E.G. Bailey: American Afrikan
By Peter S. Scholtes, City Pages
With all respect to Alexs Pate’s inspired arguments to the contrary, rap is not poetry, and poetry is not rap. Lyrics function differently when isolated from music, which is why “Surfin’ Bird” is a great lyric and not great poetry. Yet poetry-with-music is an honorable if maligned musical tradition that connects Dada, Langston Hughes (backed by Charles Mingus), the Beats, Amiri Baraka, Gil Scott-Heron’s timeless “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” punk rock (Minutemen more than Patti Smith), slam poetry, and inevitably hip hop, wherever beats and rhymes are disconnected in a spoken way. Nobody has more persuasively claimed this vein for an African American oral and protest tradition than E.G. Bailey and his collaborators on 89.9 KMOJ-FM’s Saturday-night staple Urban Griots.
So what’s surprising about Bailey’s debut album isn’t its aural cinema—linking what sounds like a slave ship hull to the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. to field recordings of rapper Idris Goodwin (talking about blackness) and Liberian folk songs—but how great it is as music. Bailey is a reminder that Public Enemy started as radio guys, too: The Liberian-born spoken-word performer makes blindsiding funk his space for meaning, and vice versa. Working with producer Ben Durrant and M.anifest beatsmith Katrah Quey, along with a host of other gifted Twin Cities musicians and singers, Bailey crafts one dope riff after another. He makes his crisply voiced musings (“Black voices save the African man”) and those of guest Ibé Kaba (“a slave is a slave is a slave”) seem at home in the James Brown-like shimmy of the title track—well before M.anifest takes over rapping on the bonus “M.ANIFESTations Mix” (though I actually prefer the full 11-minute poetry version).
In total, Bailey spreads out only seven poems among 16 tracks (plus four alternate mixes), amid sample collage, gospel, and found audio. The results are more like Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts reinvented to signify African-ness explicitly, personally, and profoundly than like poetry set to music. But don’t sell the words short. Addressing “Afrika” and America as urgently as any African American before him, Bailey is uncommonly tender: “America, your friends are worried,” he says of the wars he can’t defend. “Am I strong enough to love you with the love you deserve?” he asks an Africa he can only visit. This album is strong enough to give that sentiment the music it deserves.
Originally posted on City Pages on 31 March 2010.