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Hip-Hop Album and Documentary Honors the Legacy of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street

Hip-Hop Album and Documentary Honors the Legacy of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street

Jan Mercker

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre scorched the successful business district of Greenwood, known as Black Wall Street

The world’s eyes are on Tulsa. As the city makes plans to commemorate the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a 30-year-old hip-hop scholar is on a mission to honor Black Wall Street through music while celebrating the city’s emerging hip-hop scene.

Stevie “Dr. View” Johnson, a producer, DJ and academic, is one the driving forces behind “Fire in Little Africa,” a compilation hip-hop album and documentary commemorating the centennial of Tulsa’s Greenwood massacre. Johnson is a newcomer to Tulsa but is on a spiritual mission to help the city remember and heal.

“I pay attention to Greenwood and the sacred ground we’re on,” Johnson said. “People might think I’m crazy, but I truly believe this is something the ancestors of Black Wall Street genuinely want to see…We need this project to be a starting point to really having critical conversations about the massacre.”

Last summer, Johnson was hired by Tulsa-based sister nonprofits the Woody Guthrie Center and Bob Dylan Center to head up educational programming and outreach.

When he took the job, Johnson’s first priority was to find creative ways to engage the community in commemorating the massacre that led to hundreds of deaths and the destruction of the prosperous African American neighborhood of Greenwood, known as Black Wall Street. On May 31 and June 1 of 1921, white residents attacked Greenwood and burned down 40 square blocks of the neighborhood after false claims that a teenage Black shoeshiner attempted to rape a white elevator operator at a Tulsa office building.

For Johnson, the best way to remember the massacre is through music — specifically, Tulsa’s unique and powerful hip-hop scene.

A picture of the Williams family in Tulsa’s successful black business district, known as the Black Wall Street. [Photo courtesy of the Greenwood Cultural Center]

‘Tulsa wasn’t even on my radar’

Originally from Longview, Texas, Johnson moved to Oklahoma in 2007 to attend the University of Oklahoma, where he earned his bachelor’s and two graduate degrees. Johnson’s PhD dissertation looked at anti-Black experiences at majority white colleges and universities. He produced a hip-hop album designed to reach students and parents in addition to his written work.

“I wanted to make it accessible to the people who needed it most,” he said.

Johnson was planning to return to Texas with his family after completing his PhD program last spring.

“Tulsa wasn’t even on my radar,” he said.

Black Wall Street
Stevie “Dr. View” Johnson, a producer, DJ and academic, is the driving force behind “Fire in Little Africa.” [Photo by Ryan Cass]

Johnson connected with the Woody Guthrie Center through a college friend who sensed that his graduate work would mesh with the center’s mission. Johnson admits he had reservations about moving into the predominantly white museum world after more than a decade in academia. Both nonprofits are funded by a philanthropic foundation launched by oil billionaire George Kaiser.

“I had a lot of questions: two predominantly white museums, folk music — why me?” Johnson said. “They told me it’s not necessarily talking about their music but the themes that are in their music. That allowed me to be more comfortable.”

Johnson was hired as Manager of Education and Diversity Outreach for the Guthrie and Dylan centers in 2019. And he moved to Tulsa with his wife and son. The family stayed in the historic Greenwood district while they closed on their house in North Tulsa. And Johnson immersed himself in the spiritual heartbeat of the community as he moved forward with the “Fire in Little Africa” project.

“I felt like something was on the cusp, on the verge of happening,” he said “I’ve truly just learned to listen to that intuition.”

‘God’s gumbo’

Johnson was hired to help a pair of well-endowed museums build bridges with the Tulsa community. And “Fire in Little Africa” was his first big step. Jumping off his 2019 dissertation project and inspired by the rapper and philanthropist J. Cole’s 2014 compilation album “Revenge of the Dreamers,” Johnson knew that a collaborative hip-hop album commemorating Black Wall Street would have the most impact.

“I feel like it’s part of my responsibility to bring something to the city of Tulsa,” Johnson said. “I hit the ground running and connected with artists. We developed a plan and an executive team and a strategy of inviting other artists to be part of it.”

Johnson also wanted to boost exposure for Tulsa’s critically acclaimed hip-hop scene, one reason Rolling Stone magazine suggested Tulsa “might be the next Austin” in an article earlier this year. 

“Somebody asked me, ‘What’s the [Tulsa hip-hop] sound?’ and I said ‘God’s gumbo,’” Johnson said. “We’re in the middle of the country, and we’re a melting pot…Most people say we’re in the Midwest, but Oklahoma’s in the South…We’re influenced by soul and gospel and folk and funk… And that is truly what Tulsa is. It’s unapologetically us.”

Fire in Little Africa

Johnson was a well-known DJ plugged into the Oklahoma music scene for a decade. But he was also an academic and an outsider in the world of Tulsa rap. His first steps in his new job were connecting with the city’s tight-knit hip-hop community. His first contact was Steph Simon, leader of the Tulsa artists collaborative World Culture Music, whose album “Born on Black Wall Street” was released last year.

“I knew who the ambassador was when it came to the hip-hop scene in Tulsa. I had to pay my respects,” Johnson said.

Black Wall Street
Tulsa’s top hip-hop artists, and some up-and-coming stars, are part of the “Fire in Little Africa” project. [Photo by Richard Washington]

Johnson created an executive committee for the project including Simon and other leading artists to move the project forward. Then he turned his focus to helping artists dig deeper into Oklahoma’s Black history and the destruction of Black Wall Street using resources at the Oklahoma Historical Society and Tulsa University.

“My thing was, ‘How do I provide a holistic perspective to the artists for them to contextualize from their own perspective and create art?’” he said.

Five days in March

Johnson is a soul-searcher and self-examiner and has a sense of divine intervention when it comes to the project. The fact that the album was recorded safely just before COVID turned the world on its head is just one reason the timing of the musical commemoration of Black Wall Street was uncanny.

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Johnson and his team recorded the project over five days in mid-March — just before the pandemic hit in full force — with more than 50 artists at the Greenwood Cultural Center and Skyline Mansion.

The album features some of Tulsa’s best-known artists and rising stars, including Steph Simon, St. Domonick, Dialtone, 1st Verse and dozens of other big names and up-and-comers. The crew recorded 140 songs in five days, and sessions were filmed for a documentary also slated for a 2021 release.

Since then, Johnson has been working virtually with the executive committee to select songs for the project and wrap up post-production. The album was initially scheduled for release in February of 2021, but with COVID restrictions in play, it may be closer to the anniversary of the massacre in late May or early June.

Black Wall Street
Musicians and producers — including Dr. Stevie Johnson, Steph Simon, St. Domonick, Dialtone and 1st Verse — recorded “Fire in Little Africa” over fives days in March. [Photo by Ryan Cass]

For Johnson, engaging through music is a way to reach young listeners and students who can truly benefit from information and context and is a launching point for further discussion. In addition to the album and documentary, Johnson and his team have launched a podcast and are working on a supplemental curriculum for schools about Black Wall Street and the Greenwood massacre.

“If we can use our culture, our sensibilities, our oral history and we can create this gumbo and mix it all together to where it’s art and literacy at the same time, it makes the best solution for people to initially understand what this is about. And then from there, having supplementary documents that people will hopefully be willing to dive into,” he said. 

Where is the agency?

The “Fire in Little Africa” project was launched in 2019. The album was recorded before the murder of George Floyd sparked protests around the country, before a planned Trump rally on Juneteenth put Tulsa in the national spotlight. 

The “Little Africa” of the album’s title comes from a negative description of Black Wall Street from white Tulsans in the early 20th Century. Johnson pulled the phrase from an archival photo entitled “Little Africa on Fire” and considered that wording for the album’s title. Then he spoke to a former college professor and mentor who asked, “Where is the agency being placed?”

Johnson realized that the album isn’t just a remembrance but a call to action.

“Everybody has to put their feet to the fire. Not only ‘Fire in Little Africa’ but humanity as a whole. You have to put your feet to the fire. You have to look at your privileges. You have to look at the means that you have and how do you make this world a better place,” Johnson said. “If I don’t put my feet to the fire when it comes to this project, if the foundation doesn’t put their feet to the fire, this project won’t be what it needs to be, what it can and what it will be.”

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