Mitchell Gerber/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

MusicSummer of Blacker Love

the new negro spirituals: ‘1st of tha month’

June 4, 2019

The New Negro Spirituals is a weekly column to celebrate Black Music Month that highlights songs in Black music that have energized and inspired Black people in modern times and recent history.

The Stylistics once wrote that it was the people that made the world go ‘round. It was a radical statement when we think about the fact that it’s usually money, not people, that made the world go ‘round, according to some musicians. The O’Jays warned listeners, “For the love of money  people will steal from their mother. For the love of money, people will rob their own brother. For the love of money.” One song highlights the beauty in the community and the people we occupy this planet with, and the other warns us what energy could destroy a community: greed and desperation.

It was Bone Thugs-N-Harmony that tied both concepts together with “1st of Tha Month,” a brighter but just as jazzy monument as their classic meditation on death and grief “Tha Crossroads,” from 1995’s E. 1999 Eternal.

Bizzy Bone raps, “Wake up and I see that my sister is already dressed. She said ‘I’m gonna run and go get my stamps. Watch and make sure no one snatches my check.’ Nigga, that’s the mailman.” I remember the familiar and celebratory energy that would come over any space once the 90’s hit was played, but became even more attached as I could process the lyrics. This wasn’t a song about the seduction of money or mature relationships — things I couldn’t quite understand at a young age. Instead, it was a song about the momentary relief we find in poverty, which I knew too well. I knew what the first of the month and the allusion to food stamps meant in Bizzy’s verse, and it was the first song that was for adults, that also felt as if it was for me. The life of living poor transcended ages and parental advisory stickers.

The infectious chorus follows its own tail in harmonic ways that are structured yet vibrant like West African chants and songs with an intense focus on (of course) harmony and melody that reminds one of a jazz vocalist’s, “Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up. It’s the 1st of the month. So get up, get up, get up, get up, get up. So cash your checks and come up.”

The repetition feels important and not like place filler. In similar ways, spiritualists believe in the power of the tongue or repetition — a practice Solange reintroduced earlier this year to viral success with “Things I Imagined” from her latest project — Bone Thugs-N-Harmony return to the phrases “wake up” and “get up” so they don’t feel like simple commands, but the spiritual affirmations that you verbalize to create something out of nothing with the intention of language.

Literally the song is about the government’s welfare program and the relief that Black folks find in the bare minimum reproduced by our government; some cash assistance here, some money for food there. On a bigger scale, it’s the spiritual mantra that you need when the world is dangerous and the bed is warm, and the outside is cold. It’s the chant you need when your environment feels like death, but you must live. Wake up, wake up. It’s the motivation you need to move and provide for yourself and the ones you love when all of your energy goes to survival and not your own wellness — be that a blunt, meditation, or both. Get up, get up.

The circumstances that made this song possible are evil: we know that Black people are often living in modes of survival and lack due to the white supremacist-capitalist invention we call American poverty — that doesn’t have to be if greed and money wasn’t more beloved than humanity. “1st of Tha Month”  is about a joy and relief that one can find even in Hell. Perhaps, especially in Hell.