Vancouver Jazz Fest 2019: The Roots rapper Black Thought ruminates on turbulence

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      He fronts one of the most popular bands in the United States, is in almost constant contact with that nation’s movers and shakers through his work on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and most likely has Barack Obama on speed-dial.

      So before the Georgia Straight starts talking music with the Roots’ Tariq Trotter it seems wise, first, to ask him about what’s really going on with our neighbour to the south.

      “My personal take is the same as you guys: it’s confusing and painful and, you know, the facts aren’t necessarily clear,” says the man otherwise known as Black Thought, in a long-distance call from Portland, Oregon. “I don’t doubt that when we come through it on the other side that the country will be better for it—but right now we’re pushing through some serious turbulence.”

      Mostly, though, Trotter is optimistic—and perhaps that’s because, as he notes, this isn’t the first time that he’s lived through a dark period, those including having both parents murdered in separate incidents of violence, and the 1985 police bombing of a black neighbourhood in his native Philadelphia.

      “On a family level, a community level, a country level, and a world level, we’ve already survived some pretty tough times,” he says. “So I’m confident that we’re going to make it through, as we always have in the past. As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

      It’s hard to get a read on the Roots’ collective take on these issues; the band has been promising a new album, End Game, since 2016. But Trotter’s own views are plainly audible on Streams of Thought Vol. 2, which collects nine recent state-of-the-union addresses made with producer Salaam Remi.

      “I’d say that far more thought goes into the Roots process than into Streams of Thought, into my solo endeavours,” he allows. “Though my solo material or the stuff I do outside the Roots feels more personal, I think maybe the reason why I feel it’s so much more personal is maybe because it’s more raw. It’s like I’m recording it almost as soon as it manifests itself. I just go in there and get it done.”

      One of Trotter’s recent dispatches will have particular relevance for our own city: “Fentanyl”. It’s a scathing condemnation of the forces that encourage an entire generation to numb itself, sometimes to fatal effect. But it also asks drug users to take responsibility for their own choice to “check out”, an opinion made more credible by Trotter’s own experiences on the street. The track ends on a sardonic note with the words “I got a brand new bag for you to test out,” making clear the link between today’s opioid crisis, the introduction of crack cocaine into the ghetto during the 1980s, and an even earlier heroin plague.

      Listen to "Fentanyl (Streams of Thought Vol. 2)".

      Since the line between Black Thought raps and Roots material is permeable, is it possible that the band will play this powerful tune during its upcoming TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival show?

      “We’ve yet to do ‘Fentanyl’,” Trotter says. “But, that being said, since it is such a timely issue for the people there in Vancouver, maybe I’ll put in an early request for the band to learn it, for us to make that social commentary.”

      Tunes from End Game—which Trotter promises will be finished, if not necessarily released, this fall—are almost certainly going to make it onto the Roots’ Vancouver set list, and the rapper says that while they might be more polished than his own solo output, they’re no less pointed.

      “The reoccurring theme in this most recent material is still social commentary, but coming from the perspective of elder statesmen, speaking through the Roots,” he says. “It would be easy to become complacent and comfortable in our position, but we’re still fighting the good fight.”

      The Roots play the Queen Elizabeth Theatre next Friday (June 28), as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. It runs from Friday (June 21) to July 1 at many venues around the city.