Dahlak Brathwaite steps on stage at a recent poetry reading at UC Davis gritting his teeth with a sincerely pained expression. Clutching his belly and grimacing like he might actually drop dead, he reads a passage from W.E.B DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.”
The audience, appropriately, is stunned. After all, it’s not every day you get to witness a man ripping through your mind with just a microphone and the words of a long-dead author.
Dahlak sets aside DuBois’ book and recites his own poem with the same shocking determination:
“Dual consciousness / Black duality / The battlefield. … So far underneath the dirt / The earth is shaking in my head / I speak live from the epicenter / The fault line / The undefined space / Where my faults lie.”
His presence is breathtaking, and chilling—and maybe what hip-hop was meant to be. Dahlak’s poems, theater performances and raps deal honestly with internal struggle, confusion, character faults, humor, contradiction and strength. His words paint a vivid picture of a flawed, yet dangerously fun, world.
The brand of humor, tragedy and the mastery of language Dahlak displays has rarely been voiced through hip-hop since groups like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Black Star, Nas and the Roots did in the early to late ’90s. And since then it’s almost seemed as if honest writing was left solely for literature, and replaced in hip-hop with party anthems and odes to violence.
“When I started spoken word, I stopped rapping for a while because I just couldn’t feel the music anymore, and I didn’t see my place in it,” Dahlak says, sitting at his soon-to-be alma mater of UC Davis, where he’ll graduate with an English degree.
“When I heard [Little Brother’s, The Listening], I can honestly pinpoint that album as the reason why I started rapping. It was complete—and it was positive without being corny. They were just being themselves and it was good music.”
Dahlak was able to craft his debut solo album, Dual Consciousness, with that statement in mind: positive, but not corny.
The album is a throwback to the golden era of hip-hop: free-form verses kicked artfully over mellow, jazzy beats with a new interpretation of what it means to be young and black in America.
Dahlak’s lyrics never take themselves too seriously; the insight he offers on Dual Consciousness borders on bookish, yet he manages to steer clear of pigeonholing himself as simply a nerd with a microphone. Instead, Dahlak’s flow is conducive to his outlook on the world—he knows when it’s most effective to whisper (as on his somehow uncorny love song “My Baby”), but he’s not afraid to yell (as on “Coincidence,” his question-driven trial of America). It’s quickly evident that Dahlak says what he thinks, regardless of what the hip-hop community deems appropriate.
Even if hip-hop is not typically your thing, Dahlak’s live show is dynamic and heartfelt enough to count as performance art—and it’ll be worth every moment of your time to watch him perform before he moves out of Sacramento, which, inevitably, he will.
Says Dahlak, in his own words: “Don’t sleep master / Tap dance and jazz happened in your sleep / Harlem renaissance in your sleep / Malcolm X / Sleep! / Panther Party / Sleep! / Hip Hop happened in your sleep. … This is dual consciousness / Waiting for the world to be ready for my people’s greatness / So don’t sleep on me, my people / My people, don’t sleep / Don’t sleep, my people … Wake up.”