This story was originally published by ArtsATL.
Atlanta hip-hop legends Arrested Development will take the stage at the Buckhead Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 4, as part of the Alzheimer’s Music Festival, a collaboration with Friends of Disabled Adults and Children.
For Arrested Development frontman Todd “Speech” Thomas, it’s an opportunity to bring awareness of dementia to the Black community where high blood pressure -- a major contributing factor in the development of dementia -- is already a pervasive health concern.
“My stepfather is dealing with dementia, my father is dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s,” says Speech. “According to the Alzheimer’s Association, a lot of our Black population -- especially our older Blacks -- are twice as likely to get dementia. It’s a very big issue in my community.”
Such words are sobering, to say the least, but coming from Speech, one of the leading innovators of the thematically uplifting progressive rap movement of the early 1990s, the statements nevertheless carry a degree of hope. “We’re going to use this awesome ability that music has to bring awareness to this issue,” he says.
In addition to Arrested Development, the 10th annual Alzheimer’s Music Fest will feature Cracker and Cowboy Mouth, as well as Donna Hopkins, Gurufish, Zangaro and more.
Speech’s naturally positive, gently optimistic vibe is certainly inspiring but the question remains: With such immediately pressing issues as police brutality, voter suppression and unemployment facing the Black community, how does one go about gaining support for dementia activism, an issue that many might view as down the road in the distant realms of old age?
“To me it’s all a matter of this mantra that I live by,” he says. “Do what you can with what you have with the people around you. That simplifies anything that’s overwhelming in your life. All people have to do to support dementia [activism] is just come see a concert. That’s why we do these things: to make it simple.”
Such bringing of awareness through music is a familiar feat for Speech and the long standing collective of hip-hop troubadours that make up Arrested Development. While the early ‘90s saw the willfully menacing, aggressively nihilistic world of gangsta rap explode in popularity, the soulful sounds of progressive rap emerged as a warmhearted alternative with groups such as Arrested Development, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul.
Those groups and others offered a more thoughtful, spiritual and proactive perspective on the world’s problems. For Arrested Development, that change in perspective was accompanied by a sonic shift into the realms of jazz, soul, reggae and a host of other laid-back stylings.
Concurrent to Speech’s activism efforts, the latest Arrested Development album pays tribute to the glory days of hip-hop and the second part of a planned trilogy that began with 2020′s “Don’t Fight Your Demons.” The trilogy will conclude with a third album currently in the works.
“We love hip-hop music; we’ve been in love with it since the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and this record is a celebration of how much we love it,” says Speech. That nod to the early days of rap includes luminaries such as the Juice Crew’s Big Daddy Kane, the Sugar Hill Gang and many others putting in guest appearances.
For Speech, that harkening back to the origins of hip-hop marks a crucial return to the thematically diverse roots of an artform that was gradually consumed by the lowlife chic of the gangsta-rap subculture. “Hip-hop was already diverse in the very beginning,” he explains, citing early innovators such as Mantronix, Planet Patrol and Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force. “What ended up happening in the mid ‘90s is, unfortunately, it became more narrow. Subject matter-wise, it became more about the streets and as time went on, musically, it became a lot more dumbed down.”
The devolution of rap and hip-hop weighs heavily on Speech, who describes such corporate pandering as “fitting a 400-year long stereotype of Black life which is violent, promiscuous, simple. These are things that were also perpetuated in the music that made it unfortunately appealing to people who subconsciously have this viewpoint of Black people.”
An elder statesman in the realm of Black media and entertainment, Speech is quick to point out that a similar assimilation occurred when mainstream Hollywood embraced the once avant-garde realms of blaxploitation cinema. “The initial point of blaxploitation movies was a rebellion against ‘the man,’” he says. “It was Black people giving the middle finger to being controlled and it became a caricature where it’s just a fantasy of social change. It’s a fantasy where you can act like you’re sticking it to the man but you’re sticking it to nobody.”
Sadly, he laments, a similar trend emerged in gangsta rap throughout the ‘90s. “A lot of this is just a fantasy of sticking it to the man,” says Speech. “In truth, though, it’s causing families to be destroyed by people being murdered, killed on a very frequent basis, not just in the rap world but in the actual communities that we’re coming from. And the drugs are ravishing communities. The other things they’re promoting as well -- promiscuity -- is bringing babies into the world to parents that aren’t ready to raise these children.”
Those observations -- the same ones that won Arrested Development a Grammy in the ‘90s -- remain as relevant today as when Speech first brought them into the discussion. He hopes that the band can continue to reach a younger audience and be shot in the arm for a hip-hop community consumed by negative stereotypes and empty materialism.
It’s a lofty goal, to be sure, but Speech seems like a man comfortable with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Far from being consumed with anger, he seems aware of a gentle peace that underlies the human experience -- as if what we all need is some time to ease our minds.
Jordan Owen began writing about music professionally at the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he is a professional guitarist, bandleader and composer. He is currently the lead guitarist for the jazz group Other Strangers, the power metal band Axis of Empires and the melodic death/thrash metal band Century Spawn.
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