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In The Wake Of The Tulsa Race Massacre’s Centennial, A Communal Hip-Hop Album Emerges

They sought talent that fit the mindset of Black Wall Street — musicians who could set aside ego to commemorate their ancestors.

Ryan Cash/Fivvish/Courtesy of the artist

“But we’re what it looks like when we got our own backs / And we’re what it looks like when we build it back black / We’re what it looks like in a hundred years time / Got the audacity to walk up out these ashes and shine / We’re shining” 

–”Shining” from Fire In Little Africa

Stevie Johnson remembers the first time he heard about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. It was 2013; he was 24 years old, working at Edmond’s University of Central Oklahoma. During an excursion to Tulsa’s Greenwood Cultural Center, he discovered the history of the area — that it was once a prosperous Black neighborhood, home to a thriving business district known as Black Wall Street. The district was burned to the ground overnight. It’s remembered as one of the country’s worst incidents of racist violence.

Johnson was blown away. “I’d finished two degrees. Two degrees! And I’d just found out about it, and it was in my backyard,” he recalls. “What am I? What is my responsibility as an educator and what am I doing if I don’t know this history? It was a wake-up call.”

Eight years and a Ph.D. later, Johnson is the Manager of Education and Diversity Outreach at Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan Centers — collectively known as “The American Song Archives.” He’s also the executive producer of Fire in Little Africa, a hip-hop album commemorating the Tulsa Race Massacre’s centennial. The record is out today via Motown Records’ Black Forum label. It is the realization of Johnson’s vision: empowerment, education, and community. It’s a way to honor Tulsa’s past, while building a future with the community’s hip-hop artists.

It also naturally fits an academic whose first love was music. Johnson, or “Dr. View,” began DJ-ing as an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma. For a young, black male at a large and overwhelmingly white state school, it was a way to stay connected on campus and formulate his identity. Years later, in pursuing his doctorate degree, Johnson chose to combine his passion for music and scholarship through his dissertation. It took shape as both a written paper and a hip-hop album. In a sense, Fire in Little Africa is an extension of that concept. “Now it’s outside the ivory tower and the institution of higher education,” Johnson notes. “This is a communal undoing of trauma, a healing of trauma.”

Johnson began by contacting local musicians Steph Simon and Dialtone, early innovators in Tulsa’s hip-hop scene. “It took some time to help them understand I wasn’t there to put myself on a pedestal.” Johnson says. “I’m really here to do the work and make this as dope as we can make it.”

They sought talent that fit the mindset of Black Wall Street — musicians who could set aside ego to commemorate their ancestors. Johnson was humbled by what the group accomplished during such a challenging year. “If we can come together and galvanize 60 unsigned artists from Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Lawton to record 142 songs in five days in a pandemic, particularly to honor our ancestors,” Johnson says. “If we can come together on some history that’s been hidden for so long and do some amazing things, imagine what it will look like once we actually get some economic empowerment and are able to shift and change our culture.”

The songs were recorded in Greenwood over a five-day period in March 2020, just before the pandemic shut down the city. Studios were created at the Greenwood Cultural Center and additional locations, including the former “Brady Mansion.” Now owned by Tulsa native and NFL veteran Felix Jones, it was the historic home of Tate Brady, a prominent white businessman and Klansman at the turn of the century. Twenty-one songs made the final cut and much of the editing was done via videoconference.

Fire in Little Africa is the first new material to be released by Motown’s Black Forum since the label’s relaunch earlier this year. For Johnson, releasing this album through Black Forum represents a beginning. “It’s like Motown signed the state of Oklahoma,” he says. “It’s amazing, and it’s a beautiful thing. Something will come out of this for sure.”

In the meantime, he’s anxious for the world to hear what these artists have created. “My hope is that people will hear the emotion and the pain, but that they’ll also hear how they’re pushing that pain and trauma out to really talk about joy and resilience,” Johnson says. “We’re the rose that grows out of the concrete.”

On ‘Fire In Little Africa,’ Oklahoma Artists Embody The Black Wall Street Mentality

Steph Simon (pictured) and fellow rapper Dialtone were among the first artists contacted by Fire In Little Africa executive producer Stevie Johnson when he arrived in Tulsa in 2019.

Ryan Cash/Fivvish/Courtesy of the artist

Motown Records imprint Black Forum released Fire in Little Africa — an album written and recorded by a collective of Oklahoma hip-hop artists — last Friday to mark the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, a violent, racist act that decimated Greenwood, a prosperous Black neighborhood home to what was known as Black Wall Street. At least 37 people were killed that day and thousands more were left homeless. For the artists behind FILA, the album is more than a creative project; it’s a roadmap to the future and catalyst for change.

“This is a legacy project. It’s a purpose project. It’s a passion project,” says Steph Simon. Simon and fellow rapper Dialtone are pioneers of Tulsa’s burgeoning hip-hop scene. They were among the first artists contacted by Stevie “Dr. View” Johnson, FILA‘s executive producer, when he arrived in Tulsa in 2019.

Like most Tulsans, Simon and Dialtone had grown up with little knowledge of the history of Greenwood. A long neglected chapter of the city’s complicated past, the two first learned about the thriving Black community and its tragic destruction while searching the internet for videos from a defunct Compton-based, hip-hop record label called The Black Wall Street Records. Simon was shocked to discover that Greenwood once housed a theater, churches, grocery stores, nightclubs, health care facilities, hotels and much more — all of which were burned to the ground overnight on May 31, 1921. “I was upset and disappointed to learn we had all of that, and it was just destroyed,” Simon recalls. “I just felt like I needed to help get it back for the people that are here in the community right now.”

“We started being real present and real conscious of the time we were in,” says Dialtone. “We knew with the centennial that the city was going to be interested in telling that story.”

When Johnson approached Simon and Dialtone about FILA, they were initially skeptical of the project. “I knew people would come here and try to capitalize off of that, and that’s something I didn’t want to happen,” says Simon. “I didn’t want to be a gatekeeper, but I did want to make sure we got to tell our story the right way. Our way.”


Johnson assured the artists his goal was to provide access and opportunity, not to control the narrative. “Once we started realizing that Dr. View was a person of integrity and a person that was really interested in helping us tell a story, everything just snowballed,” says Dialtone. “It was nice to meet someone who was 100% about the community. He was the missing piece.”

The album was recorded over five days in March 2020, just before the pandemic shut down the city. It’s the collective work of over 60 Oklahoma rappers, musicians, producers and poets, including a contribution from Tulsa native and The GAP Band founder, Charlie Wilson.

Dialtone hopes FILA will be a source of inspiration for others.

“I feel like the success of this project and of Tulsa infects the whole hip-hop community, which in turn influences Black America,” he says. “I want to see the generation after us build on this.”

Simon agrees.

“So many kids feel like it’s just football or basketball or bust — just get out on the streets if that doesn’t work,” he says. “We can really change that mind state for people who want to be entrepreneurs or go to college. We’re going to make things like that cool. We’re going to take that mentality of Black Wall Street and push it to the future.”

For more information, visit the Fire in Little Africa website.

Briana Wright Comes Into Her Own In Tulsa, A City That Hasn’t

If music is the compass by which we navigate a complicated world, it’s no surprise that Tulsa lays claim to artists as diverse as Leon Russell, Hanson, Anita Bryant and The Gap Band. Creativity flourishes in a city that continues to grapple with its past — the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the Trail of Tears — and its present poverty, homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse. In the middle blooms singer-songwriter Briana Wright, a bright talent finding her voice while clearing a path for others to follow.

Like many Oklahoma musicians, Wright grew up singing in church. A first-place win at a high school talent show sparked her dream of a career in music. Wright’s cover of a Mariah Carey tune earned her $100 and began a journey that includes an impressive stint on Simon Cowell’s X-Factor in 2012. She made it all the way to “boot camp” in Miami before being cut. It was a tough moment for the aspiring vocalist.

“I didn’t want to sing, and I was angry,” she explains. “Once I got home, the hurt washed away. I recovered and got my spine straight. It was do or die.”

A determined Wright filmed a music video and sent it to every restaurant, bar and venue she knew, eventually landing a gig at a barbecue joint, which led to regular performances at a popular pizza place downtown. Her confidence grew with each performance, from the lobby of the local Whole Foods — where she and her guitarist were paid in grocery gift cards — to weddings, funerals and festivals.

At 31, Wright is now a veteran of the Tulsa music scene, known for her gorgeous, versatile voice. Pre-pandemic, regular performances with Nightingale, her longtime soul-infused Americana band, paid the bills and allowed her to quit her day job to stay home with her young daughter. Last year, she joined established indie-pop outfit Cliffdiver as a co-frontperson. According to Wright, the two very different musical projects provide the opportunity to stretch her creative muscles.

“I love the contrast between Nightingale and Cliffdiver. It’s really representative of who I am,” she says. “I work hard no matter what. But it takes the pressure off, knowing that all my creative eggs aren’t in one basket. I’ve got a lot of eggs. I’ve got crazy eggs.”

Inspired by the upcoming centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Wright recently began exploring her identity as a solo artist. The daughter of a mother who is of Indigenous and European ancestry and a father who is African American, Wright describes herself as multiracial. While Wright’s mom felt it was important for her children to understand their roots, it wasn’t something Wright gave a lot of thought as a teenager growing up in a predominantly white suburb of Tulsa.

“I think my mom always had a weight about us being mixed and living in the suburbs,” Wright says. “She would always talk about it. She traced my dad’s genealogy back to plantations, and told us all about it.”

For Wright, however, the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., felt like a veil being lifted. She began to examine her own life and experiences in a new light.

“Suddenly, my experience was enough for me to feel like it’s okay to be who I am,” Wright says. “I never, ever talked about race before. I never had the gall to. I didn’t want to know who around me was racist. It would just be too painful.”

Wright says she turns to music to express what it means to be fully herself in a city that has not yet reconciled with its past. The experience has been complicated, difficult and yet powerful.

“Growing up, I didn’t have that Black community. I didn’t have people who looked like me around,” she says. “Being biracial has always been sort of like an identity crisis, where I’m subject to the same experiences, but I didn’t necessarily have that community. It’s a sort of a disenfranchisement, and Tulsa is the perfect metaphor for that.”

Excited to explore these themes as a solo artist, she isn’t giving up on her hometown.

“I’m always hopeful. I’m always optimistic. I haven’t left Tulsa for a lot of really good reasons. I think we are better than the sum of our parts,” she says. “I have to believe that all the work and the conversations, all the signs and yelling and protests, all the pleading and crying — I just have to believe that moves hearts. I have to believe that opens minds. And I’m willing to sit here until we fix this mess. I’m willing to stay here and do my part.”

‘Like Deftones Meets Miles Davis’: Tulsa’s Tori Ruffin Gets Freaky

A Tulsan by way of Detroit, Austin and Los Angeles, Tori Ruffin is the founding member of Freak Juice, a funky, hard-rocking music collaborative that includes musicians Charlie Redd (bass), Stanley Fary (drums) and Christopher Simpson (vocals). Exhorting fans to “Get in the Blender,” Freak Juice delivers music that owes as much to the party ethos of ’80s hair metal bands as it does to the social justice messaging of Marvin Gaye. “It’s kind of like Deftones meets Miles Davis with some funk and hip-hop thrown in,” Ruffin says. For the band’s followers, known as Juicemakers, you couldn’t pour a more potent blend.

Born in Chicago, Ruffin spent his early childhood in Detroit before moving to Los Angeles as a young teen. He got his first guitar, a Gibson with an amp, from his grandfather. A few chords later, Ruffin was in his first band, which included his sister’s hippie boyfriend, whose record collection was filled with Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Ruffin listened to all of it and more.

“Here we were, and these are all Black guys, and we’re in the basement playing Rush,” Ruffin says. “We were playing the Isley Brothers, of course, and James Brown, too, so we had all of those styles, but it was a big rock band. If you played guitar, you were trying to play some rock guitar.”

Talking to Ruffin about his career is never linear and always entertaining. There’s the story about his early days with an Austin-based fusion band: “They found the lord, and I found the devil, so I started playing cover music with [future Freak Juice bassist] Charlie Redd,” he says. Or the one about giving guitar lessons to prolific voice actress Cree Summer and ending up signed to Capitol Records. And, of course, there were those two gigs — 30 years apart — in Sexual Chocolate, the fictional backing band for Eddie Murphy’s flamboyant lounge singer alter ego, Randy Watson, in the enduring cult classic Coming to America (1988) and the film’s recent sequel, Coming 2 America (2021).

“The more people you can play music with, the more colors you can learn to paint with,” Ruffin says.

In the intervening years, Ruffin has played with countless high-profile acts, everyone from Prince, Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey to Lenny Kravitz, Mick Jagger and Smokey Robinson. For 25 years, he’s also served as lead guitarist for Morris Day and the Time.

While Ruffin is grateful for his long and interesting career as a working musician, Freak Juice is the side project that’s always held a special place in his heart. After 20 years of commuting to the band’s home base in Tulsa to play shows, Ruffin finally bought a house and settled in, encouraged by Redd, his longtime friend and bandmate, and won over by the city’s affordable housing and the relative ease of remote session work. He even became a local entrepreneur, operating a bar and venue, the Juicemaker Lounge, with his brother Greg.

Ruffin’s been a fan of Tulsa’s music scene from his first show. “We were at the Mercury Lounge, and we had a chance to play two sets of original music,” he remembers. “If you’re good, people hang out and come listen. I’ve always believed that, and sure enough, I got to fulfill that in Tulsa. The cost of living is right, and people are wonderful. You know who’s who in terms of that. You know who really loves you, and you know who doesn’t, and that’s a good thing. In L.A., everybody smiles in your face, but you don’t know who’s for you or against you — it’s that Hollywood thing.”

Last fall, Freak Juice released They Call Us Juice on Tulsa’s nonprofit Horton Records label. The album embodies the band’s special blend of social commentary, delivered with genre-busting, ear-pleasing tunes and serious musicianship. “Hands to the Sky” reflects on a year of injustice, while “Hypocrite” is a reggae-tinged critique of the previous presidential administration.

“I’ve always been deeply affected by the social climate and what’s going on in the world, but I’ve always believed there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Ruffin explains. “If I can write on things that affect me and offer some ray of hope and light to bring people closer together and just bring more harmony and love, then that’s what I want to do. I know it sounds sappy and cheesy, but that’s how I feel.”

One of the hardest-rocking tracks on the album is “Dirty Little Secret,” a song that hits close to Ruffin’s adopted home. The lyrics recount the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history. The city’s Black Wall Street, a prosperous financial district powered by Black businesses, was destroyed, along with the entire Greenwood District, home to the majority of the city’s Black population. Despite the devastating loss of life and property, the incident went largely unreported for decades. Ruffin first learned about it after he started playing in Tulsa.

“It was a thriving metropolitan city, and they bombed it and burned it to the ground,” Ruffin says. “I had never been taught about it, and nobody had ever mentioned it to me. It wasn’t in any history books or classes. I was blown away.”

Ruffin has embraced Tulsa, despite its complicated past. “I think it’s just another product of the South,” he says. “It doesn’t make me feel worse about Tulsa. I don’t think it makes me feel more guarded. It’s just how you feel when you grow up dealing with racism your entire life. You’re not really shocked by anything.”

As the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre approaches, Ruffin continues to hope for a better tomorrow. “I always thought by this time in my life, it would be so much better,” he says. “We just have to keep fighting for it, man, and keep loving each other. That’s what I hope for. Keep striving for inclusivity and don’t stay silent when you see some bulls*** going on.”