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Virginia rapper McKinley Dixon blazes through underground venues

DIY We Fight



McKinley Dixon
w/ Contour, Nory
Sat. Dec. 14
8:30 p.m.
See editor's note for location info

When you've performed in as many small and independent venues as rapper McKinley Dixon, you know how to make an intimate space feel like a club. The Richmond, Va. native last brought his full-band rap project to Charleston almost two years ago. In that time, Dixon has risen as a positive, unrelenting voice who proudly carries a torch for black identity.

His studio albums have a surprisingly full sound for an artist who, until recently, was not on a major label. There are bits of rap, soul, jazz, Afro-Cuban music, and slam poetry. His music has a theatricality, populated by brass instruments, varying tones of piano and keys, guitars, booming drums, and an occasional string section.

Despite his genre fluidity, Dixon makes no bones about his sound. "I'm a rapper above anything else," he says. "People love to say that I make jazz music, but I really don't make jazz music."

Lately he has toured off of the success of his single "Anansi, Anansi b/w Wit These," which was the first release by an artist of color on Saddle Creek Records. In 2020 Dixon will release the final installment of a trilogy of albums which began with 2016's Who Taught You to Hate Yourself? and continued with 2018's The Importance of Self-Belief.

While his hometown of Richmond houses an excellent independent music scene and a wide range of black artists, Dixon does not shy away from the issues that his hometown faces.

"Richmond is known for being a punk city, which is a pretty white-dominant genre," he says. "In response, there used to be house venues in Richmond run by artists of color and queer and trans identifying people because they weren't getting booked at venues. Those are communal efforts, if we build it ourselves then we can make something happen but those get shut down for obvious reasons."

That do-it-yourself approach that Dixon has taken is a double-edged sword. Making independent music is inherently a DIY effort, but like so many other things there are additional struggles that apply to people of color or LGBTQ artists.

"My situation is interesting because I'm a rapper with a band," Dixon explains, "and indie scenes don't support rappers the same way they support bands. That's a privilege that I have. The band makes it easier for white audiences to quantize my music and register it. I've been rapping since 2011 and then I got a band in 2017 and, like that, I'm on NPR in 2018."

Despite that, Dixon is still enthusiastic about independent music scenes and DIY efforts, both of which have informed his latest tour.

From a musical perspective, there is a decent amount of overlap between Dixon and Contour, a supporting artist for the upcoming show. Both are black artists who have worked on their craft for the better part of a decade, and are just beginning to scrape the surface of widespread recognition.

Both come from major Southern cities with active DIY communities; both operate in the aesthetic sphere of modern R&B, hip-hop, and jazz; both have adopted backing bands within the last few years; and both actively champion art and music that are produced by social minority groups.

Dixon's previous two albums have centered around black positivity in the midst of personal doubt and ruthless injustice. In 2018's "Black Boy Flies," he raps, "what I've learned is that you can always fly/ even on your back you can always see the sky/ as beautiful as my black fist/ just as tight as my curls/ hands high above my head ready to take on the world."

Tracks like "Circle the Block" and "Hell Below" address police violence and the paranoia that comes with the high volume of violence against African Americans. Despite the dark themes and realities that populate Dixon's music, he never loses sight of beauty, thankfulness, and hope for something better.

On "The Outro Song," from Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?, people of various ages, languages, and backgrounds say what they want from life. Activist and academic Cornel West is heard on the track: "Stay strong in your quest for truth and put a smile on John Coltrane's face." That's what McKinley Dixon and his music stand for.

When asked what they want to see happen in the evolution of equal opportunities for independent minority artists, both Dixon and Contour stress active public discourse and transparency. "Black artists are very often pitted against each other and that's not their fault," says Dixon. "When you're in rap, that's what happens and rap is seen as this animalistic competition. But I think that if we were transparent, then we wouldn't let others make decisions as to what our genre is."

The fans, or maybe more appropriately consumers, do have to consider the role that they play in artist representation. The entertainment industry is a hierarchy run by an upper class that thrives on connections, so support from consumers can make a world of difference.

On Dec. 14, Dixon, Contour, and Nory will perform at a DIY venue in Charleston, one of the rare examples of a DIY show in Charleston that features a bill made exclusively of artists of color. To receive the location, message Paid Vacation on Facebook.

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