BSlade (fka Tonex) - The Black Belt (2016)

BSlade (fka Tonex)
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BSlade - The Black Belt (2016)

BSlade’s brash political statement project, The Black Belt, is going to make everyone mad, both liberal and conservative. In a work as provocative and conflicted as anything else the self-contained, multi-instrumentalist producing artist has ever done (and this from a gospel star who cursed up a blue streak and condemned a good chunk of the Black church world on the cult classic, The Naked Truth), BSlade enters politically fraught waters at a polarizing time where complication, nuance, internal conflict, and even moderation is perhaps the least appreciated by those on both sides of the political spectrum. Then again, as he makes clear in his pro-gay, anti-church hypocrisy slam, “Conversation,” BSlade is an artist who is used to and willing to losing fans by telling it as he sees it, right or wrong.

BSlade - The Black Belt (2016)

BSlade’s brash political statement project, The Black Belt, is going to make everyone mad, both liberal and conservative. In a work as provocative and conflicted as anything else the self-contained, multi-instrumentalist producing artist has ever done (and this from a gospel star who cursed up a blue streak and condemned a good chunk of the Black church world on the cult classic, The Naked Truth), BSlade enters politically fraught waters at a polarizing time where complication, nuance, internal conflict, and even moderation is perhaps the least appreciated by those on both sides of the political spectrum. Then again, as he makes clear in his pro-gay, anti-church hypocrisy slam, “Conversation,” BSlade is an artist who is used to and willing to losing fans by telling it as he sees it, right or wrong.

Pushing buttons through music is consistently what gospel’s provocateur has done ever since abandoning his Tonex persona. The star of gospel hits like “Make Me Over” and “God Has Not 4got” has never neatly fit into the conservative box that bound him as both a Black bisexual male and a creative being whose work bristled against labels and boundaries from day one. However, The Black Belt may be the one that finally causes some of his most progressive and ardent fans to throw in the towel, depending on their political ideology. In a work that is a direct 20-track sermon to the Black community, one he’s giving away for free to help spread his messages, BSlade delivers a project that contains literally every schizophrenic word the Black community has ever received about itself from both the Black and white community, liberal and conservative. While aspects will be familiar to Black fans well-versed in pro-Black messaging, just as much, if not more will hit the ear as dangerously regressive as a FOX News rant by an unapologetic white supremacist.

With damning, un-ironic cuts like “Black Carousel” calling Black people lazy and excuse-filled and both versions of “Black Lives Matter” directly charges Blacks as being a villain on par with the murderers who killed any number of hashtag martyrs, BSlade leaves himself wide open to charges of accommodation of racism, white supremacy, and even police brutality. Too often these songs suggests that BSlade believes as say a Donald Trump does: that the Black community is more often than not one big crime-filled ghetto solely responsible for the conditions of their own community. But, then again, as many a pro-Black nationalist, he also recognizes Black folks as the creative genesis of the world and descendants of royalty. It’s clear on songs like “Living in a World” and “Help The People” that he is coming from an urgent place of anti-violence to protect our children and our most vulnerable. Nonetheless, his answer to “Black problems” is one that only sees a redemptive and corrective role for the oppressed, not the oppressor. His brand of politics is one that only tacitly recognizes the role history, anti-Black and anti-poor policies, and continued structural oppression plays in giving birth to—and sustaining—the problems plaguing the community he so clearly loves. While he gives a surface history, he intentionally fails to acknowledge how slavery to Jim Crow to the Black Codes to the Rockefeller Drug Laws to the Brady Bill to the school to prison pipeline to present day voter suppression and gerrymandering continue an unbroken string of structural challenges intended to depress Black progress and maintain white supremacy. To him what director Ava Duvernay so eloquently laid out in the critically acclaimed documentary 13thth , Michelle Alexander does in her best-selling scholarship of “The New Jim Crow,” or Douglas Blackmon’s award-winning excavation of history in “Slavery By Another Name” are liberal excuses for bad Black behavior.

And, yet there is definitely love for the Black community in BSlade, the kind that will love us to death. It’s a self-righteous, early Bill Cosbyesque tough love that sees mostly problems and little of the beauty and unsung masses of Black folks already doing the work he’s charging people to do (see: Black overrepresentation in education and helping professions, including anti-violence programs). Still, there are critical diamonds to be found within even BSlade’s dark cavern of coal. The title The Black Belt is a play on words, one that offers as much of a history lesson of the formation of the Southern Black Belt (as he offers on “Black Prologue”) as it is a call for Black people to take on the discipline and warrior spirit of a “Black Samurai,” while also economically tightening their Black belts against the reckless hyper-consumerism he accuses us Black folks of.

On a song like “Blame U,” BSlade takes a message long championed by thinkers like Toni Morrison: to allow the Black lens to be the only lens that determines Black worth, without a care for or nod toward “the white gaze.” On cuts like “Big Black Speakers (featuring Piff Herrera)” there are calls to reclaim the grandeur and glory of our heritage in our carriage and behavior, and more specious “Hotep” claims of all Blacks being descendants of Kings and Queens (to which I’ve often mischievously asked, “then who was doing all the grunt work in Nubia?”). There is even a calling of Christ as a Black man in “Black Jesus,” an idea which itself has a long legacy among some who believe Christ to have been a Black Jew. That and other cuts also challenge Black church hypocrisy and encourage a radical reimagining of the Christian faith. These are each generally laudable messages that the Black community has long embraced and have heard on repeat for literal generations, from Garvey to the Black Power Movement to even, at times, President Barack Obama. While works like “Scared of Me” and “Black Blood” makes it clear that BSlade knows racism is real and that too many police are targeting Black bodies for juryless murders, in his fright he also directs Black people to behave in a conciliatory and considered way as a form of self-protection, as though that wasn’t exactly what victims like Philando Castile were doing when they were murdered.

All the more exasperating is that musically, every note on The Black Belt is flawlessly executed, each sample well considered and rendered for maximum impact. Vocally, BSlade has never sound better, with skyscraping notes and sumptuous layered harmonies accenting every polemical statement. The palette is kaleidoscopic in its aural textures and colors, and broad in its artistic range, capably tackling sounds from The Winans to Michael Jackson to Kendrick Lamar to you name it. There has not now nor has there ever been a limit to the creative capacities of BSlade, an artist who has released a project in nearly every relevant music genre in just the last decade. And, yet, that’s what makes The Black Belt so uncomfortable and disquieting a work, especially on the deadpan “Black Carousel”; that BSlade used the powerful impact of his ample gifts to convict the Black community with an ol’ fire and brimstone sermon while rightly rejecting those who’d give an equally regressive sermon to him as a gender nonconforming, queer man. In both instances, the preacher believes they’re doing it out of deeply held beliefs, tradition, and tough love, but the outcomes are generally just more unintended pain for the oppressed.

The Black Belt is a deeply complicated work about issues about which everyone has an opinion. Clearly, I’ve expressed my own in disdain for its messaging. It’s also a superficial response to a history far more complex than either a pure left or right prescription can ever hope to remedy, certainly more than the regurgitated medicine offered here can. This is snake oil as old as slavery itself. As a fellow Black gay man and social justice warrior, it’s admittedly strange to witness another gender non-confirming queer Black man engage in more respectability politics than an entire season of Luke Cage and to witness him wield his Black Belt as a form of repressive discipline in a collective community whipping while calling it love. As if this beating was going to correct what centuries of others like it had not. On “Big Black Speakers,” BSlade speaks of the loneliness of his beliefs. It might become that much more so now that we know more about them.

By L. Michael Gipson

 
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