Chicago Rapper Add-2’s Journey Through Blackness: Interview

“You give us scraps, and we make soul food.”
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Add-2, 2020

After a four-year hiatus, Chicago rapper Add-2 returned this past November to deliver his third studio album. Add-2’s last release, 2015’s Prey For The Poor, showcases the 33-year-old’s lyrical dexterity while speaking on issues in the black community. In his return to the microphone, the artist born Andre DiJuan Daniels set out to accomplish two goals: Getting himself back into rhyming shape, and making something with a strong message. 

Jim Crow the Musical is a journey through the black experience—its joy and pain, struggles and triumphs, and everything in between. Over 19 tracks, Add-2 dives deep into black history and culture, flowing from the imagery of black girls braiding hair on the porch and HBCU marching bands to police brutality, lynching, and finding hope in a higher power.

On “3 Fifs,” Add-2 wrestles with the feelings of being dehumanized. On “Maintain,” he weaves through the trials of life, passing on the knowledge of how to survive despite the obstacles placed before him. “Souls 4 Sale” talks about gaining the world but losing the things that mean more than money and fame. On “Jump the Broom,” he touches on the power of love and finding liberation within each other.

“We can find a way to smile through the pain,” Add-2 tells me regarding the black experience. “You give us scraps, and we make soul food. You give us the least amount, and somehow, someway, we make it great. We are brilliant. But that brilliance doesn’t come without adversity.”

DJBooth spoke with Add-2 about his inspirations for the album, incorporating different points of African American culture and history in his lyrics, and tackling themes like “love, hate, joy, pain, the beauty of life, and the got’ damn system.”

Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

Add-2, 2020

What inspired you to make Jim Crow the Musical? What did you want listeners to get out of the album?

I wanted to paint a clear picture of what it meant to be black in 2019. I also tried to draw parallels between the black experience—dealing with oppression from generations ago and how it’s still present but in a more subtle way. I wanted to use my platform to explain what it means to be black. At times, the album is a celebration; at times, it’s a tragedy. But the balance of both is what the album is about—putting joy, sadness, and resilience in the form of creativity, satire, and music.

“Hashtag” is a powerful song about police brutality and how, as a society, we have become desensitized to shootings. What does the song mean to you?

[“Hashtag”] means a lot to me. So many of us have negative experiences with the cops. When I get pulled over, there’s always a thought in the back of my mind that I’m not in control of this situation. I know I have insurance, everything’s paid for, I haven’t done anything wrong, but if something goes slightly wrong and he or she feels threatened, I could lose my life. When I was making the song, I tapped into all the anger and frustration I’ve felt over the years. It feels like it’s never going to end, just new names with slightly different details. I wanted to fight but also felt powerless and hurt. Sadly, we have to pass that fear and trauma down to survive.

In several satirical skits, you allude to minstrelsy. Many artists believe the industry rewards those who perform the more stereotypical forms of blackness. How do you maintain your integrity and resist the pressure to make music that fits into a certain box?

When I was younger, I saw it from the more stereotypical “artist’s journey”—you travel up the ranks, get on TV or the radio, get successful and retire rich and famous in that lifestyle. But as I maneuvered through it, I started to see more artists that weren’t happy. I saw what they had to do for stability and the line that they teetered, how some [artists] I thought were all about morals, and the culture had to do questionable things. It made me look at the game honestly. 

Now, my understanding isn’t the smoke and mirrors, but the business. I knew I had to draw the line before I even stepped up to it. I have to define who I am before they define me, decide what I’m responsible and accountable for. I also mentor a lot, so I see how a song we think is catchy or just pop culture becomes the culture and affects a generation. Sometimes I overthink what I say [and] how I present myself because I want to hold myself accountable.

On the album, you employ quotes from seminal black figures like James Baldwin, Assata Shakur, Malcolm X, and others. What do these icons in the black community mean to you, and why did you incorporate them into the music?

They’re all figures who could contextualize the black experience well. They loved us and wanted us to love ourselves more. When I would listen to James Baldwin interviews, I would be like, “Wow, he understands us.” Malcolm X and Assata knew the laws, they knew what oppression looked like, they knew they were right, and they wanted us to love ourselves enough to protect ourselves. They knew justice wouldn’t just happen to us; we had to demand. So I wanted to highlight them so people can go back and research what they talked about and stood for.

“Willie Gets Lynched” is an allusion to the “Willie Lynch letter,” a theory of how to keep black people in mental slavery. Among scholars of African American history, there’s a consensus that the letter is more likely than not a fabrication. What were you trying to convey in the song by using that reference?

So there are two different sides. The first verse is from the perspective of a person in the process of getting lynched, their last thoughts. It would drive me to tears when I would see photos of people getting lynched, [how] it was like a show—whole towns would come out, bring their kids, selling popcorn. It was heartbreaking to [imagine] this was the last thing you would see leaving this world.

The second verse alluded to the letter. It was unfounded, but it’s still prevalent in terms of understanding how to control people using certain tactics. I said, “What would it look like in 2019?” It would still be about dividing and turning people against each other, placing doubt and fear, and watching chaos happen. I wanted to show how we are still trapped and playing into certain things and aren’t free until we learn what is done to all of us. I wanted people to walk away a little more aware of the things we perpetuate and what we can do to unplug from those things.

There is a tension present on the album between gospel impulses and the skepticism of those who use religion to justify oppression. How do you wrestle with this dichotomy?

When you put it in the context of slavery, religion was used as a form of control. People would use certain scriptures to justify obeying the master. But there were also ways slaves would communicate with each other through spirituals and hymns. The faith amid the darkness kept people going. But there are moments where I’m wrestling with it. Like, “God, I know you love us, but why are you letting these things happen to us?” Then other moments, like the last song, I’m thanking God. I’m soul searching and seeing that through the midst of all the turmoil, I’m still finding joy in life.

Lastly, one of the central narrative arcs of the album is movement from struggle to hope. What gives you hope?

One thing that gives me hope is watching our creativity. We can make jokes or dances or art out anything, and to watch every generation have that is beautiful—when I see women supporting each other, couples, families loving each other through brokenness, forgiving each other, learning how to love [oneself], all that gives me hope. There are so many ways where it feels like it’s illegal to be us. So celebrating and embracing each other gives me joy. It lets me know there’s still some good and light in this world, and I don’t have to be afraid of it like the world wants me to be.

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