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“An Idea of Change”: Marco Pavé and the Politicization of Memphis Hip-Hop

By Zandria - Art is always already personal and political. Memphis native Marco Pavé’s recently released mixtape,Obscure Reality, and his community work in and beyond his neighborhood, exemplify this dual function of art, as well as the possibilities of art to reflect and instigate social change. The 21-year-old rapper operates squarely in the tradition of Memphis hip-hop artists before him, who have frequently used their work to tell untold stories, reckon with the ghosts of King and civil rights, and highlight the city’s current social position. Yet, as part of the center of a bourge oning movement of young creatives and intellectuals speaking back to the city’s unequal power relationships, Pavé marshals his art for direct action and transformation of his neighborhood and city. 

Substantively, Marco Pavé is Project Pat meets KRS-One, spitting an urban country consciousness with a confidence that could only emerge from coming of age as a Muslim millennial in North Memphis. Smatterings of the usual misogynoir that characterizes most rap music (and our society more broadly) are certainly present. But so also are gems of urban blues wisdom like, “people talk down ’til you in the coffin/when you in the coffin they say you the greatest thing walking,” and “erbody really wanna walk (wanna walk) wanna walk/but they ain’t crawl for it.” There are also reflections on being an artist, battling for one’s dreams, his relationship with his infant son and his son’s mother, and conversations with his mother. The signature Memphis rap musical sound—crunk chants and staccato rhythm—to which we have popularly become accustomed is absent here, but like many independent hip-hop artists on the Memphis scene, that is precisely the point. Still, soul samples abound, even on familiar tracks the work appropriates from artists like Rick Ross and Drake. Standouts on Obscure Reality include “Cool,” which features a sample of Erykah Badu’s “No Love” (itself an interpolation of Leroy Hutson’s “Lucky Fellow”); “The City,” a disquisition on Pavé’s autobiography and epistemology featuring a sample of Diane Lane’s “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young” where the singer laments, “I don’t see any angels in the city”; and a skillful hijacking of Rick Ross’s “The Devil is a Lie,” which is backed by a horn sample from Gene Williams “Don’t Let Our Love Fade Away” and driven by Pavé’s vocal urgency. Beyond these pieces, the entirety of the work offers what Pavé describes as, “…an idea of change; an idea that you can come from the most negative situation and still come out on the positive side.”

This “idea of change” permeates the rest of Pavé’s work in ways that are especially promising for Memphis. As the creator of Books on Beale, an annual benefit concert that promotes literacy in a city where black folks are especially plagued by lack of literacy, the rapper pooled networks and resources to donate 500 books toStorybooth, an initiative of Crosstown Arts. He’s been selected as one of six artists to represent Memphis at Blur, a conference that aims to inspire and cultivate creativity amongst young tech professionals. Pavé also created “Memphis Through My Eyes,” a documentary series that he hopes to expand to include other young Memphians’ autobiographical viewpoints on the city. He can also frequently be found in conversations about gentrification and neighborhood change, particularly vis-à-vis there development of Sears Crosstown a few blocks from his childhood home. In short, for Pavé, the music is a part of the movement, and the movement is aimed at shifting the narrative about black folks in the city and effecting positive, qualitative change in the lives of the most marginalized Memphians. He embodies the art-as-politics mantra, and his career ambitions work in tandem with his focus on community improvement.

Catch Marco Pavé in action this Saturday, July 12th at #TheSendOffatForge, a new arts and tech co-work space in the Broad Avenue Arts District. The show is part of the artists’ GoFundMe campaign to support his trip to Los Angeles, where he’ll spend a month recording an EP with seven-time Grammy nominee Haskel Jackson. True to Pavé’s electric and collaborative form, the show is more than a set of performances. Rather, it is a showcase of this new movement of young black creatives, a nod to local arts and tech start-ups, and an assertion of living and breathing hip-hop and soul artists as central to the political and cultural economy–and ergo the future–of Memphis. It will feature a panel discussion of Memphis creatives, live graphic art creation, 3D printing, and performances by Zane Rigo, Tyke T, Taytaythepro,Fridae Blaque, Juju Bushman, and others, with Pavé as headliner with DJ Wyzlyfe. (VIP attendees get to partake in some catered Memphis flavor from up-and-coming culinary talent.)

Our music–by which in this case I mean black music and Memphis music–has always been political, giving voice to the margins and speaking back to power in ways that do not apologize for our humanity. It is clear that on the independent hip-hop scene in Memphis, our music continues to do this work, despite arguments about the depoliticization of hip-hop more broadly. Putting the art, the dreams, and the people first, Marco Pavé is helping to shape how we might rethink the relationship between cultural work and political action in Memphis.

Upcoming Events:

July 12, 2014

7 PM – 11 PM

Forge Memphis, 2493 Broad Avenue

Tickets: $10 in advance and at the door; $50 for VIP access

Find the Artist:

*This post begins a series of artist profiles of local Memphis hip-hop artists as part of a retrospective on when I first began research on the underground Memphis hip-hop scene in 2004. Stay tuned for profiles of Jason Da Hater, Avenging Wind, and others.

This content was originally publishedhere.

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