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
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
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."