When a group of hip-hop artists from Tulsa, Oklahoma, began work on the collaborative project Fire in Little Africa last year, they had a dual purpose: The album is meant both to etch their hometown’s history into an artistic monument, honoring the 100th anniversary of one of America’s worst acts of racist violence, and to promote a thriving local arts scene that is happening right now in the present day. “The whole point of making this album is because we need representation from people from here, people who live here, eat here, spend here,” Tulsa rapper Steph Simon told Rolling Stone‘s Jonathan Bernstein last summer.
Steph Simon gets the first verse on “Shining,” a new single that embodies the double power of Fire in Little Africa (out May 28th). He flows with cool confidence over producer Dr. View’s jazzy instrumental, promising to “paint pictures over rhythms, make your soul shiver” and then doing just that with a series of vivid similes: “Like a fresh pair of penny loafers with the polish on it, tell ’em keep on shining/Like a diamond on your pinky when you’re sipping pinot grigi’, tell ’em keep on shining.” It’s a charismatic performance, full of easy charm and unhurried wit.
There’s a feeling of warm nostalgia to the horns, bass, and vibraphones on the track, and it’s reflected in the sumptuously shot video, which takes place in a jazz club full of well-dressed performers and patrons enjoying a night out. For history-minded viewers, the Roaring Twenties setting might also bring to mind the cruelty and bloodshed that Tulsa’s white community brought down on its black neighbors for the crime of building a prosperous life in 1921. By recreating that era in a different light, the song and the video suggest an alternate vision of both past and future.
Jerica Wortham, who closes out “Shining” with a fantastic verse after strong appearances from Dialtone and Ayilla, begins with a direct reference to Greenwood Avenue, the center of black life in Tulsa before the massacre. “We’re what it looks like when we got our own backs,” she continues emphatically. “We’re what it looks like when we build it back black/We’re what it looks like in a hundred years’ time/Got the audacity to walk up out these ashes and shine.” It’s a simple but bold declaration. In a country so hatefully opposed to the existence of some of its citizens, shining can be a revolutionary act.
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