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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

Page 2 of 2

St. Louis rapper and activist Tef Poe leads a march through downtown St. Louis on October 11, 2014. - PHOTO BY BARRETT EMKE
  • Photo by Barrett Emke
  • St. Louis rapper and activist Tef Poe leads a march through downtown St. Louis on October 11, 2014.

And then there's sometime RFT contributor Tef Poe, St. Louis' most visible underground rapper.

On the night Brown was killed, Tef was slated to perform at a party at Blank Space on Cherokee Street. Before the show started he went to Instagram to post a flier. That's when he first saw photos of the slain Ferguson teen.

"From there I was drawn into the situation," he explains. "I knew I would be involved to some level, but I didn't honestly think this deeply. But I don't think any of us really knew that this was going to become what it became."

Tef grew up in the Ferguson/Dellwood area; his mother still lives there. For this to be happening in the place he played as a child was surreal.

"I remembered growing up and standing at the corner of West Florissant and Chambers, and I would watch all the cars go through the intersection as I tried to cross the street," he says. "And I would stand there and think, 'This is the center of my universe.' I don't know what the center of the universe looks like for anyone else, but for me at that time, growing up — that was it."

See also: Tef Poe On Ferguson, His Hometown: "The Mike Brown Rebellion Has Begun"

Before going to Blank Space that night, Tef and his manager, Jay Stretch, went to Canfield Drive to take in the scene.

"At that time, nothing was really happening; there wasn't any violence going on," Tef says. "The community was just out standing around, trying to grieve and trying to figure out what was happening. When I left, that's when I saw maybe 30 cop cars swarm into Canfield and get out with their dogs.

"It felt like we were living in a small town, somewhere deep in Georgia that nobody knew about," he continues. "You would have thought Ferguson was Jena [Louisiana] — like it was going to be the next Jena Six or something."

Throughout the show, Tef couldn't help but think about what he had witnessed, even as social-media feeds filled with images from the increasingly tense scene. He went home, slept, and then went to the Ferguson Police Department the next day to protest.

In the months since, he has become one of the most recognizable faces on the ground in Ferguson, helping to organize sit-ins and protests all over town, penning pieces for publications including Time, Huffington Post and Riverfront Times, being interviewed by CNN, MSNBC, BBC and BET, and even flying to Geneva, Switzerland, with Brown's parents to address the United Nations.

See also: Tef Poe Honored By National Association of Black Journalists for RFT Music Column

But it hasn't been all green rooms and high-profile bylines.

"I've honestly damaged my career more than I've helped it with the Ferguson situation," he says. "Some people have forgotten that I was a rapper to begin with. I've lost some of my core white fans because they take some of the things I said the wrong way. The pressure of being an artist and an activist in this situation — I wouldn't wish that upon anyone."

Beyond that, he adds, "In the midst of all this, I really didn't have time to focus on rap records."

Tef finally broke his musical silence on November 12 with "War Cry." Billed as a "Jay Nixon Diss Record," the track lays into many politicians and public officials who were involved with the situation in Ferguson. The profanity-laced song has the feel of a battle-rap record. At one point, Tef raps, "The system's full of snakes; the governor can't fix it/With every breath of my body it's fuck Jay Nixon."

See also: Four Public Officials Tef Poe Motherfucks in New Diss Track "War Cry"

The song was inspired in part by a speech Nixon gave announcing the formation of the Ferguson Commission, which the rapper watched on TV.

"He quoted something that I had said in the speech. He said, 'As one protester said, "This is not your father's civil-rights movement."' That's basically a direct soundbite," Tef recalls. "So everybody that I was with, we all started looking at each other like, 'What the hell, man? Really, Jay Nixon? For real?'"

Tef was unimpressed with the governor's plan; Nixon had "dropped the ball," he says. In an interview with MSNBC, the rapper pointed out that "all types of commissions" were started by officials after the civil-rights movement of the late '60s. This was just more business as usual.

"So with that being said, I felt obligated to respond to that," Tef continues. "I'm a rapper, so my response was a rap record."

Now ten months removed from the height of the unrest, Tef has gotten back to the business of creating music. Through the protests he got close to another local rapper, T-Dubb-O, who also spent considerable time on the frontlines. At one point the two were slated to meet with President Obama, though flight delays caused Tef to miss the opportunity: "By the time I got to D.C., the meeting was already over."

Since getting to know each other in Ferguson, the two emcees have forged a musical partnership. T-Dubb-O is part of the recently launched Delmar Records label, alongside St. Louis artists Indiana Rome, Legend Camp, James K, Tech Supreme and Average Jo. Tef, who serves as the label's president, says that their shared experiences strengthened their ties.

"I've always wanted to align myself with T-Dubb; I've always respected his talent and I see a lot of myself in him," Tef explains. "So when everything pops off in Ferguson, I was with him every day — we've gotten to know each other really well. In the midst of that we decided to form an independent label, primarily because we were both starting to look at the challenges that we are going to face being so connected to the Ferguson uprising."

While the Ferguson connection may bring obstacles, it has already resulted in passionate music from artists all over the St. Louis area, and Tef's upcoming War Machine 3 and T-Dubb's upcoming The Drop that Spilled the Cup will assuredly broach the subject in unique ways.

As for Mvstermind, he hopes the tragedy will birth some groundbreaking art in the St. Louis region.

"I've seen some folks in St. Louis just make some good-ass music that wouldn't have came without this situation allowing people to tap into different areas, different emotions," he says. "Any turmoil can turn into artistic triumph, you know what I mean?

"When you have the world pressing against you, it makes the most beautiful diamond."

See the rest of our Music Issue:

How the Grove Became the City's Hottest Neighborhood for Live Music

A Thriving Studio Scene Is Giving St. Louis Musicians More Options Than Ever


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