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Photo credit: David Muessig

McKinley Dixon: ‘For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her’, Rap As a Form of Time Travel

As a music reviewer — I won’t say critic as I do not like to criticise art, one person’s treasure is another person’s trash and all that — I am privileged to get to hear music before it’s released. There is a lot that I pass by, and some things make me prick up my ears, but rarely do I find a song stopping me in my tracks. McKinley Dixon’s For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her had precisely that effect. Wow, Bob Wow. If this guy isn’t one of the biggest stars on the planet by this time next year, I’ll riot.

Richmond, Virginia-based artist McKinley Dixon has always used his music as a tool for healing, exploring, and unpacking the Black experience to create stories for others like him. On his previous two self-released albums, The Importance of Self Belief and Who Taught You to Hate Yourself? Dixon’s songs looked at concepts ranging from self-love to police brutality and the complex trauma Black people navigate collectively and as individuals. For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her, Dixon’s debut album on Spacebomb is the culmination of a journey where heartbreak and introspection challenged him to adopt new ways of communicating physically and mentally, as well as across time and space.

“Black people have an ability to talk about the concept of home — meaning communities, blocks, hoods — from a really thorough place because of those concepts’ connection to Blackness. That ability, and sort of already internalized and in place language, allows for the speaker (rapper) to exist in their current setting, while also being able to reminisce, dissect, and discuss their past,” says Dixon explaining the idea of rap as a form of time travel. “If time is ‘non-linear,’ what is stopping me from going back to process the past? I am here now, having learned what I have, and because of that I am able to go back and figure out patterns and trajectories to see better how I’ve gotten to this point. And to see what I can do differently for the community and people around me in the future to make where we’re going, together, better. For me and other Black folks, when you hear rap music, you are then able to take those moments in the music and apply them to your own life and patterns. It’s a glimpse into the worlds of others that look like you, and it allows you to feel a sense of belonging — and in a way, a sense of home. Rap music has a very sturdy trajectory of ‘I want to be somewhere else, one day I’ll be somewhere else, and I’ll take my whole community with me.’”

This unique concept of musical time travel elevates the storytelling on For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her as it moves through different stages of Dixon unpacking and processing his surroundings. The new album, which is the third piece of a trilogy, finds Dixon working through inner demons, complex relationships with religion, and trying to make sense of mortality for Black peoples. A deeper pain only amplifies this winding road of turmoil he’s still finding the language to work through: in 2018, his best friend was tragically killed. In the context of just being Black and living in this world, “musical time travel” has become a way for Dixon to dissect traumatic timelines and pave his own road to processing, healing, and survival. “The album is me processing for myself now, and for my younger self,” explains Dixon. “It’s also a conversation to my homie who died, who didn’t have access to the same things as I did — didn’t have access to music, therapy, books.” With Black death constantly happening on a news cycle within neighbourhoods and families, processing has never had a specific start and endpoint. These 11 songs are a way for Dixon to cycle through fragmented memories and unclosed chapters and begin to reconcile where these stories of racism, death, and trauma live on the new timeline he’s created for himself.

“The language accessibility aspect of this project draws right back to communication and connecting,” Dixon explains. “I think about the messaging, and how this can be a way for another Black person, someone who looks like me, to listen to this and process the past. Everything I’ve learned about communication for this album culminates with this bigger question about time. Is time linear when you’re still healing and processing? Westerners look at time travel as something to conquer or control — it’s a coloniser mindset. That’s ignoring how time travel can be done through stories and non-verbal communication, and doesn’t acknowledge how close indigenous people are to the land and the connections groups have because they’ve existed somewhere for so long. Storytelling is time travel, it’s taking the listener to that place. Quick time travel. Magic. These raps I’m making are no different than stories told around the campfire. They elongate the culture.”

The origins of For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her go back almost three years, beginning with a song written in 2017 called “Chain Sooo Heavy.” Having worked with over 30 instrumentalists on his last record, Dixon formed a more solid band to bring this album to life. Never relying solely on beats, Dixon continues to tap into a hybrid of jazz and rap, pulling in an array of piercing strings, soulful horns, percussion, and angelic vocalists throughout the album — plus features by Micah James, Lord Jah-Monte Ogbon, Pink Siifu, and more. Jazz instrumentals add a level of uncertainty, with the sounds and shifts evoking a lot of emotion and vulnerability. It’s an energy he describes as “Pre-Kendrick Lamar To Pimp A Butterfly,” the era when rap adopted more live instrumentation.

When Dixon is trying to find the words to describe a moment, he draws inspiration directly from literature.“Called for Jesus/Now I’m gonna curse his daddy,” from “B.B.N.E.”, was inspired by renowned novelist Toni Morrison, an influence who shows up throughout the album. “I’ve got so many of her books. Reading her work gives me the language needed to access this version of musical time travel I’ve been talking about. I’ll open up a Toni Morrison book, read it, and try to find sentences where she’s trying to describe what I’m feeling and I’ll go from there.”

“Bless the Child” evokes the strongest sense of Dixon tracing patterns through time. Shifting through three-beat switches, it’s a figurative shrine of past thoughts and feelings around his friend’s untimely passing. “The tone with the beat switch allows me to shift from being in the past with these memories, to the present right now where I’m very conflicted, and ends in the future with me, the artist, processing it all,” he explains. “The song is a literal translation of my homie’s passing and how I’m processing it. It’s a mixture of sentiments and asking myself what it means to ‘do it for them’ at this point.”

For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her challenges Black people to revisit more than one timeline and question everything they’ve been taught about processing grief in order to rebuild their present and future selves. There’s no definitive end to the darkness and trauma of the past, but this album is a stepping stone in Dixon’s pursuit of moving forward and being a voice for Black people still learning how to advocate for themselves.

“The best way to sum up this album is: I was sad, I was mad, and now I’m alive,” Dixon explains. “These things I talk about on the record have had harmful and brilliant effects on my timeline, and have forced me to be cognizant of the fact that living is complex. Rap has allowed me the language to communicate, and be someone who can communicate with people from all over. Knowing how far I’ve come, I think people will find trust in the message I’m sending.”

For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her tracklisting:

1) Chain Sooo Heavy

2) Never Will Know (feat. Micah James, Gold Midas)

3) Bless the Child

4) make a poet Black

5) protective styles (feat. Abby T.)

6) Swangin’

7) brown shoulders (feat. Ms. Jaylin Brown)

8) B.B.N.E. (feat. Teller Bank$)

9) Grown Man Voice (feat. Micah James, Lord Jah-Monte Ogbon, Pink Siifu)

10) Mama’s Home (feat. Alfred.)

11) Twist My Hair (feat. Deau Eyes)

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