From their early mixtapes to Joey’s latest release, this collective’s take on the world around them has been nuanced and aggressive, critical and aware. In essence, woke.
JOEY BADA$$ WAKES UP THE ORANGE PEEL
Review & Photos by Makeda Sandford
It’s a rare occasion when the hip-hop head of Western North Carolina shows their faces around these parts. They tend to stay in the comfort of their best friend’s basements in the largely white, largely hippy community of Asheville, NC, tucked in the valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s rare to see teens with Biggie shirts, sagging skinny jeans, and portable speakers in tow, vibing to classic beats and sharing them with the likes of the streets around these parts. But Joey B’s arrival created a delightful spectacle. The Orange Peel, a famous venue in downtown Asheville, had its usual atmosphere turned on its side in anticipation for the Word Domination Tour. The crowd loomed among green-tinted smoke while old school rap and Michael Jackson classics awaited the arrival of a young star.
The headliners warmed up the vivacious crowd, impressively weaving in unique styles that promised a world of underground rap to be ever-thriving. But once 20-year-old Brooklyn native, Jo-Vaughn Virginie Scott, who goes by the stage name Joey Bada$$ took to the stage, the young fans immediately clicked into Joey-mode, anticipating every lyric and reaching out to him as if to share energy and a collaborative bond.
He starts out the night with “Big Dusty,” an electric party-starter off his debut album B4.DA.$$., produced by his right-hand Pro Era squad member Kirk Knight. He continued to bring the energy for the first quarter of his set, singing “Always got the weed, so WTF you mean?” to mellow out the crowd before his first pause. Then Bada$$ called out his day one fans, gifting them with a throwback to his 17-year old 1999 days with “Waves,” a song infused with coastal vibes and cheers to the good life.
“Following up with a somber rendition of his hit “Hardknock,” Bada$$ had the whole crowd lifting their lighters up to the ceiling to pay homage to everyone in the room who had gone through the struggle. This remix of the old Annie classic sheds light on the socio-political strife of the hood lifestyle he experiences and represents in New York City. That anthem was followed by a deep and reminiscent track “Hazeus View,” one of the strongest indicators of Bada$$’s maturity. The crowd vibed hard and he used the line “When we get high we say fuck the police” to transfer the mood to mosh pit-level intensity with the song “No. 99.”
Joey Bada$$’s performance was a clear depiction of the young star’s use of old school meter to produce a sound that’s beyond our time. He catered to the ladies by inviting them on stage in a song “Teach Me,” beckoning them to teach him how to dance, then turned right around to give timeless advice to share love before it’s too late – “Life is too short not to tell them you love them.”
He dedicate a moment of silence and a collective throwing of peace signs up for crowd members who have lost loved ones, and his own loss of a good friend and Pro Era teammate, Capital Steez. The moment was heartfelt and even made the bartenders shut up in respect.
He closed out the night by having the peace signing crowd turn those hands around and put the index fingers down to say “fuck you” to police, and to censorship.
Bada$$’s performance was refreshing to the old school hip-hop head, hopeful for the pessimistic about the future of rap, and inspired to go out and make change, following the goal and vibe of his collective, Pro Era, according to their website “inspired by the “progressive era” time period in the 1900’s, the group based their focus on progressing and growing in everyday life through their music.”
JOEY BADA$$ AND PRO ERA: A LESSON IN CONSCIOUSNESS
Joey Bada$$ is ascending. The vision Progressive Era has referenced since the beginning is becoming a reality before our eyes. From their early mixtapes to Joey’s latest release, this collective’s take on the world around them has been nuanced and aggressive, critical and aware. In essence, woke.
Joey Bada$$ is often mentioned alongside artists like Nas, Tupac, and Kendrick Lamar as a part of the subgenre of “conscious rap”. But what does it mean to be conscious? The word itself is an enigma, a vague vocabulary word describing a part of human nature that’s rarely discussed outside of classrooms or yoga studios. Joey and the Pro Era crew seek to explicitly and powerfully explore this concept.
It’s clear to see the mindfulness of their approach at the forefront of their music. The nature of hip-hop inclines the artists to elevate themselves, and these MCs do so with a vision and a means that’s completely unique. Even in the context of drug use- “I don’t drink too much, I know the bud wiser”- their primary message is one of balance. They proclaim the need to align chakras, specifically the third eye. It is a message of self-awareness and the continual process of balancing emotional, spiritual, and physical energy; that is where they found their power and purpose.
On arguably the grimiest song on B4.da.$$, Christ Conscious, he proclaims that he won’t stop ascending until he reaches that level of universality and omnipotence, describes himself as holding the world in his pocket, and threatens to unleash the “hurtful fucking truth”. He draws the last syllable of “nigga” out into a resonating, guttural sound, somewhere between a yell and an “ohm”. The ethereal imagery of the video implies that it could be homage to the liberating experience of reclaiming a derogatory term, a reference to his meditation practices, or another blatant rejection of censorship.
Intended or coincidental, it’s a sonic example of Progressive Era’s brand of contemporary double consciousness. The grit that comes from being aware of life’s difficulties, acknowledging the complex systems at play, and the convergence of those to inspire everything from frustration to resilience to self-esteem deficits.
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self
through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in
amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness–an American, a Negro; two souls,
two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose
dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is
the history of this strife— this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his
double self into a better and truer self…
He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being
cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his
W.E.B DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
B4.da.$$ is intimate, especially when he samples his own radio commentary to tell of his Caribbean family or incorporates conversations and feedback from friends to introduce Big Dusty. Joey’s roots play an integral role in the formation of his perspective, and his music is inseparable from his background.
He references his international and stateside influences both explicitly and implicitly, but the ideology of Rastafarianism is a consistent element to his music. It’s evident from his collaboration with Collie Buddz on My Yout, to his mentions of Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey in Piece of Mind. Reggae is more obscure in American culture than hip-hop, and as a result, is less often divorced from its origins when it circulates in the mainstream. There are few standout artists in the genre, and those tend to be crossover artists, like Sean Paul and Shaggy. The essence of Rastafarianism – and reggae music to varying degrees – is to transcend the “isms and schisms” of the world, the institutions, divisions, and possessions that society has deemed more important than spirituality, relationships, and integrity.
When Jo-Vaughn’s St. Lucian mother’s voice comes on O.C.B and Curry Chicken (<3), imparting her wisdom to all of us about the difference between people’s perceptions of you and who you truly are, we are invited to share in another source of his resilience. It’s a conversation children of color have always had with their parents, and in these United States, where unarmed black people are killed by police at a disturbingly high rate, perceptions can be deadly, so those words of wisdom are a necessity although they may very well be useless. It’s a survival tactic.
I first came across Joey Bada$$ in a video with Capital Steez for their single “Survival Tactics”, shortly after 1999 was released. My eyes widened, my heart raced, and it still does to this day when I watch it.
The biting social commentary they throw through the screen is raw in emotion and brilliant in substance. They are clearly fed up with the status quo like so many of us are. They dare society to think on the connections they make lyrically and symbolically.
They take that energy and just spit. Verse after verse, line after line of real relevant and poignant shit. They lived the effects of societal shortcomings in the political system, the education system, and the economy. Steez, Joey, and Pro Era refused to be silenced, in addition to being marginalized. Joey points and shoots one of their toy guns at the camera at the close of the 2012 video; it’s meaningful, foreshadowing commentary on the perceptions that frame instances like the murder of 12-year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland over two years later.
Hip-hop has always been layered like that, with elements of sociopolitical commentary from a medley of cultural perspectives, with rhythmic complexity, and anecdotal musicality. The commentary, then, can be subtle or overt. In the video for “Like Me”, Joey addresses police violence directly and sincerely. Positioning himself simultaneously in common romantic and political narratives, he brings humanity and a dose of reality to this controversial phenomenon. He heightens the listener’s awareness in real time by telling a timeless story. At the same time, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has struggled to get their story across color lines.
Police violence is a systemically perpetuated violation of human rights, and it is one with proposed solutions – if we’re looking for them. Joey has walked with the #BlackLivesMatter movement in protest of Freddie Gray’s treatment and he’s still connected to his old high school, Edward R. Murrow in Brooklyn, NY. In interviews he’s had conversations about gentrification, related his favorite self-help book, and been open about the people he’s lost as much as his monetary gains. So he raps consciously, he is aware of and active in the politics of the world around him, his mentality is based on being conscious of self. So again, what does that mean?
You got to give to get and then you give back
In my experience, studying consciousness in a philosophy course entitled Mind and Nature, we explored levels of awareness, human capacity to take in information and perceive color (actually almost the same thing), and concepts of self (in many contexts including cloning). It was a humbling experience to be asked those cosmic, and strangely personal questions. These thought experiments yielded awkward silences for the class, but small insights grew into substantial conversations whenever we were able to move past that initial paralysis.
The reality is that race is as much of an enigma as consciousness, and the willingness to address both is the beauty of what Progressive Era inspires. Whether you buy into it or not, they openly accept their humanity by pursuing clarity within their own depths while basking in the cosmic unknown.
So we can all benefit from pursuing global and personal awareness like Joey Bada$$. Maybe the reason that perspective resonates with fans of Progressive Era, is what that approach represents. People are deeper and more dynamic than the systems we’re shuffled into. Institutions have a bad habit of perpetuating norms and if we limit ourselves to those definitions, we’ll never improve, grow, transcend.
Historically, movements have made things a bit better. The civil rights, LGBT, labor and women’s movements, are still in motion; the conversation is still going on. Social and political dynamics are complex and they’ll never be perfect. So keep in mind, you don’t have to have all the answers to consciously question the world around you.
I spend my days sharpening my skill wheels while its still legal
Reading through cathedrals applied to my cerebral,
They aint built they feeble, driven by the ego
The vision of a eagle, see the vision in my people
How many lives will they take today? We aint equal
Another world war sequel and doomsday prequel,
this aint the world we thought it was when we was in preschool.
Sometimes it’s hard to be cool, sometimes I feel like im see thru
Sometimes I really wish, yo I wish that I could be you
For more information on the campaign to end police violence in the US through local, state, and federal reforms, check out Campaign Zero.