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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

How St. Louis' Hip-Hop Community Thrived in a Year of Social Unrest

Posted By on Wed, Jun 17, 2015 at 7:00 AM

Five of the six members of MME -- a hip-hop collective making big waves through its music in the post-Ferguson era. - PHOTO BY COREY MILLER
  • Photo by Corey Miller
  • Five of the six members of MME -- a hip-hop collective making big waves through its music in the post-Ferguson era.

The lights are dimmed at the Luminary on Cherokee Street, where roughly 200 hip-hop fans have gathered for a special event showcasing the work of St. Louis' MME collective, a tight group of local artists who have been making big noise in the last year. Photos from a recent West Coast outing hang on a wall close to the front of the building, and a stash of merch sits in plain sight for anyone walking through the door. But no one is interested in any of that right now. It is the end of a long night, and the focus is on the stage.

The June 4 show kicked off this year's LAB series at the Luminary, a multimedia affair that pairs live performance with video projection. Each member of MME — Dante Wolfe, Mir, Lyrique, Con, Ciej and Mvstermind — has already performed individually before joining forces à la Voltron to close out the show with a group set.

See also: St. Louis Hip-Hop Trailblazers MME Get a Showcase at the Luminary

As they prepare to perform the final song of the night, the group's de facto leader, Mvstermind, looks sweaty but determined. "We gotta do this shit for this city, man," he says. "Keep cultivating."

The opening strains of "#OPFERGUSON WAVE2" rise over the sound system as someone grabs a mic, shouting a phrase that has become all too familiar for anyone living in the St. Louis area.

"Rest in peace Mike Brown!"

The crowd erupts into cheers.

In the ten months since Michael Brown was shot to death by then-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, St. Louis' hip-hop scene has been at the forefront of artistic dissent in the region. Sharp criticism of the state of policing has led to protest-style lyrics and musical rallying cries, bringing international attention to a community that hasn't seen a breakout commercial act in years.

Some artists, including Tef Poe and T-Dubb-O, have attracted new audiences by setting their music to the side and picking up protest signs and bullhorns instead. Their frequent interviews with international media organizations and appearances at the White House and the United Nations have revealed the folly in dismissing a hip-hop artist as "just a rapper." In fact, the genre's street-level view and relative agility serve as its greatest strengths, enabling artists to react quickly to issues of social injustice.

"#OPFERGUSON WAVE2," for example, was written and released in one day — a day that began when MME's members attempted to participate in a more traditional form of protest.

At a Clayton rally a few days after Brown's death, Mvstermind explains, "We got a chance to talk on the megaphone and everything. But I swear, people were just driving by, some people wasn't even looking, some people might honk the horn and yell some cuss words. And I was just like, 'What the hell? The purpose of this is not working — for me at least.' So I was like, 'Yo, let's go hit the lab, y'all; let's go and knock this track out.'"

Mvstermind, performing at The Luminary. - PHOTO BY BREA PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo by Brea Photography
  • Mvstermind, performing at The Luminary.

Back in the studio, he had one overriding impulse: "Whatever we do, we gotta release this track today."

Artistic expression wound up being a much better fit for the group.

"We ended up just writing that song on the spot and releasing it hours later," Mvstermind says.

See also: St. Louis Hip-Hop Artists Prince Ea and MME Release New Pieces Inspired by Michael Brown

The powerful track is rooted deeply in current events, with "don't shoot" repeated again and again as its closing lyrics. The group released a video for the song, shot by Mike Roth of Louis Quatorze video production, which features Mir, Con and Mvstermind. Each rapper delivers one verse, starting in the street and walking toward the camera before arriving at his home and posing with his family. The overall message: Behind every kid on the street is a life and a group of people who love him. These young men aren't an anonymous "other" — they are us.

The video was released on September 24. Two weeks later, on October 8, eighteen-year-old Vonderrit Myers Jr. died in a shootout with an off-duty police officer in south St. Louis. The incident brought the Ferguson protests to St. Louis proper, with already-high tensions and distrust of the police narrative fueling participants' anger.

Myers' death took place ten minutes after he purchased a sandwich at the Shaw Market, located at the corner of Shaw Avenue and Klemm Street. By coincidence, that corner also happens to be the same spot where the "#OPFERGUSON WAVE2" video opens, with Mir rapping in the street, the corner store visible behind him.

"I was trying to interpret it in so many different ways. Like, what did that mean?" Mvstermind says. "To me personally, I feel like the universe has its ways of just showing how everything is connected, you know what I mean? I'm not exactly sure what is the deeper meaning, but I know that that wasn't just no pure coincidence."

MME wasn't the only local hip-hop group to respond in the early days of the Ferguson unrest. Souls of Liberty released "Stay Alive (RIP Mike Brown)" just two days after Brown's death. Prince Ea filmed a spoken-word piece at the burned-out QuikTrip, "Michael Brown, Same Story," which has garnered nearly 100,000 views since it was uploaded on August 13. Mathias & the Pirates, Chris Grindz, Jah Orah & KD Assassin, Bo Dean, Domino Effect, Arshad Goods, TheBlackBruceWayne, members of the FarFetched collective, Doorway and seemingly countless others would each offer a take as the months wore on. For these artists, music served as an outlet, a way to work through the emotions of a very difficult time.

Next: Rapper Tef Poe becomes a national figure through activism -- to the detriment of his music career.

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