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Clip: Missippi Burning

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  • Carl Zimring
    Missippi Burning The East Bay s newest soul sensation battles racism and his gangsta past.
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 28, 2005

      Missippi Burning
      The East Bay's newest soul sensation battles racism and his gangsta past.
      By Darren Keast

      Published: Wednesday, April 27, 2005

      Missippi -- next in the endless line of East Bay soul singer superstar
      candidates -- is so named because of his birthplace. And we aren't talking
      the comparatively cosmopolitan, left-leaning enclave of Jackson, but two
      hours away from there, in the segregated-schoolin',
      irrigation-ditch-swimmin', rodent-huntin' rural hinterlands. As a teenager,
      he actually chopped cotton for a while. His grandfather was a preacher who
      not only banned "devilish" music like the Jackson Five from the house, but
      such lowly vices as marbles and cards. Furthermore, after a close friend
      died in a crop duster accident, Missippi's mother adopted the victim's five
      children, adding to the ten blood brothers and sisters the budding singer
      already had.

      Now, sitting in his condo in Hercules, Missippi remembers his first trip to
      the West Coast, which he took in his teens to visit one of his fifteen

      "It was culture shock, man," he says. "My brother took me to a breakfast
      place, and I went in and saw black people sitting with white people, and
      then this white guy brought water and put it on the table. I froze -- do I
      say thanks or what? My brother had been out here for a while, and he had to
      tell me, 'Don't trip, stop staring.' I had never been in a restaurant where
      white people brought food to you."

      Missippi removed the extra "iss" from his name as a remembrance of this
      sort of social struggle, which his people still face in his home state and

      He moved to Oakland after attending a festival at Lake Merritt -- Tupac,
      Too $hort, and E-40 were on the bill, and Missippi dreamed of performing
      with those artists and getting his own record deal. Fifteen years later,
      he's actually accomplished all that -- sung on a few Tupac songs,
      collaborated with various high-profile Bay Area gangster rappers, and got
      signed to Universal, one of the last mighty major labels still standing.
      Missippi's full-length debut, Book of Life, was co-produced by Rick James
      right before his death.

      We in the enlightened Bay Area would love to see this voyage as a classic
      overalls-to-riches story, with Oakland playing the part of the tolerant,
      black-supporting land of milk and honey. But this is a tad simplistic. "I
      had never heard 'nigger' until I moved out here," Missippi says. "Whites in
      the South are too afraid to use it near you, and black folk call each other
      'Blood' -- meaning family, not gangs -- and 'Bro.'"

      That wasn't the only eye-opener for the one-time choirboy after moving
      west. The clique he fell in with got mixed up in stuff his grandfather's
      most inflamed sermons against demonic influence never even hinted at:
      Missippi became homies with the chronically incarcerated, Crip-affiliated
      Sacramento rapper C-Bo. A few years ago, at a C-Bo video shoot deep in
      Sacto Blood country, rival gang members in U-Haul trucks rolled up and
      unloaded automatic weapons into the rapper's entourage. Missippi was so
      close to the gunfire that he saw bullets kicking up dirt by his legs; the
      military-proportioned firefight brought out two medevac helicopters and
      landed C-Bo back in jail. And in another brush with death-by-crossfire,
      Missippi and C-Bo narrowly missed going to Las Vegas to party with Tupac on
      the night of his killing. That time, C-Bo got arrested the night before, so
      Missippi decided not to go.

      This calamity eventually resulted in a jarring moment of clarity. "After I
      moved here, I started doing thug-life shit, but it wasn't me at all,"
      Missippi remembers now. "I was singing with all these gangster dudes,
      singing Straight killer this and Bitch-made nigga that. I sat back and
      wondered, 'What benefit is this doing me?' I decided I could make the right
      music and not worry about whether anybody liked me or not."

      The music he gravitated to instead was perhaps something neither his thug
      friends nor his grandfather would endorse wholeheartedly, but which they
      both might hum along to nonetheless. Crafted with a full band -- on Rick
      James' recommendation -- Book of Life is optimistic, clean of any gangsta
      shit, and steered by a love of classic soul and R&B. His band, which at
      times features two of the guys from Tony! Toni! Toné!, knows its way around
      syrupy Curtis Mayfield-style funk and heartfelt acoustic neo-soul. The
      album has two or three potential KMEL-worthy cuts, about the number
      trailblazing East Bay crossover success Goapele managed on her own 2002
      debut, Even Closer. Surely Universal had her model in mind when it signed
      Missippi, whose songs are also free of R&B's current
      fur-coat-and-top-shelf-liquor aesthetic.

      Missippi, who arranged and co-produced Book of Life, often sings as
      buoyantly as a teenage Michael Jackson, who was Church Enemy Number One on
      his grandfather's list of secular singers. And yet, Missippi still
      considers what he does God's music. "I would say my music is still gospel,"
      he explains. "There's a spiritualness to it, but there's a contemporariness
      to it too. So I kinda mixed them up, the gospel music and the devilish
      music -- well, I don't call it that. As long as you're thinking about the
      Lord when you sing it, it'll be all right."

      As he often does, he sings a few lines here to explain his point. "So now
      when I turn it around and sing, Every morning, I'm yawning/Waking up next
      to you/Admiring your pretty face/And your brown skin, I don't think that's
      devilish music. There might be some temptation in it, but nothing evil."

      Missippi maintains this balance between his Christian upbringing and
      worldly matters throughout the album. On "Heaven," a song he wrote a few
      hours after the 9/11 attacks, he couches the event in Biblical imagery,
      mentioning the bloody moon from Revelations and recommending that one take
      refuge down by a sycamore, an allusion to the tree a curious onlooker
      climbed to catch a glimpse of Jesus.

      Growing up, Missippi saw the visceral connection popular soul singers had
      with their audiences as just another side of what his grandfather was
      achieving when he spit heavenly fire to his congregation: Both managed to
      touch people in a profound, immediate way. "I realized at five years old I
      wanted to be a singer -- I'd watch TV and see Michael, and then I'd hear
      momma singing songs in the kitchen, those old spiritual hymns. You'd pick
      up on a line here and there with her, and then go to church and see her
      sing and watch old ladies throwing their wigs off, just screaming, she was
      so good. You're thinking, 'Ooh, that's power. She must be touching those

      Equally blessed with the sacred and the profane, it's time for Missippi to
      inspire some screaming and wig-throwing of his own. He's quietly been
      preparing since the real Mississippi. "That was power for me, too, because
      once they realized I could sing too, they put me on stage," he recalls. "I
      was six years old, singing over dead bodies, for my mom's friends, for
      church meetings. I knew I'd do this because my whole family sung. I wanted
      that power that came from singing."
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