It’s been 100 years since a white mob set fire to Greenwood, a thriving Tulsa neighborhood also known as Black Wall Street. Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, the Tulsa Race Massacre burned Greenwood’s entire business district down to the ground, murdered hundreds of Black people and left many more homeless in an American horror story that’s long been ignored.
Now that’s changing with the help of two music projects commemorating the centennial through the voices of Black culture’s next generation in Oklahoma: Fire in Little Africa and 1921 … The Black Wall Street Music Project. Both compilations feature artists — some of whom are direct descendants of Tulsa-Greenwood survivors — sharing their fresh perspectives through hip-hop, R&B/soul, jazz and spoken word.
Arriving in July and featuring 18 artists, 1921 … The Black Wall Street Music Project will release two singles on June 18: “For Black Wall Street” by Dangerous Rob and Playya 1000 featuring Malachi and “Oklahoma Made” by Kode Ransom. These are the follow-ups to the project’s first dual singles that came out in late May: “Kerosene” by Omaleyb featuring Steph Simon and “The Sun Will Rise Again” by Doc Shaw featuring Lester Shaw and Retsel Shaw. Among the album’s other offerings will be a posthumous premiere by the late smooth jazz bass guitarist and NBA player Wayman Tisdale.
Being released in conjunction with New York-based Isotopia Records, headed by Constance Hauman, 1921 … The Black Wall Street Music Project was executive produced by Fred Jones, Thornell Jones Jr. and Guy Troupe. Partners in the project include The Hille Foundation, Osage Casinos and Spirit Bank. Jones is the founder of One Tulsa LLC, whose divisions encompass broadcast, digital and print media, marketing, artist management and philanthropy. Jones, who envisioned the music project three years ago, has close ties to the Tulsa Race Massacre. His grandmother Maggie Jones was in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, 25 miles away from Greenwood, when the riot started.
“I remember my grandmother saying they could see the smoke as the city burned for three days,” says Jones. “The massacre was about money and the economic power that Black Wall Street had. Black people were hiring Black people. You didn’t have to be treated as a secondhand citizen or be subjected to racial slurs. I want people to realize what really happened and see the resilience of a community.”
Sharing similar sentiments, Jones Jr. adds, “In order for us as a people to move forward, we have to unify behind the message of Tulsa, the country and the world. This album speaks to the horrors of the massacre and the destruction. But it’s really an allegory because it’s telling young people to be fired up, be the best they can be and walk in the steps of their ancestors.”
Fire in Little Africa, Motown Records’ commemoration of the massacre’s anniversary, is the company’s latest project via its relaunched Black Forum label. Released on May 28 in partnership with Tulsa’s Bob Dylan Center and Woody Guthrie Center, the album features 60 Oklahoma hip-hop artists and a special guest, Tulsa native and Gap Band frontman Charlie Wilson. In fact, the Gap Band adopted its name from three streets in Wilson’s former neighborhood: Greenwood, Archer and Pine Streets — the center of Little Africa.
Wilson, who appears on the track “Party Plane,” notes, “It’s important to continue bringing attention to the Tulsa Race Massacre so future generations will know the history of Black Wall Street. Being a part of the album is full-circle for me: coming from a generation that was told not to speak of the massacre, as our elders still feared for their lives, to the present day where we are standing together unveiling and spreading the truth.”
In addition to Wilson’s track, Fire in Little Africa features the singles “Shining” and “Elevator.” Recorded over a five-day period in March 2020, the album was executive produced by Stevie “Dr. View” Johnson, Ph.D. and manager of education & diversity outreach at the Woody Guthrie Center/Bob Dylan Center. The making of the album is set to be the focus of a documentary film due later this year.
“We wanted to show that this is the new way of community organizing,” says Johnson of the inspiration behind Fire in Little Africa. “It was an opportunity to blur the lines, take historical facts and oral traditions and put them in epistemological lyrics of hip-hop to talk about history, while encompassing how we heal from our trauma and reimagining what the next 100 years will look like for not only Tulsa, but Black and brown folks around the world. We are like the rose in the concrete: We’re still here. We called ourselves ‘Fire in Little Africa’ because the fire still burns, it still exists.”
Rapper Steph Simon, who appears on both 1921…The Black Wall Street Music Project (“Kerosene”) and Fire in Little Africa (“Shining” with Jerica Wortham and Dialtone) says he felt “chosen” to be a part of both tributes. “It gave me purpose,” he explains. “I always wondered, ‘Out of all the places in the world, why did God birth me in North Tulsa?’ But learning this history about where I come from — only to find out we actually had everything — makes me proud.”
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