Words by Tara Mahadevan
St. Louis is known for a lot of things: For the Cardinals, for Jon Hamm’s love of Imo’s Pizza, for the Arch, and for being one of America’s most segregated cities. The Delmar Divide is a street that divides the city from the county — outside of Virginia, the city of St. Louis is one of three cities in the U.S. where the city is independent from the county — and a large marker of segregation and the city’s socio-economic divide, separating and isolating many Black St. Louisans from White St. Louisans. Earlier this year, Fivethirtyeight reported that St. Louis is the fifth most segregated city in America, after Chicago, Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. It’s evident if you’re in St. Louis; drive east down Delmar Boulevard towards downtown, and the terrain drastically changes.
I was living in New York when Mike Brown was shot; the circumstances surrounding his death were hard for me to grasp from so far away. Images of policemen en masse throwing smoke bombs and shooting rubber bullets at peaceful protesters were everywhere; Ferguson was in flames, and my social media timelines were drowning in incendiary content. It was difficult to sort through what was and wasn’t true. I had to see the reality of the situation for myself — I had to go home.
When I returned to New York, friends asked questions about what was really happening in St. Louis. That was fine — they were curious, and I knew most of them were well intentioned. But what really got to me was when I met new people who, when I told them where I’m from, would say things like, “Whoa, St. Louis? What’s that like?” with apologetic expressions that seemed to say, “Oh you’re from St. Louis? I’m sorry.”
Nah. I'm sorry at all.
Because a few months later, I came across Smino. A friend from St. Louis posted Smi’s song “Griffey” on Twitter and immediately, my mind rebooted. I have strong ties to St. Louis’ hip-hop scene and it felt like Smino was finally doing something tangible for us that could be seen and felt on a larger scale. Brown’s death became a call-to-arms for many, a vehicle for activism and expression; for me, Smino’s musical uniqueness and dexterity helped shake off some of the devastation surrounding Brown’s brutal passing, showing St. Louis in a more positive light. With his latest release blkjuptr, Smi’s attention, without a doubt, has zeroed in on the black experience in America.
“blkjuptr is pretty much just speaking for a whole bunch of people that don’t really get to speak,” Smino says, “The black metaphor thing. [What] the song embodies fucking made me wanna just name the whole project, because I was listening to it like damn, it sound like a journey. These five songs sound like a little journey.”
blkjuptr is a body of work rooted in Smino’s awareness of his surroundings. As the title track begins, Smino’s saccharine drawl hides in producer Monte Booker’s crescendoing synths. Smi soon makes his presence fully known with a punch, “Black hoodie / Black timbs / Black leather jacket / Sun beatin on my black skin,” all at once evoking imagery of Trayvon Martin, and symbolically alluding to American black consciousness.
“[blkjuptr] is me feeling like I feel everyday, except when I’m with my friends. If I leave [my friends], I swear to god, if I go out into the world by myself, I feel like a whole ass alien. Most people be on some like systematic, going to work shit. Most people be on some still stuck in racist shit… [The art world is] pretty much like alienating ourselves, but we are like real observant. We just watch the world and get inspired. When I go out there, I be like tenser than a mug. Art world just feels good. You never feel like something gonna happen to you when you go to an art show, bruh.”
Alienation is something Smino addresses throughout the EP, one of its most breathtaking moments found in the last cut, “Oxygen.” Jarring and close to home, Smino wrote the hook with Brown in mind. “I got blood on my knees / Knee deep in mud, from the mud let me breathe / He just a thug, let him die in the street / Cigarette butts, glass and rocks on my teeth / And I’m choking out, I need oxygen please,” he croons, as he exaggerates his breathing.
“I was thinking [about] Mike Brown who got shot, boom hit his knees, shot again, boom hit the ground. You know what’s on the ground, all the gravel, all the bullshit. Like he can’t breathe.”
“Oxygen,” though, was all about timing.
“Chicago just had a little stir up with [police brutality]. And low key, St. Louis was the starting point of the police brutality fucking social media awareness thing. [“Oxygen”] just kinda catered to the people that was feeling that shit, was feeling that way.”
On the track, with that same honeyed tone and in the same breath, he talks about many things: Sex, paying his bills, Brown’s death, and Smi’s cousin who was locked up last year; elements of Smino’s day-to-day that also embody his trapped consciousness. It took Brown’s death — and the deaths of Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, among others — to show that racism and systemic injustice still run deep in America. Indeed, blkjuptr presents us with Smino’s journey, an inside look on what it means to be a black man in the U.S., where he often feels alien to the planet, like he might as well be on Jupiter.
Yet, in the same breath, St. Louis is now positively known for someone else: Smino.