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Can a Nostalgic Ghostface Killah Concert Send a Radical Message in 2017?

After attending a concert starring the former Wu-Tang Clan member, Pacific Standard staffers discuss Killah’s subtle brand of subversive storytelling.

By Elena Gooray, Jack Denton, Carson Leigh Brown & Varun Nayar


Ghostface Killah of the Wu-Tang Clan performs during the 2015 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival on March 20th, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

After writing on work and pay inequality and compiling a striking photo essay to honor A Day Without a Woman, Pacific Standard staffers did the obvious: attended a Ghostface Killah concert in Santa Barbara, California. That’s a town that is 75 percent white and whose newspaper was the first in America to have endorsed Donald Trump.

Killah, a member of the legendary East Coast rap collective the Wu-Tang Clan that last released an album in 2014, isn’t as politically outspoken as Killer Mike or Chance the Rapper. Nevertheless, he has voiced strong beliefs about poverty and police brutality in interviews: In 2013, he said that he wants to speak for “the have-nots” in his music, and the next year he called for Daniel Pantaleo, a defendant in the Eric Garner chokehold case, to go to jail. Killah, known offstage as Dennis Coles, rarely jumps straight into politics, though in February of 2016 he did tell Fox Business that he was considering voting for Hillary Clinton.

At Wednesday’s concert, Killah re-played songs from Wu-Tang’s 1993 album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Killah’s 2000 solo album Supreme Clientele toa crowd of around 400 at Santa Barbara’s SOhO club. After, four staffers convened to discuss gender in rap, Ghostface’s approach to black storytelling, and whether performing old favorites undermines Killah’s understated message.

Elena Gooray: So gang, how was spending “A Day Without a Woman” watching the great ’90s East Coast rapper Ghostface Killah perform in a small California town?

Jack Denton: I can’t speak authoritatively to the romantic preferences of most of the night’s attendees, but the room definitely gave off a vibe that was heavy on the traditionally masculine. It wasn’t hard to imagine a similar crowd turning out for a Rage Against the Machine show or a Fight Club screening.

Carson Brown: On the way to the women’s bathroom, I walked past a rambling line of men that extended out into the hallway. I definitely felt like the object of observation. The crowd was also older than us: We’re all four years or less out of college, and the some of the dudes there had us by a decade or two.

Varun Nayar: I noticed that too. I wonder who genuinely feels a connection to acts from the ’80s and ’90s even though their messages sometimes feel outdated. I mean, the very fact that Ghostface, at 46, is still packing clubs means there’s an enduring appeal.

Brown: I’d also note that the concert had the highest number of black men I’ve seen in one spot since moving to Santa Barbara, not counting the men on stage.

Denton: Great points here. But Wu-Tang’s ability to appeal to white fans obviously played a significant role in their initial and sustained commercial success — just think of all the white guys in the crowd who knew all the lyrics to songs from Ironman.

I’m also interested in what you mean by their messages sometimes feeling outdated. I see a direct lineage from Ghostface — with his tortured and sometimes cartoonish street storytelling — to rappers today like Ka and Freddie Gibbs who are getting a lot of love, at least from critics and committed cult followings.

Nayar: I agree. I think something that brought that out for me was when Ghostface clearly gestured at a distinction between “the old shit” and the “the new shit,” when he talked about how his style as a product of the “cloth he’s cut from,” paying homage to Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac in between the opening songs.

Gooray: I got the sense — from how many audience members around us were precisely rapping along to lyrics — that most of these fans were long-timers. Which made for a great show in terms of participation, but one that’s inherently nostalgic, rather than forward-looking.

Nayar: I wonder to what degree Ghostface’s fans feel connected to this lineage and see the whole old-new dichotomy as a choice you make. This is especially interesting when we think about all the new female hip-hop acts (Princess Nokia, Young M.A.) who would potentially also be selling out clubs like the one we were at Wednesday night.

Gooray: That whole tone struck me as an accidental contrast with the day on which the concert happened to fall — with women striking nationwide for political and economic justice and also continuing the sense of resistance launched with the Women’s March following Donald Trump’s inauguration. We’re in a moment where American political resistance is being led very visibly by women, even branded as such. So it was just funny to be in a room channeling this sense of, we’re a bunch of dudes who want to mess shit up. It felt like the late ’90s — old-fashioned — not just in terms of the music, but also for being so male.

Denton: Sorry about that, Elena, but when we saw the Mars symbol projected in the sky, we had to answer the call!

Gooray: And Wu-Tang’s style of politics in general is less overt than that of, say, A Tribe Called Quest, who chanted “Resist!” in their Grammy performance this year and were joined by Busta Rhymes, who referred to President Donald Trump as “President Agent Orange.”

Brown: I think there’s power in that less obvious style, so it’s a point in and of itself. Black life is inherently politicized and the act of simply existing, of telling our stories, is a political act. It requires staking a claim in the political realm.

Gooray: Yeah, it’s very Wu-Tang that buried in the hustle-to-make-it narrative of “C.R.E.A.M.,” one of their most famous singles — which Ghostface performed — is a line about trying to “kick the truth to black youth,” pointing to how seriously they take their storytelling. Though maybe it’s even more Wu-Tang for the MC to then complain that those darn kids just won’t listen.