John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Sheer Power of Speech

Milwaukee native’s “Tennessee” packs a punch yet makes you dance.

By - Apr 13th, 2017 02:24 pm
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Arrested Development

Arrested Development

Hip Hop needs me like a giraffe needs a ladder. So what was I doing on Monday playing guitar behind the leader of Arrested Development, Milwaukee native Speech and two beautiful singers, Tasha LaRae and Fareedah Aleem, in a smallish room on 34th and Lisbon?

The group was in town to play at the final home game of the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks, who do a fair share of community outreach, have lately been doing a lot for the non-profit Express Yourself Milwaukee where I volunteer. They brought the group in for a morning workshop with EXYO’s young clients, interns and staff. It was a complete throw down. It was also touching and inspiring. At their current location (they are planning a move to bigger better space soon) EXYO works with the city’s most at-risk kids. You don’t want to know their stories and I don’t have time or space, but when I say “at risk,” imagine how neglect, abuse, abandonment and a safety net with gaping holes have put these young people in a place you would never allow your own children to be, and you’ll be pretty close to their truth. The program exposes them to the healing power of dance, music, theater, poetry and visual arts. More importantly, it gathers them together in a place that feels safe, supportive and loving. Time and time again, it has been the difference maker in their perilous young lives.

So Speech is my new hero. His group plays a brand of joyous, life affirming Afro-centric hip hop that he calls “Life Music.” Arrested Development formed in Atlanta, where he went to college in 1988. By 1992 they won two Grammy Awards in 1993 for Best New Artist and Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, and were also named Band of the Year by Rolling Stone magazine.Their formation was a direct response to the death Speech said he saw everywhere. As he pointed out in the workshop, it wasn’t just physical death. There were cities and people in them whose spirits were dying.

Speech, whose name reflected that basic right, was born Todd Thomas. He chose to his exercise his First Amendment rights by talking bluntly of social ills like homelessness, in the song “Mr. Wendal,” and broaching one of the most difficult and one of the terrible topics in American history, lynching, in the song “Tennessee.” His magic act was taking the bitter pills of America’s hidden history and setting them at the center of mesmerizing grooves.

He performed “Tennessee” after showing his pickup band an easy two-note groove. I’m proud to say we locked up and when the singing began it was obvious why he chose to call his brand of Hip Hop “Life Music.” Here are the lyrics for “Tennessee”:

Lord, I’ve really been real stressed, down and out, losing ground
Although I am black and proud, problems got me pessimistic
Brothers and sisters keep messin’ up, why does it have to be so damn tuff?
I don’t know where I can go to let these ghosts out of my skull
My grandma past my brother’s gone, I never at once felt so alone
I know you’re supposed to be my steering wheel, not just my spare tire
(Home!) But Lord, I ask you
(Home!) to be my guiding force and truth
(Home!) For some strange reason it had to be
(Home!) he guided me to Tennessee

Take me to another place, take me to another land
Make me forget all that hurts me, let me understand your plan
Take me to another place, take me to another land
Make me forget all that hurts me, let me understand your plan

Lord it’s obvious we got a relationship
Talkin’ to each other every night and day
Although you’re superior over me
We talk to each other in a friendship way
Then outta nowhere you tell me to break
Outta the country and into more country
Past Dyesburg and Ripley
Where the ghost of childhood haunts me
Walk the roads my forefathers walked
Climb the trees my forefathers hung from
Ask those trees for all their wisdom
They tell me my ears are so young (Home)
Go back, from whence you came (Home)
My family tree, my family name (Home)
For some strange reason it had to be (Home)
He guided me to Tennessee (Home)

Take me to another place, take me to another land
Make me forget all that hurts me, let me understand your plan
Take me to another place, take me to another land
Make me forget all that hurts me, let me understand your plan

Now I see the importance of history
Why my people be in the mess that they be
Many journeys to freedom made in vain
By brothers on the corner playin’ ghetto games
I ask you, Lord why you enlightened me
Without the enlightenment of all my folks
He said, cuz I set myself on a quest for truth
And he was there to quench my thirst
But I am still thirsty
The Lord allowed me to drink some more
He said what I am searching for are
The answers to all which are in front of me
The ultimate truth started to get blurry
For some strange reason it had to be
It was all a dream about Tennessee

Take me to another place, take me to another land
Make me forget all that hurts me, let me understand your plan
Take me to another place, take me to another land
Make me forget all that hurts me, let me understand your plan
Oh, won’t you let me, won’t you help me
won’t you help me understand your plan
Take me home, take me home, home, take me to another place
Take me home, take me home, home, take me to another place

© Arele Jones, Todd Thomas

The chorus is simple and unforgettable, everyone in the room picked up on it. In the official video there are images of lynching. While these are always sickening and shocking, they had to be there. Telling a tragic story like this is not easy; if you do it wrong, it’s a surefire way to clear a room. You need to have the tools Speech seems to have acquired naturally, because he makes it impossible to listen to this and not want to dance. It’s the kind of conscious, positive music that brings to mind the late, great Bob Marley.

For him to take the time to stop by Express Yourself (thankfully without a band) is very un-rockstar. He had his beautiful wife and daughter along — they could have all been shopping or at the movies. But he lingered after the performance, taking questions and mingling. There was nothing but but kindness on view. I believe in these kids and one hour spent with someone as inspiring as Speech and his equally inspiring singers may be something they can hold on to and draw upon when they most need it.

Every spring EXYO stages a free show built around a different theme. This year it’s “Soul.” They are always worth seeing. There’s plenty of energy, movement and emotion on display. There are great young singers and players led by the husband-and-wife team of Holly Haebig (EXYO’S program director) and David Wakewith choreography by Cammie Griffina touring member of the dance troupe Stomp! Last year the EXYO show moved from The Pittman Theater at Alverno College to a larger venue, The Milwaukee Theater. Any worries of filling a bigger space were quickly brushed aside as they filled the stage with color, movement and inspired performance. I’ve seen five of these shows — they’re always a high point in my year, they could be in your’s, too.

I think Milwaukee should start naming streets again. There are plenty of dead presidents, French explorers and other historic figures no one but John Gurda recognizes, and he’s not always available to explain who they honor. We also have endless numbers. How colorful! Is this not the birthplace of Liberace, Spencer Tracy, Al Jarreau, Golda Meir, Bob Uecker and Gene Wilder? Milwaukee needs to celebrate our successes. We’re more than coordinates on a map. Let’s start with Speech Avenue — I think I could do without North Ave. and the reminder that we freeze half of the year in Milwaukee. Mr. Mayor, are you reading this?

Note: Read more about Express Yourself Milwaukee and Soul at The Milwaukee Theater here. And Speech’s appearance at Express Yourself Milwaukee was featured on WTMJ’s 10:00 report.

One thought on “Sieger on Songs: The Sheer Power of Speech”

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    We all want to go to other places sometimes (escaping where we are now), the the line “I don’t know where I can go to let these ghosts out of my skull” struck me as particularly poetic.

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