I recently rented a car for a short vacation to visit my former home in Wyoming and got a view of the mountains I grew up in. I had stacks of cd’s ready to go, but alas, the car had no cd player. What it did have was Sirius XM Radio, so I found myself breaking away from my usual musical fare and listening to the Backspin station, which plays classic hip hop from the last century. There was one exception to that format, however. They had a bit where they played an artist’s old music back-to-back with their new music. Because of this I heard one of the new Arrested Development singles, and immediately fell in love with it. Since that track, I Don’t See You At the Club, mentions police issues, I told myself that I would do whatever it took to get an interview with the lead vocalist and lyricist Todd ‘Speech’ Thomas. As it turned out, it didn’t take much prying, as both Speech and his management company are down to earth, friendly and responsive folks.
So this morning, with much nervous excitement, I met with Speech via Skype and had a wonderful conversation about police issues and the group’s music. They have two new albums, one of which is free and can be downloaded at the band’s website. Both albums are excellent in and of themselves, but more importantly, they return hip hop to cultural relevancy by talking about important issues in intelligent and highly danceable ways. Be sure to check out the new music and to support Arrested Development so they can spread their message and love even further.
The transcript below does not contain the entire contents of the video, although it does contain most. I edited out the technical banter, which I left intact in the video.
Joshua- Both in “I Don’t See You At the Club” and “Trauma”, your recent singles, you mention police brutality and police issues. Can you tell me sorta about your history dealing with that in your lyrics?
Speech- Well, definitely. Honestly, since our second album Zingalamaduni, I think that’s probably the first time I started to express on record, at least, the whole issue of police and just the abuse of power. And also the abuse of trust, you know, that has unfortunately been a historical fact and theme in this country; and especially with police towards black people. It’s been a long-standing reality that is a gashing sore that needs to be properly diagnosed, then dealt with, you know what I mean? So, it’s a long-standing issue, and yeah, so I started talking about it on our second album Zingalamaduni I believe, then from there I started picking back up on it a lot conversationally and in my music and my lyrics on this new record. Well probably the last two records, because we released two albums last month. This Was Never Home is our for pay album, and we did a free album called Changing the Narrative. And so in both of those records I deal with it. Changing the Narrative with the song I Don’t See You At the Club, you know what I mean, and on This Was Never Home songs like Trauma, you know, tackles one aspect of this whole reality of brutality and abuse of power…yeah.
Well, they are both great albums and I am glad you were able to get into some deeper issues on them, man.
Thank you. I really appreciate that, we all do. We’re excited about it, it’s music that…you know, in this day and time there’s so little hip hop that addresses, really, any actual issues of deep worth. So our music is one of those styles of music that, it is used to be a tradition in hip hop and has broken tradition in a mainstream way, and my hope and my prayer is that our music can become part of the conversation again…like in a huge way. In a small way, a microscopic way, it’s already doing that but we want to be in the mainstream again so that it’s part of the conversation again like it was in the 90’s for us, you know.
I want the same things for you, man.
I appreciate that Josh.
Do you have any personal experiences with police, things that you’ve come up with and had to deal with yourself?
Yeah, numerous times. For me personally, even back in the nineties we were, Headline and I, were driving on an interview with, I think maybe, it was Rolling Stone or something like this and…no, that was with racism in general. Let me just come up with something, let me remember something with the police. I was in Tennessee with my wife, driving and sort of giving her a historical tour of my life in Tennessee and stuff like this and a police officer stopped me. And this happens pretty frequently. I have been stopped numerous times just because I was black, I believe, because I wasn’t speeding. And I do own a Porsche, it’s a nice little convertible silver Porsche Boxster, and I think that they assumed that I was a drug dealer or something. But just getting stopped, you see for me, this is a thing that me and a lot of my friends have just had to accept as part of the landscape of being in America as a black person. So, they stopped me…you know, I’m always very polite so I haven’t had any literal physical abuse. I always try to turn down sorta the attention that unfortunately tends to exist, but I try to turn it down by nature because I know…I’m very acute on history so I know the realities of what has happened in the present and in the past in this country just because of a disagreement that can turn into a death. And so I don’t wanna be one of those statistics. And so, yeah, that’s one of those situations I can remember right now. Even right here in my hometown of Fayetteville, Georgia I’ve been stopped numerous times by the police here and many of them have gotten to know me by now because it’s a small town where I live, but again, for no apparent reason. And this is the things I talk about in my songs. But even like in Trauma, I’m talking about my own experience, but also the experience of so many of our people who are just, literally, whose lives are stopped because of this interaction. Which is just some of the deepest of injustice that you can think of.
I don’t think a lot of people, especially people who have never had encounters with the police, I don’t think they realize how undignifying it can be just to have to go through that. Just to have somebody profile you like that and mark you out as a certain kind of person and judge you before they’ve ever even met you. It’s a very profound experience, and not a good one.
It is, and Josh, not only that, even…this is what happens in my family and I think it’s what happens in many black families. We have to have discussions, I have a twenty one year old son, he’s tall, he’s dark skinned, he dresses, in my opinion, non-intimidating, but even the fact that I have to speak about how he dresses, how tall he is, how dark he is, is a reality of the black American experience where we have to talk to our kids about how to respond to police because the implication is that the police are going to see you as a threat. And this is without doing anything. One example is my son was with some of his friends who happen to be white, my son and daughter, they were walking through the woods, I live out in a rural area, they were walking into the woods and there was about five of them, two were black, three were white, the other black was my daughter, and the police, I mean the neighbors had called the police on our children and their friends. And so when the police show up, and this is the part that I feel is so problematic, the first person they address was who? My son. Now there’s five of them there, my son and the other white brothers/kids were around the same age, so why single out my son as the first person that they are going to talk to? And if he wasn’t trained by us to respond in a certain way we could have lost our son. And I don’t use that as just a theory, it’s just based on the situations that have happened far too many times in this country. We’ve come to that logical and educated guess or conclusion that there’s a good chance that I could lose my son if the wrong interaction, or an intense interaction with police happened. And I don’t think most families have to think about that reality to the extent that black families do. And we talk about this often. The other thing that’s very…when you talk about emotional stress or trauma, like my song describes, there is a feeling as a black person in this country many times that just our existence in certain areas is by nature already a signal of threat. And that is very taxing on you emotionally, it’s taxing on your patriotism, it’s taxing on your feeling of belonging. You know, your feeling of, this is my home. This is where I belong. When just by being who you are, before you’ve spoken any words, before you’ve done anything wrong, that there’s a feeling of fear and threat. And that weighs very heavily on the spirit. And on the spirit of…sorry I am talking so long, a lot of these are really real so even the spirit of how much you can accomplish in this country, the spirit of how far you can soar, how much you can spread your wings in this country, how much you can dream, these things have an effect. Indirectly and subconsciously, in a very real way, as a person of color in this country.
I hear ya, man, I see this all the time. These statistics, to me, are real because I follow the stories and I see what happens, and I watch these videos, and there’s an intrinsic underlying thing there. When you’re black it changes the game. The police are dangerous to everybody, but there’s an extra layer there when you are black where there’s assumptions going on that are not in your favor.
That’s a tough thing. You know, I have had run-ins with the police that have been very positive, where I was speeding, where I was doing something that was illegal, and they were very nice, they were very good. But again, there’s this underlying feeling that…my kids have it too, is that when you run into a problem with the police, whether it’s legitimate or illegitimate or perceived either which way, that it could be…it could become deadly. And I think that needs to become so much of our American past, that it should not exist in 2016, and that it should have no part in the narrative of any citizen of this country.
Agreed fully. A little bit ago you were talking about spirit, I know that you are involved in the ministry and stuff. In the past I have talked about how I don’t believe that Christianity and the values of the police state coincide every well. I think that Christianity is sort of a value driven religion and stuff and not one of authority and outside stuff, and violence and abuse. What are your thoughts on Christianity and the police state?
Well I think that, you know, it’s ironic cause, to some extent, Christianity from the very beginnings with Christ in the first century and Rome in that setting, there was also a very weird police state. And it was also a very oppressive state amongst the Jewish people from the Roman empire, and Jesus himself had to find himself existing, preaching, trying to expose the evils of this world and the forgiveness of God in that setting of a very oppressive Roman reality. Not only an oppressive Roman reality, but Jesus faced the also the extended pressure of a very oppressive religious reality, too, because a lot of the religious were the ones who would insist upon Jesus’s execution, you know. So I think that it is a very, it has always, Christianity has always been, from it’s very beginnings to now, opposed to any type of oppression. And that’s what I feel sorta the purpose of Christianity is when it comes to this whole issue of police brutality. It’s against, obviously, this overreach and this environment, this environment of sorta police against the citizens, it’s against that whole viewpoint. It’s supposed to be, police’s role is supposed to be to protect and to serve, and that whole concept of serving I think has been lessened. And this idea of police against the society has been heightened. I think it needs to be reversed, where police are…the role of police is to serve us and not be an us-against-them type of thing.
In…when you talk about activism a lot both in your interviews and in your music, you often talk about bringing it back to the level. And I’ve felt the same way about policing in general. There’s sort of a split faction between us police critics, there’s the accountability set who are just trying to seek accountability, and then I am part of the abolish police because I think we can do better in our communities to find new solutions that don’t involve, you know, men with guns coming to deal with every situation. We can use people that can calmly help two different disputing parties resolve issues and stuff and other things. (It is hard not to sound a bit goofy when you get a chance to talk to someone as accomplished and dignified and talented as Speech.) What do you think are some things that communities can do to sorta switch up the tactics of traditional policing?
I think it’s a great thought, I’ve never thought about the abolish the police thing, I think that’s something I’d love to just learn more about, that even that whole thought process. But I think that, from a community standpoint, I’ve always been big on…people who have the most interest in some result, in some outcome…so in other words, we want to have peace in our communities, well the people in those communities have the most interest in getting that result. We want peace. We want there to be less violence. Yeah, less violence, and we want more peace. So the people in that community always have the most interest in obtaining that goal, so to me those are always gonna be the people that should be communicated with – to try to accomplish that goal, the people that are held the most accountable to try to accomplish that goal, so in that way I do agree with what you’re saying as far as the community is the most important activist in getting to that goal. Even above anybody outside of that community that is just over that community or in charge of that community. The community itself has the most to gain. And so I always tend, my music, my lyrics especially tend to speak to the people at hand who have the most to gain from a certain result or certain outcome. They have the most to gain and they’re the ones that have to stand up the most. I’m not, I’m not in a place yet where I would want to exclude someone being in charge of a certain community, but it’s hard to depend on them to do the right thing. At the end of the day I would rather try to inspire and encourage, or rebuke, the actual community that has the most to gain. Because they are the ones that have the most interest, or should have the most interest in a different result, in an amazing outcome. So I tend to talk straight to the horse’s mouth, in a sense. And I tend to also be against putting too much trust, too much weight, onto someone else. Onto someone who just simply does not have as much to gain, they have less interest in seeing the peace results or, you know, the non-violence result as you and the community do. But I always tend to speak straight to the community.
Yeah we can’t, you know…a lot of time this narrative gets taken to ‘what are we going to do at the Federal level?’ when I think it’s more important to ask ‘what are we going to do in our communities? what is our community’s need for safety and protection and how are we going to address it without adopting some kind of blanket policy that may not work in our community.
Right, and I agree with that, and I think that, you know, there’s a lot of issues that need to be addressed – and trying to heal the community enough so that they can become active and deeply involved with what’s going on in their own midst. Other things need to be addressed with helping the community heal from some of the gashes and bruises that have happened over time and history. You know, communities don’t just pop out of nowhere, they’re built on a historical precedence. And unfortunately a lot of times in our country we want to ignore history and deal with the present. But in doing that we are missing the point that the present is based on history. And so we got to deal with some of the root issues that can healthily help us to diagnose what is the real problem, what is the root of the problem, and then start to heal. So there is some steps that I believe have to happen for the community, at least for the black community, truly represent itself in the best way so that everyone can really be involved in helping to find solutions. There’s a lack of unity a lot of time in our communities that make it very hard to have a healthy accountability. You know what I mean, so…
Yeah, this is something that I recognize in large is that often times people…these issues go unnoticed until there is a very clear case of outrage, and people respond well to outrage, but there’s the bigger problems that if you weighed them altogether, the little things every day, the little abuses against people that happen, those add up to weigh a lot, but since there’s not outrage involved they don’t get addressed. It’s hard to get any group or community to come together and speak of these things without having something very massive to latch on to.
Right, and when we’re using this term, when we’re using this term ‘community’, it can be loosely used like the term ‘love’, or all types of terms that are loosely used. But a real community has a general sort of thought process or goal that they’re trying to accomplish in that community. You know, there’s a spirit that they’re trying to accomplish in that community and there’s gotta be some unity in thought in any community in order to be able to truly call it a community. [see: Voluntaryism] Otherwise you are just neighbors, but you’re not neighborly. You all live in the same neighborhood but you have totally different goals and you’re not united. So I think that a community has to have a purpose of what they are hoping to accomplish. And so again, I think that those types of things need to be addressed where if you are indeed a community, coming together towards what you are striving to accomplish in that community is very important to actually come into that result, you know. You gotta know what result you are trying to bring about. And it doesn’t mean that you are united in every single thought, and every single thing, but some general points of what the community is out to accomplish – what are we striving to do in this community? I think that’s something that needs to be addressed a lot more in this country and in various communities, and especially in communities that have some of the most risk of brutality. Some of the most risk of abuse of power. You know, I think there needs to be conversations in that community about what they’re trying to accomplish.
Yeah, silence itself is a community decision that leads to apathy that helps these problems grow more.
In speaking of community you sort of recognized it as being its own sort of living entity. That’s where I come to the abolish the police thing from, is…even there is some scientific theory called ‘living systems theory’. And what it shows is that large institutions and systems themselves, eventually, just because their structures have their own needs and stuff, they sorta have their own agendas. They work better when maintained in a certain way. So any system like government or policing itself is its own living entity.
The problem with accountability, then, is that’s sort of asking that entity to look after us over itself. Whereas any living entity is gonna take on its own needs and desires.
Exactly right, yes. I totally understand that. You know while I, and again I am not sure because I haven’t studied it and thought about it as much as you have, while I’m not sure if I can say I’m great with abolishing police forces, I am very secure with saying that the community is the most important aspect with bringing about the results of a peaceful neighborhood. And having accountability in your neighborhood. And to be honest, back in the day, and this is what I love about some of my upbringing. In my community, back when I was younger, in Tennessee, it was like that – we would hold each other accountable. So if I was actin’ up, my neighbors could talk to my grandmama about me, and vice versa. And there was this sense of community pride as to what we were trying to accomplish. And it wasn’t necessarily that there were meetings being held – ‘what are we trying to accomplish as a community?’ – there was just a cultural understanding about what was right, what was wrong, what was not going to be tolerated, what is tolerated. There was an understanding, and it didn’t come from governmental systems, it came from within the community. And that was healthy because we were able to hold one another accountable, and we knew one another in a personal way, and it was helpful for keeping things in line. During my youth, at this time period in Tennessee, I literally cannot remember and incidence where there was police interaction. We dealt with things with one another. And there was issues that had to be dealt with, it wasn’t like there was perfect peace. But these issues were dealt with, with one another, and we came up with some great solutions. So I think that it’s important.
It’s a great thing when you can deal with things like that and you are not stuck with a rigid system to deal with things like that. And you deal with it on a 1-to-1 basis with the actual individuals involved, and a community can do that knowing the individual and their history, and their strengths and weaknesses, and with understanding and forgiveness, and all these things that are actually necessary to keep peace.
Exactly, yeah, I agree with that 100%. You know, unfortunately, some of the biggest gangs that are still in existence today – Crips, Bloods, so on and so forth – started off as groups that were there to protect the community from brutality. And it was police brutality. It was systematic brutality that was based on racist concepts and white supremacists concepts as well, supremacist concepts. So these types of abuses of power over the history of this country has started the need for some of these communities to literally create their own sorts of protection agencies – but against the system itself, as opposed to others in the community. And it’s really sad, and when someone understands that history it does cause to question, number one, the serious impacts of racism in this country and what that has caused. But it also causes you to think about really relying on the community itself to do more of the action instead of relying on the system that actually, unfortunately, bore some of these atrocities of gangs and so on and so forth. Even drug dealing, so on and so forth, a lot of the things that really impact our communities as blacks and people of color, a lot of that started from the same oppression that in our system.
Yeah, even hip hop itself came out of a sort of era of the seventies when these gangs realized not just their need to protect their neighborhood, but to protect their larger communities as a whole, and started, instead of fighting each other, came together to sort of battle against police and oppression. And out of that sort of agreement and good faith and stuff, the entire hip hop culture develops. I mean it was a really great thing, politically, artistically and socially.
Yeah, I think when we talk about that system and that statement, we talk about police, to me, the police are simply an extension of a system, and a country, and even before the system, a frame of mind that was based on racism. And it would legitimize anyone who wasn’t a white male. And the system was set up with that same frame of mind that would then put into effect this same frame of thought throughout the governmental system, throughout the business sectors of this governmental system and the way that government would help businesses, why they would do what they did, the way laws were built, the ways police were enacted to enforce those laws – so the police is just, for me, one aspect of a huger issue that just needs to be, again, diagnosed and then healed. And whether that will really change what you’re calling the police state – I don’t know. Again, I think I lean more towards communities doing or having the most responsible for having the best for their community. But I do know that things would be a whole lot better if I could address some of the root problems that are within the DNA of America when it comes to race and upon how this country was built when it comes to some extremely faulty thoughts about race and some extremely oppressive and horrible situations, ya know, that came from those thoughts.
Yeah, there’s a lot faulty and sort of maligned premises that we’re working from here.
So, what do you think about groups like yourself and other hip hop artists or whatever, teaming up with activist groups, like you know, like when you’re on tour having Black Lives Matter or CopBlock or one these kinds of groups kind of come with you and talk and speak with your audience and stuff, ya know, do you think that’s a way to maybe get the message out, bring activism and music together in a more fundamental way?
You know, it’s funny because, since our beginnings we’ve always welcomed various groups to come in and set up tables at our shows and be able to pass out information, and really to inform people about some of the problems that our music tries to address. So we’re big proponents of having various organizations get involved, be able to have their, you know, say. We’re choosy in how we curate and sort of think about who best fits our general philosophy so that we’re not confusing the snot out of our audience. But at the same time, we believe in that, Josh, because it is important to use as many mediums as we can to try to get information out, really, to empower the people. That’s really, at the end of the day, what I’m all about and what our group is about. We want to empower people to make more healthy and more peaceful decisions that bring about great results in this country. And in the world, really. We believe music is so powerful, it overcomes so many obstacles and it reaches past so many walls in this world, that even politics and even religion are not as effective as what we’re doing. So we feel like we have an opportunity to raise awareness, to raise the level of understanding about some of those issues that are going on. So, yeah, we’re always in favor of doing things like that.
How can an activist who wants to, maybe, set up stuff at some of your shows, how should they contact you? Through your management?
Definitely, yeah. You contact through us. Our website is extremely interactive. ADTheBand.com and we respond. And not only that, we’re extremely interactive even on our Facebook page, our Instagram [or Twitter], I mean, It’s like, we’re very touchable in a sense. So people who are interested in doing that, talk to us, let’s talk and see what we can do because we’re very big on community activism and ground level, grassroots activism.
Well, great, I hope to see you at one of these shows.
Man, you gotta come through, brother. You said you’re in Iowa?
Yeah, pretty close to St. Louis and Chicago, so I could go there for shows.
Yeah, we’re going to Chicago, but follow us on our website and I’d love for you to shoot through and peep us out and enjoy some music, but also we can talk, you know.
That’d be great, man, I look forward to it. Alright, so one last question. What are some of your favorite police-critical jams?
I like KRS-One, Sound of the Police. I love that joint. I think our joint I Don’t See You At the Club is a great tune, and I think Trauma. And the reason I say some of our joints is that I like to give the balance of it all so it’s critical about parts of the police that need to be criticized. So its not like, demonizing anybody, because I understand that police are human beings, just like everybody else. But I liked what you talked about a minute ago where it talked about the very system that they have to perform within sorta limits the ability to actually accomplish the goal in great ways, sometimes. And many times in our community in particular I’m aware of the many times that it’s wrong. And so songs like I Don’t See You At the Club we address that, you know I’m saying we address the complexities of the issue, and at the same time critiquing it harshly like it deserves to be. And songs like Trauma, to me, put it in the context of police brutality, but also this context of this ongoing trauma that people of color, particularly black people who have had a very unique experience in America, a very unique sort of story in America have been under this hotbed of consistent back-to-back problems we have had to face ever since we’ve been here. It’s not been a time of peace for us just yet. We’re hoping to get there, you know what I’m saying, but the song and the title Trauma, I think, it brings a critique to police but also it brings a human, a very human perspective about how it affects people. And I think that’s what sometimes gets left out of the argument or the debate about police brutality is how it’s affecting people. And on a human level, to trauma that is causes. But not just police brutality, but all of the other things I talk about in that song, so I think it puts it on a great context of this overwhelming problem, and police brutality is one of the branches of it. So those are some of my favorite protest joints, if I can think of them right now. One other song, it’s one of ours, United Minds of America on the Zingalamaduni album, and it talks about sorta that role that the brutality that police bring to the communities at times, how bad of a role it plays in the communities, so yeah, those are some of the songs I dig, right off hand.
From everyone at CopBlock and our audience, thanks for taking the time out to talk to us and to share your thoughts and address some of these issues. We’re very excited about this and really appreciated it.
No, Josh, I really appreciate you bringing me on, I appreciate the love for the music, you know. It means the world to us to be able to create music that, again, creates a dialogue and inspires the spirit, the human spirit, and hopefully inspires people to feel empowered that they can get in there and speak their voice, let their voice be heard and make some change in their own ways. So, I mean, I’m very happy that the song inspired you to reach out to me to talk, you know what I mean.
Check out my second interview with Speech on marijuana and hip hop RIGHT HERE.