Instead of making a straightforward comeback for his first project in over a decade, Rhymefest challenged himself — and aimed to transcend the boundaries of conventional hip-hop. The Chicago native turned an iconic conversation between James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, two of America’s greatest writers and activists, into a full-length musical composition that offers a poignant commentary on the state of the world today.
James & Nikki: A Conversation became a reality through social media: the Grammy-winning rapper was scrolling one day and found himself intrigued by clips of the 1971 conversation between Baldwin and Giovanni for the program Soul!. In their discussion, the creatives explored what it meant to be Black in America, from the lens of both a man and woman, during a time of political, social and racial upheaval.
They addressed issues such as morality, freedom and justice, while giving listeners an honest look at how the United States operated back then. As the way that people discuss these issues and process information has evolved over the past 53 years, Rhymefest felt compelled to find a way to make the conversation accessible to a modern-day audience.
“How many people actually went to look at that interview to see what they were really talking about,” Rhymefest tells Billboard. “Baldwin was channeling the heterosexual masculinity, and Nikki Giovanni was channeling the femininity of one in a relationship with a man like that. When I saw that clip, bro, I had to dig deeper and see what was happening.”
He continues, “I saw teacher and student, man and woman, poets freestyling. I saw somebody who lived in Paris and may not have understood what was happening in the 1970s from where he came from. I saw the future that was coming through in the Black Panther movement. It was just so layered.”
Before long, Rhymefest figured out that turning Baldwin and Giovanni’s conversation into a musical project was the way to go, and re-imagined the dialogue as a lyrical exchange, infusing their words with new life and relevance in today’s sociopolitical climate. Rhymefest took various audio clips from the conversation and blended them with his rhymes and an eclectic array of production.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Rhymefest enlisted several under-the-radar female rappers — including Helixx C. Armageddon, Teefa, Frayne Vibez, Brittney Carter, Rell Suma and Abstract Mindstate — to channel Giovanni’s spirit, while also pushing him to level up his raps. The result is a sonic landscape that serves as a platform for timeless wisdom to resonate with a new generation.
Rhymefest spoke with Billboard about this special project, including its creation, getting Giovanni’s blessing, understanding today’s racial and social climate, and linking up with the Golden State Warriors entertainment division to release it.
After listening to James & Nikki: A Conversation, it feels like you’re speaking directly to the Black community. What do you think is going on with our community that made you feel this was the right moment to release this project?
I think what we call Black identity has been hyperbolically made extreme through technology, myths, and disinformation. I think that when people ask me if Dr. Umar is Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, I’m like, “You don’t understand the organizing power of Dr. King and Malcolm X. You looking at the Internet.” Come on, bro. Like when people are not talking about Tamika Mallory in a way that understands that she is the today’s version of Martin Luther King. She is today’s version of Fannie Lou Hamer. I think that the identity of Black was given to us because we weren’t Black, bro.
Baldwin speaks a lot about this, how white is an identity that Europeans gave themselves. After they did that, they gave us Black identity, and we’re trying to fight from under a system of injustice from a label that was given to us in injustice. I’m not caught up in Black, I’m caught up in values, bro.
This project is so important to you that you refer to it as more than an album — as a composition. Why is that?
The reason I do that is when you go to the orchestra, the conductor isn’t saying, “Yo, check out my new joint. I’m dropping my new album.” They call their work compositions, and guess what, those compositions last for 100 years. I think what we’ve done with our culture of hip-hop is we made it so cheap, so accessible. These ain’t songs or an album, bro. These are pieces and a composition. This project is speaking to the Black community of understanding and the black community that is ready to pivot into a majority instead of embracing the title of minority. This is more than an album.
I’m sure you met with Nikki Giovanni and let her know what you were trying to achieve with this composition. What was that conversation like?
Dr. Giovanni heard the original demo, which had different songs but the same audio clips from their conversation, and she was amazed. She said, “I only wish Jimmy was here. Jimmy would love this.” I couldn’t believe she was calling James Baldwin [who died in 1987] Jimmy, and I was hearing it from her. For me, that was like Kanye West talking to Stevie Wonder, or Mark Ronson talking to Quincy Jones. Here I am today doing my art, but I’m speaking to the person who cleared the brush and laid the road. I was able to make this project and be able to thank her, but not only thank her. This project is an example of giving flowers.