[EXCLUSIVE] A Candid Conversation with Arrested Development’s Front Man, Speech
In the words of the incomparable Lauryn Hill, “music is supposed to inspire how come we ain’t getting no higher?”. Yes, music is entertainment but most music lovers will tell you that they’re love of music stems from the way it makes them feel. I love to turn up as much as the next person when the moment calls for it, but my favorite songs are rarely the “party” songs. They are the ones that make me think and feel, remind me of pastimes of old and help me get through tough times and celebrate good ones. One of those songs, “Mr. Wendal”, was released in 1992 by hip hop group Arrested Development. I won’t tell you how old I was when the song hit the airwaves lol, but I will tell you that it opened my mind to an issue that continues to plague our country, homelessness. Well Arrested Development is back with two albums of music meant to inspire and take us higher. I caught up with the group’s front man, Speech, and we talked about today’s musical climate, the Oscar controversy, mother Africa and more. Check out our chat below.
Keyauna: Okay, I do a lot of interviews, but this one is near and dear, because I’m an 80’s baby. I grew up listening to Arrested Development.
Speech: Thank you. That’s really cool.
Keyauna: I mean, the 90’s, come on, the early 90’s … I know you guys have been doing music for a long time and still putting out music, which we will talk about. But, I can’t think of you guys without thinking of “Mr. Wendal”.
Speech: That’s cool, thank you (laughs).
Keyauna: You’re welcome. I’ll go ahead and say that your music, when you started out in the late 80’s and early 90’s made some people, like me, a little more conscious, a little more socially aware as a teenager. You know, in our teens we’re pretty self-centered. How does it feel to have sparked a different generation to pay more attention to what’s going on in the world?
Speech: Honestly, that’s the whole point of why we got in the music industry. My mother owns a newspaper and it’s the largest black-owned newspaper business in Wisconsin. Growing up, even as a young kid, I would hear all the issues going on in our community. My mom and dad would discuss them, and they were always like, “Yo, we need more solutions.” So, when I wanted to be a rhymer, my whole goal was looking around me, seeing our problems, but trying to come up with some solutions and rapping about it and talking about it like a newspaper would; just bringing the stories up that needed to be talked about. I appreciate that. That really means a lot. That was our goal from the very beginning.
Keyauna: Well, it really resonated because I can remember being old enough to start paying attention but not really caring about much. You know, you’re just young and you’re floating through life and you deal with things as they come. But when you hear a song like that (Mr. Wendal)….I’m more of a hip hop head in the sense that I wasn’t always into mainstream music. I like lyrics. I like to dissect what’s being said. Not just the beat, the rhythm behind the song.
Keyauna: And I remember that song making me think about homeless people in a different way. At first you’re disconnected from it. It’s like, “Okay, they’re homeless I’m not. I don’t have to deal with that issue.” But when the song came out, it really made me see Mr. Wendall as a person, as a human being. I think that that song and a lot of the other songs you guys put out really just made people pay attention to things they never even thought about.
Speech: Yeah, that’s very cool. I appreciate it. I really, really do. When I used to go to my mom’s newspaper; she actually gave me a job as a teenager writing a column. So a lot of the things that I would write in my column… I was fourteen. I would end up making them into songs later. So I really appreciate everything you’re saying. It’s cool.
Keyauna: Let’s get back to you guys. It’s been a while. You’re still making music. You’ve been touring Japan, the UK and the states. Tell me about what’s happening now since the spark of the movement back then.
Speech: It seems that, unfortunately, a lot of the same issues that we addressed in our first album, second album, could have been written yesterday. It hasn’t been a lot of positive change as a collective, as a people. There’s obviously been individual change. A lot of people have benefited greatly by a lot of the advances that we’ve made as a people and so on and so forth. But as a collective, things are actually even going backwards. You look at a lot of the statistics of where we stand right now. We own less black-owned businesses than we used to. There’s less of us going to black colleges. There’s more of us going to prison. There is less opportunity to share our viewpoint from television’s standpoints, from the radio standpoint. There are a lot of things going on that we really need to address even more than we did before. Privatized prisons are a reality, where people are making money for putting various people into prison. The music seems to really help people to get there because it’s not talking about enough different diverse things that make people see the worldview of their life as broad enough to make some incredible decisions that they need to make. There’s a lot going on right now. Our music is really more relevant than it even used to be back in the early 90’s, late 80’s. It’s pretty sad, and at the same time, it’s the reason that we wanted to write, and not just our group. Anybody could be doing what we’re doing, and I think it’s just as relevant for them to be doing it. We’re speaking for us right now. I just think it’s very important that music like this exists.
Keyauna: I’ll say that personally, I don’t listen to much of today’s music. I’m talking about what’s considered hip hop right now. We all have a different perspective of how we see the world. My world, I don’t relate to a lot of the things that I hear. I think that current music from you guys is very important, and groups like you because there are lot of people out here who don’t listen to current music because they don’t have anything they can relate to. All they listen to is old stuff. I feel like as much as I enjoy all the old stuff, I would love to have something today that I could delve into outside of when I’m in my car riding or going out with my friends. Songs that address issues that we are facing right now. You talked about things that are still relevant now. Dr. King had a dream and his birthday just passed. The same things we’re dealing with today, we were dealing with the day he was assassinated. I think the message is really important. I know that you guys are releasing new music. One of the albums is titled “Change the Narrative.” I think the name is so indicative of what needs to happen today.
Speech: You mentioned what the song, “Mr. Wendal” did for you when you were younger, and it made you think about some things in a different way, or it helped you think about things in a different way. I think that there always has to be the option for music that is going on the mainstream that allows people to think about things in different ways and not just the same subject matter over and over again. When you really listen to the stuff that’s being pumped out…and this is what worries me the most is, a lot of this is to our youngest generation who has the least experience in life, who has the least opportunity to fight against some of the messages that are being spewed out there and what I mean by “fight against it” is enough life experience to know, “Well, I ain’t got to go with that, with what’s being said right here. I don’t have to go with what’s being said right there.” It’s reaching so many people at such an alarming rate, not even just in music, but even in television. A lot of the same things are being presented in that way, that it really is teaching an entire generation of people a standard of life that doesn’t give them enough, and I use the word “nutrients,” in order to really survive in this world. It doesn’t give them enough diverse thought to compete in this world. They’re doomed to have a viewpoint of this world that will not allow them to truly move forward in a way that they’re going to need to. It’s a really desperate situation. Hip hop music for a long time has been saying messages like this. It was a message of KRS1 called “Self-destruction.” It said, “You’re headed for self-destruction.” There’s a lot of things that we’ve been saying in hip hop music that we knew from the very beginning that if we didn’t change, even back then in the 80’s, that things would be horrible. We’ve got to take heed. It’s time to really take heed to this and not just look at it as what’s hot and what’s banging, you know what I’m saying? It’s deeper than that.
Keyauna: Let’s talk about the new album. Actually, there’s two. There’s “Changing the Narrative” and “This Was Never Home.” Let’s start with “Changing the Narrative”. What will we get when we put in “Changing the Narrative?”
Speech: “Changing the Narrative,” it’s a really, to me, hip hop classic type of record, where we’re sampling a lot. A lot of jazz, a lot of funk, some soul music. But lyrically, it’s talking about waking up from the American dream. That’s the narrative that we’re trying to change. That this whole idea of the American dream is something we really need to wake up from. We need to get real about where we stand in America and what we really have to do to change the narrative. That’s what that record is. And then, we got another record, too.
Keyauna: Let’s stick with “Changing the Narrative” for a minute, because there are a few different things that have happened in current events recently that I thought about in the context of having this chat with you. I said “I want to ask Speech about these things” because they are a part of, like what you said, what the American dream is, what we seek and what we go after, and maybe we shouldn’t be. One of those things that has really been a topic lately are the Oscars. There’s this whole debate about whether or not we should even want to be accepted and have our art be acknowledged at the Academy Awards. Our wanting to be accepted and wanting to be included. Should we even want to be? Should that be a part of our dream?
Speech: Honestly, of course we should want to be accepted. I think it’s a human thing. But, when you look at the track record…That’s why it’s, again, about changing that narrative and waking up from the American dream and being awake. The track record is horrible for us being accepted in this system, in this Oscars system. I speak to the Oscars now, since we’re on the topic of that. Our track record is horrible for being accepted into that, so I totally agree with Jada Pinkett-Smith when she says we need to establish our own award shows that truly represent the things that we think are brilliant, the things that the writers, the actors, the actresses, the directors and so on and so forth, the soundtracks, that we think are truly brilliant and give them those props, give those people their deserved props. To do it ourselves, than to keep begging and to keep groveling to somebody that told you what they think about you. They’ve not just told us this year or maybe the year before, but for decades now. The movies that we even have been awarded for are not the movies that we as a people tend to think are worthy. It’s never been centered on what we actually think. I shouldn’t say never. It’s rarely been, and I mean very rarely. Most of the movies that we think should have been nominated, or the roles that we think, where this actresses or actors best roles, were not rewarded. So they’ve been given rewards for things that sometimes we think have been some of their worst roles.
Keyauna: Like Halle Berry or Denzel, they won for roles that, personally, I don’t think were roles where, I guess the word is … It wasn’t indicative of their careers. It was this one-off kind of thing and it was like, “OH, Denzel gets it for ‘Training Day’ but he’s done so many movies that were amazing where he was hero.”
Keyauna: This was probably, I won’t say the only, but probably one of the only negative roles that Denzel Washington has ever played.
Speech: Exactly. And that is the truth. And Halle Berry for us and our people at a point where, maybe now, too, but at a certain time period, she was like the queen for us. The role she gets an Oscar for is the one role where she’s being treated like…I don’t even want to go there.
Keyauna: Yeah, I got you.
Speech: Demeaned by this guy in this movie…it’s just horrible. It doesn’t match what we actually believe. So, yes, I agree with Jada and I agree that we need to have our own award shows.
Keyauna: Let’s segue-way into the second issue that I wanted to raise. The Bill Cosby allegations. Some people say you have to play the “Hollywood” game where you pick and choose your battles and, at the end of the day, you win the war. For decades people thought that Bill Cosby had won that war. He’d been accepted and he’d been acknowledged and he’d been rewarded and he’d had a great career. I was discussing the allegations with someone recently and they said the rumor was looking to do some groundbreaking things recently and someone decided they didn’t want him doing those big things and laid the groundwork for his downfall. There had been allegations hanging out there for years, but for it to come out at this magnitude, whether he’s guilty or not, people are tying it in to his level of success and the powers that be deciding that they didn’t want him to be viewed in the way he’s been viewed, as America’s dad, anymore, for whatever reason that might be. Do you think that playing the game, sometimes you have to, even when you’re successful or gain some level of success with doing it here in America the American way, so to speak, is it always that ice you tread, that if you make the wrong move it can be snatched away from you?
Speech: Well, the fact of the matter of is, because we don’t control the medium, and we don’t control our own entertainment mediums, we don’t control our own destiny. We are either waiting for someone to make us famous or we’re waiting for somebody to give us an opportunity instead of us giving ourselves an opportunity. Then, yes, the answer is it easy for you to be on thin ice. No matter how large you are or how rich you are, if the person above you that pays your paychecks decides you are no longer needed or you are dispensable or disposable, then, yes, you are out of a job. When we create our own jobs, it’s different, because we can base things on our interests and say, “Well, no, even if this brother’s guilty, he needs to go to prison.” But his show was still a great show. It was still a great entertainment show. There’s precedence for this. There are people that have done horrible crimes in this nation’s history, but if they’ve done good work, their whole work isn’t destroyed because of the crime they did. We don’t know if he’s guilty or not. That’s something that I think his lawyer has done an excellent job at helping us to decipher. We may have opinions and we’re all welcome to those opinions, but it’s not right for us to call someone guilty if we weren’t there. We’ve got to wait for the facts to come out. In the meantime, they’ve already taken off his star. They’ve already taken his shows off the air. They won’t allow him to make any money in this day and age with any new shows, any new comedy acts. They won’t allow him to do what he does.
This is almost unprecedented when it comes to other races of people. We have examples of huge successful comedians of other races and especially of the white race, that have literally molested people. We know it for a fact. Some of them have even molested their own family members and we know it for a fact, and their legacies remain intact. Let’s not just get into that. We could talk about the millions of people whose names are on high schools or the millions of people whose names are on street signs and street corners. If you look at their historical past and what they’ve done to black people and to Native American people and the other people of color in this country, their stuff still remains one of the streets we make a left or right on or we make a stop light on. This is ridiculous. This is unprecedented, the way this man has been smeared without us knowing for sure what exactly has even happened. Even if it did happen, the precedence doesn’t seem to be for other races that their stars would be pulled up.
Keyauna: Yeah, that their guilt equals their legacy being completely tarnished.
Speech: Exactly! Completely tarnished, completely wiped away. That has not happened. Nine people, nine black people just had to be murdered in the basement of a church for just a flag to be taken down in one state. This is ridiculous.
Keyauna: It kind of segue-ways for me into the next album titled “This Was Never Home.” I haven’t listened to the album yet, of course, but I can only imagine with that title means. It kind of speaks on what we were talking about. That we have to create our own, because this here was not created for. It wasn’t in the stars for us to even be, I don’t think, as successful as we’ve become, in a certain right. Touch a little bit on the second title, “This Was Never Home.”
Speech: I agree with everything you just said. I would even take it further to say that we were never welcomed here. We were stolen here. We’re not immigrants. Some people call us immigrants. Sometimes we even call ourselves immigrants. Well, this nation was built by immigrants. We were not immigrants. We were stolen. We were brought here. We never came here; early on I’m talking about. I know that, of course, people come here now. The point of African Americans being here, even the term “African American,” was brought about by people being stolen and brought here against their will and snatched out of their own reality and brought to a foreign land and, basically, tortured for over 300 years for sure. You can argue whether or not it’s even been almost 400 years now as to whether or not someone is still being tortured, or at least traumatized, by the various things that we’re going through as a people. Where Baltimore riots, Ferguson, so on and so forth, these things are still happening. This is just last year. I mean, come one, this is not home. We do have a home. That’s the other thing that I think needs to be changed. I mean, wait a minute, every people has a home. Jewish people have a home. Chinese people have a home. Korean people, so on and so forth. I can go down every race. They all have a home. They may live anywhere. But they know that at the end of the day that there’s a place where they own their own mediums. They own their own resources. They have their own armies and their own realities in this world that gives them leverage to discuss with other nations and other people with real humanity intact.
Africans, at this point, really don’t have… Black people in particular, don’t really have that. Even in Africa a lot of people are discussing this. China is buying a lot of Africa. Even Europe right now is looking to Africa to rape her, our motherland, of even more of the resources that they have yet to take. People don’t understand Africa is as big as America, China, Korea, Russia, India. All of them combined could sit inside of Africa. Africa is a huge continent with huge resources and not a lot of army. We’ve got to get our act together as a people, claim our land. Get united, whether it’s just philosophically or physically, unite with Africa, and understand our role as a people, or else we will be wiped out.
I know I sound dramatic. I’m just being honest. We’ve got to start thinking differently or else we will be a memory like the Native Americans are to some extent, just a memory. You can let me know how many … Maybe you’re an exception to the rule. I might be talking to the exception. Most people we know do not sit around and have a bunch of Native American friends. It’s because they have been literally wiped out, unfortunately. Their entire land was stolen. That’s the land that we’re all on right now. Most of them have been wiped out. The ones that are still there… You can talk to any Native American leader. They’re struggling with alcoholism in a huge number. There are many, many, many different issues with those that are left. We can be in that same situation. We’ve got to really be careful and start to change the narratives. This was never home.
Keyauna: So is it this month that both albums will be released?
Speech: Yes, we chose Black History Month because we feel like this is the month where at least there’s an attempt for the whole nation to talk about black issues. In many ways it’s not being done. I’ve seen some great examples of it being done. I was just at a school. It was a state-run school in Georgia where we’re from, and whites and blacks and Asians and Latinos was all talking about real black issues. I thought that was incredible! We wanted to use this month as the time to release this record and the next record because we feel like, well, at least people are willing to talk about it right now.
Keyauna: When and where can people find each record this month?
Speech: Both of them are going to be released on our website. The first one’s free. “Changing the Narrative” is free so you can get that. We know that it’s not going to literally be exclusively on our website because I’m sure people start putting it on blogs and stuff. But first you can get it on our website, which is Adtheband.com. The second record, “This Was Never Home,” is going to be on iTunes and all that stuff. The first one comes out this week and our second one next week.
Keyauna: Outside of the music, you do other things that help to enhance and add to the enhancement of art. You and your wife have opened up an art complex in Georgia, is that correct?
Speech: Yeah, we did. My wife and I are big fans of the arts, of just artists in general, of all races, all ages. We opened up an art school called the Victory Spot. It’s been a dream of ours for 15 years. We opened it up in October of 2015. We have about 15 students right now and it’s constantly growing. In the first four months, we’ve already got 15 students. We’re excited. It’s a beautiful thing. We’re just trying to help artists to find a home doing the stuff that they really want to do and have a safe place to do it and learn.
Keyauna: Like your mother gave you. When you talked about going to your mother’s job and having a safe place to write and express yourself.
Speech: Exactly right. You hit it on the nose, yeah. I can give you the website right quick – victoryspot.org.
Keyauna: Well, we’re glad you guys decided to come through on your east coast stint to DC, and I’m glad we were able to chat about some pretty important things that are impacting us today.
Speech: I appreciate it, definitely.
Check out Arrested Development performing “Tennessee” LIVE in DC below!
Arrested Development performs “Tennessee” LIVE in Washington, D.C. Special thank you to Andrew Katz for your drawing of Speech. To check out more of his work, visit KatzArt.com and IG @Ajkatzart. #ArrestedDevelopment
Posted by “Arrested Development” on Friday, February 5, 2016