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By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com


Friday, April 4, 2008.

Jean Grae is an artist who is underground personified. In other words, legendary but generally unknown. Imagine MC Lyte’s loud-mouth bad-ass baby sister. Well, that’s Tsidi Ibrahim, alias Jean Grae.
Jean is the daughter of two South African musicians: the pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin. A child prodigy who earned a spot in the Alvin Ailey dance company and entered university at 16.


Jean instead settled on hip-hop as a career. Her work has a wicked kick to it. The Jean Grae selections in the jukebox cover most of her solo work over the last decade.

My favorites are The Orchestral Files  and The Attack of the Attacking Things. Other releases commercially available are The Bootleg of the Bootleg EP, This Week and Jeanius

When it comes to rap, I’m not equipped to do much more than just talk about what I like and what I don’t like. The limitation is not because of my taste but rather my ignorance about the field in general. I don’t know if what Jean is doing is a copy of some deep artist who preceded her, or if her stuff is some for real, uniquely-Jean shit.


But I do know I really like how she talks about her own difficulties and contradictions when most rappers will be relying mainly on braggadocio, hyperbole and personal exaggeration. 


For example, “The Rain” is both the hardest and the most sensitive song about abortion most of us have ever heard. The hard part is the honest portrayal of ambivalence, the clear-eyed examination of the difficult position of choosing abortions. This is when a woman can no longer fall back on pure innocence when caught between rocking for fun and the hard reality of not being quite ready for parenthood.


Who do you blame when your black ass does something stupid?


Jean’s genius is that she does not take the easy way out and in walking the walk, her talk helps us all confront our own failures in the face of difficult life choices.

Three strengths: 
Jean is a battle master. You don’t want to go one-on-one with her. Her battle raps are decapitating. There’s menace in almost every syllable; if you’re male who blinked because it’s a woman in front of you, you'll lose. In one millisecond she’ll slice you. “Trouble Man” is street creed: have mouth, will spit.

As a word wizard, Jean is at her most withering when she confronts herself. “Come On” is a calling card, “Gotta Have It” a resume, “It’s Her” one of those college admission autobiographies, and “PS” a brief chapter from her proposed memoirs.
Secondly, she could rival Nas in her ability to build a coherent narrative. Whether a multi-verse novel-like epic (“The Story”) or interlocking short stories (“Love Song”) Jean has an ability to unsentimentally, albeit sensitively, sketch and detail the true realities of life challenges.

Although she proclaims she wishes it were otherwise, Jean Grae is too intelligent not to know that much of her music conflicts with being popular when “popular” is defined as escapist music that focuses solely on “feeling good,” - that is, dancing, getting down, occasionally reminiscing but saying nothing to make one think or change one’s behavior.

Jean can rock a party but even then, there’s something else going on. In other words, even when she’s bouncing for the duckets, there’s still some integrity there. But hey, it’s hard to be a total sell out when you profess upfront you’re just doing a particular song to make money—a successful sell-out can never acknowledge themselves as a sell-out. Part of being a true hit parade number one is pretending (or I should say, actually "believing") that bullshit is something serious.

How can anyone listen to “Don’t Rush Me” and not think about making choices? Nothing breaks a high like the cold water of honest introspection. "Don’t Rush Me" is listed as a bonus track on
This Week.

“Live For You” is archetypal Jean Grae self-exploration. As good as it is, I don’t think this is quite what one wants to party to. Moreover even when she goes for dead-pan comedy, the shit is hard to handle.


Check “Getting Fuck’d Up,” a hilarious albeit deadly portraiture of Negro alcoholics that is built on a Christmas song. Tell me you didn’t laugh. And when it was over and you had a chance to think about it, tell me you didn’t wince. I bet you did.
Finally, in addition to being a beast with words, there is a deep consciousnes that permeates Jean Grae’s work. Even when she masks it in wicked wit, Jean’s seriousness is a distinguishing characteristic, and indeed, the unmistakable and uncamouflageable seriousness may be one reason her work is not more popular. Also, it would really, really help for her to pair with a producer whose music is as strong as her lyrics.


My introduction to Jean Grae was her Attack of the Attacking Things album and the seminal track “Block Party.” I was knocked out by her cursing to describe some kids whose cursing she had to deal with. Not one bit of self-righteousness mars Jean’s proclamations.

And then there’s the hard news of “Keep Livin”, describing where she’s at by recalling where she’s been, and envisioning where she wants to go. Built on a recreation of a piano figure I know from “Be Real Black For Me” (a Donny Hathaway/Roberta Flack song).


“Keep Livin” could be the theme song of any serious artist trying to make meaningful music and simultaneously carve out a successful commercial career — although not impossible, it's definitely not easy.


"I’m learning niggas but I’m slow at it
Always gave my motherfuckers the benefit of the doubt
But it seems that everybody’s just out for self
I used to love her, now I gotta make her work
    for my wealth—I gotta eat y’all"


Much respect and big ups to Jean Grae as she (hopefully)successfully struggles with the art and commerce of contradiction.


For more information, check out http://www.jean-grae.com/


Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop.


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