By: Christina Santi
Fire in Little Africa is a multimedia hip-hop project commemorating the Black lives lost in the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921. The project, which includes a compilation album, behind-the-scenes documentary and podcast, was released on May 28 just one day before the centennial of the destruction of Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street.”
Executive Producer Stevie “Dr. View” Johnson spoke with BNC Digital Producer Jennifer Matthews about the importance and making of the musical offering.
“It started as an idea where we wanted to commemorate our ancestors who were massacred 100 years ago,” Johnson said. On May 31 and June 1, 1921, a mob of white people attacked and burned down businesses in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The state was becoming a prosperous place for Black residents to economically thrive. Greenwood specifically was known for having close to 191 Black-owned businesses, and the dollar reportedly circulated in the community 19 to 36 times before leaving. This proved to be a threat to white supremacy, and thus, racial violence took place destroying the community, which still has economic and social struggles as a result.
Johnson appreciates that the tragedy has caught mainstream attention through popularized media, including the HBO series Lovecraft Country and the documentaries Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten (PBS) and Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre (HISTORY Channel). However, he wants people to know that there’s still a community in Tulsa despite the 100-year-old tragedy.
Fire in Little Africa was created in March 2020 during the week the U.S. began to lockdown over the COVID-19 pandemic. Sixty artists from across Oklahoma gathered in the studio for 5 days and created 143 songs. They spent the next year meeting over ZOOM to finalize the record and pick the 21 songs that would make the cut.
The inspiration for the title came from a picture found in the archives at the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. The image shows an aerial view of burning buildings during the Tulsa Race Riot. The text on the photograph states, “Little Africa on Fire, Tulsa Race riot, June 1st, 1921.”
Johnson, who holds a doctorate in Higher Education Administration, said when he saw the photo he felt “righteous indignation.” He wanted the text on the photo to be the name of the compilation. However, after speaking with an academic colleague, he was urged to “[place] the agency back into the community” as a way of “giving the ball back to Black people.” It was then he decided to name it Fire in Little Africa, to subvert the negative connotation that white supremacy places on Africa.
The community-organized project got the attention of Motown Records after Johnson met with Larry Jenkins, the former SVP of Marketing and Media at Columbia Records. Jenkins is Bob Dylan’s publicist and a consultant for the Woody Guthrie Center and Bob Dylan Center, where Johnson works as the Manager of Education & Diversity Outreach.
According to Johnson, the music executive became emotional after hearing a rough cut of Fire in Little Africa. He connected him with Ethiopia Habtemariam, the CEO of Motown Records. After a successful meeting, it was decided that the album would be released through the label’s imprint Black Forum, which used to distribute speeches by Martin Luther King Jr and other prominent Black spoken word artists. Black Forum closed in 1973, making Fire in Little Africa the first project released since the imprint’s relaunch.
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Johnson is proud to have worked on a project that is allowing Black artists to humanize themselves. In addition, he is adding something to hip-hop culture that wasn’t seen in the mainstream: “Someone like me who has a Ph.D., an educational musical background, an equity-justice mindset [and] is a deejay,” he said.
The organizers also made a curriculum based on the songs that were selected for the album.
“This community Black Wall Street is not a façade. This is our daily lives. These are [our] lived experiences.”
Fire in Little Africa is available on all streaming platforms.