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Is There Such a Thing as Black Thought?

Trotter enrolled in Millersville University, 75 miles away from Philly, but the music called him back to the city: He met fellow rapper, Malik B., who would join the Roots crew; a year later they were doing shows in Europe, freestyling to sax and trumpet solos. Back in Philly, Trotter lived in an apartment with books and musicians as his companions. “I didn’t have a phone, I didn’t have a TV,” he has said. “I hardly had furniture at my place at that time. There was just books, lots of books and CDs.” Trotter became an autodidact, Ghansah told me. “He was the reader,” she said. “He takes everything in. Everything is a reference, a possible citation. And then it is all wrapped up in his Philadelphia Negro uplift thing — he loves his Blackness.”

Around this time, Trotter discovered the music of the Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti, whose example became another lasting influence on his style. “Finding Fela was like finding my spiritual animal,” he told me. He was in Tower Records with his childhood friend, the singer Santigold, who was buying a Fela record for her father’s birthday. Intrigued, Trotter listened along when Santigold’s father played the music, which was a revelation. “I was blown away by how regal all the music sounded, the political message, how free he was onstage,” he said. Fela’s work ethic — he tended to perform regularly and intensely — and big-band sensibility gave Trotter a sense of what it meant to be a performer.

“Felt like James Brown meets Bob Marley with a Nigerian funk sensibility,” Trotter said. Trotter’s gift as a lyricist is his penchant for turning observation of the world around him into social commentary. When Trotter’s verse turns to the streets, it adds complexity to the narratives of violence that some rappers tend to glorify. Foretelling an argument that the legal scholar James Forman Jr. would make in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Locking Up Our Own,” Trotter, in the song “Panic!!!!!” from the Roots’s 1996 album (their second full-length release), “Illadelph Halflife,” rhymes that while “police levels increase,” there’s “still crime on the street.” The lyric points to Trotter’s awareness that in Black communities, the presence of police does not guarantee protection. Another song from that album, “Section,” has Trotter rapping of his shared experience with those who run the streets: “We congruent, lay on the corner with the traum’ unit.” While Trotter presents his familiarity with street life and its prevalence in communities like his, he doesn’t lose sight of the violence that often accompanies that life. In an era in which gangster rap dominated the charts, Trotter could have woven tales of street woe and disaster. But, he told me: “I came up in a family of gangsters and people who were in the street life. Both my parents, that’s what they got off into, they were involved in. My extended family, my brother. And it never ends well. It’s always short-lived. I didn’t want the career version of that.” Trotter and the Roots crew insisted that Black life include more than the narratives of violence and street life.

In part, this vision of a socially engaged and intellectually curious hip-hop was inspired by the Roots’ longtime manager, Richard Nichols. “That was Rich, man,” Trotter told me. “Rich would put us on to a concept, like the concept of nuclear half-life, nuclear fallout,” an idea that inspired the title “Illadelph Halflife.” Nichols, who died in 2014 at 55 from complications of leukemia, was a Philadelphia native and student of Black culture whose thinking became central to Trotter’s intellectual development and the band’s identity. “He’d throw you a book — Chinua Achebe, check this out. Check this Malcolm Gladwell out,” Trotter remembered. Nichols was a student (literally) of Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, architects of the Black Arts Movement and literary inheritors of the Harlem Renaissance. Nichols brought Trotter into that tradition. “Rich was the brains of this operation in more ways than one,” Trotter told me. “He was a visionary. He was an artist. He went above and beyond the role of management or producer. He was our oracle. He was Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

Put another way, Nichols envisioned the group as an example of hip-hop’s relationship to a wider Black culture. Because of Nichols, the Roots crew knew Black Arts Movement poets like Baraka and Ntozake Shange personally. Sonia Sanchez, the Philadelphia poet who helped pioneer Black-studies programs, was “Sister Sonia” to Trotter. Often, his lyrics foregrounded his relationship to this lineage. “I’m just as dark as John Henrik Clarke’s inner thoughts at the time of the Harlem Renaissance,” he once rapped, name checking the trailblazing historian of the Black experience. Maybe it isn’t surprising, then, that Trotter found his way to “Black No More.” Schuyler’s original novel is a classic of the Harlem Renaissance, even if it does diverge from the period’s complicated love affair with Blackness. Schuyler mocked his contemporaries as race-obsessed fools, but “Black No More” is a book no less caught up in the Renaissance’s incessant inquiry into the substance of this thing we call “Black experience.” And while Schuyler’s novel says that Black America hungers to be white, Black Thought’s remix asserts the Black experience can be interrogated independent of whiteness.

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