Ezra Pound famously declared, “The artist is the antenna of the race, the barometer and voltmeter,” and media theorist Marshall McLuhan similarly described the societal importance of art which he saw “at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.” To wit, through a suffocating miasma of mendacity and mainstream junk, Detroit MC Kevlaar 7, of the Wu-Tang-affiliated crew the Wisemen, has remained tuned in to the energies imbuing our epoch, the “pungent smells of classism and oppression,” as he describes it. His new EP, Who Got the Camera?, was released digitally last month while the streets of Cairo erupted—timely for a record that deals entirely with issues of social upheaval and revolution. Now, as swaths of the globe have descended into chaos and political friction in the U.S. has turned into street demonstrations, Who Got the Camera? sees a physical release.
The EP is densely packed with gritty, underground hip-hop scraped up from the Rust Belt, though its composite emotional energy occasionally transcends the boundaries of genre. At heart, it’s a lyrical manifestation of the messages of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and modern minds like Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West. Kevlaar delivers mounds of information, facts, and vivid imagery, but he does it through a purling flow of wordplay and rhymes that often become aphorisms. “Through my words, I’m trying to physically reach you,” he says at one point, and we realize this record is an attempt at social change through musical telekinesis. There’s a thoughtful sequence to it all as well: The somnolent strings that open the EP on “Empires” lead to expressions of incrementally increasing frustration that culminates in a “call for justice!” on the title track before settling with a somber, reflective conclusion on the last two songs.
The EP’s biggest highlight, “I Have a Dream,” is an impassioned, lengthy verse that closely parallels the imagery and message of Dr. King’s famous speech while delivering a number of profound statements like “Storms of persecution should spark swarms of revolutions.” Kevlaar expresses frustration not only for the abuse of power around the world, but even the failures of hip-hop, lamenting that “the mainstream is bubbling, showing zero substance, I’ve had enough and passion’s doubling.”
A highly skilled producer himself, Kevlaar decided, for the sake of the record’s unifying message, to involve underground producers from all around the world, limiting his own production to two tracks. His ear for instrumentals is precise though, and the EP maintains a definite cohesiveness throughout. His brother, Bronze Nazareth, the latest master from the Wu-Tang school of the arts, supplies one of the best beats on “Why Me (Tears),” with horns, hard drums, and a humming vocal sample looped in between the soul-stirring chorus of “Tears have erased most of the words.”
The beat on “Garden of Eden” thumps with the urgency of a conspiracy movie’s score and Kevlaar jumps all over it with a heavy verse that weaves in a concise deciphering of the ubiquity of the Christ archetype (“attributes shared by Krishna, Attis, and Mithra”) and noting that our nation “use[s] theology as a gun” before delving into 9/11 conspiracy theories and the unregulated economic system that “allowed demons to run wild.” The meaning behind Who Got the Camera?’s title becomes apparent toward the end of the EP, when his laundry list of injustices reaches its most unsettling point. Kevlaar dedicates the title track to everybody who was murdered by the police or who’s been the victim of police brutality. After reading a distressingly long list of names of people like Oscar Grant, he finishes with the story of seven-year-old Aiyana Jones, a little girl from Detroit who was killed in her sleep when the police raided the wrong apartment. (This occurred while A&E documentary cameras were filming and yet the police still managed to orchestrate a cover-up.)
There’s a cathartic transition to a very personal, soulful track imploring for change, in which Kevlaar shares his hopes, fears, and tragedies over lambent piano: “My cousin he was killed over ignorance, lived two decades, statistics/Auntie cried in our arms at the service, and when they closed the casket, our future was trapped in it.” Carl Dix provides an evocative voiceover about the epidemic of police brutality in inner cities, which he claims one can usually only escape through prison or the military, “becoming trained mass murderers and fighting the system’s wars around the world.” As those last lines are spoken, a soul sample croons, “this world!” over fading flutes and we’re right back where we started.