“Style has a profound meaning to Black Americans. If we can’t drive, we will invent walks and the world will envy the dexterity of our feet. If we can’t have ham, we will boil chitterlings; if we are given rotten peaches, we will make cobblers; if given scraps, we will make quilts; take away our drums, and we will clap our hands. We prove the human spirit will prevail. We will take what we have to make what we need. We need confidence in our knowledge of who we are.” – Nikki Giovanni
There are few more complicated concepts than of being Black in America, of having histories rewritten and of lives removed from existence with the stroke of a pen – or a vote. As someone who has never been touched by racial bias, institutional racism, or familial degradation, I will never understand the generational trauma that so many African Americans endure every single day. But whether it’s some snide comment while waiting in line for groceries or something writ large in political discourse, the effects are the same, a cyclical loop of emotional and physical pain, supported by a social system designed to hold certain segments of the population down through irrational law enforcement.
There is no change without action, no action without purpose. Ghais Guevara understands this all too well.
His latest record, There Will Be No Super-Slave (the title of which is taken from George L. Jackson’s book Blood in My Eye), is a monolith of hip-hop reflection, of racial identity, and is a complicated treatise on historical suffering. Using samples in a way that defies explanation, he shapes these songs into razor-edged narratives that explore pains which have burrowed down deep into the marrow of Black Americans. He also incorporates his Islamic ideologies into how he associates with the idea of America and acknowledges that it is absolutely necessary for him to use these beliefs in winnowing out the truth of why social structures are designed to force Black people into broad community acceptance rather than personal excellence. These songs act as mirrors, both for those who’ve lived through these kinds of injustices firsthand and those who’ve never personally dealt with aspects of organized racism.
The album draws upon the noise of pop culture to give voice to shared experiences and concepts that few artists engage with, let alone study with this level of insight. Recalling the work of The Avalanches, Girl Talk, and Paul’s Boutique-era Beastie Boys, There Will Be No Super-Slave fashions socially conscious rap from the florescent detritus of television, literature, and cinema, offering a unique perspective on how we often consume these things without seeing their broader impact on us as a society.
Within the first 10 seconds of opener “Intro” we hear clips from The Real Housewives of Atlanta, The Simpsons, and Spongebob Squarepants. Guevara then offers clips of white supremacist Michael Hill, weatherman memes, and a warning from 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, creating a world where society subsists on the consumption of itself and its inhabitants. It’s all so disparate in tone and theme, but Guevara makes it work, laying out unusually thoughtful analogs through these samples and associated memories.
What can seem random at times reveals itself to be meticulous planning, as he juxtaposes these clips to form a cogent thesis on what it means to live with hate passed down through generations of inequity. On “#Freemir”, he says “I pray to God every day that I never react to the hate in my bones” with all the urgency that you’d expect, presenting a possible way to deal with the urges to retaliate while also trying to find ways of addressing those feelings without resorting to violence. But, in the same song, he acknowledges “I was under the scope when we stomped on the street yelling ‘fuck all the feds’”. Nothing is simple – there are no easy answers, and sometimes someone may feel as though all they have left is their fist and their anger.
It would be impossible to namecheck every sample Guevara utilizes here; just know that it’s in service to a greater purpose, one that revolves around the idea that culture – pop and personal – is fluid and is being continually shaped at a molecular level by forces both insular and broad in their scope. There are moments on the record when your jaw hits the floor, and your mind starts blowing circuits as it tries to make sense of what it’s just heard. I swear he’s sampled Tom Waits’ “Take Care of All My Children” on “Tie Your Camel, Trust in God (Interlude)”, while “Patrisse Cullors Stole My Lunch Money” opens with a sample of wrestler New Jack urging OJ Simpson to “keep up the good work, baby, two less we gotta worry about”. It’s intentionally inflammatory and forces us to reckon with our memories of that tragedy and how it all played out within the context of a Black perspective (separate from our own personal thoughts on the matter).
There are times when a phrase or boast or recollection feels so intimate that we become voyeurs, desperate to see what drives Guevara and how he assembles sound as a form of protest. Remarkable sampling aside, his delivery is dynamic and passionate, filled with conviction and a desire to communicate. “This Ski Mask Ain’t for COVID” spins out into a whirling, waltzing hurricane of eccentric instrumentation and ferocious vocal intensity, while “Mimicry of the Settlers” employs vast reservoirs of soul orchestration on top of a sample of Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down”.
“Rayman Legends” shuffles through collapsing percussion and minimal adornment before flaring horns and a dose of chipmunk-soul closes out the track. This song finds Guevara showing a remarkable vulnerability, as he explores the need for connection through honest emotion with someone he loves. There’s a darkness pervading There Will Be No Super-Slave, but here he allows us to see the fallible side of himself, the part that hopes for light despite the encroaching shadows. Maybe that’s always been skirting around the edges of the album; that distant hope for something better. He doesn’t mention it much because, maybe if he does, that diminishes its chances of appearing. But it’s needed, and he knows that it’s needed. Guevara understands the world better than most, a fickle place with terrible people, bad motivations, and even worse prejudices.
There Will Be No Super-Slave is his call-to-arms, his cry into the dead of night. Why are Black people relegated to carry pain from one generation to the next? What can be done to stem the tide of racial inequality? These are questions that he grapples with across the album, though few answers readily present themselves. He contends that it’s important to understand the history of these discriminations before meaningful progress can be made. Through cultural memories and various media consumables, he examines the meaningful connections between the past and the present, and how generational pain is continued through societal constraints and political indifference. There is righteous anger at the heart of his music, and Guevara allows it to lead him through this world, leaving nothing but scorched earth in his wake.