The Important Questions of "Tennessee"

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Hip-hop and rap music have been through many iterations throughout the years. In its early years in New York City, Hip-hop served as a necessary outlet for young African Americans to express themselves simply, loudly and directly. “My Radio” by LL Cool J, “Rappers Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang and “White Lines” by Grandmaster Flash are all visceral, personal and vital expressions.

The last several years have brought an almost suffocating level of creativity. Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar and Q-Tip are all pushing boundaries of the art form, including everything from progressive Jazz improvisation to soul music, and country music troubadour Steve Earle can even be heard incorporating hip-hop influences in his acoustic guitar ballads.

In the early to mid-1990’s though, hip-hop realized it that it could be something more than a laugh or a shock. Over time, hip-hop music gained a sense of pride and authenticity. Groups like Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were acknowledging their heritage and struggles in a new way. Jazz and rock influences were being incorporated into the songs. Artists wore colorful clothes evocative of their African heritage, and lyrics were about peace, inclusion and joy.

Perhaps the apex of this early 1990’s trend is found in the song “Tennessee” by Arrested  Development. Led by songwriter and vocalist Speech, Arrested Development began as a heavy metal group, then transformed into a rap/hip-hop collective. Men and women, young people and old, all singing together about black heritage, pride and advancement.

“Tennessee,” off their excellent 1992 album “3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of…” is a plaintive conversation with God. A young man asking questions, encouraging conversation, demanding answers.

“Lord, I’ve really been real stressed, down and out, losing ground
Although I am black and proud, problems got me pessimistic
Brothers and sisters keep messin’ up, why does it have to be so damn tough?
I don’t know where I can go to let these ghosts out of my skull
My grandma passed, my brother’s gone, I never at once felt so alone
I know you’re supposed to be my steering wheel, not just my spare tire”

The young man asks God for guidance, and God guides him to Tennessee. Tennessee the place of his birth. Tennessee the place where his ancestors were slaves. Tennessee, the place to inform his pain and curiosity.

“Then outta nowhere you tell me to break
Outta the country and into more country
Past Dyesburg and Ripley
Where the ghost of childhood haunts me
Walk the roads my forefathers walked
Climb the trees my forefathers hung from
Ask those trees for all their wisdom
They tell me my ears are so young
Go back, from whence you came
My family tree, my family name
For some strange reason it had to be
He guided me to Tennessee.”

The questions become statements. Demands. Over and over again, the young man states his case.

“Take me to another place, take me to another land
Make me forget all that hurts me, let me understand your plan
Take me to another place, take me to another land
Make me forget all that hurts me, let me understand your plan”

Like Dorothy searching for home in “The Wizard of Oz,” the answers were always there. He realizes “The answers to all which are in front of me, the ultimate truth started to get blurry. For some strange reason it had to be, it was all a dream about Tennessee.”

A return home brings the answers he was looking for.



“Tennessee”
Written by Thomas Todd, Arle Taree
Released March 24, 1992

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