"Working at Excellence" once defined the initials in Khary "WAE" Frazier's name. He used to tell folks this meaning more often back when he simply called himself "WAE." And even though this worldview could be called "inspirational," he admits that, in the world of hip-hop, it can get corny.
Nowadays, he just lives the philosophy. It describes the way Frazier approaches his song lyrics and music. And the acronym, he now says, connotes his tendency to approach his music "eight ways." Get it? WAE? "Way"?
All puns aside, Frazier — Detroit's answer to a '90s-era Ice Cube — is raw enough for the streets but thoughtful enough for fans of substantive hip-hop music. His is a forward-thinking steeze but with a very contemporary feel. It's not as much pulpit-preachy as it is corner-store concentric. And he does it all by design.
"I always think that I've thought more in the past about where I wanna be," Frazier says when asked about the inspiration for the songs that comprise his fine new album, Preaching to the Choir. "But now I'm thinking about what I'm doing and saying in the present. I wanna combine the music and the message to get people to start questioning everything. Through music, I believe we can change the way we think about life."
And Preaching to the Choir is a direct testament to Frazier's unconventional influences. Whereas most rap artists claim other rappers as their primary influences, Frazier includes artists like late reggae superstar Peter Tosh. It was a book, Up From Slavery, by Booker T. Washington that inspired the emcee to write Preaching. He can go deeper than that when naming inspirations, to his upbringing, in fact, at Detroit's African-centered Aisha Shule Academy. His parents, both staunch activists, sent him there. And although he admits he "was not tryin' to hear all that shit" about black history and kings and queens of antiquity at the time, somewhere in his maturation process, it all still sank in. He internalized it, along with a worldview that enables him to disagree with some of his heroes without being disrespectful of their accomplishments.
And he doesn't necessarily completely agree with the overall ethos of figures like the aforementioned Cube, Tosh and Washington. But he is nevertheless driven by their content and their willingness to speak their minds unabashedly. He adapts their drive to his style — a simple, dressed-down guise typical of a clean-cut hood dude. Adaptable, yes, but also clear.
"When I listen to hip-hop, it can drown me out," he says. "No offense to a lot of the guys, but if I was influenced by Shawty Lo or something like that, there's no tellin' what my feeling would be. I would cut off a lot of the instruments, a lot of the subject matter. I wouldn't challenge myself."
Preaching to the Choir certainly ought to distinguish itself from the current hip-hop crop because it is a true concept album, a rarity in today's single-driven music environment. It underscores Detroit's traditionalist musical landscape, an enclave where many hip-hop fans still appreciate full, completed albums as much they do downloads and mixtapes. It's here that philosophically charged emcees like One.Be.Lo, Invincible, Finale and now Frazier are buoyed by waves of respect that earn them heightened levels of loyalty from their fans.
"He's definitely an artist-activist," says Nadir, one of this area's foremost funkateers and producer of "Runnin' Rebel," a Public Enemy throwback that is one of the new album's highlights. "He prefers the term 'artist advocate.' The thing I appreciate about him is how hard he works and how much he is about business."
Frazier's business has always been an endeavor to combine art and community work. His General Population organization is a band, a web community and a platform. He's put his skills behind local movements like Buy Black Weekend and a successful Juneteenth celebration earlier this summer at The Woodward restaurant in downtown Detroit. Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of African-Americans from slavery.
Frazier will cop to his involvement in activities for and about black people. He might even tout songs like "Black Fist Up" as some of his best work. But don't single his music out as being simply "pro-black."
"I would hope that anybody who's black is pro-black," he says. To understand his message, he says, you've got to listen to his lyrics. There are life lessons inherent in them, although not always overstated. And he's right. His voice is a strong tenor that connects to the angst-driven, intense areas of the psyche. And if you're not careful, you may take him for an angry black man with a greater need to vent than plan.
Frazier will bring his live show to Black Star Community Bookstore on Sept. 26. Black Star's known for bringing musicians into the store to conduct hybrid programs that are edutainment-driven. Frazier plans to share some of his favorite books with audience members during his presentation and may even attempt to spark conversation about contemporary politics. The topic fascinates him, especially when it's about the connection between politics and technology.
"In all seriousness, the cameras was supposed to be off," he says, moving into a tangent about Jesse Jackson who, in July, was infamously caught by Fox News cameras expressing a desire to, er, cut off Barack Obama's nuts. Jackson felt that Obama's campaign strategies too often "dis" would-be supporters.
"Barack Obama is not a black politician," Frazier explains. "He's a politician. And he's running a campaign better than anybody ever has. The way he's using the Internet to raise money is just new and unique. And it's harder for people that are used to the old structure that once was to accept what he's doing. It challenges Jesse Jackson to think that this is the way a black man can win a campaign."
Just as Obama has revolutionized the way campaigns are run, Frazier wants to challenge fans of contemporary hip hop to think that an emcee with a conscience and a personal politic can be just as normal as T.I. It's not a "sexy" plan. But it can work, if fans understand his balance the way he does theirs. In other words, where's there's water, Frazier visualizes bridges.
"A Heavy D. or Biz Markie may not have considered as heavily things like marketing strategies back in the day," he says. But he adds that it's now OK for young artists to think about promotion and marketing as a part of hip hop. "That guy listening to Young Jeezy, one day he's gonna be a manager of 300 people. And he's learning and taking lessons from his life and lifestyle. And he's gonna apply that someday."
A song on the Preaching album, "Block to the Boardroom," perfectly captures this take on record. It sums up Frazier's vision. Try it! It might make similar sense to you.
Khary WAE Frazier appears at Black Star Community Bookstore, 19410 Livernois Ave., Detroit; 313-863-2665; on Friday, Sept. 26.Khary Kimani Turner writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]