Tree: We Grown Now
A lot of the music being passed off as rap music today is not rap music–it’s internet culture, and it’s music, but it’s entirely devoid of everything that defined rapping in the times and places when rapping was born. And evolution is not the issue, because any culture needs to evolve in order to stay relevant. The issue is deviation and equivocation: if an artist can’t create a rap verse without punching in, and having an engineer correct the rhythm later then it’s not rapping. That’s fine, because it doesn’t mean it’s not music–it’s just not rapping, so it should be called something else. It’s not that rap music hasn’t evolved, because a plethora of artists continue to use the limits of the tradition to create new and contemporary sounds. However, what’s being labelled rap music today is mostly a reflection of the genre and who the genre is sold to, and not the culture that the genre was originally said to represent. That in and of itself should be little surprise because genres are a fabrication of the music industry with no purpose other than the commodification and marketing of distinct cultures via a single business model. Rap is defined by the masterful and witty use of language: you couldn’t step to a microphone to rap and utter anything that resembled anything that anybody else was saying until some time after Future and Riff Raff took Rich Homie Quan and Big Tuck’s styles and got rich doing it. The proliferation of samey-sounding artists is a fractured but complete reflection of the dying business of selling rap, and has little to do with the culture itself. But, in a time when the channels of distribution, discussion, and promotion for culture are oversaturated with the products being sold by multinational corporations it becomes difficult for culture to do its work.
The overall sentiment of our society can be attributed–in part–to the growing divide between people and the cultures that connect us. These cultures don’t just define our communities, they are our communities. And when they are so overburdened with products being sold as culture that we can’t find actual culture we actually suffer. Now, I don’t say that to explicitly preface what is happening in Chicago–because that would be trivializing the systemic dysfunction that allows for the normalization of young black men killing each other, and to trivialize such a harsh and tragic reality would be ludicrous–but, the ongoing violence in Chicago is due in large part to the fact that young people don’t have adequate means to feel grounded in a community. It says a lot that rapping started as a way for all gangs to come together peacefully and be creative, but rapping has now become a prominent avenue for the commodification of violence and consumerism.
All of this is not lost on Cabrini Green Chicago native Tremaine “Tree” Jackson. Tree grew up in the 80s and he is old enough to remember a time when violence was present, but not all-encompassing; a time when drugs were around, but not everywhere; a time when guns were used but not necessary; in short, Tree comes from a time when culture kept us connected, and grounded through community. And although Tree grew up in a community where violence took place, it wasn’t a community defined by violence. Today Tree is old enough to have walked a thin line, and got away with most of it, and exited the grace period when things could still catch up to you after you’ve made it out. His music reflects a perspective that is contemplative, and simultaneously convincing for all of its brash and immediate authenticity. I never question whether or not Tree has done the things that he raps about because he doesn’t rap in bumper-sticker-simplifications meant to fit the banal expectations of consumers who live boring lives. Tree’s stories don’t fit into the casual expectations of people looking to sing along to rap colloquialisms–Tree’s stories are for those who are prepared to sit down and listen to someone who has been through a lot, seen a lot, done a lot, listened a lot, learned a lot, and prepared a sermon.
Tree isn’t rapping in order to get you to buy something–namely his record. But, if Tree’s rapping doesn’t get you to buy his record then he has indeed failed. Now, today “buy the record” is a nebulous and slippery term. In today’s culture, and also today’s marketplace, “buying the record” is largely equated to streaming the record and buying merch–and in extremist cases purchasing a digital download, or taken to the utmost extreme purchasing the record. Indeed, purchasing the record is an extremist act in today’s world of blasé consumption where nothing is worth owning, and having everything is the only option. On paper Tree has little for this world. With an album titled “We Grown Now” it would be safe to assume that Tree’s patience for the digital realm is likely as long as the reasoning behind a soundcloud rapper’s face tattoo. But what if I told you that Tree is a Soundcloud rapper? Categorically he’s not, but on paper he is. His 2012 debut Sunday School was far from his first ventures in music, but it was indeed his first release as far as the world is concerned, and when every rap blog and big indie music site was posting Tree’s album they were embedding a stream from his soundcloud account. Those were different days, but in the expansive realm of experiences that inform Tree’s art, they become one more thread within an endlessly undulating tapestry that reveals a pocket of uncanny humanity hidden in the ether of a life lived outside of accepted conventions.
The boldest move that the listener can make is to engage with the perspective that Tree offers. It’s not a perspective without flaws, but a flaw is not the grounds for dismissal. Quite to the contrary, flaws are the rungs in the ladder we climb to best ourselves in the quest for our best selves–something that every skateboarder knows all too well. We find our flaws, and we learn how to utilize them as the entry point for understanding a new path. Tree is a great guy as far as I can tell. I’ve never met him, but we’ve been acquainted by phone and text and email since some time in 2012 or 2011. As far as I know, his biggest flaw is being a working-class black man in America. Most people have made up their minds about Tree long before they ever saw him, and no matter how someone may orient their thoughts, when it comes to Tree no amount of assumption would reveal a shred of the truth. Tree is a complex character with such unique nuances that you could never capture his essence by putting him in any sort of box–let alone one of the horrid boxes constructed by the reductive nature of racism. Tree raps, but his artistry encompasses something far more nuanced, and far less recognized than internet rap celebrity.
Thankfully, Tree has taken the time to once again fill us in on who he is, and what he knows. The result is 13 tracks and 31 minutes of real world accounts of the last years of youth in the life of a black man who is learning and growing, but also still making mistakes, and living a human life. As he told me: “[Four years ago] I couldn’t contain the image of how big I was being made into. I was in a situation where I was getting opportunities to play shows for $1,500 but I had to say no because I needed to show up in an outfit that would have cost $2,000. I had to be on a level with someone like Chief Keef. I got a love/hate relationship with music. I had never been broke until I devoted my life to the music, until I tried to be a star. And I have not been broke since I left. This is a re-emergence of a Tree with wisdom, a Tree with some business savvy. I am a homeowner, and a landlord. I collect rent, and I have control over my life. And this journey of these last four years has been about me being a father.”
In a time when the implications of fathering are under incredibly scrutiny it’s nice to hear Tree share his perspective, and take some time to celebrate all he’s done without being overly cautious. It’s easy and obvious to say that black men can listen to Tree’s music and hear a rapper who is telling a realistic story about being successful enough to be a good father and not tripping about being Hollywood rich. But truthfully the songs here aren’t just for black men, they’re for all men, and further they’re for all people. When you pull back from the specifics and listen to the most basic human themes that emerge throughout We Grown Now you hear a bunch of songs about making yourself into who you want to be in a world that isn’t designed for you to do what you want. In a time when states are attempting to take away women’s rights in the name of religious morals in a “democracy” that supposedly supports the separation of church and state we are lucky to have artists of this caliber. Nothing on this record is gonna move the social media metrics, but when it comes to using music as a tool to have a positive effect on yourself and the world around you? Tree is moving mountains once again.