As a child who grew up in a home where the clouds appear painted above the trees, I used to look up and watch the airplanes glide over the neighborhood houses like swans in the sky. They represented, in my young eyes, the steady grace one should have when arriving and departing.
I arrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on March 11, 2020, and departed four days later on a plane as empty as the one that brought me. I sat alone both times, mask over face, gloves over hands, with enough disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer to last weeks if used sparingly. As news about COVID-19 became widespread through media outlets, even the softest sneeze began to sound deadly.
Several days before my flight, a friend—who is an OKC native—told me, “No one in Oklahoma has corona[virus].” She was sure of this fact without a stat or statistic to back up her claim. In retrospect, if she didn’t boost my confidence, there’s a chance I would have canceled the entire trip.
If I didn’t arrive on that early Wednesday morning, I would have missed out on meeting former Dallas Cowboys running back, Felix Jones Jr. The Oklahoma native was conversing with two Black men outside the home he purchased in 2016, as a classmate from his days at Booker T. Washington High School gave me a tour of downtown Tulsa.
Felix’s former classmate, Chris Davis, picked me up from the Hyatt Regency in his black Jeep Cherokee around 4 p.m. My first interaction with Chris happened over email sometime after I agreed to participate in the press trip which brought me to Tulsa. It was back in January, the 21st, to be exact, when I received the initial email requesting my attendance. Here’s the opening paragraph:
“Pop culture (i.e. HBO’s Watchmen) and news stories have recently resurfaced a dark moment in US history, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. Almost a century after a white mob burned and decimated 40 square blocks of the affluent black neighborhood of Greenwood, aka ‘Black Wall Street,’ the Tulsa community continues its path to healing and acknowledging the trauma of this event.“Please join us March 12-15, 2020, for a weekend in Tulsa centered around Fire in Little Africa, a collaborative album project led by 60+ of Oklahoma’s leading rappers, visual artists, and musicians, commemorating the centennial anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. We invite you to get to know the people, music, and art that contribute to the city’s unique vibe, sound, and community spirit. ”
My lack of knowledge about the Tulsa race massacre drove my attendance. I knew nothing of Tulsa or the Race Massacre that occurred 99 years ago. I replied to the email with my interest to fly in a day early. They organizers obliged. When Chris, one of the executive producers on the Fire in Little Africa album, asked if I wanted to attend an intergenerational hip-hop panel, hosted by 9th Wonder and Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, on the day of my arrival, I knew the trip would be special. Still, I didn’t think I would be shaking hands with a 2008 first-round draft pick.
Admittedly, Chris didn’t expect his old friend to be standing in front of the mansion that formerly belonged to W. Tate Brady, one of Tulsa’s controversial forefathers. The economic achievements he made in oil and with his hotel, Hotel Brady, made the entrepreneur and politician a big man during the late 1800s and throughout the early 1900s.
After introductions were made, I asked Felix about growing up around the corner from Brady Mansion.
“I wanted to come to the front door, but never did,” the 33-year-old retired running back told me. “It was something about the house I didn’t want to touch.”
Back in February, pop culture and feature writer Jimmie Tramel interviewed Tulsa hip-hop artist and Fire In Little Africa lead Steph Simon about the Brady home for the Tulsa World. Felix and Steph—both were outside when Chris and I walked up—invited us inside for a tour of the three-story mansion. The lack of furniture made each room in the house feel desolate and discarded—as if no one but ghosts could live in the lifeless gray. The space was crafted beautifully, though—every nook and cranny carved to make the home fit for a royal aristocrat.
When the Brady Mansion went up for sale in 2016, Felix was able to claim the house he always wanted.
“Brady was a participant in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre that ravaged an area known as Black Wall Street. It was, at the time, the wealthiest black community in the country. Now Brady’s former home is owned by NFL running back Felix Jones, a Booker T. Washington High School grad, and it will be the site of Born on Black Wall Street: Unplugged featuring Simon and other music artists.” –“Turning the page: Former Brady Mansion, now owned by retired NFL player, to host 'Born on Black Wall Street' concert”
By 2016, W. Tate Brady’s history as a member of the Ku Klux Klan had affected his notoriety in the town that commemorated him. The city chose to change the name of Brady Heights to The Heights; Brady Street became M.B. Brady Street, and now it’s Reconciliation Way. Most recently, in 2018, the city announced that Brady Theater would now be known as The Tulsa Theater.
“I feel a chill every time I walk in there,” Chris said. It was then that they told me Tate Brady ended his life in the kitchen. As the three explained how the Brady Mansion would be turned into a studio for the Fire In Little Africa recording sessions happening that weekend, I shuddered at the thought of a rap album being recorded in a haunted house.
Fire In Little Africa, much like Revenge of the Dreamers III, is a compilation album set for release in 2021 to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. Artists, musicians, and producers from all over Oklahoma gathered in hopes of earning a spot on the album. The community aspect intrigued me. I was excited to see the kind of music that would be made from artists in a city with hip-hop that was new to me.
We left soon after our tour, and as he drove away, Chris said something that struck me:
“Once you hear more about the history, you’re gonna see why it makes perfect sense that there’s a hip-hop scene here in Tulsa.” –Chris Davis
Chris and I arrived at Circle Cinema before the start of 9th Wonder and Dr. Neal’s panel, Fear of A Black Consciousness: Chuck D and Nipsey Hussle. The entire hour and 30-minute conversation is available for stream on YouTube. I highly recommend it; a well-timed discourse for a hip-hop industry wrestling with civil unrest, police brutality, COVID-19, and several untimely deaths.
During the talk, 9th Wonder made a comment I haven’t stopped thinking about over the last three months: “You have the Black Lives Matter hashtag, [but] where’s the soundtrack for it? You need a soundtrack to go along with this beautiful hashtag this generation has created.” He‘s right. Every revolutionary movement in America, post-1900s, has had musical accompaniment.
Now, three months later, that question is even more relevant. Where’s the soundtrack? Who is making music for a post-COVID-19 2020? Who is making the protest songs for a post-George Floyd 2020? And asking these questions isn’t to say there aren’t songs out there.
But here is a question for the reader: Who do you view as the modern-day Chuck D? Who are you leaning on to reconcile the feeling of anger in your bones? For the sorrow in your heart?
Listening to 9th Wonder and Dr. Mark Anthony Neal speak about Chuck D is how I imagine men in the future will talk of Kendrick Lamar and the late Nipsey Hussle. Two rappers who influenced a way of thinking, not just a way of rapping. Who had the mind and spirit to release music with the words that could expand the listener’s consciousness. That’s a heavy burden to bear, but someone has to carry it.
As I entered my hotel room later that evening, I continued to wonder who the next Chuck D would be. I laughed, thinking about the irony of Jay Electronica releasing his debut album, A Written Testimony, at midnight on a day that felt unreal. I went from Georgia to Oklahoma, from my home into the Brady Mansion, from being worried about COVID-19 to wondering why my school didn’t teach us about the Tulsa race massacre.
I opened my phone, scrolling through Twitter, and noticed a message about the NBA. The league announced the 2020 season would be suspended after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for Coronavirus.
“A preliminary positive result came back right before tip-off of the Utah Jazz-Oklahoma City game,” Jeff Zillgitt wrote for USAToday. I thought about the friend who told me that no one in Oklahoma had “corona.”
I looked out my hotel window, viewing the swans, wondering where the world would go from here.