By Abigail Hall
Jabee Williams stands underneath yellow, dangling lights illuminating dancing pink triangles painted on the wall behind him. Wearing a black hat with the embroidered Black Panther logo across the familiar text “Make America Great Again,” Williams picks up the microphone and begins to rap to an intimate crowd.
“My brother got killed,
My cousin got killed,
My best friend got killed,
Man, this life is real.”
Williams, a hip-hop artist from Oklahoma City, shares the story of his life through beats and pauses, his words fill up the room, tangibly inviting the audience to share his experiences.
On a Thursday in September, the third incident of the year of an individual wearing blackface occurred in Norman. Williams was scheduled to perform at a local venue the following week, and because of the incident, was warned not to step foot inside the town.
“That’s exactly the reason I should play,” he responded to his followers on Twitter.
Williams said, if anything, incidents of ignorance cause him to want to show up more, instead of staying away.
“I think it’s important to always go out of my way to fight racism, and anyone who knows me or knows my music…(knows) that’s a big part of my mission,” Williams said.
For Williams, the most powerful thing he can do is show up boldly.
“If I don’t show up because of something like that — they win,” he said.
Showing up to share his life story through his melodies, addressing racism, poverty and the power of the black community, is Williams’ version of social justice.
Williams proudly shares the values of the Black Panther movement, combatting the slogan that directly negates his existence as a black man.
“MAGA to me, it really is a symbol of hatred and racism — and for me the Black Panther logo is a symbol of hope and community and black people and minorities and people who don’t have anything,” Williams said. “(The hat) is saying really, if we’re Making America Great Again, then we’re the ones who built America. It was built on the backs of people who were slaves in this country and black people who were imprisoned.”
Growing up on the east side of Oklahoma City, Williams experienced gang violence by the time he was in middle school. By the time he was 18, his brother was shot dead.
While his years of adolescence were filled with uncertainty — attending 11 schools by the time of graduation, moving between homes, sometimes crashing on a friends couch without a permanent place to stay — he sees the east side as home, a home he’s devoted his career to improving for future generations.
“I want to be in a better position to help my people and take care of those people who took care of me when I was growing up,” Williams said. “To help build and enrich and educate my community.”
‘Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt at all’
From his early years of waking up to his mother listening to Tupac while she got ready for work, to school days, rapping with his friends while making beats from banging on their desks — for Williams, hip-hop has always been a way of life.
Williams was 7 when he rapped into his first microphone. His mother saw his love of the craft, buying him studio time to record with his friends, encouraging him to nurture his passion.
“Rappin’ and hip-hop has always been there. It’s not something that just came,” Williams said. “That’s just who we was — some of us rapped, some of us played ball, some of us gang banged, just everybody did something, so it was a natural progression.”
Williams younger sister, Elizabeth, recalls him rapping along with their cousin D’Angelo in their grandmother’s living room, while taking apart TV’s and stereos to make their own studio equipment.
By 15, he was performing across Oklahoma City in local clubs and house parties, making a name for himself.
While his friends joined gangs or spent their nights smoking and drinking, Williams was rapping.
“It’s crazy because most of his friends, like D’Angelo, and our brother Junie that was all around us when were kids — they’re all dead now,” Elizabeth said.
Williams can recall countless friends from high school who are now dead, doing life in prison, and even on death row. If it weren’t for rapping, he said, the potential for him to be in a graveyard or behind bars, was tangible.
Through the pain of losing those closest to him, Williams devoted himself to his rhymes and protecting his sisters, Elizabeth said.
Williams took any opportunity to put his music out into the world. He began rapping with a Native American group and traveling to Dallas on the weekends for rap battles.
He remembers the first time he made $100 from a show at a house party and thinking, “I could do this for a living…if I do this three times a week, that’s $300,” he said.
Williams spent his days working part-time jobs and rapping at night and on weekends, but in 2013, he decided to quit and focus on his music full-time.
Pretending to be his own PR agent, Williams would send emails to press and venues, getting himself through the door, gaining equity and notoriety out of sheer force of will.
He went from making $100 in a show to touring nationally and internationally with household names in the hip-hop industry, winning an Emmy Award in 2014 for his creation of a commercial for Science Museum Oklahoma, and in 2016 released his most recent album, “Black Future,” including a recorded track with Chuck D. of Public Enemy.
“Jabee tells stories. He has substance in his rhymes in ways that are resemblant of the great hip hop artists of the 70s and 80s, when hip-hop was born as an art-form,” said Karlos Hill, Ph.D, associate professor and department chair of OU’s African and African-American Studies department. “(He) represents the best of what hip hop is and what it can be.”
‘This world is so fragile and cruel, I’m glad I got you.’
Williams had a dream that he died.
“I was thinking I want people at my funeral, you know if I’m not here, to know how they affected me,” he said. “I felt like my life was changing and things are getting better. I was being lifted up, (and then) I had that dream that I died. And it was like, ‘OK, how do I want to go out?’”
The dream inspired him to get back in the studio and record his new project, “This world is so fragile and cruel, I’m glad I got you,” which he plans to release in early 2020.
Williams took a four-year hiatus between musical projects, and said he’s excited to get back into the studio.
As for why he took the four-year gap, he said he has to experience life in order to write about it.
During his hiatus, he became an entrepreneur, a part-owner of Oklahoma City’s historically black Tower Theatre, a member on the Clara Luper Legacy Committee, a group that commemorates the life and legacy of Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City sit-ins, and a future adjunct professor of Hip-Hop at OU.
Williams’ new album continues the story he’s been telling since he was 7 years old.
“The idea is every day we encounter somebody or we know someone and they have affected our life or impacted us, whether it was good or bad,” Williams said. “Because of that, it’s helped to make us who we are… I’ve been through some really hard times, and because of that it’s made me who I am. I’ve been through some really good times, and because of that (it’s) made me who I am.”
The album is the story of Williams, the history of black people, the story of Ada Sipuel, the lives and times of those who have come before him and those who will come after him — all who inspire him to keep moving forward, he said.
While he’s changed in social and financial status, he’s still the same Jabee that Elizabeth remembers protecting her from danger, she said.
“It’s amazing to see what he’s what he’s done,” Elizabeth said. “I never would have thought that …he would even be at this point, and so it’s really a blessing.”
Despite, and perhaps because of his notoriety, Williams said he has no plans to leave Oklahoma City.
“I want to stay here forever — I ride and die here,” Williams said. “What good am I to Oklahoma somewhere else? What good am I to my people if I can’t touch them? … I just feel like if them fools who play for the Thunder can live here and pursue their dreams, then I can too.”