Isaiah Rashad performs onstage during the Smokers Club Festival at The Queen Mary on April 29, 2018

Isaiah Rashad, J. Dilla and the Burning House

“I have come to believe that we’re integrating into a burning house.”

This time last summer, black people were collectively mourning the loss of another victim of police violence. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor—and later, Nina Pop—sparked the heat of a summer that seemed to drag on as name after name of those slain were listed on our Twitter feeds, never seeming to end.

Around this time seven years ago, in 2014, we were collectively mourning the loss of Michael Brown, a black teenager gunned down by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. It was a summer of unrest, much of which was captured on camera while more than a few of the organizers from Ferguson have disappeared under suspicious circumstances.

About this same time fifty-six years ago, in 1965, we were collectively reeling from another encounter with police. This time it was Marquette Frye, who was stopped for allegedly drunk driving but was roughed up by police with additional reports that a pregnant woman was hit in the stomach. In the same city as the beating of Rodney King flames scorched the earth as rebellion ensued fueled by righteous anger.

While mainstream or commercial hip-hop seems to not be concerned with remembering, which is not a slight against this multi-dimensional genre,Isaiah Rashad is forcing us to recollect. At least that seems to be his aim if the singles and music videos he’s dropped in anticipation of his newest album, The House is Burning, are any indication. “Headshots (4r da locals),” in particular, is a somber and melancholic track with a growling bass and thumping drums with a woman’s wailing intermittently woven. Fittingly, Rashad opens his first verse by asking, “Who want a shot, wanna die?”

Frankly, I’m not sure whether I should dance or cry. Perhaps both.

Rashad bleeds onto the track, clearly mourning the loss of those close to him, both personally and politically.

“And the shots ain’t bringin’ my soldier back/From the noose to the drop and wop, no diggity.” The woman’s voice seems to be his cry that never ends because the killing hasn’t stopped. It enters, haunts our ears and leaves. Just when we’ve adjusted to its absence and become acquainted with the beat’s movement, it re-appears, leaving us unsettled again. In the music video to the same song, Rashad defeatedly stumbles into a pitch-black bottomless crater as the voice rings again. It seems to be calling him, not allowing him to distance himself from it and what causes its painful sound.

Circles are a recurring image and motif in the music video as multiple shots are made to images of a donut, Rashad circled by cars with their headlights focused on him, a clock, and then another donut with topped with circular fruit loops. Legendary producer, J Dilla also explores time and memory in his classic album, conveniently-titled Donuts. In what seems like an odd move, Dilla begins the album with an outro that’s also named “Donuts” and ends a track titled “Welcome To The Show.” This album is a loop comprised of loops. Should the listener start with the last song in a move that’s considered disrespectful when listening to a project in its entirety?

Dilla, however, is not concerned with linear time. He’d rather think of time as a circle, the same shape as the vinyls he chops for his samples. With tracks titled “People” and “Anti-American Graffiti,” Dilla is clearly commenting on the state of black life. Black people seemed to be trapped in something of a vinyl. We circle the same locus—the anti-black racism at the core of this country—with the needle dropping at any particular point in time. The years change, but the music stays the same. The same cries of black mothers, the same terror, the same rage that never seems to settle even as we try to suppress it. Try to imagine a rectangular vinyl. Maybe we could cut the record and somehow force its shape into clean lines with ninety-degree angles, but it would no longer be a record. It’s impractical and impossible.

Trying to imagine black time as linear is equally misguided. In her beautiful and militantly written In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe proposes we think of these moments of violence as “singularities” rather than “singular.” They are events “likely to occur around a particular time, date, or set of circumstances.” Within an anti-black society, the conditions are always ripe for violence.

J Dilla and Isaiah Rashad both remind us of the nauseating repetition of black life. They remind us of the fact that “seasons change, mad things rearrange, but it all stays the same,” as Lauryn Hill succinctly expresses on “How Many Mics” by the Fugees. And importantly, they remind us that we can’t forget. This is a “can’t” in the sense that we physically can’t (“Weed couldn’t settle my fire/Couldn’t cover my pain, pain, pain, pain, pain") but also that we shouldn’t.

Sharpe writes of having a “blackened consciousness.” This is a way of seeing the world that refuses to forget the defeats so that we know what victory may be. Similarly, we’ll know when to not celebrate prematurely. Dilla (who finished Donuts while battling and ultimately succumbing to lupus),Rashad (who has struggled with his mental health and addiction), and Sharpe (who writes of the many deaths of those closest to her) want us to remember our mortality as we often try to escape it. What are the forces that rob us of life every few years—if not every second—and how do we combat it? How do we protect and care for black life: our friends, family, classmates, co-workers, neighbors, or even strangers?

Rashad seems to be in a better place, managing his addiction and coming to terms with the death around him. Perhaps he has a blackened consciousness. He’s “changed, changed, changed, changed, changed.” The question now is, will we, the People, follow suit?




* HEADER CREDIT: Rapper Isaiah Rashad performs onstage during the Smokers Club Festival at The Queen Mary on April 29, 2018 in Long Beach, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

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