Fire In Little Africa Album Review

by Mary Noble

In mid-March of 2020, more than 70 rappers and performance artists hailing from all over Oklahoma came together and recorded 143 tracks over five sleepless days. The result was Fire in Little Africa (FILA), a 21-track compilation album made to commemorate the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. By the beginning of April 2021, the FILA album was signed with Motown Records, the legendary Yvette Noel-Schure became publicist, and guest features were added with Gap Band icon and Tulsa Native, Charlie Wilson.

On May 26th, artists and contributors gathered at the dance club, St. Vitus in Tulsa, OK to hear the album played in its entirety for the first time. The anticipation and sense of community in the room was profound and palpable. Rappers 1st Verse and Earl Hazard who have been sharing Tulsa stages for over a decade embraced and exchanged nods of gratitude and veneration.

Everyone gathered around as scholar, DJ, and executive producer Stevie Johnson AKA Dr. View spoke in reverent tones about the process of creating the album from inception to release. He acknowledged the Tulsa artists who forged the local hip hop scene and fought against racist policies that once barred rappers from downtown venues. 

Johnson called out and challenged local leaders like GT Bynum, Stitt, and Lankford for engaging in political theatre without commitment to systemic change. “We got a governor that signed HB 1775 saying we can’t even teach critical race theory but (they) don’t even know that the foundation of FILA was built on critical race theory,” Johnson said. 

As Johnson began to play the first track of the album, “Elevator,” cheers and claps erupted around the room.In “Elevator,” rappers Hakeem Eli’juwon and Steph Simon portray different versions of the incident that  sparked the mass violence and destruction we now know as the Tulsa Race Massacre. The track and accompanying music video present a reimagining of what may have transpired in the Drexel building elevator on the fateful day Dick Rowland was accused of sexually assaulting Sarah Page. Hakeem opens with lyrics steeped in a degradative, sexual energy that flows over pulsating beats, suggesting a solely sexual dynamic with Sarah. Then Steph Simon steps onto the track with a smoother cadence, inferring a more romantic dynamic with Sarah, with lyrics that also point out the frequent fetishization of Black men. "Elevator” forebodingly concludes its ride as it opens to a group of disgusted and enraged white onlookers. Then sounds of gunfire, airplanes, and a man screaming, “burn it down!” are heard.

Johnson describes the album as being split into three nonsequential movements—the era before the massacre in which Black Wall Street flourished, the era during the massacre in which Black Tulsans suffered unquantifiable loss and destruction, and the era after the massacre in which Black Tulsans continue to thrive, rebuild, and fight for justice. On the track, “North Tulsa Got Something to Say”, award winning author and spoken word artist Jerica Wortham soulfully speaks of this split: “Our excellence, they tried to hide it. Thug town, I survived it. Everything is us, we revived it. Now, we got something to say.”

Wortham’s poetry is followed by nostalgia-laden verses from members of Tulsa rap group, Oilhouse. Oilhouse is often credited with pioneering the local rap scene, occupying predominantly white spaces in an era of increased opposition to rap music.

On the track “Reparations”, rapper St. Domonick takes aim at current Tulsa Mayor, GT Bynum, who has publicly expressed his opposition to reparations for descendants of the massacre. “Reparations” is a braggadocio, fantasy track in which wealth is forcibly reclaimed from tyrannical oppressors, “Takin yo lunch so we can have some lunch / that was my daddy and I am his son I might pull up on GT in a GT throw his smiling ass in the trunk / like fuck it I gotta do it then it’s done / open the safe we takin what we want.” 

For St. Domonick, there is no more time to wait around for the passing of policies that pander and appease rather than enact systemic change.

FILA closes with “Young and Free”, a contemplative ballad that serves as the impactful final punctuation of the album. The song opens with dialogue from revered community activist Dr. Tiffany Crutcher spoken over the timbre of pipe organs, “Ancestors, ancestors. Terence Crutcher. Their blood still speaks. From pain to purpose, their blood still speaks.”Artists iamDES, Chris “The God MC” Cain, and Written Quincey then deliver rich verses over melancholic gospel beats with intonation like a pastor at his pulpit.

FILA ebbs and flows with the unity of a community joined together by a force greater than themselves. A current of unyielding resilience runs throughout, with an undulating vibe of reverence while speaking truth to horrors that have long been shrouded in secrecy. A poetic reclamation of space, narratives, and wealth, the album bears witness to the horrors of the past while at the same time celebrating the indomitable Black excellence of today and the future.

In the words of Jerica Wortham, “We’re what it looks like in a hundred years time / Got the audacity to walk up out these ashes and shine / We shinin’!”