By: Gus Navarro
If you haven’t heard of The Black Opera, get online and look them up. No seriously, do it. You should check them out because they are unlike anything else in hip-hop right now. With multiple costume changes and crowd participation, their live show is an explosion of anonymity and boundless, colorful energy. The Black Opera isn’t upfront and won’t say who is in the group. However it’s there, in plain sight, if you take the time to do your research. The Black Opera exists in a space that is in opposition to the rappity-rap clatter we encounter on a daily basis. Instead, the group is an international collective of artists that have come together around the communal idea that we, as humans, are connected, or as they so eloquently declare, “We are one.” Having released music since 2010, The Black Opera is beginning to reach a new level of acclaim as they continue to push the boundaries of what people perceive hip-hop should be about. If you have the chance to see them live, do it. If you can get online and listen to their music, do it.
During their tour stop at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I was fortunate to sit down and speak with two members of the group in anticipation of their new album, The Great Year, released via Mello Music Group. In the interview we touched on topics such as the philosophy behind their music and the influence the Internet has had on the growth of the collective. After seeing them perform and speaking with them, I learned that The Black Opera’s music, stage presence and overall style are propelled by the idea that it isn’t always about who is talking, but what is being said. In a society where the individual is placed on a pedestal above all else, this is a powerful stance to take.
As opposed to revealing the identities of The Black Opera members I spoke with, each voice is denoted as Black Opera Member (BOM) #1 and #2.
Bonus Cut (BC): What is The Black Opera to you?
BOM #1: The Black Opera is a collective of forward thinkers, artists, musicians, producers, rappers and videographers who have one goal and that is to promote that all are one. All people are one and that we put art in the forefront of that.
BC: Will you tell me who’s in the group?
BOM #2: Everybody that we work with becomes a part of The Black Opera. So we have a lot of affiliates and black ops all over the world. The main focus is the music so we shy away from saying who we are. The best thing to do is just check out the music and find your way through it. You can go through the credits and use Google to find out who’s doing what. We try to make sure that the music gets to you first. That’s the whole goal.
BOM #1: Research! Do your research if you want to know.
BC: That’s exactly what I wanted to talk with you guys about. You’re very intentional about being vague and not explicitly revealing your identities. Is that liberating?
BOM # 1: Yes, absolutely. Joining The Black Opera movement was one hundred percent about liberation, freedom of expression and not being tied to anything from the past. Whether that’s the block you’re from, the hood, the city, the set you claim or whatever. A lot of times, especially with hip-hop, people get away with saying, “I’m from the city that’s this, that or whatever….”
BOM #2: They build a box around themselves.
BOM #1: Yeah, it’s like, “What else?” Especially if that’s not the life you live. You’re telling the story of your city but what else is there? Who are you? We don’t like to fall into that lane. We definitely feel that it was a liberating situation when we chose to join The Black Opera.
BOM #2: Like he said, “Who are you?” Another question is: “What are you here for?” Just because you are who you are doesn’t mean you have to create like you look, how you smell or how you move. You can create whatever you want to. It’s like when you put out too much information about who you are or where you’re from, you create this box of judgment. For example, people expect something specific with artists from New York. If you don’t know where I’m from you’ll hear the same song and be like, “Wow, that’s amazing. Let me find out more.” If you start with the music, the live show and unravel it from there it can be pretty dope.
BC: In some ways, it seems like you’re creating a lane for people to use technology.
BOM #2: To use it correctly. Nowadays people just go on Twitter or Facebook to see what everybody is talking about. Let me do the cool thing; let me be hip for today. People have so many outlets to find out information (Google, for example) and we’re challenging people to use the Internet in the correct way and think critically for themselves.
BC: Would there be a Black Opera without the Internet?
BOM #1: There would be a Black Opera without the Internet, but the Internet has definitely benefitted the growth of the collective. That’s for sure. A lot of our collaborations have come from people that we’ve worked with personally. A lot of the times we’ve grown those relationships organically through the Internet. We like what they do, they like what we do. We start building a relationship and that’s when the music comes. The Internet has most definitely helped in that process.
BOM #2: We did a song called “Opera Hands” with a producer called Tall Black Guy. It ended up being, for our core fan base, one of their favorite songs. That came from a DJ in Atlanta called DJ Apple Jac. He literally took the Soundcloud link to the beat in its original form, posted it and said, “Yo, the Black Opera should be on this.” We listened to it and were like, “why not?” We were creating in the studio at the time. So that’s how we got connected with Tall Black Guy. Everything happens organically, at the flow of the pace of creation. We do have serious intentions and a serious message but when it comes to the creativity we like for it to just flow organically.
BC: On your Facebook info page you talk in big terms about the art you make being a commentary on “OUR perception of timeless issues.” Can you expand on what that means and what those issues are?
BOM #2: Basically this is what we do: We have issues that are not going anywhere, right? They’ve been professed to us through the news, propaganda, homies and friends. Sometimes you have to find those areas where you can switch the perception on it. Like, what really is racism? What really is hip-hop? The things that are popular to the people that listen to our music, we take a piece of that and we twist it a little bit. It’s like art, you know? Some of the music on our new album has a trap influence. Why? Because you would be blind and you would be deaf if you didn’t understand that hip-hop is going through more of a danceable time. You have these guys that grew up in the ghetto trying to find something positive to do. We’re not trying to condemn them. We’re making the people that listen to hip-hop understand what they’re doing. We did that exactly with a song called, “Rich Like You.” The hook says, “I just wanna be rich like you.” They’re trying to find a way out and the only channel they have is through music. Us being the hip-hop heads, we hear that and we’re like, “Turn that off.” But really it’s like, “Yo, they need your help.” Give them some time. A lot of them sound no different than Ol’ Dirty Bastard comin’ out. They have off-time styles and are creating a lot of new flow; it’s just a foreign tongue. That’s what we do. We use our music to show people how connected we are. The simplicity of the human is really all one. Everybody just wants to breathe, drink clean water, be loved, seen and listened to.
BC: How did you get to this point?
BOM#1: I think we see things and we’re inquisitive. It just comes down to wanting to know more, wanting to dig deeper and not taking everything at face value. We’ve got a song called, “Black Nirvana,” where I say, “The same thing that happened to Cobain happened to Tupac.” You might hear that line and be like, “What? No. Cobain shot himself and Tupac was murdered.” If you dig deeper, you can see the similarities. They both were outspoken people, had a lot to say about the society we live in and a lot of people didn’t like that.
BOM #2: Yeah, both were very misunderstood and heavily judged.
BOM #1: A lot of people didn’t like the way they viewed society. So for whatever reason, they both died very young in this society. Why is that? There has to be something about this society that did not mesh with how they spoke. I think what got us to this point mentally is just through thinking in critical terms about the things that are presented to us.
BOM #2: I was listening to a Souls of Mischief interview and Tajai mentioned our names with TDE and Pro Era, which is really cool. He was talking about their [Souls of Mischief] new album, and he was saying that they weren’t necessarily trying to make a hip-hop album. They were just in the studio creating and just trying to make the best music they could. That’s something different for a group that’s been together as long as them. They started talking about some of the newer artists, and he included us, in talking about how he feels like a lot of the new artists have hit a creative wall where it’s like, “I’m sick of doing this. I’m sick of seeing this. It’s the same old, same old.” Even the underground has become predictable and kind of sold out to a certain extent. That’s basically where we’re at right now. We’ve hit that wall and we want to know what else is out there. How can we stop chimin’ in with what everybody’s complaining about? How can we turn a light on and let everybody know that we can do something completely different? You can do whatever you want to and that’s what we’re bringing to the feel. You might look at us and say, “Oh, they’re rapping.” If you look closer, you’re going to see performing arts, art pieces and costumes. It might look like a play, like it could be on Broadway. We’re just doing what we want to do creatively and trying to connect with as many people as we can.
BC: How do you want people to feel after they’ve seen you perform live?
BOM #2: “That was the best show I’ve seen in ages,” that’s actually a direct quote. I’ve never seen anything like this before. I’m inspired to go create, I’m inspired to do something different, think outside of the box and critically think for myself. We are one.