Boos echoed within Madison Square Garden’s Paramount Theater as OutKast walked toward the podium. The Best New Artists of the 1995 Source Awards, a victory deserving of applause, drowned by disdain. They were MCs from the South in the Big Apple, the boos a reminder that they were outcasts in the city that birthed hip-hop.
I’ve thought about this scene often, the moment leading up to the bold declaration that still lives in the soul and soil of Southern hip-hop. How those boos must have felt while Big and Dre were walking toward their trophy; the bubbling frustration that intertwines acknowledgment and alienation, to feel deserving and to be blatantly disregarded. Andre, in response to how he was feeling, spoke six immortal words, classic as any lyrics from their songs: “The South has something to say.”
I was four years old when the ‘95 Source Awards took place, a Southern son living a toddler’s life in Stone Mountain, Georgia, unaware of regions and rappers. I grew up in the aftermath, when the South not only rose but when Atlanta became the epicenter of what was taking over. Andre’s moment is a cultural flash-in-the-pan affair, but it was only one event of many that caused an old reality to become a distant memory.
By the time I was old enough to see the city as a hub for rap artistry, it was no longer being overlooked, overshadowed, or ignored by media, critics, and the industry as a whole. My birthplace was a volcano no longer dormant. It was active, erupting hit makers and culture shakers. It was being heard, but also witnessed.
I lived in an era where So So Def in Atlanta was a variation of Bad Boy in New York. Jermaine was no Diddy in the mogul sense, but the sheer number of anthems he produced and poured into the Freaknik streets is still astounding. LaFace and Dungeon Family were architects that assisted in the foundation for prospects to blossom from the red clay. With my own eyes, I saw the explosion of Ludacris and T.I., Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, Lil Jon and Ying Yang Twins, Kilo Ali and Da Brat, Dem Franchize Boyz and Soulja Boy―so many rappers, all from the city or surrounding areas. And these are just a few notable names synonymous with my impressionable middle and high school years.
I didn’t have any ambitions to become a rapper, but it made sense why so many of my peers believed they could turn notebook scribbles and cafeteria cyphers into millions of dollars. With each new act, with each new big ATL record broken, the subconscious stomach that was starved for a glimmer of hope was fed with a very simple concept: yes, you can.
Atlanta has been known as the mecca for black folks long before its prominence in music. The New York Times wrote in 1986 how the city attracted middle-class, affluent black families while harboring a hidden, unrepresented excess of poverty. What I loved most about the hip-hop that grew from the city is how the unrepresented, those from areas that weren't mentioned when people highlighted Atlanta's wealth, were able to give a voice to the other side. The bounce that was born in Bankhead wasn’t a dance made by kids living middle-class lives and the SWATS produced countless artistic minds who didn’t have a pot for their piss. Was crunk not dance music for gladiators? It was like music for war and celebration. I’ve seen rambunctious joy and acts of war to the sounds of Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck.” Whether trapping on the Eastside or dancing south of the city, the music consistently allowed perspectives of the many black men and women who inhabited the city, not just the ones who attended Morehouse and Spelman.
The beauty of 21 Savage isn’t simply the authenticity of his street tales, but the glory that comes with his escape. Whatever odds life presents can be beaten if your stories become rhymes and not simply reality. In the New York Times' recent profile on Quality Control, label home to Lil Yachty and Migos, a small glimmer of light is shed on one of their latest signees, Lil Baby. The 21-year-old street rapper has spent the last ten months building momentum as a rap artist after serving the last two years incarcerated. Some will read his story and question how it happened so quickly—not even a year out and he's already signed and seeing moderate success—but it’s a common gamble for the young and hungry.
Do you have the guts to test the waters? This is why Atlanta has so many artists with one or two hits in their back pocket—most are daring enough to take the plunge.
Later in the Times profile, QC CEO Pierre "Pee" Thomas encouraged Lil Baby to be patient with music and to resist the temptations of his old ways. One particular quote struck me:
“You don’t have to be the best rapper, but guess what? If you keep working hard…”
Without completely laying it out, Pee encourages the grind. That relentless effort to break barriers. There’s always been a stigma about Atlanta and fellow Southern rappers, that they are lesser because they don’t have the same lyrical prowess as rappers from other regions. But within Pee’s statement is largely why so many artists from Atlanta are the ones that break out; they believe they can win and they apply the work ethic. Talent and genius can be outworked by a motivated man.
Overnight stardom wasn’t awarded to Future, his journey has been a long one. Even with Dungeon Family connections and early dealings with a successful artist like Rocko, there were no shortcuts. The same can be said for newcomers like J.I.D or 6LACK. They both fought tooth and nail to be where they currently stand—not quite at the mountaintop, but much further than most. For many Atlanta natives, witnessing their diligence and consistency turn into sold-out tours and widespread acclaim is yet another refreshing reminder that hard work and patience can pay off. During 6LACK’s second sold-out show in Atlanta to close out his FREE 6LACK tour, I heard stories told by those closest to his progress about couch hopping and penny-pinching, but the darkest days have been overcome and the dawn is a blinding gold.
Is it possible to hear of 6LACK’s story from label imprisonment to GRAMMY nomination and conclude that years of hardship isn’t worth a dream realized? Especially for those who have walked those same East Atlanta streets and witnessed his presence during his most downtrodden days?
If not 6LACK, look no further than East Atlanta’s Santa's transformation from the days of “So Icey.” Where Gucci Mane is today—the redemption he’s been able to achieve—wasn’t a foreseeable future in a not-so-distant past. Left and right, behind the white picket fences and within the mouths of hell, success, victory, and overcoming the depths of the darkest prison cell. You can find it all in the city of dirty birds. Atlanta’s entire music universe is filled with stars who weren’t favored to last long. But they continued to glow, never crashing, never falling, and never turning into a forgotten pile of dust.
I imagine it must be the same way in cities like New York City and Los Angeles, more traditional breeding grounds for rap stars. There's a group of Compton kids who are writing rhymes trying to best Kendrick's latest masterpiece and a whole family tree of aspiring Brooklyn artists dreaming of being the next JAY-Z. When you're born in places with a history of great artists, there's an innate resolve to follow in those footsteps. Even if it isn't in the same field, a Brooklyn doctor is still likely to see Hov as a symbol of what it means to go the distance.
A homeless man once told me there were enough rappers in the world. It was a strange comment, and there’s definitely some validity to his statement, but rappers are important. They’re a constant reminder of what overcoming the odds looks like. Not everyone is destined to make it big, some won’t even make it small, but rap is a profession where you can believe no obstacle can stop you. Living in Atlanta and watching the aliens continue to prosper has constantly reminded me that no circumstance defines you. That excellence, especially black excellence, comes in all shades and creeds. Within music and outside of it, communities are built showcasing the possibility of prominence to those who don’t believe it can be done.
Outside of all the politics and the machine, and all the theories and conspiracies, I truly believe you can manifest desires and dreams. Seeing is believing, and I’ve seen it so often that the idea of going beyond the odds is instilled in me. Sometimes the biggest push is just feeling confident in knowing the mission isn’t impossible.
Atlanta is the city where the impossible is proven wrong. It all begins with having something to say.