I Self Devine: Rhymesayers legend returns

I Self Devine, a real Amerikan hero
Daniel Yang

It would be a stretch to suggest that I Self Devine's new record, The Sound of Low Class Amerika, is anything like the return of a prodigal son — but it wouldn't be too far off the mark, either. For more than a decade, Devine has been one of the most influential voices in Minnesota hip hop. Famously a blood brother of Slug's and a mentor to Brother Ali, his pioneering, socially conscious work with the Micranots inspired a generation of rappers. But ever since the release of his 2005 solo debut, Self Destruction, I Self Devine the rapper has steadily receded into the background and has been replaced by Chaka Mkali, the community organizer. Until recently, this transition seemed like it could be permanent.

"The work I was doing was a lot more fulfilling," Devine admits, sitting on the second-floor patio outside Rhymesayers' Uptown offices with his son, Khalil. Around the same time that Self Destruction was released, Mkali was hired by the south Minneapolis-based Hope Community Center where, for the first time, he was able to focus full-time on working with under-privileged youths and on coordinating community-building projects. "A lot of times," he explains, while slowly peeling a tangerine, "when people from the streets connect with those who've gone through school, the people from the streets devalue what they know and learned. So I tell them, 'You just went to a different institution, got a different degree. But that knowledge is just as valuable.'"

That same message is at the heart of Low Class Amerika, and it's the one that's driven his life's work — be it musically, professionally, or as a family man. Even with his slightly stooped shoulders and baseball hat cocked high on his head, Devine cuts a stern, almost imposing figure, his words steady and serious. With good reason, too: He grew up in Los Angeles during the 1970s and '80s, and his experiences there — living in the projects during the Reagan administration, his world ravaged by poverty, gang violence, and the terrifying specter of crack cocaine — had a profound effect on him.

What's different with these new songs is the way he goes about relating those experiences. Philosophical raps about ideas and concepts are replaced by gritty narratives about the disenfranchised. "The early Micranot stuff was the most political, but I was not the most politically involved," Devine begins. As he says so, Khalil's empty fruit snacks wrapper blows across the table, and Devine catches it. His face softens momentarily, and he hands the wrapper back to his son with a smile. "People might say this music isn't very political," he continues, "but I beg to differ — it's just more of an undertone. If I had to choose which I prefer, I'd rather be more political in my daily life than in my music, but also figure out different ways to make it palatable and intriguing. Sometimes facts and figures don't move people."

Low Class Amerika — a title inspired by an old Motown Records slogan, "The Sound of Young America" — starts with a collage of voices trying to explain what it means to live in the projects, before blasting straight into "Hold On," a story about a small-time hood on the run from the police. With its funky, energetic beats and murky, sometimes grinding production, that song sets the tone for what follows, as the album winds through songs like "Power," the defiant brag of a street hustler, and "Living Under Siege," a bleak tale of drugs eating away at a neighborhood.

Far from glorifying violence, Devine conveys the harsh reality of life in the streets with unflinching detail. In fact, the biggest problem with Low Class Amerika may be that its pervading bleakness is so unrelenting that it begins to feel excessive; and if it's not exactly prosaic, it's almost entirely without humor to balance things out. Then again, that's most likely the point: The picture Devine paints is of a world without much hope, either of better things to come or of any easy way out. Even as the closing songs take on a more optimistic tone, it's an optimism tinged with regret over what has happened, and what could have been.

"What else can I do?" Devine says with a shrug. "I have an outrage; not even an anger, but an outrage at the things that are going on." If it weren't for music, he says, his only outlet may be violence — and so the music serves its own therapeutic function, not to mention a constant process of self-improvement. "What we're fighting for doesn't exist; democracy is a theory rife with struggle. It's a journey, not a destination, and you have to fight for it." 

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