Something From Nothing: How Tulsa, OK birthed the hip-hop movement the world needs
There is a new music scene brewing out on the edge of the prairies in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A town once referred to as the ‘magic city’ for its ability to make people rich with oil in the early 20th century, has all too often made news over the last two centuries for its tragedies and failures. From the Trail of Tears to the massacre of Black Wall Street, to the current budget shortfalls and education system crisis, many around the United States have dismissed Oklahoma as a hopeless state where nothing can possibly go right.
Miraculously, this set of circumstances has birthed a downtown culture and hip-hop scene that is hell bent on healing itself, the city of Tulsa and eventually the entire world. The word ‘movement’ gets thrown around a lot with hungry young rappers in cities across the United States, but there is no better way to describe what is happening in Tulsa with a group of artists who dubbed themselves World Culture Music. A group of creatives who saw not an empty city with an inactive downtown, but a blank canvas. Hip-hop has always been about making something out of nothing, but it has been a while since that old spirit has manifested itself on the national level with something truly unique. The iconic hip-hop cities of the coasts have pushed culture forward since the 1980s, but the national movement is in desperate need of the spirit-conscious music flowing out of America’s heartland.
The hip-hop culture in Tulsa is deeply existential. It is also deeply spiritual, though not in the way you might expect from a city at the buckle of the bible belt. Everyone brings their own flavor to the scene, their art and music drawing influences from all over the world while also embracing all things uniquely Oklahoman. From the cowboys of color rodeo life, to a reliance on community support, to the competitive cycling culture that has developed in Tulsa over the last decade, no cultural nook or cranny is left unembraced. The artists in Tulsa have a unique voice and Mid-American perspective that is absent from the national hip-hop culture, and a spiritual wisdom that has the ability to shape the next phase of evolution for the genre. Where it was once almost laughable to think of a progressive hip-hop movement emerging in a place like Tulsa, the energy here is starting to feel like that is exactly what is happening.
Cycling is a big deal in the emerging culture of Tulsa. The spiritual center of Tulsa’s cycling world is the Sound Pony, a bar that is filled to the brim with cycling memorabilia. It is also a special place within the conservative universe of Oklahoma where people of all stripes including punks, hip-hop heads, metal heads, electro-dance djs, and old school R&B vinyl djs all rub elbows and live in alignment with the ethos: unity. On any given night walking into the Sound Pony, there is no telling which scene is going to be represented, an eclectic vibe you would be hard-pressed to find even in the most underground clubs of Brooklyn or San Francisco. Tulsa’s modern hip-hop culture developed out of the Sound Pony and its slightly more hard edged next door neighbor, the Yeti. The Yeti boasts a back patio with an energy that must be experienced first-hand. This area has served as a sort of ‘church’ for the hip-hop culture in Tulsa over the years, where every-Monday events Cypher 120 and now The Situation create a free-flowing open-mic where rappers, poets, and singers can express themselves with a live house band. With these two venues as a base of operations, Tulsa’s millennial hip-hop scene flourished. Where there was once nearly zero hip-hop culture in downtown Tulsa, there is now a thriving scene.
The fact that this scene exists is a slight miracle considering the long denial of access that the city’s black community has experienced over the decades. First came a devastating massacre in 1921 on Black Wall Street, an area of Black American excellence. The prosperity of Tulsa’s oil boom couldn’t help but bleed into the black community, and entrepreneurship thrived after Booker T. Washington noted the opportunities available here. That all came to an end on May 31, 1921 when racist white mobs burned Black Wall Street to the ground. Countless black citizens were murdered. First-hand accounts from Tulsa attorney Buck Colbert Franklin describe makeshift bombs being dropped by airplanes into the Greenwood area. The devastation was unspeakable, and the land grab of black property after the massacre by established Tulsans like Tate Brady was purely evil. The black community built it all back and then some, until the catastrophic effects of urban renewal in the middle 1970s mandated the entire Greenwood district be leveled to make way for an expressway.
As a person gets a feel for the immense scars that inhibit this community, it is understandable to realize Tulsa hip-hop’s intense focus on self-actualization, empowerment and spirituality is not merely some hapless self-care zeitgeist bandwagoning, but a deeply meaningful movement to heal a community. With each empowering, uplifting, introspective song these artists produce, a little bit of shame is highlighted, then released from the collective consciousness. These artists are performing a great healing. It’s a community service that is greatly needed, but barely recognized by mainstream Tulsa itself. It’s no wonder that a seminal album in the new Tulsa hip-hop scene by an artist named First Verse had a line like, “Most of us grew up feeling like the city don’t want us,” and drew its title from the mantra of the late aughts in Tulsa — this is “The City That Always Sleeps.”
First Verse was a part of an influential group in Tulsa called Oil House, whose east-coast inspired artists were the trailblazers who brought hip-hop to the Arts District north of Tulsa’s downtown. Around the same time in the early part of our current decade, the media and graphic crew Clean Hands began to dot the city with innovative murals, bringing hip-hop culture into the greater Tulsa consciousness. Clean Hands partnered with Oil House rapper Doctor Freeman to curate an event series called “Lessons in Fresh” to turn their frustrations with a sleeping city into a crash-course in culture featuring live graffiti painting, freestyle sessions, b-boy dance battles, and classic vinyl DJ sessions where the city’s best turntablists display their crafts for the younger generation. Although several Oil House members continue to produce new music, Tulsa has un-mistakenly entered a new era spearheaded by World Culture Music.
Steph Simon, a true leader in the movement, named his live band the Rowlands, in honor of the wrongly accused young man named Dick Rowland who was used as an excuse to start the burning of Black Wall Street in 1921. His lyrics speak to the urgent need for reconciliation and acknowledgement that the Tulsa community as a whole needs. He is doing all in his power to meet that need. His resources are his pen, his writing pad, and his reputation in the community. He has put together a live theater show documentary that was filmed and premiered at Tulsa’s independent film theater, Circle Cinema. He enters competitive cycling races, revels in his young days growing up around black rodeos.
Simon’s spirituality is like a preacher who has gone out to the car to sneak a nip of liquor with his buddies during the cookout. He isn’t a Christian rapper, but he speaks with a deep spiritual wisdom that many millennials are missing because church has become too inauthentic for them. Simon sampled Kirk Franklin before Kanye made it cool, but also draws influence from Carlton Pearson — a Tulsa preacher who built an empire in the 1990s only to lose his flock after his views on the nature of God evolved. Simon’s authenticity comes through in the way he understands his place in the history of his city, the way he will wear cowboy boots as quick as a pair of Jordans, and his ability to give access to other artists who need a platform. His song ‘Visions’ has become an anthem of sorts to the community here, as he was perhaps the first artist to draw a parallel between the old Black Wall Street and the World Culture movement. Simon raps, “Bring me ideas, lend me your ears/how can we build? Recreate the market, the culture then we keep it real/If you doubt it then why are you here?/We’re taking risks for property, it happened before I know it’s possible.”
Most recently Simon has been busy working on his new album ‘BORN ON BLACK WALL STREET’ in which he tells the story of Tulsa past and present, often taking on the persona of ‘Diamond Dick Roland’ — the shoe shiner who was blamed by white tulsans for starting the 1921 Massacre. For the video for ‘UPSIDE (Simon Sez)’, the lead single for the album, Simon rented the former home of Tate Brady — a businessman credited for much of Tulsa’s development, who also happened to be a KKK leader and active participant in the 1921 massacre. For the video Simon threw a triumphant celebration in the front lawn of the Brady Mansion to usher in a new day for Tulsa, and the GAP Band sample that drives the song makes the act all the more powerful.
Perhaps no one better epitomizes this new energy than one of Simon’s World Culture Music collaborators, Keeng Cut. Not only has Keeng Cut developed a unique sound with uplifting lyrics that never come across as corny, he started his own food truck called TNT Wangs that exclusively parks on Main Street in front of the Sound Pony and Yeti. ‘Keno’ is the ultimate self-manifestation champion of the scene. A man incredibly aware that humans possess wells of energy to play out our visions, and is deeply tapped into that source. His anthem, “Better Everyday” contains lyrics celebrating the wonders of avocado and steel cut oatmeal and culminates with the hook, “I’m enhancing and advancing in like every single way/I wake up and tell myself I’m getting better everyday.” As a rapper, food truck operator, father and amateur cyclist there is no question Keeng Cut is one of the most interesting figures in American hip-hop culture, America just hasn’t realized it yet.
Pushing this movement along with Simon and Keeng Cut is the artist, rapper and businessman Dial Tone, a multidimensional, multi-medium creative force. Tone has held secret art shows, developed a small digital currency portfolio, and dips his lyrics and beat selections in a glossy, yet seemingly raw nostalgia. Tone understands the new economy, the new talk of spirituality, and has a connection to both Tulsa and the deeper street culture of America. Tone brings an air of intercontinental diplomacy, displaying a deep understanding of the changing currents of the 21st century creative scene. He also acts as the defacto CEO of World Culture Music while keeping up with his own artistic output. This is the type of artist emanating out of the Tulsa hip-hop scene. Completely in-tune with the great awakening that is taking place within individuals and communities across the world. With Steph, Tone, and Keno stoking the fires of creativity, there are many others taking up the call and diving headfirst into creative endeavors.
One such artist on the rise is St. Domonick, a 23-year-old rapper who blends old wisdom, new talk and a psychedelic vibe that creates a sound all his own. His lyrical feats bless his Wayman Tisdale-inspired jazz beats, with the heady new talk of spiritualism spit in the same sentence as sparking some green. There is also Mr. Burns, hardly a newcomer but a true leader in the scene with an almost shamanic vibe that has clearly influenced artists like Dom. Burns has also been better than almost anyone at expressing the angst of the social and political climate in Tulsa as a reflection of our country as a whole, and is absolutely not to be messed with in a Lessons in Fresh MC battle.
On the other end of the spectrum, Jarry Manna identifies as a Christian-rapper but brings a genuine creative spirit and raw vulnerability; a far cry from the phoned-in music and lyrics often heard in that genre. Rounding out the scene of newcomers is M.C. who seems just as comfortable as Manna in the Christian rap world, but spits lyrics that are not religious but rich with authenticity and heart. His spirituality riddles the tracks in an effervescent way, never heavy, like recently when he absolutely went off on Jay-Z’s ‘Family Feud’ beat. If you don’t already love the boldness of a rapper literally calling himself M.C., you’ll surely love his super-dope brand of hats and sweatsuits called TOWN. These artists are merely the tip of a massive iceberg of talent coming out of Tulsa and its neighbor 100 miles to the west, Oklahoma City.
This new creative culture in Tulsa is celebrated each year at the World Culture Music Festival, an event created by Simon, Keeng Cut and Dial Tone as a celebration of life and art. The World Culture Music Festival is held at the Yeti and Soundpony over two nights and has steadily grown in attendance over three years. The new cultural values of access, authenticity and collaboration run rampant in the festival as the organizers have prioritized the importance of creating a platform for others even above themselves. On the main stage are the established performers of the scene, and on a separate stage are the up and coming rappers who the World Culture team noticed and nurtured. By giving them a space to perform, they are actively growing the hip-hop scene and planting seeds that have already made younger artists realize what is possible even in a city that used to sleep.
That a hip-hop scene this fresh and deep with talent is bubbling up in Tulsa speaks to the emerging tools that have brought access and ability to markets that were once relegated to the third or fourth tier of marketing and promotions in the entertainment industry. That this scene has emerged amid Oklahoma’s institutional failures and in the historical context of Black Wall Street makes the work of each of these artists even more powerful. Tulsa’s hip-hop culture is cultivating a holistic-based awakening with unabashedly positive energy emanating from the music scene. These are rappers who are not afraid to be themselves, to celebrate their hometown’s eccentricities, and to pull inspiration from a deep well of those that have come before them. These are the pioneers of culture that boldly decided to fully own the history of their city, and make the choice to turn the wound of an American tragedy into motivation and empowerment. Perhaps there is some magic left in this city afterall. Welcome to the New Black Wall Street.