Speech's arrested development
TVT Records through Mushroom
Review by Norm Dixon
In the early 1990s, an unpretentious and very political hip hop band briefly achieved worldwide popularity. Arrested Development starkly contradicted the media and record company-invented images imposed on hip hop bands.
Rather than being cartoon character gun-toting, urban "gangstas" obsessed by greed, Arrested Development emphasised their "down home" southern, rural roots and a deep concern with solidarity, social justice and anti-racism.
Rather than mouthing misogynist abuse at black women, Arrested Development criticised sexist attitudes in the African-American community. Rather than tedious bragging about macho sexual conquests, criminal feats and hedonism, Arrested Development advocated black unity, pride, rebellion and revolution.
During Arrested Development's 1993 Australian tour, 10,000 Sydney punters, with fists raised, joined them in chanting "Power to the people!". Arrested Development openly identified with the struggle of the Aboriginal people. Soon after South African people voted to end apartheid in 1994, Arrested Development appeared there at the concert to celebrate Soweto Day â the day to mark the 1976 student uprising.
Drawing inspiration from the Last Poets, the revolutionary funk poets of the 1960s and '70s, Arrested Development's two albums â their 1992 hit 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of ... and the far less popular 1994 Zingalamaduni â were full of raps that urged young African-Americans to fight the racist system and identify as "Africans" (those who recognise their oppression and join the struggle), not as "niggas" (those who submit to oppression and become the system's accomplices by preying on their own community).
This idea was summed up in "Give a Man a Fish": "Got to get political/ Political I gotta get/ Grown but I can't handle my own/ This government needs to be overthrown/ Brothers with their AKs and their 9mms/ Need to learn how to correctly shoot them/ Save those rounds for revolution/ Poor whites and blacks, bumrushing the system."
The co-author of those words, along with most of Arrested Development's most political and inspiring songs, was Speech. In Sydney in 1993, Speech explained the role his songs play in overcoming censorship, racism and sexism:
"Music can't break down those barriers but it can inspire people to break them down. No-one should ever take away the power of the people. Ultimately it's up to the people to make those changes, and I hope the music can motivate and inspire people to say, 'Yeah, I can do this'."
Hoopla is Speech's first solo album. From the first listen, much of what made Arrested Development's albums such a refreshing addition to hip hop is present: laid back, pleasing beats; funky and folky vibes; intelligent and inventive arrangements; thoughtful and insightful lyrics; aural skits; and an unassuming, friendly tone.
Yet something huge is missing. Where's the politics? Where's the social criticism? The call for radical change? Perhaps Speech has listened too closely to the record company insisting that politics and controversy are a "turn-off", listeners don't like to be "preached at", it's time to "mature" as an artist.
The last thing we need is another once political artist convinced that trotting out the same boring "lurv" themes that millions of others have churned out before represents "maturity".
In place of militancy, Speech concentrates on essentially conservative themes of home, family (including his pet dog, Yin!) and relationships. Whereas Arrested Development's references to religion were a form of militant "liberation theology" (check "Fishin' 4 Religion" on 3 Years ...), Speech now promotes a more passive "faith".
Highlights include a stirring take on Bob Marley's classic "Redemption Song" and "The Hey Song", which includes the famous rousing chorus of the 4 Non Blondes' tune.
Hoopla is a superior pop/hip hop/soul album and well worth acquiring on that basis, but if you were hoping it would be a continuation of Arrested Development's political rhymes, you'll be disappointed.
Speech is on the web at <http://www.speech vagabond.com>.