Listen to this track by Atlanta-based hip hop collective Arrested Development. It’s “Tennessee”, the first single taken from their smash-hit debut record, 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days In the Life Of … released in the spring of 1992. The group are widely known as being pioneers in southern hip hop and authors of the aural counterbalance to the rise of West Coast scenes during the early nineties, with their debut record as a fine example.
In contrast to the violence and nihilism of a lot of rap at the time, Arrested Development traded in more celebratory themes, while still acknowledging the same burdensome weight of history on black communities in America and the anger and sorrow it justifiably creates. Under the creative leadership of Speech and Headliner, the group concocted a potent blend of musical styles from soul, gospel, dub, funk (this song samples Prince’s “Alphabet Street” prominently), blues, and jazz.
Importantly, this song in particular eschews the braggadocio, posturing, and often very understandable cynicism of a lot of the rap coming out of the West Coast that dominated the field at the time and embraces a brand of vulnerable candour in its place.”Tennessee” is downright humble, being in the form of a prayer. Yet the themes built into this song are not to be dismissed as lightweight. In fact, it evokes much of the same darkness and struggle as is found in any example of socially aware hip hop of the time.
“Tennessee” reflects the rural feel of the whole record. This is yet another contrast to the Ice Cube/Dr. Dre world of South Central Los Angeles with its merciless urban cityscapes. “Tennessee” carries a certain kind of rural folksiness that helped defined the group’s style, and those of many acts who followed them. Even the cover of the album found the group in a country setting, basking in the sun instead of glaring out balefully against a backdrop of brick walls and chain-link fences. I felt at the time on hearing it that this freed up the genre from those kinds of hard-lined associations with urban life, and that hip hop could be made anywhere and reflect any kind of setting, whether in the city or in the middle of a field. What remains is still the palpable sense of struggle to be found in this song that is just as potent as anything coming out of Los Angeles at the time.
“Tennessee” is a tale of someone looking for answers in a world seemingly characterized by pain, chaos, and injustice. Despite its laid-back feel and its blatant expression to a belief in a personal god, “Tennessee” is an existential cry for meaning and a search for identity and connection. This is very effectively underscored by guest singer Dionne Farris’ soaring and anguished vocal lines that help to define this song so well. This song is a personal story of loss from writer Speech. But I think the spiritual struggles so well expressed in this song go beyond the personal experiences of its writer and can be applied broadly across whole cultures of people living in the American south, a region that is marred by a history of violence to stand as a counterpoint to its rich cultural traditions and artistry. Going back home and rediscovering one’s roots can be a difficult journey, depending on who’s taking it.
In this, “Tennessee” is a call to reclaim one’s roots in a place synonymous with a racially violent past, with images of black men and women hanging from trees, murdered at the hands of kangaroo courts and lynch mobs during a shamefully recent period of history. How does a rational person make sense of that? Talk about not understanding the plan! Even this weekend, we’ve seen and read about American Nazis in the streets of Charlottesville VA, demanding white domination over American culture with the threat of violence, which is very much alive in Western culture. This song is about the burden of trying to understand these cruelties and dull-witted impulses to violence due to bigotry and hate. The underlying focus here is on building the connections to one’s past, culture, family, and traditions to aid in struggles against hate and violence. It’s call for meaning is in the face of meaninglessness, released 25 years ago and sadly still relevant today.
This song is about human struggle in the attempt to define and create a world without hate and violence, and to come to terms with how pain and loss fits in with a greater purpose. We all fail to understand “the plan” when we lose loved ones, or when there’s damage done to us because of cruelties, ignorance, bigotry, or random circumstance. At times, we all want to be taken to another place, to another land, to a place where we can be safe from that which hurts us, and to find our peace. There’s a potent ray of hope that can be found here on “Tennessee” mostly because of there’s such a relatable sense of uncertainty, humility, and vulnerability so eloquently expressed at its heart. In that, we are reminded again that we are not alone in wondering why pain and suffering exist in the world, and that there is a wide chasm of difference between vulnerability and weakness when we confront it.
Arrested Development disbanded in the mid-nineties. But, they reformed in 2000, remaining to be an active unit today.
You can find out more about them and their more recent movements at arresteddevelopmentmusic.com.