Black Future: Oklahoma City-based rapper Jabee finds his place in time
for The Oklahoman / NewsOK / LOOKatOKC
Oklahoma City rapper Jabee Williams’ new album, “In the Black Future, There’s a Place So Dangerously Absurd” — or simply “Black Future” — opens with a reading of the poem that inspired its title. In the poem’s imagined black future, language, education, hope and hard work are the means to moving forward.
“In the black future,” it reads …
We give more than requested
Work harder than required
And believe in the unrealistic
Written by Oklahoma City poet Najah-Amatullah Hylton, the poem was commissioned for a concert of Jabee’s that never came to pass. After being inspired by a similar show he saw at a museum in New York, he planned a Black History Month-themed performance in Oklahoma City, to include a full band performing songs from different periods of black history, set to video of significant events of the same eras. He requested Hylton write a poem to read live the evening of the show.
Earlier that day, Williams went to a mall in OKC with a friend to get a haircut. They went in separate directions, and he was stopped by security officers who said they’d already told him to remove the hood and accused him of taking video inside the mall. He protested, explaining he’d just gotten there, and after a debate, he attempted to leave. He was followed to the exit and taken out of the mall in handcuffs.
Williams was placed in a holding cell with many other people, during which time he was not allowed to make any calls for several hours — including to the friend he’d gone to the mall with, who waited without information on her missing friend until after closing time. He was not released until after his showtime had passed.
If you follow Jabee on any social media platform, you know this: “Normally when something happens to me, I Facebook it, I tweet it,” he said. “But I didn’t tell nobody. The KSBI thing had just happened not long before that.”
In July 2014, Jabee was slated to perform on KSBI-52’s “Oklahoma Live!” program, a show he’d guested on before. Upon arriving at the studio, he was asked to leave by a producer who, upon seeing Jabee in person, stated that a hip-hop act being booked for the show had been a mistake. He and his band left without performing. KSBI’s president later called Williams to apologize. Williams said, of both incidents, “Even though I hadn’t done anything wrong, if things keep happening to you, people are going to think it’s you.”
It’s worth mentioning that Williams is not just a musician; he’s an Oklahoma fixture. He’s known as a relentlessly hard worker and a champion of personal development and positivity. He could often be found handing out fliers and shaking hands while promoting his early 2000s band Invisible Struggle, which often played with folk and punk acts in OKC, or working events for hip-hop collective Puzzle People.
More recently, his local work beyond regular club shows has included performing for youths at schools and social service centers, a pop-up concert in partnership with Oklahoma Arts Council and hosting an annual food and clothing drive. In 2014, he even won a Heartland Regional Emmy for his contribution to an educational commercial for Science Museum Oklahoma.
To put it succinctly: People who know him were surprised to hear he’d run into trouble.
That trouble did not manage to slow Williams down. When a venue setback moved the new album’s release show from its original date of June 18, he responded to disappointed fans by immediately dropping a hold-over record, a compilation of b-sides and non-album cuts called “Juneteenth.”
And, finally, “Black Future,” after more than a year of production, is in its home stretch, the release show rescheduled for Saturday in Oklahoma City. And as he prepares to share the album with his audience in this emotional climate, he hopes the message of the record is clear.
“I thought people who know me would realize that I would never be exclusive, but look at where the country is right now,” Williams said. “I’m black. My kids are black. It should be OK for me to say I want a future for my people.”
In the black future
There’s a place so dangerously absurd
That words re-emerge as our tools and our friends
Rather than the means by which the man condemns us to ignorance
“ ‘In the Black Future, There’s a Place So Dangerously Absurd.’ It’s almost sarcastic, in a lot of ways,” Williams said. “We can have a bright future, or a dark one. It can be bright, or it can be black.”
The songs tackle a number of heady subjects with stark honesty: personal tragedy, dreams tempered by reality, the salvation hoped for in death, Williams’ relationships with his parents, and the daily challenges of contemporary American blackness.
He initially chose to record “Black Future” entirely at Jivin Studios in Tucson, Ariz., but found himself gravitating back home to Local Cuts, a new Oklahoma City studio (also a barbershop, located on NW 23). Collaborators include Chuck D. and Brother Ali, as well as several Oklahoma artists: Meant2B, Sardashhh and Allie Lauren, among many others.
“My initial plan was selfish: I didn’t want to drown it with Oklahoma features,” Williams said. “But it was a question of what the song needed. With Sardashhh, I heard his stuff and thought, ‘This kid is the future.’ We’d start a song, and I felt like it needed Miillie Mesh. Then everyone started asking, ‘How can I help? What do you need?’ They believed in it, so I wanted to share it.”
SENSE OF URGENCY
Williams was also open with his audience about his artistic process, and he posted videos of studio sessions and provided plenty of updates along the way.
“I want people to buy into it. I wanted to make them a part of it,” Williams said. “And I feel like if I’m not talking about it, it’ll get lost. I wanted to keep that momentum going up until the release. I wanted to always have something to show or share, something to talk about.”
This is true of Williams in the context of an album release but also his artistic path overall — a sense of urgency and a desire to share his music have been fundamental to his success so far.
“You think you have time, but you have no time,” Williams said. “I’ve said, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ to people I had plans with, and then it never happened. I could be driving, doing anything, thinking about how if something happens, how will my music get out, or who will do this thing (that) has to get done. You just don’t know what’ll happen. There’s a song on the album where I say, ‘I close my eyes, and I’m gone.’ I talk about not making it to tomorrow, and am I finishing everything I want to do?”
For Jabee, working hard ensures a legacy; his art controls the message he’ll leave behind. In the black future, according to Hylton:
We see today through tomorrow-colored lenses
Because progress rarely puts out for those who feed it
We give more than requested, work harder than required
And believe in the unrealistic, because we matter
And our babies, even more than our own bodies, will depend on it