Gangstagrass: The opposite of polarization: How we transcend cultural divides with dope beats, bars, and a bunch of banjo

Contributions by Musicians Essays

By Gangstagrass with photo by Janet Mami Takayama

The idea of unity through music may be a cliche, but for a cross-racial, cross-genre band like ours it’s what we do every day. It’s what we are. We play a style of music that a lot of people haven’t heard, a style many of them are surprised they would ever like. They might see the banjo and fiddle and assume it’s not for them, or see hip-hop MCs and dismiss it — until they hear it. This music is the opposite of polarization.

We played a bluegrass festival in Kentucky and there was this old head, silver hair, sitting in the front row. His reaction, the scowl on his face, told a story we hear all the time. It was almost like you could see the resistance, the disapproval. And in music, not least bluegrass, people can be very slow to change.

At the end of the show, he was all hugs and he bought everything we sold. That’s the magic of who we are, of Gangstagrass. This is a language that speaks beyond generations, beyond genres.

That man in the front row, that’s something we see a lot. We see reactions before we speak, before we play. They react to the idea of us, the fusion of two types of music that are so alike, but that people have been taught are opposites.

We see it in the comments online, on our YouTube channel, too. People don’t hold back. “This is going to be the worst thing I ever saw.” And then three comments later, “I was so wrong about this.” It’s those kinds of comments that show us that our music is connecting with folks.

The pre-reactions, the skepticism, the scowls from the front row, these are all parts of the same story. People have assumed from the start that it would be so hard for us to unite these styles of music. But what we have found is that uniting hip-hop and bluegrass is easy compared to getting someone in an online conversation to see things from another perspective or rethink their initial reaction to something. There’s a lot of common history between these styles of music: People’s music, born of struggle and community, both modern American music styles less than a century old, both strongly improvisational and interactive. To see these genres as wholly separate we have to forget many significant things, such as the fact that the banjo was originally an African instrument.

Having discarded the useless idea that rappers and pickers don’t share some musical heritage, we can weave a sonic tapestry from the threads of hip-hop and bluegrass, and it speaks to people on a level they didn’t believe was possible.

The political divide in the United States feels as big as the perceived gap between hip-hop and bluegrass. And the bridge we are making musically is addressing both. Our fans come from all different parts of the spectrum — political or musical, take your pick. The idea that we can speak a language that can be understood by people who are so different — and that we can show them that maybe they are not so different as they first thought — is powerful, meaningful.

We didn’t change or redefine what hip-hop and bluegrass were when we put them together. Listen to our songs and you can hear the distinctiveness and flavor of them both. And it’s the same way with people. When we bring our fans together, we aren’t out to change who they are.

When you take people who are different and then give them something they can enjoy together, it creates an unspoken understanding. It helps us recognize that we all have different perspectives and that it’s okay to be different.

They can enjoy the rhymes that they might not have listened to otherwise. They can feel good about listening to the banjo when that twang would have ordinarily turned them away. They can see a little of themselves in other people who, just minutes before, were “other people that I don’t agree with.”

Our forthcoming album, No Time for Enemies, really speaks to this with songs like Nickel and Dime Blues — a catchy, danceable tune about poverty and mass incarceration — and Freedom, which is a deeply personal (and superdope) track that dives into historical and current life-or-death struggles.

These are conversations that we can’t have online in a comment thread. A lot of times we can’t even have them face-to-face. And so we have them in between the lines, with sick banjo licks and dope rhymes.

The unity that we find through our music speaks to this human undercurrent, this understanding that lives just below the surface. All the music does is bring that feeling of understanding to the top, making it palatable and enjoyable to recognize that even in our differences there are so many things we share.

All we want for ourselves and those we care about is to thrive. And fundamentally, that’s also what you or anyone really wants. And as long as we’re not doing anything to keep you from thriving, and you’re not doing anything to keep us from doing the same, we can agree on that. We can rock out together, and then go our separate ways. Or maybe stick together and use that common ground we find to make the world a little better. We grow stronger through this coming together.

When the concept of “us vs. them” fades away, that’s when really good things, really powerful things, can happen for us all. When we stop thinking in terms of “us vs. them” and start thinking it’s “all of us vs. the problem,” that’s a fight — or a song — worth picking. https://gangstagrass.com

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