Indianapolis, who dropped a purposeful PSA with “Wake Up”:
“The black man in America is blind
don’t know who he is and he don’t know the time
He’s in the dope game with the ‘caine and the crack
Got a gat, 20 sack, Benz and a Cadillac like a mack
…but steady bein’ pimped like a trick by the devil
and doin’ it cause he think he can escape from the ghetto
But if he only knew that he was a pawn in the game
bein’ used to kill his people puttin’ that evil in they veins
He’s makin’ him some money but it ain’t funny, is it?
I wonder if he knows he’s slingin’ that cocaine for the Grand Wizard
Droppin’ Islam like bombs
from Elijah Muhammad and Farrakhan
The enemies wanna flex but can’t win
They scared of the skin of a million black men
in black suits and bow ties
boots got a spit-shine, on the frontline and organized
Next to us a million black women
Soldiers, the battle ain’t over, it’s just beginnin'”
Sadly, “One Million Strong” itself contains the most compelling argument why the Million Man March was necessary and indeed only a beginning. There’s a track featuring seven rappers, four of which had met a violent demise by 1997. “Runnin’,” a “Me Against the World”-era song produced by Easy Mo Bee features the late 2Pac, the late Notorious BIG, the late Big Stretch and the late Yaki Kadafi…
Like the Million Man March itself, “One Million Strong” had to be taken with a grain of salt. Next to the excellent “Where Ya At?” few tracks were little more than solid, indeed many were musically generic derivatives of West Coast rap, with producers E-Swift (“No Hand Outs”), Dr. Dre (“187um”), DJ Uneek (“No Surrender”), and 4th Disciple (“Wicked Ways”) providing notable exceptions. Chuck D supporting Wreck League member Melquan in the closing “Destroy All Masters” was as bad a finish as possible. Several tracks were inexplicably censored, while others were – to use these insufficient terms – more gangsta than conscious. Four years later some Euro label was even able to strip the compilation completely of its context and release it under the title “Gangsta Rap”…
“One Million Strong” deserves better than that, even if it’s an occasionally helpless attempt to win the rap generation over for the Million Man March. Because with its contributions not just from New York and Los Angeles but also from Cleveland, Indianapolis and Sacramento, and with its plurality of opinions, it represented the non-partisan aspect of an event where strangers held hands and asked each other for forgiveness. As Shorty said in “Where Ya At?” – “The world is a stage and everybody plays a part / I’m not considered the one with a sensitive heart.” On October 16th about a million black men proved the world different.