Images by @montepapers – Jay Electronica trying to call Jay Z, probably
“Can a revolution dispense with repeated affirmation of the new order? Can a revolution dispense with rhyme?” (Kundera, Life is Elsewhere). It’s told that the Prophet’s (SAW) early enemies, when trying to dissuade him from revealing Quranic message to Meccans, wore cotton in their ears to protect themselves from the power of his recitation. So fearful were his rivals of the beauty of the Quran’s poetics.
Jay Electronica became an instant prodigy after the release of Exhibit C in 2009. With the blessing of Nas, QTip, and Diddy, he signed to Jay Z’s label the following year. Hip hop heads eagerly awaited a debut record. Then he disappeared to the underground for 10 years, with only sporadic features and promises of a forthcoming album. Media hosts asked how he could disappoint fans for so long after coming as the savior of hip hop. He quipped nervously about distaste for the industry of music sales, insisting that his poetry was too powerful to be traded for a pithy sum. “I ain’t sitting on a catalog of 80 records if I’m sitting on a catalog of 20 records. You better believe me these 20 records are gonna last till 2030, 2050” he professed. So rare were his appearances in that time, he became dubbed “The Best to Never Do It”. Only seeing him live could make sense of his mystique. In his live show, Jay Electronica achieved the level of prophetism that only the world’s great poets — Ghalib and Tagore and Abida Parveen, Nas, Lauryn Hill, MF Doom are capable of. Like all others in the pantheon, he knows the purpose of poetry is greater than wealth and fame. In a room full of 400 people at the Trees in Dallas, Jay Electronica stood with his hands raised in a diamond. “Just in case y’all don’t know. My name is Jay Electronica. I’m from New Orleans, Louisiana, and I’m one of the greatest emcees that ever lived, ya heard?” He delivered a performance, a prophecy that Dallas’ rap scene will never forget.
Jay Electronica walked onto the stage to No Child Left Behind. Stone blue blazer, gold teeth, wise eyes, the Master of Pain. “He’s done miracles on me,” Kanye’s Gospel blared through the speaker over his expectant audience, Jay stood over us silently merging his heartbeat with ours. When he finally spoke, “I’m touching everybody in this room’s hand tonight, I love Dallas. Anyone that wants a picture is getting a picture. Tip the bartenders a $100 and come find me after the show.” Then he went right into APIDTA (All Praise is Due To Allah), a song, written the day after Kobe died, about the loss of his mother.
“I got numbers in my phone, that’ll never ring again
’Cause Allah done called them home
I got texts on my phone, that’ll never ping again
I screenshot ’em so I got ’em, I don’t want this thing to end.”
He hadn’t performed APIDTA yet on his tour, I don’t know how he got the strength to go to that place, but we went there with him. March 2020. Rudy Gobert coughed on the mic. The next day, Jay’s album dropped, and the following day, the U.S. shut down. That week, my mom’s cousin was killed. I remember her scream and her running collapse into my father, who had found out minutes earlier. Release, release. Jay Electronica performed through tears for as long as he was able to. He sat down with his hands covering his face as the backing track and audience filled lyrics for him.
“The day my momma died I scrolled her texts all day long
The physical returns but the connection still stays strong
Now I understand why you used to cry sometimes we ride down Claybourne,
You just missed your momma
Now I just miss my mommas.”
The distance and mystery he created over the years fell away. I could feel the pulse of his mystique dissolving as the man himself stood on stage. His own disjointed oral history combined with the mysterious headlines flashed in my mind. Homeless and drug addicted, rescued by Nation of Islam. Years later, he was making records with Hov and somehow broke up the marriage of a Rothschild heiress (the ex-husband is a Zionist, I don’t feel bad.) He could’ve let his own mystique protect him. He didn’t have to be that intimate. Bob Dylan, in his Nobel Prize acceptance, remarked on the job of a poet in a small audience:
“But there’s one thing I must say. As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried.”
Jay stepped up to the poet’s challenge, he put his honesty and talent on display. In the middle of a song, he’d wave back to his DJ, she would cut the backing track. Acapella, he rapped slowly, he ensured that his rhymes fell into us. Halfway through Universal Soldier:
“I spent many nights bent off woods
Clutchin’ the bowl stuffin’ my nose
My poetry’s living like the God that I fall back on
And all praises due to Allah for such illustrious platform
The teachings of the honorable Elijah Muhammad’s my back bone”
He finished the verse, and paused like Ghalib pausing after each Misra. One half of the couplet would fall and the poet would wait, building anticipation and curiosity in the audience. It’s only 2 bars but there’s 4 bars of interpretation, or maybe more. Rhymes started to feel like gospel and man started to build spiritual significance. Is this how it happened with Rumi and Shams?
He continued to close the distance with his crowd — “you know what, come up here with me, come up here, come up here hold on come up come up” he excitedly stuttered. Fans joined Jay on stage, I watched his hands fly around, finding energy. Sharing daps with fans, sometimes passing a blunt with a handshake, other times pulling someone else up with him. “Come up come up come up” he’d exclaim. His hand found a fan, they passed him a necklace as offering. He kissed it and adorned it. His hand flew to mine, I passed off my mom’s red sandalwood Tasbih, she got it from Mecca. He kissed it and adorned it, then jumped into the audience dispelling poetry to the crowd. Stage remained only as artifice, no longer separating poet from spectators in our congregation.
He floated around the audience, delivering a verse after showering blessings “peace to Westside Gunn, peace to Griselda, peace to Conway The Machine,” he supplicated before offering his poetries. He paused between rhymes to talk and pose for photos, giving a moment of personal connection to everyone who had come to his show. Meanwhile his bars settled in, our bones vibrated at his tempo. Maybe this is why the enemies of the Prophet (SAW) were so afraid of poetry. It bypasses the gateway of the mind, his poems seized you by the body.
When he finally went back on stage it was to pay respects to the late great J-Dilla. He asked permission of his audience, gaining consent every step of the way. “Can I pay respect to Dilla please? Can I go back up on stage just to rap on some Dilla tracks?” A finger in the air for Dilla, politicked over Dilla’s beat. He cut instrumental. Whispering:
Jay weaved in and out between personal and political. Laying curses upon Bush and the DOJ, then laying blessings on his Grandmother, wishing love to Dallas. He lamented the suffering of those suffering in Flint, on the border, and in Palestine. He paused to remind the audience that he prophesied UFO’s and the war crimes perpetrated by the West. At the very center of his written word, and of his performance was politics and faith. When the audience had consented to let verse in, he was spreading revolution and bringing Dallas with him.
Theory and politics can be argued and counter-argued. Classrooms and textbooks raise energy into our mind as we intellectualize. Poetry, protest art is stronger. Verses settle, vibrations deepen into bones and sink into feet, spread with our movement. Jay Electronica’s weave of God and politics, and the intimacy of his performance drew a line around his audience.
“I don’t have friends or fans, just family,” he said in interview. This is what we believe. He stayed true to the underground, because his revolution doesn’t spread with stadium tours, but in small gatherings.
Jay Electronica laid himself bare for Dallas to see because the verses only work if there is no doubt about the man himself. Everyone that wanted to be seen walked away being seen by him, reassured of his depth of message. The verses are with me now, back home in New York. I walk up midtown repeating curses on Bush, Downing Street and the Clintons, despite being unsure of the history. But I spread his energy, looking down at my feet now vibrating with his message, I look to support and be supported by community in my new home. Between my eyes, I see the interaction he shared with me. When he watched me stumble his lyrics when he rapped Fruits of the Spirit. He shook his head at me for not knowing, his gold teeth shined a forgiving laughter.