Aceyalone “Mr. Outsider”
On “Five O’ Clock Follies”1 Myka-9 reminds his listeners that the cycle of poverty, crime, and death that they witness on a daily basis is directly connected to the global project of neo-colonialism. In doing so, he advocates the idea that the localized human miseries that result from systemic injustice — your homie rotting away in prison for years over minor drug offenses, for example — should inform the content of intelligent, impassioned artistic expressions.
Rappers, conversely should not view their chosen discipline as merely a kind of loud navel-gazing catharsis. One of the most important tasks of the artist whose creative momentum is not trammeled by cynicism or self-doubt is to “translate troubles into issues” for those who are “gripped by personal troubles” but are “not aware of their true meaning and source,” i.e. historical, systemic inequalities.2
Myka’s Freestyle Fellowship compatriots have all embraced this duty in their own ways. On “Mr. Outsider” Aceyalone exorcises the demons of America’s racist past in order to make sense of the modern predicament experienced by members of the permanent underclass. In his view, the poor urban black man of the late 20th century lives a limited, brutish existence and is trapped in a serious of binds that he is often ill-equipped to comprehend, let alone undo.
Invisible to the masses, the poor urban black man pursues grossly underpaid, unsatisfying, even dangerous menial labor because his inferior education affords him few opportunities. The frequent scarcity of even part-time work tempts him to chase the illusory prestige of the illicit drug trade. He settles into an emasculating dependence on government subsidized food, clothing, and shelter. He naively hopes that depotentiated middle class liberals will empathize with his despair and echo his protests by proxy to create a freer and just society. He is targeted by inherently racist laws, policies, and practices that go unchecked and demonized by the media.
The situation is bleak and sometimes terrifying. Production team/ fellow Project Blowed-related rap group The Nonce provides Aceyalone with backing music that fits into the mellow sound of the rest of the album but also sound eerie and even disorienting. Aceyalone steps right into the vaguely macabre sonic fray and utilizes Five Percenter terminology to establish himself as focused, principled voice of truth, a “universal solider, walking in the path of the math.”3 He will march on through the “aftermath” of a declining empire in spite of any attempts to “monitor” or dilute (“graft”) his craft.
From the word “craft” we might surmise that Aceyalone views rapping as a profession that he is proud of and practices according to a set of ethics. Part of his work ethic involves honing his craft, not simply to make the end product more aesthetically appealing, but also to ensure that it reflects the harrowing reality of poverty and disenfranchisement. The erasure of the distinction between the physical work of craft and the intellectual work of art is just one defiant act that prompts the skeptical refrain voiced by frequent collaborator Abstract Rude to insist that “you’re getting outside yourself, boy, you’re getting outside yourself.”
“Getting outside oneself” also involves embracing the idea that the energy and spirit of artistic creation can be channeled towards uncompromised critiques of the status quo. These expressions are no less powerful for being unpopular or even barely perceptible. Outside of the usual spheres of legitimacy (e.g. the workaday world, higher education, society at large) there is a zone where the poor righteous musician can perform songs that vividly describe the horrendous conditions that shape life in South Los Angeles.
The black artist walks “outside of himself” to reflect upon the relationship between his inner and outer life. His attempts to thwart self-annihilation through expression and truth-telling requires a counter-intuitive form of discipline. The institutions that are meant to serve him are inextricably corrupt at worst and woefully incompetent at best. His employment and educational prospects will not provide him with the income or know-how to extricate himself and his family from multi-generational, concentrated poverty. His time is his only truly valuable possession; how he spends it is crucial to his identity.
In a voice full of candor and humility, Aceyalone describes an itinerant existence. He “scrapes the neighborhood lookin’ for odd jobs” and works “on the docks wearin’ a smock.” He tries to make ends meet and “keeps a calm disposition” so he “won’t arouse suspicion.” In this sense, he feels that he is being crafty. He’s getting by, he thinks, or at least he convinces himself that he’s getting by so that he isn’t swept into insanity through constant pessimism. But he knows through experience and observation that he is playing a fixed game, one that permits his limited participation so long as he is mentally dead and devoid of any will to question the morality of his overseers.
In the absence of confusion, however, he is a threat to the existing order. Once he realizes that he is expendable, that his colonial masters can “put a bullet in my head plate/ without all that red tape,” he frees himself from the pressure of attempting to please those who historically refuse to acknowledge his humanity. He devotes his time and energy to things that matter — excelling at emceeing and rendering regressive or creatively bankrupt forms of rapping obsolete — and resists the seduction of illusory rebellion that comes in the form of internecine gang warfare.
Aceyalone recognizes that to be poor and black is to be feared and despised regardless of one’s actual relationship with the larger society. Whether he identifies as a gangster, exploited worker, welfare recipient, activist, or a rapper, he is still the bogeyman of white America’s racist imagination. The difference between these masks is that the full-time rapper —assuming that he retains creative control of his work— is the most likely to live and play defiantly, “bouncin’ around like he’s about to blow the world up / ’cause his mind’s ajar” and devote his life to enlightening himself and others as the “idealistic, realistic mystic from the past / that just gets more intelligent.”
His threat is real because his virtual anonymity makes him harder to track and control. He’s a phantom of sorts, blessed with the poetic aptitude to refer to his hometown “city of the big bang theory” in coded reference to the diametrically opposed energy forces of gang violence and innovative music. His lyrics are dense with slang and his discontent is phrased so as to incite his most perceptive brethren, instruct the hard-headed, and outfox anyone who might monitor his craft. He chooses the role of an outsider that matters, not an aimless “pony boy”4 gang member, but an independently minded individual who uses his art to advocate on the behalf of a collective hungry for new ideas of what it can mean to be black.
Aceylone’s ideas are flawed; unlike Myka-9, he remains wedded to the vocabulary of warfare to champion dissidence, which conflicts with his denunciation of gang violence as unthinking and counterproductive. But he provides his listeners with the tools to formulate their own original thoughts and choose their own paths. At the end of his last verse, he returns “With no guilt, at full tilt, at full speed, at full blast” to the most important truths contained in the song:
Now who killed this lion? Curiosity
Why’s the black man dying? It’ an atrocity
Does history really repeat itself or is it prophecy?
So until I leave my physical shell, there ain’t no stoppin’ me
A preponderance of intellectual curiosity prompted brave figures like Malcolm X to question assumptions about the inherent worth of black life, and paid for their inquiries with their lives. This historical reality, coupled with the day to day death observable in poor black communities, can paralyze the nascent rebel as he questions the very purpose of resisting seemingly invincible power structures. He was not shot out of the womb knowing how “to get involved … and solve all you can solve before your mind dissolves.”
This is exactly the reason that the artist, in this case the ferociously original and uncompromisingly conscious rapper, must step in to provide instruction on how to think and live independently and communally, realistically and optimistically, outside of the stifling parameters of conformity and complicity. His mastery of language and his dedication to refining his execution, combined with an outlook that prizes lifelong learning, will ensure that his rhetoric reaches ears that are normally deaf to such sermons. And so what if you don’t listen to music like that? — Thun
- Very recently I wrote about this song’s still timely critique of US military adventurism. [↩]
- Quotes are from C. Wright Mills’s In The Power Elite, as cited by Chris Hedges in Death Of The Liberal Class. [↩]
- “The Path of the math” refers to the “Supreme Mathematics” of the Five Percenters, but it represents more generally a system of principled resistance to the lies, distractions, and oppression perpetrated by power elites against poor and otherwise powerless populations. When he says “I am an original soldier” as opposed to a “graft” he is referring to the Five Percenter discernment between a poor righteous teacher and a “devil” but the traditional definition of “original” becomes important later on in the song as well. The notion of “originality” being linked to radical political thought is also championed to great effect in The Legion’s “New Niggas.” [↩]
- This is a reference to Ralph Macchio’s character from the 1983 film The Outsiders. [↩]