Him and I: The Cultural Importance of OutKast

outkast5

OutKast, CounterPoint Music Festival, Black Love Project©

Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1) is perhaps one of the most persistent songs from my childhood memories. I was ten years old when I first heard it and I remember the feeling it gave me, as it gives me the same feeling now. That feeling was and is Atlanta. What I mean by that is the feeling of the Bill Campbell, So-So Def, Mike and Carol in the Morning, Braves Win Atlanta. Economically and artistically, Atlanta was steadily growing in strength and influence. The energy from that growth, to me, can be heard in Aquemini. It is a reflection of the environment within which OutKast was creating. When Andre asks, “What you wanna be?”, I remember ten year old Monique questioning what being an adult, a woman, would be like. Would I be beautiful? Would I be loved by a man? Who would I be? Sixteen years later, I’ve experienced things my younger self could only imagine; I have lived and loved in this city. I know what it is to be on Edgewood, “so engulfed in the Olde E.” (SpottieOttieDopalicious, Aquemini, 1998), with good friends under the Atlanta skyline, or to literally be riding dirty on 85, or to just sit on my porch and listen to the city breathe. This is my Atlanta now, but what remains is the energy I felt in 1998, the energy that comes when I hear this song. As new questions arise and life goes on, it is beautiful to me that one song has held the same weight for almost twenty years. This is a prime example of OutKast’s ability to reveal you to yourself through their music and it is the reason their artistry will endure. It seems Sasha Thumper had it right in aspiring to be alive; for when we are alive, every day is another chance to begin again.

Three in the morning, yawning, dancing under street lights. We chillin’ like a villain and a nigga feelin’ right. In the middle of the ghetto on the curb and despite all of the bullshit, we on our backs staring at the stars above. Talkin’ ’bout what we gone be when we grow up. I said, “What you wanna be? She said, “Alive.”

On August 3, 1995, having just won an award for Best New Rap Group at The Source Awards, Andre Benjamin alongside Antwan Patton, gave one of the most prophetic acceptance speeches in merely six words, “The south has something to say.” OutKast remains one of the most influential and important groups to exist. They continue to prove that the south does indeed have something to say. One only has to listen to any radio station across the country to hear the heavy influence of southern music. It is important to note that I am not only speaking of the south’s influence on hip hop, but American music in general. The foundation of American music is built largely on the musical contributions of southern black people. Early black American music carried with it heavy African traditions: call and response, the ritual of song during communal harvesting, which turned into the work songs of forced labor in the case of the Diaspora, and the aspect of spirituality and a connection to higher powers, later found in Negro spirituals. All of these traditions can be found in OutKast’s music, however, perhaps the most important tradition OutKast masters is the art of storytelling. Big Boi and Andre are not merely rappers, they are storytellers. They are the Jeli , or Griots, of the American south.  West African Jelis are storytellers who are charged with observing and reciting the social, political and historical events of their people through word and song. They are historians and social commentators, which is what OutKast has become for the south.

Just shoot game in the from of story raps, now.

And who but black people have been an outcast in America? Who else then but OutKast to tell their story? Atlanta, Georgia (what do we do for ya?) has seen the socio-political and cultural evolution of its black children and it is OutKast who are their descendents. They have risen to tell the story of their people; a people who have been affected by a harrowing but rich history. People who see and hear themselves in the lyrics and rhythms of the Dungeon. OutKast reminds us of our kinfolk, of the Kims and Cookies and Nathaniels we all know. They represent the duality of existence for many southern black people; articulating what it is to be both a “hemp-selling” nigga and a man aware enough to understand his history and how it affects his present condition. I was able to see them perform at this year’s CounterPoint Music Festival and as I spoke with festival goers, I probed why they travelled an hour outside of Atlanta to see OutKast perform. The recurring answer was, “Because I grew up with them.” People did not grow up just listening to OutKast; their lives intertwined with the progression of OutKast’s music. OutKast grew with us as we grew with them.

OutKast: (adj.)  An OutKast is someone who is not considered to be part of the normal world. He’s looked at differently. He’s not accepted because of his clothes, his hair, his occupation, his beliefs or his skin color. Now look at yourself, are you an OutKast? I know I am.  As a matter of fact, fuck being anything else.
Big Rube (True Dat Interlude, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, 1994)

Seeing OutKast perform in Atlanta will be a historical moment for music, but particularly for Atlanta. As many OutKast fans see themselves in the music, we are all going to relive a memory through song. Perhaps you first fell in love to Stankonia or met your best friend to ATLiens or just drove around the city to Aquemini, whatever the reason, there is a feeling or memory attached to OutKast’s discography. As a child I did not understand the depth of their lyrical content but as I’ve grown, the songs have taken on newer meaning as life continues to expose itself to me. Which Andre said would happen in Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 2), “Hope I’m not over your head, but if so, you will catch on later.” Seeing them perform in Atlanta will allow us to relive and capture a certain time in our lives with thousands of other people who are there for the same reason. And I cannot wait.

OutKast, ATLast.

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