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November 1, 2019
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Can you recall the moment of your own political awakening? If not the precise moment, then the season you were in — or the age you were — when observations and feelings about the world crystallized into something more? If you’re like me and you love music, the pivotal points of clarity and realization in your life can all be soundtracked.

Jill Scott’s “Slowly, Surely” reminds me of my first heartbreak. Ghostface’s “All That I Got Is You” reminds me of my mother’s love. Kanye’s “Through The Wire” reminds of me of youthful ambition and getting my first job. But when I think of my own political awakening — a realization that not only was there something wrong with how society treats people of African descent, but that we could do something about it — I think of dead prez’s Let’s Get Free.

Released on March 14, 2000, the 18-track debut by the Florida/New York duo of stic.man (Khnum Ibomu) and M-1 (Mutulu Olugbala), is a piece of art-as-propaganda, meant to provoke and inspire. To my young mind, Let’s Get Free became a guide to the world as seen through a politically-educated, pro-Black, pro-working-class lens, and a tool to challenge all that I had been indoctrinated into, by my formal education and the media I consumed.

The album is as prescient of today’s zeitgeist, as it was a sober examination of history and the world of its time. These days it’s common to see criticism of capitalism in the public sphere — calling out the ills of this economic system is no longer a mainstream taboo — but it wasn’t back then. In 1998, as hip-hop leaned into conspicuous consumption and aspirational excess, dead prez first released the single “Police State,” stic.man got to the heart of the matter when he proposed that we “organize the wealth into a socialist economy.” It was a deadly-serious track that broached the topics of police violence, militarization, and state surveillance, years before there was or a Patriot Act, or police departments regularly trotted out military-grade equipment to quell protests, as they did in Ferguson.

Let’s Get Free begins with “Wolves,” an impassioned speech by Uhuru Movement’s Chairman Omali Yeshitela, a lifelong activist, as well as stic and M-1’s ideological forbear. The tone is set with an allegory: Yeshitela says that certain indigenous peoples in the Arctic have a clever method of killing prowling wolves. Through the use of a double-edged knife, with a blood-covered blade stuck in ice, the wolves’ own appetite and survival instinct is used against them and they are made to kill themselves. The metaphor explains how living under capitalism and white supremacy has trapped the Black community in self-destructive cycles, and asks us to turn our attention to our true adversary: “You don’t blame the person, the victim/ You blame the oppressor! Imperialism, white power is the enemy,” Yeshitela thunders.

Long before “woke” became a buzzword — and then pejorative descriptor — Let’s Get Free was alternately the warm morning sunshine coming through our windows, and the splash of cold water on the face, prompting us to wake the fuck up. On “They Schools,” dead prez make the connections between Black people’s collective miseducation, the criminalization of Black students, the school-to-prison pipeline and how it all works in service of our oppression. On “Behind Enemy Lines,” stic addresses mass incarceration from the perspective of the inmate, while M-1 introduces listeners to the plight of Fred Hampton, Jr., who at the time was a current-day political prisoner persecuted by the same forces that assassinated his Black Panther father while he was still in his mother’s womb.

Effective resistance requires us to know who our enemies are and how they move — but it also means that we must be concerned with our own physical and spiritual sustenance. To that end, dead prez gave us “Be Healthy,” a mellow Spanish-guitar-driven song on which they extolled the virtues of vegan living way before “plant-based diet” was part of our collective lexicon. stic’s “I don’t eat no meat, no dairy, no sweets” opening line is firing for today, as we unlearn industrialized diets that lead to diabetes and hypertension. The simply-titled “Happiness” reminds us that the fight for freedom requires more than just fighting — that restoration and recreation are important too. “I feel great even though we got mad things to deal with/ Happiness is all in the mind. Let’s unwind, and find a reason to smile,” goes the song’s chorus. Revolution is necessary but it need not be dour. Despite its infamous “croutons” and “futon” couplet, the track “Mind Sex” is an expression of the sapiosexual attraction that’s now en vogue and subversive in that it upends the clichéd idea of women as merely sexual objects so pervasive in rap.

Powerful protest music stirs emotion and channels it into motivation too, this is a formula that dead prez mastered and displays on the anthemic “I’m A African.” “Yo, turn this motherfuckin’ shit up!” says a fired-up stic, before shouting the rallying cries of “Uhuru!” and “Koupe tet boule kay!” Then, he and M-1 proceed to give us their signature brand of “natty dreadlock/ fuck-a-cop hip-hop” over producer Hedrush’s raucous uptempo beat. Who knew militant Pan-Africanism could sound this good? The album’s hit and the crown jewel is, of course, the song “Hip-hop.” With its buzzing bass and Dirty South drum programming, it landed strangely on my boom-bap and G-Funk trained ears back then. “Hip-hop” was foreign but it was undeniable. The beat inspired bouncing, and the rhymes inspired critical thinking about the music and culture I loved: “One thing bout music when it hit you feel no pain/White folks say it controls your brain/ I know better than that, that’s game” says M-1 in his immortal opening lines. The song serves as an introduction to dead prez’s politics (“I’m down for runnin’ up on them crackers in the city hall”) and a reminder for the hip-hop audience to be self-defining and self-determining (“Would you rather have a Lexus or justice?/ A dream or some substance?”).

To be a dead prez fan meant…means being unafraid to choose substance over subtlety. Hip-hop has never tip-toed around day-to-day realism, and what M-1 and stic were addressing on Let’s Get Free directly affected the lives of the people creating the art and pushing the culture forward — myself included. dead prez were direct without talking down to their audience or over their heads. Not since the Black Power Movement of the ’60s and ’70s had the need for revolutionary change been made so plain for those of us not in the ivory towers of academia or the political intelligentsia. This album was the everyman’s Black Revolution 101. A Ten-Point plan for the 21st Century. Give it another listen and let’s all get free together.