The Black Opera doesn’t actually sing opera. But the Detroit hip-hop duo makes music that’s often just as dark and dramatic. The two men behind the moniker, Magestik Legend and Jamall Bufford, don’t so much make albums and play shows as they do create concepts, multimedia concerts and social commentary. Their dizzying raps and skittering beats are just their chosen methods of delivery.
Their career isn’t a straight line of releases. There are various albums, singles, remixes, EPs and solo projects presented under the Black Opera banner. They more resemble collectives like the Wu-Tang Clan or George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic than they do a typical rap group.
Perhaps the best example of what they do on album is 2016’s African America, which unfolds like a film or a novel rather than a traditional record. Across 13 tracks, the concepts and philosophies fly, from a desperate cry for salvation (“Save Us”), to a cry for cultural unity (the title track), to a celebration of the strength of women (“Black Woman Is God’). The raps are nimble and flexible, and they have to be to keep up with the musical tapestry the group creates, which casts classical piano flourishes, icy synths, off-kilter beats and electronically treated vocals against a desolate, almost gothically dark production.
This is big music in every respect, music that’s cinematic in scope. And that’s exactly what its creators intended.
“We use music to paint vivid pictures of the things we see happening in life and in the media as a way to bring awareness to the masses,” Legend says. “The Black Opera is an ever-evolving demonstration of real-life narratives created for a big stage to make an even bigger impact.”
It’s also a style of music where the individual elements disappear into the larger whole, to the extent that for the first few years of The Black Opera’s existence, Legend and Bufford didn’t even reveal their real names, identifying themselves as #120279 and #041380.
“Who we are by name comes second to what we have to share with the people,” Legend explains. “Being anonymous was not a marketing ploy, but it was a conscious move. Our intention was for people to focus on the art and hear the message, not simply look at the artist.”
Even now, after revealing their names, they essentially change personae from song to song, hitting the audience with projected visuals and costume changes for each song. They also refer to their live shows as “demonstrations,” not performances.
“’Multimedia’ is a good descriptor of our live demonstration,” Bufford offers. “In addition to the projections, we also have a wardrobe and mask changes for each song to portray different characters. Our show is equal parts performance art, theater, multimedia and rap.”
“If you see our live demonstration, you’ll notice that our performance is anchored by not just masks but complete characters that reveal the personality of the song rather than just highlight the anonymity of the artist,” Legend adds. “We see ourselves as storytellers, and it’s our goal to provoke thought and share the black experience through our music and shows.”
Since Bufford and Legend both have solo careers, The Black Opera gives them a sort of safe place to abandon their own identities and follow their collective muse.
“There’s something very freeing about The Black Opera,” Bufford says. “In the beginning, we were hiding our solo identities so that people would not make any preconceived assumptions about the music we were putting out as The Black Opera. But over time, concealing our identities gave us a freedom I don’t think we initially expected. It allowed us to step outside of ourselves and say things and to try things we may not have tried with our solo music.”
And whatever that musical experimentation might lead to, The Black Opera usually has a message to convey, whether it’s about race, politics, artistic expression, economics or, most often, all of the above.
“We speak mostly on what directly affects our collective and on behalf of our community as a whole,” Legend affirms. “We’re conscious of what is happening around us and we willingly take on the responsibility of being the voice of the voiceless. We use our art to expand the perspective and understanding of social, racial and political issues we deal with in our communities. Our message is to encourage people to critically think for themselves and to remind humankind that we are one.”
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