Gotta Say It
Whether testifying in front of congress, making raucous rebel records or voicing his own hit cartoon, Mississippi’s mainstay David Banner is not afraid to tell the truth and nothing but. But with so many parts of his persona vying for airtime, the whole truth is a complicated thing.
Sept. 18, 2007. A week from today, David Banner will be in Washington, D.C., starched up in a suit and tie to testify in front of the United States House of Representatives. The occasion will be a special congressional hearing titled “From Imus to Industry: The Business of Stereotypes and Degrading Images,” convened by Representative Bobby L. Rush, Democrat of Illinois, a former Black Panther. It will be the pharisaic culmination of the media’s flipping of CBS Radio shock jock Don Imus’ racist appraisal of the Rutgers women’s basketball team into a public debate over the vocabulary of your favorite rappers. After claiming that “this hearing is not anti–hip-hop,” Representative Rush will call upon executives from Warner Music Group and Universal (the parent company of SRC, the label Banner is signed to) to consider placing a ban on the use of certain words. Including, of course, the N-word.
It won’t be the first time that the U.S. government has called hip-hop to task. In 1992, Ice-T and his group Body Count were targeted by the National Association of Chiefs of Police for their song “Cop Killer,” prompting President George Bush to deem the song “sick.” (Strangely, Bush did not object to future California governor Arnold Schwarzenneger killing cops on-screen in The Terminator.) In 1994, power-hungry political gainsayer C. Delores Tucker cooked up a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing blasting gangster rap and decrying hip-hop’s influence on society. Rap music has never been far from the government’s censorial crosshairs.
What’s different this time is that David Banner will have his say. No one embodies hip-hop’s seemingly contradictory dualities better than Banner, whose career was launched with the scurrilous 2003 smash “Like a Pimp” and whose 2005 Heal the Hood concert was the largest urban relief concert ever. And no one’s more willing to speak truth to power.
At the moment, the Mississippi maverick is in the Tap Room of the Hamburger Hamlet in West Hollywood, Calif., seated comfortably in a crimson leather booth, biceps bulging from his fitted green T-shirt. He’s come straight from an audition for a Hollywood superhero movie—Banner’s got his own hit show, That Crook’d ’Sipp, on the Cartoon Network and a movie career that began with his role alongside Samuel L. Jackson in last year’s Black Snake Moan—but the issues he will address before Congress are already at the forefront of his mind. “Peep game: Why wasn’t Congress trying to [ban] the word ‘nigger’ in the ’60s?” Banner grins in an ain’t-that-funny way. “Now that we’re making money out of it, and calling ourselves niggas, they don’t want us to use it… I’ll tell you, ‘hip-hop’ is the new word for ‘nigger.’ When people say, ‘They’re dressing hip-hop,’ they should just say they mean ‘niggers.’”
David Banner has always been a free-speaking firebrand. Born Levell Crump in 1973, he grew up in Jackson, Miss., in a two-parent home, under the ironfisted rule of his father, the district fire chief. With no breakout Bayou State rapper to look up, Banner honed his own gem-hard core of self-belief into rhyme skills and became his elementary school’s playground freestyle champ. He gained local renown by pedaling homemade rap CDs while at Provine High, then left for Baton Rouge, where he attended Southern University (his mother’s alma mater), earning a business degree and serving as president of the Student Government Association. “The SGA president before me took some money and bought some silk drawers with it,” Banner remembers, chuckling. “Everybody was talkin’ ’bout, ‘I wish somebody real would run.’ I said, ‘If y’all shut the fuck up, I’ll run.’ I told [my fellow students] that politicians are supposed to be ordinary people who had ordinary jobs, who took [political] positions for a small amount of time and then went back to what they were doing. How can you be a career politician then, unless you are crooked?” His time as Southern’s SGA president provided Banner with one lasting insight: “If poor people don’t invest in power, why should power invest in poor people?”
In practice, Banner has repeatedly spun that investment principle. He inserted five “golden tickets” into copies of his second album, MTA2: Baptized in Dirty Water, each one good for a $10,000 college scholarship. After challenging his old high school to bring their test scores up, he rewarded them with a surprise visit from his friend Lil Scrappy. Banner has taught school, is a frequent speaker at boys’ clubs and the like, and was himself still in college when he formed the duo Crooked Lettaz with fellow Mississipi rapper Kamikaze.
Crooked Lettaz signed to Tommy Boy subsidiary Penalty Records in the mid-’90s and released their sole album, Grey Skies, in 1999. When it failed to blow, Banner went solo, selling beats, making mixtapes and living out of his minivan as he crisscrossed the South on the grind. Eventually his hard work won him a windfall $10-million deal with Steve Rifkind’s SRC label, and in 2003, he debuted solo with Mississippi: The Album (“That muthafuckin’ state y’all don’t shout out on y’all songs,” he crowed on the album intro, “the place your grandparents are scared to come if they ain’t already here!”). The album sold 580,000 copies on the strength of “Like a Pimp” and the horn-driven fight-club anthem “F*** ’Em.” But it was unorthodox fare like the acoustic blues of “Cadillacs on ’22s” and the title track and the unflinching politics on “Bush” and the hidden track, “Fire Falling” (“Tell Bush I ain’t no G.I. Joe/I ain’t trying to fight in you or your damn daddy’s war/I’d rather go back to the Delta, live my life fo’ sho!”), that proved Banner had depth that most of his peers couldn’t reach, as well as versatility that defied categorization. (In 2003, Banner’s mother, Carolyn Crump, told Mississippi’s The Clarion-Ledger newspaper, “I tell him he’s schizophrenic. He’s a lot of people. But he’s true to each of them.”)
Believe it. From jump, David Banner has been comfortable leaping from academia, to the streets, to the studio, to the boardroom, assuming different identities as each situation requires. His multidimensional personae call to mind the writing of W.E.B. Du Bois, the Black nationalist who, in 1895, became the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. (Banner has studied Du Bois and, in fact, quotes him on his MySpace page.) In his book The Souls of Black Folks, Du Bois wrote that each African-American possesses “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” To hear David Banner tell it, he’ll go Du Bois one better: “You have about six warring souls, at least three different people in you that’s fighting to come out.”
THIS IS ONLY A PREVIEW!
Read XXL‘s full profile on David Banner in the December 2007 issue.
STYLIST: VANESSA GELDBACH/THE REX AGENCY; BARBER: KIKI BENET/TRACEY MATTINGLY; LOCATION: PEARLY GATES PRODUCTIONS LLC