Lukah: Memphis Hip-Hop Artist Challenges the Norms with ‘Permanently Blackface’
Distract guest journalist Josefus Haze meets Lukah, a South Memphis-based rising artist renowned for his influential contributions to hip-hop, G-funk, and soul. In this captivating interview with Lukah at the Rehabitat party at Hyde Park Book Club we delve into the meaning behind his latest album Permanently Blackface and explore the societal issues he addresses through his music. Lukah shares his inspirations, from the jazz legends who influenced his unique rhyme schemes to the literary works that shaped his poetic form. We also discuss Lukah’s thoughts on the current state of hip-hop, the impact of his Memphis upbringing on his musical output, and his experiences during his first UK tour. Join us on this soulful journey through Lukah’s artistry and the powerful messages he seeks to convey with his producer Logan.
JH: Hi, this is Josefus Haze. We’re here at Hyde Park Book Club in Leeds, with Memphis hip-hop artist Lukah.
Lukah: Peace, peace peace man. Yo Leeds has been showing mad love. We in this joint with Joe right now. I also brought my engineer, the man behind the curtain, Hollow Sol aka Logan Schmitz. And yeah, we here, we here.
Logan: Yo, what up!
JH: Lukah, you’ve just released your latest album, Permanently Blackface. I noticed that the album cover shows a minstrel on stage, and there’s a shadow behind him that has a very distinctive pair of eyes peering at us from the background. Would you talk us through the meaning behind that particular detail, and behind the artwork and the title in general?
Lukah: It’s pretty simple really, pretty self-explanatory. We know that hip-hop is a black thing. We know a lot of things involve black culture and the minstrel… in the Jim Crow days, were trying to demean the people, but at the same time showing that they had confused admiration for the people. So, I wanted to display that right there. You will notice that there’s a small black person with a ‘fro, with big lips and a big nose in the background, who’s in the background purposely because that’s what black people are, and like, the culture has sometimes been stolen in some ways, you know what I mean? And the black people that created it don’t get their just dues.
Photographer: Rob Searle
So, I just wanted to show that with the actual cover, like, yeah, that man in blackface, he’s upfront, but your eyes immediately look past that and see what the fuck is going on right here. That’s the real, right there. You know what I’m saying? So, I wanted to like… yo, the world, everybody over here, you know, and in the United States, they’re permanently blackface, and that’s not all negative. We’re influenced by a lot of black things – you know, a lot of black creations, black inventions, things of that nature… So, I just wanted to display that and talk about that and show that.
JH: So, essentially their taste was ahead of their opinion.
Lukah: Exactly. Yeah. And it’s pretty cool to hear a white man’s perspective who was in on the creativity, and it’d be cool if he could share his reasoning behind it.
JH: So Dana drew the cover?
Lukah: No, shout out to my cousin, Suni Katz. Dana helped me conceptualise it.
JH: Well, that’s what collaboration is about, right? You put your ideas through another artist’s eyes, and then they come out with something that you probably didn’t expect at all; it goes through their little machine and something else comes out.
Photographer: Ben Gray
Logan: And then Drew Ryan did the digitalised version of it, made the back cover…
Lukah: Right, all the wording…
Lukah: Cursive… Shout out to my brother Drew Ryan; he is the g.o.a.t. at artwork.
JH: As well as being underpinned by some really good beats, your album is laden with jazz instrumentation; we’ve got pianos, we’ve got flute on there… What influences you musically outside of hip-hop?
Lukah: Thelonious Monk. I base my entire rhyme scheme and rhyme patterns off of how he plays. He’s different. He doesn’t play by the rules. And I don’t like playing by the rules. So, I was influenced by (and I know you said “outside of hip hop”, but this is gonna come back full circle) I was influenced by Rakim saying he was influenced by Coltrane. And I studied that shit. Then Nas does the same thing, but he hasn’t come out and said that… Well, you know what, I take that back. His father was a jazz musician, and [Nas] mimicked his style off of how [his father] would play. Because our voices are fucking instruments, essentially. So, yeah, Thelonious Monk, and Stevie Wonder. He’s a big, big influence in how I create albums, specifically this album, because I wanted it to be something as beautiful as Songs in the Key of Life, with that jazz influence of Thelonious; ‘cause they’re both piano players. I like to move my boys up and down in those crazy ass schemes and notes like Thelonious Monk.
JH: Yeah, because hip-hop crosses all musical boundaries, doesn’t it?
Lukah: It’s the only genre that accepts everything.
JH: Your lyrical vocabulary has a pretty wide scope. What sort of literature do you read, and who do you consider instrumental in shaping your poetic form?
Lukah: My grandfather, my great-grandmother, and my mother. My mother, of course, is a seed of my great-grandmother and of my grandfather, but my great-grandmother, was the commissioner of the Board of Education where I’m from. She was very strict and very serious about us being educated, learning how to articulate and being able to manipulate the language in a way. Some people can understand it, some people can’t. If you can’t, then it’s a must that you catch up. The world moves and we only grow [with it]. My music is put out to challenge the minds of everybody. I want people to be able to learn. But yeah, shout out to my great-grandmother for being very strict. She used to correct me. I’m from the south, so every now and then I’ll slip up and say, “Yo, what is that fo?” and my great grandma, she used to be like, “For! For! It’s not “fo”. And then shout out to my great grandfather. He’s a big, big influence in my life. He’s almost like the Memphis Malcolm X in a way. He’s a revolutionist. He’s a part of a lot of the marches and things of that nature in Memphis, Tennessee.
Photographer: Ben Gray
When you see the things going on, 90% of the time, my family’s involved in that shit; staging the protests, talking, speaking. My grand-dad, he speaks, he’s a well-known speaker, and so is my great-grandmother. And my mom, she’s a fucking singer. Like, everything that I do musically started with her. She was very poetic. This is what she told me. She said, “Well, if you want to be poetic, and you want to do something different, you need to read these books.” You know where? Shakespeare. So, I took a lot of that shit with me, you know what I’m saying? It’s a beautiful thing. So, my big my big influences are my family. I mean, you can go down the path, I’ll say Malcolm X for sure. Huey P. Newton, know what I’m saying, the normal. I’m not too much different, you know what I’m saying, but specifically [I’m influenced by] my family.
JH: So, in Memphis, is there a lot of that still going on – the protests and the marches? We get the historical narrative that, post-civil rights, the legal battle is apparently won, but the social battle clearly isn’t won. So what’s going on in Memphis?
Lukah: Memphis is not too far removed from the past. We’re slow in [our] evolution. And people like me and my family members, we’re trying to be the force to change that narrative. Memphis, it’s a very musical city, so music is going on for sure, but there’s always injustice going on with the black and brown communities, whether it’s by police or whether it’s by the woman in the store. I talked about women, white women in the store. I had an experience with an older white woman in the store who showed some type of feeling because I was black and it was late [at] night.
JH: So she’s scared because it’s late and you’re in the shop.
Lukah: Right. Know what, I’m glad you brought this up, because it’s a two-way street in a way. One street might be more fucked up and more foul, but it is a two-way street. What I mean by that: she has every right to fucking be scared at 1 am. You’re working at a fucking gas station and you’re by yourself. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s cool to stereotype. Yeah, my hat was cocked, I had baggy clothes on, I came up bumping. I probably smelled like weed! I’m not gonna fuckin’ do nothing to you. I’m coming in here just to get my brew.
JH: Logan, what’s your take on this as a white guy from Memphis?
Logan: it’s still very segregated. We were talking about this last night where, you know, you go to family functions as a white person and you’ll run into half of your family members who are racist, and half your family members who are liberal. And you got to somehow come to a conclusion [of] how you feel about stuff yourself in Memphis.
Lukah: Memphis is a very confusing city. Me and him right here, we’re the difference. We’re showing that. We’re like, Yo, what the fuck is segregation, right? Yo, I mean, yeah, I see colour, I know colour, but I don’t give a fuck about colour if you’re a good person. (Gestures towards Logan) This is my brother right here. I know I forgive. But I sure fucking don’t forget. And I might not be that forgiving, but I don’t treat people… It’s not inhumane how I treat people.
JH: Well, you know people by their deeds, not by what they look like.
Lukah: Exactly. You know, I want to know what’s in your heart and what’s in your mind before I judge you. And I’m not like too really keen on judging, I’d rather know. I’m not really into ‘believing’ like that, I’d rather know.
JH: After hip hop ‘came of age’ in a mainstream sense during the mid to late 90s, the lyrical content became less about politics and social issues, more about status. Your lyrics avoid those tropes in favour of clear political and social messages, as well as some personal storytelling. Do you think we’re in a time where music is shifting back towards a little bit more meaning?
Lukah: It’s hip-hop. Hip-hop would never lose that part of it. Hip-hop was created in the streets. And during those times that hip hop was being created, the movements either had ended and others were continuing the fucking movement. I mean, the political shield would never fucking leave. It may be [minimised], like you said. But we got Kendrick Lamar who does this shit continuously, talks about the ills of the world and shit like that. I’m not sure if it’s on its way back. And you know what, Joe, I’m not even sure if it was massive then. Like, yeah, you got Public Enemy… Nas was speaking some shit. You got Geto Boys, NWA… I mean, you could probably name on two hands who was speaking political shit back then, and being lyrical about it, you know? And if we were to list the other side of the spectrum, that list would go on and on.
JH: That’s pop music though, that’s the industry itself, right?
Lukah: Well, not necessarily pop music, you got…
Logan: Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On…?
Lukah: Yeah, but what I’m saying is, I’m specifically talking about hip hop. Alright, so we were just talking about this on the bus here. My boy J Royal from Stooky Bros, was like, “Yo, it’s important to have a balance.” He saw there’s a spectrum with hip hop, positive [to] negative. I became aware and bear in mind that I’ve been paying attention to what I call negative. It may be negative to the untrained eye, but you can’t have a balance if the fucking music was created in a place where there was no balance.
Music was created by street motherfuckers: hip-hop. Yeah, we were out there having fun, we were breakdancing, [but] let’s not get it twisted. It was the fucking gangsters that put money behind this shit. Run DMC wanted to dress like gangsters. If you watch any of these documentaries, the gangsters are behind the fucking hip hop scene, so it’s kind of hard for us to say, ‘yo, we need to be more political’, when the origin is where it’s from. So, I’m not really sure. And to be quite frank, I’m gonna just continue to do what I do. I can’t really worry about what others are doing. I’m gonna speak to political street shit and be lyrical and be vocal about the shit that’s going on, because I was born into that shit. My family is that.
JH: Your hip-hop is from south of the Mason-Dixon Line. You’re also from a city that spawned a long list of musical artists, Percy sledge, Al Green, Roy Orbison, the guy with the quiff…
Lukah: Aretha Franklin
JH: She didn’t have a quiff, right?
Lukah: (Laughs) No, I’m just saying that Aretha Franklin, she’s from my neighbourhood.
JH: So, how would you say your birthplace has shaped your musical output?
Lukah: Oh, man. If you listen to my music, not to be cocky, but it’s soulful. I mean, yeah, it has jazz and hip hop and all of these other aspects. But it’s mostly soulful, because of where I come from. And it’s dark because of where I come from. It may be sad, it might be depressing, but if you really listen to it, it’s about uplifting and shifting shit.
So yeah, man Memphis shaped me. I love Memphis. Me and Logan, we’ve just been talking about what the differences [are between] here and Memphis, and as we’re talking, I’m just like, man, yeah, I understand… I mean, me and you just talked about it, Joe. It’s something about Memphis specifically, not just the United States. Memphis. I mean, it’s where Dr. King was assassinated. He was assassinated in my fucking neighbourhood. That’s nothing to brag [about], but the fucking shit happened. You understand the sanitation strike. That shit happened in that city. Not saying the shit with Malcolm in New York and…
JH: Well that’s a long way away. People in the UK forget how big the U.S. is.
Lukah: Exactly, but just being from Memphis, again, it’s a confusing fucking city. You’re either happy or you’re sad, there’s no in the middle. You know, even the people that appear mad, their real [underlying feeling] is sadness and shame. Because a lot of people are in poverty. You know what I’m saying? And a lot of people are trying their fucking best to maintain and that causes confusion.
Logan: Not to mention you grew up, up the street from Royal Studios, which was the catalyst for Al Green and a number of other artists to respond to the soul sound of the city you know, along with Stax.
JH: So, Logan, how does that shape your beats?
Logan: Shapes my beats like crazy, man. You know, I’ve sampled a bunch of Stax stuff. And I mean, yeah, it’s the sound of the city, it’s a feeling…
Lukah: It’s dark! But dark can be beautiful, you know.
JH: Hip Hop obviously, as we’ve brushed upon, is a culture borne of an oppressed people, in the United States specifically. Oppression exists around the world and the people living under these oppressive systems always tend to respond with some kind [of] visceral musical output, often embracing hip hop stylings as part of that. So, with the ubiquitous sharing of ideas allowed by the Internet, what global influences have you felt most strongly in the American hip-hop scene?
Logan: That’s an interesting question. I mean, I feel like in America, I feel stuff like Afro beats. In the UK, rappers like Central Cee, Dave and everybody, are topping the charts over there in our country. And I feel like it’s influencing our cut. I mean, you know, you got stuff like Pop Smoke and the whole New York drill scene that was influenced by the UK drill scene, and you know, it’s like, it’s just trickling down to our country. You got people like Wizkid, and Burna Boy… there are international influences in our country right now.
Photographer: Rob Searle
Lukah: I mean, it’s fucking hip hop. I’m just happy that hip-hop has reached this fucking far. You know what I’m saying? It’s influential to me. It makes me want to keep going when I see that it spreads so far.
Logan: Yeah, Burna Boy had RZA on that album, he had GZA
Lukah: Exactly and it’s a beautiful thing to see something that the people – my people – created reach UK and Europe and Nigeria… and then, not only do they fucking reach Nigeria and UK, UK and Nigeria ended up doing their own thing and they fucking started influencing us! It’s a full circle as long as we stay in that 360 degrees, man. I mean, there’s nothing we can’t do; anything!
JH: That’s why music is a unifier, right? That back and forth of ideas. The jazz [early] scene was quite unifying in the fact that it was a lot of black people at the forefront, but then there was a shitload of white musicians too all playing in that same fucking scene and not giving a fuck about the racial divide.
Logan: It’s the same thing with Muddy Waters, when everybody from England came over [to the U.S.], the Beatles… and everybody came over and heard blues for the first time in our city. And they were like, “What the fuck is this?” and then went back and started cutting music that sounded like Muddy Waters and all the other elder musicians.
Lukah: If the movie is true, it looks like Muddy Waters and those people loved that.
JH: Real musicians love good music.
Logan: Yeah, Rolling Stones… every one of them was influenced by our part of town.
JH: It’s your first UK tour. What’s your take on the UK hip-hop scene? What’s your take on Leeds?
Lukah: Man, Leeds… the UK… Man, it’s been beautiful. People have been welcoming. The energy has been beautiful, it’s been strong. I’m just glad everybody gets it here. I’m glad the appreciation is here. I’m ecstatic that I’m here right now doing what I love to do and then people are accepting it. And I saw in the eyes when I was just in there [performing]. Yo, this shit is reaching them. You understand? Even though, you know, a couple [of] fuck ups here and there but they can’t [really] tell, but they felt the fuck ups.
JH: That’s what makes it real though, man. It’s not the O2 Academy, it’s not some flashy tour. It’s real, it’s in Hyde Park Book Club, in the Snug.
Logan: Exactly! You know what Ross came out and said to me, he was like, “Man, that was some punk shit.”
Lukah: Hip-hop and punk aren’t too far apart. Hip Hop, punk, and jazz.
JH: Yeah, and I love that you just turned it straight up, everything up. You know, some distortion, who gives a fuck? A little bit of feedback, who gives a fuck?
Lukah: “Shout out to my brother, Ky
JH: Mate, you need to be in the vibe. You need to be in the music to perform well.
Lukah: And I want the people to fucking feel it in their hearts and their souls. I want their fucking hearts to beat the fucking sounds of the goddamn kick drum.
JH: I think you made that.
And so comes my time to leave and I walk, regretful that I forgot to pick up a bag of Lukah’s coffee, its packaging proudly emblazoned with an illustration of his firebrand granddad. But then again I’m thankful. It was the rushing surge of energy from this gig, its performers, and its audience that made me forget any self-centred thoughts of what I wanted to take home.
I think of Lukah and his entourage; people he intends to “bring up” in the slipstream of his burgeoning success. I wish them well.