I am appalled that Shapeshifters, Invincible’s wonderful LP, came out two and a half years ago, and I had no idea. It’s almost all I’ve listened to for the past few weeks, and is destined to stay in heavy rotation for a long time to come.
I think I first came across Invincible through activist-y means. I feel like I saw her name on some CD I was looking at in Wooden Shoe once upon a time, though my brain may have manufactured that kinda-memory. I’m surer that I saw her MySpace profile in conjunction with internet stuff I did for pro-Palestinian campaigns. I never listened to her stuff, though. In all honesty, the fact that I came across her through internet activism did not peak my interest, because most well-intended political music is not anything I want to listen to. Great political music is like my holy grail, and most of my favorite music is, at least sometimes, explicitly, consciously political. However: so much self-consciously political music I come across, especially that which I first come across in activist scenes (rather than through music fans–activist or not), tends to be heavy handed, uninspiredly amateurish, and artistically lazy. I won’t name names.
Invincible’s name came up now and again, but I was never that curious because, frankly, what were the odds that a white activist rapper was worth listening to? I mean, most white people who rap, shouldn’t. I’ve heard some awful stuff in my time by white people claiming to making hip hop of some political significance. I didn’t know anything else about Invincible, I had no context other than what I just outlined. I didn’t know about her deep roots in the Detroit hip hop scene. I didn’t know that she was a serious rapper, not an activist who decided to try rap cuz she couldn’t sing, or fetishistically thought it’d be more hardcore than starting a crappy punk band. I didn’t know who made her beats or how hot they are. If one person I respected had told me to listen to her, I happily would have, but I come across a lot of names of artists over the course of the day. Don’t check most of them out. No matter how hard I’m kicking myself now for not buying that fucking CD at Wooden Shoe.
Then, this past summer, Invincible was interviewed on Democracy Now as part of their coverage of Detroit Summer. She did a song a capella, and the show used clips from her songs as bumpers. One of the bumpers was from “Sledgehammer”, including the part where Invincible shouts out Fannie Lou Hamer, Fred Hampton, Nina Simone, and, one of my favorite film makers, Marlon Riggs. I was walking to work when I heard it and was just like, WHAT. If you’ve heard the song, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, here it is:
Around this time Jean Grae (who is maybe my favorite, favorite emcee) started (or I started noticing that she was) mentioning Invincible occasionally and I was like, ok, that bit of a song I died over is probably not at all a fluke. I kept making mental notes to check her out, and kept forgetting, ’til two days ago when I suddenly remembered and decided to see what was available through iTunes. Shapeshifters was available, so I got it, and HOLY GOD.
There’s not a skip-able cut on this thing, from the Toni Cade Bambara-quoting “State of Emergency (Intro)” to the closing cut, “Locusts”, which spawned a docu-music video.
There’s a lot going on in between. Besides the aforementioned killer “Sledgehammer”, some of my favorite songs are the brilliantly “Lovecats” sampling “No Easy Answers”, the Ann Arbor/Ypsilenti-centric “Deuce/Ypsi” (which resonates with my own disillusioning childhood in a liberal college town), and “People not Places”. Ah, “People Not Places”, how long have I been waiting for this song? It makes a nice diptych with The Shondes‘ anti-Zionist anthem “I Watched the Temple Fall” (lyrics). In it, Invisible lyrically returns to her home from ages 1-7, Israel, via Birthright and goes through the visited hotspots, revealing the Palestinian history obscured by the new Israeli villages, institutions, and language. Her portrait of a land where Hebrew has been foisted upon all and those speaking Arabic can expect police harassment is nuanced and affecting.
First stop: museum of the Holocaust
Walkin outside–in the distance–saw a ghost throwing a Molotov
Houses burnt with kerosene
Couldn’t bare the scene
It wasn’t a pogrom–it was the ruins of Deir Yassin
It speaks to Invincible’s superlative artistry that a song that serves as a history lesson backed by a very intentional agenda doesn’t come off as didactic (even if I’d still like it if it did). This song is a great example of why I’m so smitten with her–great delivery, great beats, and those rhymes! Intricately constructed rhymes that never sacrifice personal truth for cleverness, though there’s ample amounts of the latter to go ’round. The politics emerge organically and always carry the weight of emotional truth. This is political music at it’s absolute finest (also just music in general at it’s finest.)
The song also features Abeer, who was so memorable in one of my favorite documentaries ever, Slingshot Hip Hop.
Then there’s “Ropes”, as honest and moving an addressal of suicidal tendencies as Elliott Smith’s best (or “Take Me”, by Jean Grae, for that matter). Apparently its excellent video was accepted to MTVU, only to have the standards department ultimately reject it for it’s “problematic suicidal undertones”. I don’t know that I’d call the suicide-related contents “undertones”, the lyrics are pretty clear, but the more obvious issue here is the flagrant hypocrisy here–this is MTV. MTV, which you may remember from such videos as “Jeremy” in which the titular character artfully blows himself away in front of his rather young class. There’s nothing nearly as graphic here, just a sober, genuinely life-and-struggle-affirming story:
I heard the barrels cry wishing they could spare ya lives
Was feeling paralyzed but no I wasn’t scared to die
Feared not livin to the fullest so i pulled it
All or nothing
Now somebody wanna call my bluff when
I tried to flinch
Told them that the suicide attempt was cause I’d rather die
Than live and ride the bench
For every victory there’s like 50 times the set backs
For every revolution there’s a death trap
And everytime I see police attackin with a tazer gun
A protester that’s down already on the ground my face is stunned
I see people that’s unaffected like “that’s just for safety hun”
Turn around and tell myself: “You’re not the crazy one”
To all the unfazed and numb, hope that you hear
What I’ve spoken is clear
So you stop repressing choking the tears
We all walk the line between insanity and sanity
And hope and despair
But you really can’t get this by reading the words on your screen, so here’s the fabulous, Coney-based video:
I’m so excited about this album. You must hear it. I am paying rapt attention to Invincible, and can’t wait to see what she does next.
(See also: Rap Genius exegeses of “Sledgehammer” and “People Not Places”. Invincible herself explains “People Not Places”. You can follow Invincible on Twitter. Also, that MySpace page is here.)