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FIRE IN LITTLE AFRICA: SHADOW OF A MASSACRE

Dr. View was sizing them up.

It was 2019 and the Texas-born educator aka Stevie Johnson—an outspoken academic who earned a PhD in higher-education administration from the University of Oklahoma and who also happens to be a DJ—was asked by the representatives of Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center and Bob Dylan Center if he would consider taking the position of Manager of Education and Diversity Outreach. “I’m a very blunt, transparent guy,” he says, recalling that fateful meeting, “so I asked, “What do you want with a 30-year-old hip-hop head, and how would I fit in with Guthrie, who is folk music, and Dylan, who is one of the GOATS of white rock music?”

The centers were looking to expand their cultural reach beyond their largely white purview. Dr. View was intrigued. But when he asked the heads of these public museums if they had any plans to observe the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, they said no. That’s when Dr. View saw the future. The answer to his question, it turned out, was simple enough.

“I said, ‘Let me executive produce a hip-hop compilation album to commemorate Tulsa’s Greenwood community,” he says of the idea that two years later has evolved into the timely project Fire in Little Africa, distributed by Motown Records/Black Forum in partnership with the Guthrie and Dylan Centers.

The 21-track statement, featuring a diverse collective of Oklahoma hip-hop artists and no less than The Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson, was inspired by the horrific events of 5/31-6/1, 1921, when a white mob attacked the predominantly African-American Tulsa district of Greenwood, nicknamed “the Black Wall Street,” by many estimates the wealthiest neighborhood in Black America.

Men, women and children were killed, some by lynching. More than 60 businesses were burned to the ground and 1,200 homes destroyed. City officials deputized many of the perpetrators and supplied them with weapons. Privately owned airplanes dropped kerosene bombs on victims. When the smoke cleared after 18 hours of carnage, an entire community—and more than 35 square blocks—had been wiped off the map, leaving as many as 300 people dead and 10,000 African-Americans homeless. In 2020 dollars, the damage amounted to upwards of $33 million.

“Greenwood represented the closest thing to the promised land in America,” Dr. View explains. “The entrepreneurial spirit, the innovation… It could be described as an African-American utopia. And within 15 years of the massacre, some homes were rebuilt; some people had money, people had resources and there were folks who were willing to help and support. I think on some level that’s what we’re trying to do here—‘Everything is us’ is the model.”

It was important to drive home the Black Wall Street’s empowering message, of course, but the music still had to bang. Dr. View originally planned for Fire in Little Africa to feature exclusively Tulsa acts and local community activists. But, impressed by J. Cole’s 2019 compilation Revenge of the Dreamers III—recorded in a blistering 10 days, with invitations to participate issued to 343 artists and producers and 142 songs recorded during the sessions—he and his team, which includes Tulsa rapper and co-executive producer Steph Simon, expanded the talent pool to the entire state and hit the ground at a furious pace, cutting 143 songs in five days.  

“That’s a lot of content,” says a matter-of-fact Dr. View of the marathon recording sessions that took place at spaces including the Greenwood Cultural Center and the home of former NFL first-round draft pick and Tulsa native Felix Jones—which had previously been owned by massacre mastermind and KKK leader Tate Brady.

“People ask me, ‘How did you even knock that down?’” Dr. View continues. “But there wasn’t any pressure. I leaned heavy on Steph, Dialtone, St. Domonick and the others. I told them, ‘I just want to be of service… to be a vessel for you all. But you have to let me know who fits the entrepreneurial mindset, the selflessness, the non-ego—artists not just thinking about themselves.’ We needed dope artists and talent, but we also needed artists who fit what Black Wall Street represents.”

The 50-plus artists featured on Fire in Little Africa deliver a defiant message that’s as much a celebration of how far the children of Greenwood have come as it is a mournful tribute to those who lost their lives in the bloody, racially motivated rampage.

On the powerful “City of Dreams,” Ray June, T-Mase and Tony Foster Jr. recount the arrest of a 19-year-old Black shoeshiner, Dick Rowland, who was falsely accused of assaulting a 17-year-old white girl, which sparked the massacre. The surreal chorus lays it out: “I had a dream it was May 29th/ I was sitting in a cell/ They were playing with my life/ Now the tension gettin’ high/ I could feel it in the night/ If I’m wrong, if I right/ We won’t go without a fight.”

The triumphant “Shining” provides ample room for the spiritual descendants of the Black Wall Street to flex for the ancestors over a strutting ’70s soul groove. “Christ, I’m off in Tate Brady’s kitchen/ Writing up a million-dollar mission,” celebrates Simon. “We’re what it looks like when we got our own backs,” Jerica proclaims on the single, which also features Dialtone and vocalist Ayilla. “We what it looks like when we build it back Black/ We what it looks like in 100 years’ time/ Got the audacity to walk up out these ashes and shine... We shining!”

And on the jam “Party Plane,” Tulsa native son and R&B legend Charlie Wilson, lead singer of The Gap Band, joins the Fire in Little Africa crew for a reimagining of “Party Train,” a #3 R&B hit in 1983 for The Gap Band, which got its name from the Greenwood streets Greenwood, Archer and Pine.

It took more than a year to recruit the Grammy nominee, a platinum staple with brothers Ronnie and Robert on 1980s Black radio who enjoyed a solo resurgence in the 2000’s working with everyone from Pharrell and Snoop Dogg to Kanye West. But Dr. View says it was well worth it, recalling, “An artist who was on that ‘Party Plane’ called me very emotional and said, ‘Man, you don’t know what this means to me. The fact that I grew up in Tulsa, in Thug Town, around gang violence… I’ve never been able to see myself as someone who would be on a record with Charlie Wilson.’ These were lifelong childhood dreams manifesting.”

And there’s plenty more work to do, including educating the millions who’ve never heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre, a historic event rarely taught in schools (not even in Oklahoma until 2020). Thanks to the support of the Guthrie and Dylan centers and Motown chairman and CEO Ethiopia Habtemariam, the Fire in Little Africa team is doing all they can to help change that. In addition to the album and various forms of community outreach, two weekly podcasts, Fire in Little Africa and the Dr. View-hosted Fireside, are putting flesh on the bones of this nearly forgotten narrative.

“This began simply as an educational project, bearing witness to a massacre that happened 100 years ago,” says Dr. View. “But somehow we managed to gather 60 unsigned creators from the State of Oklahoma, not what you would call a major market, on an album released by Motown. The impact this has had on these kids and the young people hearing this music is beyond me… beyond all of us.” 

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