Speech – Music Ambassadors: Macon
About 80 people gathered inside the spacious home at 618 Arlington Place in late October to warm up with uplifting and inspiring hip hop music by Speech, beats by HeaveN Beatbox, and paintings by Heatherly Wakefield as part of the Music Ambassadors series.
Though from Milwaukee, Wis. Thomas Todd, better known as Speech, calls the South home. During the 18 years he lived there, he spent every summer of his childhood visiting relatives in Tennessee, a part of the South that he says shaped some of his most passionate beliefs.
“The South in general has a certain spirit that mixed with pain and victory that pretty much fuels everything that I write.”
He knew he wanted to be an artist, so he moved to Georgia to study at the Art Institute of Atlanta, which he said was the only school that would accept him.
Then came Arrested Development.
“We started off back in 1987 as a hip hop group. One of the first hip hop groups to ever have elders in their group, and one of the first hip hop groups to ever play live,” Speech said. “We had live drums, live guitar, but still rocked turntables and a lot of the traditional parts of hip hop.”
The group created a new breed of hip hop that had never been heard before. They won two Grammys and a number of MTV awards. Their new album “Splash” will be released in December.
“We came up with a vibe that had more of a Southern, even somewhat of a gospel flair to what we brought to the table of hip hop,” Speech said. “We look at our music as a continuation of past genres of music whether it be soul, gospel, Negro spirituals. It’s a continuation of that struggle. The struggle of freedom, the struggle of self determination, and it has a spiritual twist.”
While some call their music positive, Speech has another name for it.
“We call it life music as opposed to death music,” he explained. “Music that’s all about things that ultimately perpetuate death, early death… Gangster stuff, guns, drugs, violence, misogyny against women.”
Though he does not consider himself a feminist, he said he is someone who respects women. Growing up, he was primarily raised by his mother. Now, he has a daughter and a wife.
Hip hop has changed over the years, and not for the better. Speech said people are more interested in being moguls and CEOs in hip hop instead of being artists.
“I think there’s a lot of artists that would want to expand their expression, and most radio is controlled by corporate entities that have streamlined what they’re playing, and the playlists are non-diverse and so the artists, I think, who want to do mainstream music are trapped…You start to hear a lot of repetition in subject matter and in sound. So I feel sorry for them because the era of hip hop that I had the blessing of being a part of, we were able to express ourselves, and not only that but it was expected.”
Speech said he brought the sing-along style of rhyming to the hip hop world.
“Before Drake came along, before Mos Def, before a lot of the other hip hop artists that have incorporated melody. Before Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and all of these cats, I was doing that.”
But he has his own influences too.
“James Brown is a huge influence. Little Richard is a huge influence. Otis Redding is a big influence.”
While in Macon, he visited the house where James Brown cut his first single, the Otis Redding foundation and places the Allman Brothers lived, recorded and performed. He wore his Otis Redding shirt for the performance.
“In the 5 hours or so I’ve been here, I feel like I’ve gotten a chance to feel the soul of Macon and sort of get introduced to the importance of musical history here.”
Speech said he focuses on experimenting with melodies and singing even more when he performs solo.
He opened with HeaveN Beatbox dropping beats while he told the crowd about writing “Tennessee.” People clapped their hands as he explained the background.
“There’s usually a favorite grandmother that you have in your family. I had my favorite grandmother, and she lived in a place called Tennessee. And we used to go down there every summer to visit her, and one of these days I got a call that my grandmother had passed away of a heart attack. So my whole family, we went down to Tennessee to celebrate her life and celebrate her legacy. So we went down there and we left here with a sense of purpose that we didn’t have before we got there… That same weekend we were coming home, I found out that my only brother died as well, and his name is Terry. And so I wrote this song right here. It’s dedicated to Terry Thomas and my grandma.”
The chorus — “take me to another place, take me to another land, make me forget all that hurts me…let me understand your plan” — has the raw, emotionally driven sound of prayer.
People of all ages, race ethnicities, and walks of life can identify with the honesty of his music.
“Back in 1992 I had the pleasure of meeting Spike Lee, one of my favorite filmmakers,” Speech said. “And we was at a sweaty club in New York called Sweet Janes, and my group, Arrested Development, closed for the legendary Last Poets. And Spike asked me if we would do a song for a movie he was going to do called ‘The Love Supreme’… but then he changed his mind and did a movie about Malcolm X, and he asked us if we would do something for that. We did a song called ‘Revolution’.”
Speech asked the audience to sing with him, and the house was humming with warm chants and hums of “Revolution.”
People waved their arms in the air, clapped, and smiled.
Steven Cantor, better known as HeaveN, opened for Speech. He is a 24-year-old beatbox artist from Atlanta who discovered his talent when he was a high school sophomore:
“I have an older brother, and he had a car, and he used to give me rides to school. And we were listening to Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind in the car and that is how I started beatboxing. I was beatboxing to Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind. Typically, when people think of beatboxing they immediately relate it to hip hop, and what’s important to realize is that beatboxing is not just a hip hop thing but universal. Beatboxing is what you make it, because it’s the replication of sound and music or the creation of sound and music and anything can inspire that…”
Despite what you may think, HeaveN is not a stage name.
“When I was in elementary school I always felt like my name Steven was just a name I had… There were like five Stevens in that class. I was like Steven number three… My best friend, Will, at the time named me HeaveN, kind of a joke at the time… It grew on my because I did feel like it was unique to me.”
Cantor is working on his first EP which he hopes will be released next summer.
618 Arlington Place has been home to five families over the last 140 years.
The house on the property at present was built at the turn of the century for Judge Malcolm Jones. It only had two rooms but Jones added a room each time he could afford it. It is said that Mrs. Malcolm Jones never let the judge walk in the front door because she loved her pine heart floors. He entered through the back because, at that time, there was not a front porch to catch the dirt.
The house was sold to the Hensons, of Lizella, in the 1920s. They added Greek Revival style columns and a front porch.
In 1947, Gertrude Paulk Wyche bought the property. She and her husband never had any children.
Then, in April 2012, Carrie and Will Robinson bought the house.
“It didn’t have running water, there was no electricity. But it had been listed on the market commercially for a while,” said Carrie Robinson, who works for Historic Macon. “A lot has changed. It was a labor of love.”
It took the couple a year and a half to rehabilitate it. Will said it makes him tired to think about.
“There were no bathrooms, there was no kitchen, the floors up here looked about like they did now, except they were black with wax,” Will Robinson said.
Carrie Robinson said they found Mrs. Malcolm Jones’s heart pine original floors underneath tile and three inches of concrete.
After graduating from Mercer in 2007, the Robinsons moved around and decided to come back to Macon and plant their roots.
Will is getting ready to open a gourmet cookware store downtown later this month.
– Laura Corley –
Music Ambassadors is funded by a grant from Knight Neighborhood Challenge, a project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Community Foundation of Central Georgia, and administered by Historic Macon. Proceeds from the series go to Historic Macon, Macon Arts Alliance and Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Laura Corley is a journalist working with Art Matters: Engaging the Community through Embedded Arts Journalists, a collaboration between the Macon Arts Alliance and Mercer’s Center for Collaborative Journalism. This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, Art Works. Matching funding provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The journalists in the program will be spending time with arts and arts organizations in the Macon area through June, report what they discover, and foster ongoing conversations about the arts in Middle Georgia.