Before #BlackLivesMatter, they had "Black Hoods": An interview with Durham's Language Arts | Music

Before #BlackLivesMatter, they had "Black Hoods": An interview with Durham's Language Arts

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PHOTO COURTESY OF LANGUAGE ARTS
  • Photo courtesy of Language Arts
“We sort of became these D.I.Y. all-stars. We learned by doing,” says Aden Darity, about his past years at UNC-Chapel Hill with bandmate and longtime friend Pierce Freelon. It’s been six years since the two have performed on the same stage together as the Durham rap duo Language Arts, but on Saturday, they’ll reignite some of the chemistry of their 2004 self-titled LP for a one-time reunion show at The Pinhook. Breakups may be endemic among Triangle hip-hop duos, but unlike most, Language Arts’ ending was a matter of timing and circumstances, not beef.

Freelon and Darity recently spoke with INDY Week about this weekend’s show and the small legacy they left behind as a couple of prideful, insightful and light-hearted emcees. They may not be in the same band anymore, but they still walk similar paths as both educators (Freelon at UNC, Darity at Carolina Friends School) and active musicians (Freelon’s jazz fusion band The Beast, Darity’s solo career). When each speaks about the other, their answers take on a brotherly tone. Their five-year run together brought them some great memories and poised them as harbingers of some of today’s trends in both music and activism. Here’s a behind-the-scenes crash course into their history and preparation for Saturday night’s show.

Pierce Freelon: When I went away to grad school in Syracuse we were trying to do the Language Arts thing long distance. Right when I returned from Syracuse, Aden left for Iowa to finish his bachelor’s degree. I was also in L.A. for a bit in 2008, so the biggest factor was distance. There was like a four to five year span where neither of us where in Durham at the same time. During that time I got involved in other projects. The Beast started picking up and we were never able to fully capture the momentum that we had coming out of UNC.

INDY Week: So, Aden, how did you feel knowing that Language Arts had dissolved and Pierce had moved on to his new band, The Beast?

Aden Darity: I love The Beast’s music. I think they make some dope stuff. I’ve done some shows with them. I enjoy seeing my brother perform. I like seeing my people do stuff. The other day I saw that K-Hill and Rapper Big Pooh are putting out a song together. I like seeing that kind of stuff.

Will we be hearing any new Language Arts music during this show?

PF: It’ll be new to public ears. There’s a lot of stuff that we were working on for our second album, Class, that never dropped. We’ll be debuting a track called “Harriet,” which is a narrative song about escape from slavery. The show will be a mix of classic Language Arts material.

AD: Maybe just a tiny bit. I’m just trying to make sure that I know the words to all of these old records.

Why do you think area duos like yourself, Little Brother, Wreck-N-Crew and The Koolest don’t survive the long haul?

PF: Well, Little Brother was technically a trio. Small groups are hard to maintain. Any time you’re in a collaborative effort with someone. Creative direction, life trajectory and family stuff are pulling your in different directions. Anytime you’re in a business relationship with someone, it’s not so much different than being in a (romantic) relationship with a person. You date folks and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s about timing.You ever met a sister and were like, “If I had met you at another time, I’d have wifed you up. You met be the one that got away,”?

Also, Aden and I are like family. We’ve known each other for years. Our parents are friends. He, his younger brother William and I grew up together. Some relationships are with you for the span of your life. You’re stuck with these people. You love them. They’re blood. They’re kin.

How does today’s Black Lives Matter movement align with some of Language Arts’ socio-politically charged music?

PF: It’s interesting because Aden had a solo album that never came out called Future Tense. When we first met up to rehearse for this show, one of the conversations that Aden and I had was about why he should have released that album. It was prophetic and relevant. A lot of the tunes on that album foreshadowed some stuff that happened surrounding the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

There was going to be a song called “Black Hoods.” Basically, he talks about being racially profiled for wearing a black hoodie. This was like two or three years before Trayvon Martin was killed, prompting celebrities and intellectuals like Dwyane Wade and Mark Anthony Neal to wear hoodies in solidarity. Language Arts was always an explicitly political rap group. Just look at Aden’s dad [Duke professor of African and African-American Studies, William A. Darity]. I don’t think that Black Lives Matter is necessarily mainstream, but we were rapping about this stuff before Black Lives Matter was as mainstream as it is now. It was a part of our lives long before the current moment of revitalized consciousness. We’re opening with a song called “Political Assassins,” which is a song about murdering politicians for money. Like, “hire us, we’ll kill a politician for you.” [laughs]. We’ve always been about that.

AD: [laughs] Yes, but we also had a whole bunch of ratchet records that are going to be hilarious coming out of our 30-something mouths. We’ve made each other agree to not rewrite any of the lyrics. We’ll see how that sounds coming out of our mouths as grown men. We were just kind of ridiculous. It’s not like we had a record label to control the things that we were saying, so sometimes it was like a contest to see who could say the most ridiculous things.

Why did you write the song “Black Hoods?”

AD: When I was a teenager, I rode the city bus all over the place. At one point, as part of an anti-gang initiative, the police started putting up flyers with tell-tale signs that someone could be in a gang. The flyers showed drawings of young black men in hoodies and jeans and Timberlands. Here I am, standing at the bus stop like, “Uh, that’s me. And everybody I know.” So, years later, as an adult, I wrote song with the line, “We all look alike/ just ask the sketch artist.” There’s this assumption of criminal activity associated with young black men.

Mark Anthony Neal had posted the music video for the song on his blog and suddenly after the Trayvon Martin murder the song took off on Twitter. People began calling me about it and I had to tell them that I had written the song years before the Trayvon Martin incident and “No, I’m not happy that the song is still relevant.” I didn’t want to bolster my career off of the death of Trayvon Martin. I was super ambivalent about the song taking on a new life. It was a tragedy, not something to profit from. But the song has become a rallying cry. One thing I am proud of is that I did some shows in the Midwest and I did the song for predominantly white audiences. I came back the next year to those same places and people wore black hoodies to the show and really connected with the record. That was cool.

Are either of you worried about not being on the same speed as far as stamina goes? Pierce, you’ve performed a lot more over the years than Aden has.

PF: I’m not worried at all. I think he’s going to kill it. He’s definitely a great live performer. He’s got a lot charisma and energy. I come to our rehearsals tired from being in the studio or putting my kids to bed and he’s over there in his gym socks hype as fuck. If anything, he’ll be the one I’ll have to keep up with because he’s been away for so long and this will be a platform for him to get back into doing something he loves and has always had a passion for. He’ll be just fine.

AD: I’m already planning. If I do get winded, I am going to ham it up. I’m gonna call a 30-second time out [laughs]. I do remember jumping around in my socks. I don’t know, man. I get really excited. I enjoy performing live. When I wasn’t doing it, it was really painful for me.

So, will this scratch that final itch for you?

AD: Oh, no. I have a couple of other things that I’m surely but quietly working on.

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