Being a hip-hop performer in Columbia is an uphill battle. Things are better now, but I’ll be 35 years old in August and my first time on stage was as a 14-year-old rapper beginning my dreadlocks.
So when South Carolina musician Don Merckle posted on his personal Facebook page about a conversation he’d had with now-allegedly-former part-owner of Main Street Public House Jimmy Latulipe that sounded rather racist, my response was sadly a Kanye shrug. This ain’t nothing new.
Latulipe reportedly told Merckle that his plan was to keep “nigs” out. The conversation got weird due to the language, and Merckle said that Latulipe grabbed another man — whom Merckle assumed was another Main Street Public House employee, partly because he was wearing the bar’s T-shirt — to smooth things over with “He doesn’t mean n#!gas, he means n#!gers with a hard R.”
Having been in the music scene here for 20 years, I know there’s a level of keeping “nigs” out, though it’s usually done in code.
Back in 2011, Free Times got into it with Wet Willie’s as they pulled out of that year’s Free Times Music Crawl rather than let hip-hop acts perform at their spot.
Owner Bill Dickinson said at the time, “People who want to listen to that stuff, who want to basically perform that kind of stuff, I don’t want them in my business. If you like to hear people using the F-word and the N-word, you’re not welcome in my establishment. If you’re a customer and you use that kind of language, you’re going to be kicked out.”
Several ironies: 1) Hip-hop had been performed there plenty of times. I know because I was one of those acts; 2) drive past Wet Willie’s on a Friday night, and you see black folks, with tons of rap music playing; and 3) how in the f#!k do you navigate a moral compass when you have a drink in there called “Call a Cab”?
Festivals like St. Pat’s in Five Points have also gotten some heat over the years about seldom booking hip-hop (similar to the Oscars So White campaign), and organizers of the festival have made similar arguments — that hip-hop artists’ lyrics can be offensive.
Again, a few thoughts: Let’s say that’s your reason for not having hip-hop. OK, well what about booking more soul instead? R&B? Funk? A host of other music forms with black artists?
As the guy who writes the Crime Blotter, every year when St. Pat’s come along, I see the police reports, with young people drinking too much at a festival sponsored by alcohol companies. Again, the moral high ground.
Then, take an event like Love, Peace & Hip-Hop: family friendly, zero alcohol sponsors, and to my knowledge not one arrest in its five years.
These are a few examples of the hypocrisy and headaches rappers have to go through.
I remember years ago, venues would tell us that they don’t have anything against rap, but that they don’t like to have non-bands. Put a band together and then it’s, “Oh, but it’s a rap band.”
In my 20 years as a musician, performer, organizer and promoter I’ve never had one show that had a fight, an arrest or even a drink thrown at someone. And I’ve brought hip-hop acts from Ghostface Killah to Talib Kweli, Pete Rock and mother#!kin’ Dead Prez.
It’s funny that hip-hop is the highest grossing genre of music in the United States, Kendrick just got a Pulitzer and Harvard is teaching hip-hop as a course, but in Columbia it feels that the culture always has to play second fiddle.
It makes it difficult for me as a musician and DJ to play at venues and then hear accusations of racism, such as a 2016 incident at Art Bar where the staff nixed a hip-hop playlist during a Memorial Day event. (Free Times later spoke with owner Andy Rodgers about the incident).
I’ve almost become the point person for these complaints because I’m in the unique position of being a hip-hop artist and a writer in this city.
I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know this: If your festival doesn’t want hip-hop or your venue doesn’t want people of color, then that’s fine. I don’t want to twist anyone’s arm to cater to a hip-hop crowd if they don’t want to. But for the people who love the culture and want to do these things, don’t get in our way. I’m personally working on getting a venue that would be a welcoming place for black music and artists.
But the more I hear stories like this in Columbia, the faster I’m going to run out of places to eat and hear music.
Preach Jacobs is a musician, artist and activist and founder of Cola-Con and indie label Sounds Familiar Records. You can hear his podcasts and read more work at FightThePower.co.