Is there such a thing as black thought?

Trotter enrolled in college in Millersville, 75 miles from Philadelphia, but music called him back to town: he met fellow rapper, Malik B...


Trotter enrolled in college in Millersville, 75 miles from Philadelphia, but music called him back to town: he met fellow rapper, Malik B., who would join the Roots crew; a year later they were performing in Europe, freestyling to sax and trumpet solos. Back in Philadelphia, Trotter lived in an apartment with books and musicians as companions. “I didn’t have a phone, I didn’t have a TV,” he said. “I barely had any furniture at home at that time. There were only books, lots of books and CDs. Trotter became self-taught, Ghansah tells me. “He was the reader,” she said. “He takes everything. Everything is a reference, a possible quotation. And then it’s all wrapped up in his Philadelphia nigger uplift thing — he likes his blackness.

Around this time, Trotter discovered the music of Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti, whose example became another lasting influence on his style. “Finding Fela was like finding my spirit animal,” he told me. He was at Tower Records with his childhood friend, singer Santigold, who was buying a Fela record for his father’s birthday. Intrigued, Trotter listened as Santigold’s father played the music, which was a revelation. “I was blown away by the majesty of all the music, the political message, its freedom on stage,” he said. Fela’s work ethic – he tended to perform regularly and intensely – and big band sensibility gave Trotter a sense of what it meant to be a performer.

“It was like James Brown meeting Bob Marley with a Nigerian funk sensibility,” Trotter said. Trotter’s gift as a lyricist is his penchant for turning observation of the world around him into social commentary. When Trotter’s verse turns to the streets, it adds complexity to the tales of violence that some rappers tend to glorify. Predicting an argument legal scholar James Forman Jr. would make in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Lock up our own”, Trotter, in the song “Panic!!!!! from the Roots’ 1996 album (their second album), “Illadelph Halflife”, rhymes that if “policing levels increase”, there is “always crime in the streets”. The lyrics underscore Trotter’s realization that in black communities, the presence of the police does not guarantee protection. In another song from that album, “Section,” Trotter raps about his shared experience with those who rule the streets: “We’re okay, lying on the corner with the trauma unit.” As Trotter showcases his familiarity with street life and its prevalence in communities like his own, he does not lose sight of the violence that often accompanies that life. At a time when gangster rap was dominating the charts, Trotter could have weaved tales of doom and disaster on the streets. But, he told me: “I came to a family of gangsters and people who were on the street. Both my parents, that’s what they got into, they got involved. My extended family, my brother. And it never ends well. It’s always short-lived. I didn’t want the career version of that. Trotter and the Roots team insisted that black lives included more than stories of violence and street life.

In part, this vision of socially engaged and intellectually curious hip-hop was inspired by longtime Roots manager Richard Nichols. “That was Rich, man,” Trotter told me. “Rich would put us on a concept, like the concept of nuclear half-life, nuclear fallout,” an idea that inspired the title “Illadelph Halflife.” Nichols, who died in 2014 at age 55 of complications from leukemia, was a Philadelphia native and student of black culture whose thinking became central to Trotter’s intellectual development and band identity. “He would throw a book at you – Chinua Achebe, look at that. Check this Malcolm Gladwell,” Trotter recalled. Nichols was a student (literally) of Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, architects of the Black Arts Movement and literary heirs to the Harlem Renaissance. Nichols brought Trotter into this tradition. “Rich was the mastermind of this operation in more ways than one,” Trotter told me. “He was a visionary. He was an artist. He went beyond the role of management or producer. He was our oracle. He was Obi-Wan Kenobi.

In other words, Nichols envisioned the group as an example of hip-hop’s relationship to larger black culture. Thanks to Nichols, the Roots team knew Black Arts Movement poets like Baraka and Ntozake Shange personally. Sonia Sanchez, the Philadelphia poet who helped launch the Black Studies programs, was Trotter’s “Sister Sonia.” Often, his words foregrounded his relationship with this bloodline. “I’m as dark as the inner thoughts of John Henrik Clarke in the Harlem Renaissance era,” he once rapped, verifying the name of the pioneering black experience historian. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Trotter found his way to “Black No More.” Schuyler’s original novel is a Harlem Renaissance classic, even if it strays from the era’s complicated love affair with Blackness. Schuyler mocked his contemporaries as race-obsessed fools, but “Black No More” is a book no less caught up in the Renaissance’s relentless investigation into the substance of that thing we call “experience.” black”. And while Schuyler’s novel says black America craves to be white, Black Thought’s remix affirms that the black experience can be interrogated independent of whiteness.

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