EXCLUSIVE: Imaginative Author R. Kayeen Thomas Reflects on How our Enslaved Past Shapes our Hip-Hop Present
Hip-Hop purists and die-hards often question the substance of today’s rap music. While "snap and trap" music dominates the airwaves, many fans of the music and the culture lament the “dumbing down” of the music where substance is relegated to the Internet. The question of “What Happened to REAL Hip-Hop?” has troubled author R. Kayeen Thomas for years and fueled the plot of his debut novel, Antebellum.
A teacher, activist, and author, Thomas penned a masterpiece with Antebellum. The fictional story of a famous rapper known by the inflammatory stage name, “Da Ni**a,” the book takes the protagonist on a journey of self-discovery when he is transported back to slavery times after being shot by a rival crew. While enslaved, “Da Ni**a,” who remembers his previous life, experiences first-hand the trials and tribulations of his forefathers and foremothers who were enslaved while yet yearning for freedom.
The book, which debuted earlier this year, takes readers on a hard-hitting and gritty ride through the entertainment industry and through the dark days of slavery as the main character is “broken,” and he deals with the decisions he made as an artist. Antebellum is an amazing and well-crafted story that will have people thinking about way after they turn the final pages.
AllHipHop.com spoke to R. Kayeen Thomas about Antebellum, Hip-Hop, and how our beloved culture is shaping future generations while carrying the legacy of those generations long past.
AllHipHop.com: So, how did you come up with the idea [for Antebellum]?
R. Kayeen Thomas: It was an idea that was really put into my head for about a year before I put pen to pad, of an idea going back to slavery times and what would that look like, and how would it change him. It was kind of representative of myself being a part of the Hip-Hop generation and Hip-Hop culture. But also having a really deep love for African-American culture, I came to a point where I was conflicted with my love of Hip-Hop and the music which had become, quite frankly, dangerous for the culture and the community. The negative images, the negative messages, the misogyny, the sexism, the drugs, the violence just being pounded over and over again. This book was my attempt to stay in both worlds, and to bridge the gap between the hip-hop generation and the previous generation.
AllHipHop.com: I find that interesting, because as we get older and the culture get older, our ears and tastes change. There becomes this inter-generational generation gap. I can imagine some of the backlash is going to be that there is this “conscious” brother who is attacking "snap and trap" music. How do you reconcile that sort of internal conflict that Hip-Hop has with itself?
R. Kayeen Thomas: Right now, there are like three different generations in Hip-Hop. I feel like I’m right in the middle. A lot of the new stuff, I just can’t get with it. As far as my own taste, I’m still with 2Pac, early Eminem stuff, early DMX, even that music wasn’t uplifting. I just do recognize that there was a substance with the Hip-Hop that I grew up with than what there is today. There was still more of a thought of quality. Even with music that has negativity, if it’s not artistic or purposeful, why is it even on the radio?
AllHipHop.com: But, who makes those decisions?
R. Kayeen Thomas: At this point, it’s very clear that whatever is introduced to the public as the new cool is going to become cool. This industry has more power than people even find comfortable to recognize. There is definitely some sentiment at the top coming down. There is only so much socially conscious music that you are going to hear, like a quota. We got Kendrick Lamar, as far as the new Hip-Hop people; he is by far, my favorite. With Kendrick, there is a balance. But, he is rare. The machine puts out a lot of people who don’t have substance; you get one of them for every ten others.
AllHipHop.com: The main character’s performance name is “Da N*gga." Why did you choose such a controversial name?
R. Kayeen Thomas: I really wanted to play on that name and how it is so over used in Hip-Hop. Ninety-nine percent of the time, if you listen to an unedited song, you are going to hear the word n*gga. But what about people who are outside of the inner city urban community, people who can’t distinguish between n-i-g-g-a and n-i-g-g-e-r. What does it mean for them? How does it affect their psyche?
AllHipHop.com: In the book, you chose to put the character back into slavery - not in the field - but being broken in the most inhumane way possible. Why?
R. Kayeen Thomas: I think there are so many watered down images of slavery and of the civil rights era, it makes it really easy for people to say, ‘yeah, it was bad, but we’ve moved on.’ So I chose the most painful aspect of slavery because that’s how it was. That’s what Black people had to go through in this country. I wanted that to hit home. I’m not going to give you anything sugarcoated - that would be cheating myself and cheating my readers.
AllHipHop.com: What impact do you hope the book has on the urban entertainment industry?
R. Kayeen Thomas: I would love for this book to spark a national discussion on race and Hip-Hop. That goes beyond the entertainment industry. For people to really sit down and discuss are there parallels between the industry and slavery. How can we make our music more of our own? Because it’s fiction, people are free to take from it what they want. It’s open to interpretation. What I sought out to do was to create a character who embodies today’s mainstream Hip-Hop and put him through a situation and have it affect and change him. I want people to think, "If I had to go through what my ancestors went through as a rapper, would my lyrics still be the same?”
Antebellum: A Novel by R. Kayeen Thomas is in stores now. Connect with him on Twitter (@RKayeenThomas).