Rapper Wise Intelligent, who has been an activist in the city of Trenton since he was a teenager in the late 1980s, sees the inaugural Trenton African American Pride Festival, scheduled for Aug. 20, as a positive development for the town in which he grew up and still lives.
The TAAPF, says festival founder L.A. Parker, the Trentonian columnist, is something that “is long overdue. (Trenton) has a rich history of contributions made by African Americans, and this event will acknowledge these past gifts plus point us toward a positive future that honors family, faith and positive productivity.”
In addition to Wise Intelligient, performers at the day-long event include R&B/jazz singer Kim Covington and Def Poetry Jam artist Narubi Selah, both natives of Trenton. There will be a main stage, featuring gospel, R&B, jazz, dance, poetry, comedy, and other genres of performance, and a stage dedicated to performances by and for young people.
Wise Intelligent, whose commercial and cultural high point came in the early 1990s as the front man and driving force of the rap trio Poor Righteous Teachers, will perform on the main stage at 12:25 p.m.
“For a while now I’ve been saying we need a celebration like this,” says Wise Intelligent in a phone interview. He mentions parades for different Latino groups as well as Irish and Italian groups. “I think this is necessary, because unity is needed. All the black churches in this city need to participate — it should be a requirement that they participate.”
The church, he says, is at the center of the African American community, especially the economy, and it should be at the center of revitalizing the community, especially economically. “We don’t need to be on welfare. We don’t need to be in a place where we are begging to government to do for us what we should be doing for ourselves. Anyone can come in here, set up businesses, and suck all the wealth out of here.”
Poor Righteous Teachers, founded in Trenton, was one of the first groups that identified with Islam and cultural issues to gain popularity in hip-hop. The group’s inaugural album in 1990, “Holy Intellect,” went gold, selling more than a half a million copies. Wise Intelligent is one of the most technically proficient rappers in the history of the genre, with a hybrid style blending perfect rapid-fire diction and a clipped Caribbean-inflected tone reminiscent of the Jamaican toasters who greatly influenced him as a youth.
The rapper, born Timothy Taylor, was one of nine children to a single mother; his father left the family when Taylor was two years old. The family moved a few times, including residence in the Donnelly Homes and Hanover Street in northwest Trenton. Young Timothy went to Trenton public schools and spent most of his free time participating in two of the basic activities of hip-hop — break dancing and MCing (rapping).
When he was 13, Timothy Taylor became Wise Intelligent. His older brother, he has said, who had been involved in smoking weed and other self-destructive activities, suddenly began calling himself Power and speaking of the need for spiritual and cultural awakening among himself, his family, and black people in general.
That is when Taylor joined the Nation of Gods and Earths, or the Five Percent Nation of Islam, a group that formed in 1964 as an offshoot of Elijah Muhammad’s (and later, Minister Louis Farrakhan’s) Nation of Islam by Malcolm X mentee Clarence 13X. In Five Percent Nation (or, colloquially, Five Percenter) theology, the five percent of people who had advanced knowledge of self have a duty to preach and teach this knowledge to fellow blacks. They had a duty to be “poor righteous teachers,” motivated not by money but by this need to teach.
Though the group has been branded by critics as subversive, anti-American, or anti-white, nothing could be further from the truth, Wise Intelligent says. Instead of encouraging a nihilistic, destructive, misogynistic, gang-banging lifestyle, the Five Percent Nation encouraged positivity, peacefulness, and learning.
‘I know a lot of the gangbangers who are now in Trenton. They are the sons and daughters of people I grew up with,” says Wise Intelligent. “20 years ago, there were no gangs in Trenton. The Five Percent Nation was strong here in Trenton among people between the ages of 16 and 24. We’d spend time at the library Xeroxing materials and giving them out to people. We wanted to learn. We wanted to learn math, science, and history. We wanted to read and study. We wanted to buy books. And there were three black bookstores here in Trenton. But what did they say about the Five Percent Nation? They said we were a gang. But we had no guns. We weren’t fighting or killing each other. But now, 20 years later, because we did not leverage the positive developments of that time, we really do have gangs. You neglect the youth, and now they have gone from reading books to slinging guns, and it is very sad. But it’s the truth.”
Wise Intelligent began rapping with two friends at about the age of 11, and his friends, known as Culture Freedom and Shaheed, became the other members of Poor Righteous Teachers. When Wise Intelligent was in his late teens, he and his groupmates recorded a 12” EP that they tried to shop to local record companies. One of the copies of the record got into the hands of legendary New York City hip hop DJ Red Alert, who used to spin on WRKS-FM (98.7) and, later, Hot 97 FM (he is now on Sirius/XM Satellite Radio as well as WRKS). After Red Alert heard one of PRT’s singles, Rock Dis Funky Joint, he played the tune on heavy rotation, and it became a hit.
Red Alert later gave the record to executives at Profile Records, and the label signed PRT and recorded and released “Holy Intellect” in 1990. Since “Holy Intellect,” the PRTs also put out two other records. Wise Intelligent has also released four solo projects, including 2007’s “The Talented Timothy Taylor” and his latest, “The Unconkable Djezuz Djonez” (pronounced Jesus Jones), which was released this year. Wise Intelligent continues to live in Trenton with his wife and two children. He spends most of his time on a nonprofit organization, IntelligentSEEDZ, which teaches young people music, video, and film production, and on his label, Intelligent Muzik. “Intelligent Muzik distributes socially relevant hip-hop content nationally and internationally,” he says. He produces rap albums and directs and produces music videos.
“I’m on the other side of the camera and the microphone now,” he says. “I’m not just the MC. I’ve gotten acclimated to the other side of the stage, just building.”
This year Wise Intelligent also released his self-published first book, “3/5th and MC: The Manufacturing of a Dumbed Down Rapper.” “It’s a social critique,” he says. “It deals with the perception that hip-hop is either dead or that all rappers are interested in is money, (sex), and clothes. It addresses what created this, the system in which the rapper is embedded. Hip-hop is not responsible for the prison-industrial complex. Hip-hop did not create the subhuman conditions within the so-called ghetto. I’m dispelling those myths, and I’m describing the forces that created the ghetto.” Wise Intelligent goes on to describe the substandard education, the skewed justice system, the outside influences on the culture of the “ghetto,” and other factors that have led to the despair often felt by those who live in Trenton and other urban areas in this country.
Two decades ago, the Poor Righteous Teachers were in the midst of a movement that emphasized positivity and consciousness; now, says Wise Intelligent, rap is most often characterized by glorification of the gangster, nihilism, hatred, and greedy conspicuous consumption.
He decries the ethos that pervades most of the conglomerates that produces most of the hip-hop music heard by young people today. “If you take a kid from a corner and offer him $350,000 to $500,000 to say (obscenities) on a record, he’s gonna do it. He sees that as a way out, as an opportunity to change his life. When we were delivering conscious, socially relevant hip-hop content, the labels stopped supporting it. They shut it down, for social, economic, and political reasons. People don’t understand that. They say these types of records don’t sell, but that can’t be true, because some of the highest-selling albums in the history of hip-hop have been socially conscious groups.”
He cites groups such as the Fugees (including solo work by Lauryn Hill), Public Enemy, and Tribe Called Quest, all of whom have sold platinum (more than a million copies). “It was never about the records not selling. It was more about the records having the power to incite insurrection, or rebellion, or confrontation. In my era, hip-hop had the power to do these things.”
Now we are in the Age of Obama, and when President Obama was elected in 2008 and sworn in in 2009, there was hope, especially among African Americans. But today’s America is still in crisis, especially in economic terms, and while those who oppose Obama and even some who have supported his Presidency are displeased with his performance, Wise Intelligent has something of a different perspective. “Barack Obama is decoration. He doesn’t control any of this. He doesn’t have the power to influence any of this. I always put him in the context of the black mayors. The black mayors weren’t allowed to become mayor until after whites fled the cities. White flight and suburban sprawl. The whites fled the cities and the economy shifted to where the white people moved, and they slashed the municipal budgets (through state and federal aid being severely cut). The cities were already sinking ships, and then the black mayors inherited sinking ships.
“So then they look at the black mayor and say he’s incompetent, or he can’t lead, when the truth is, he was set up to fail. It’s the same thing with Barack Obama. Look at the movies where the President was black, and America was about to be destroyed. When we are given access in this society, it’s only because there’s a crisis.”
Trenton African American Pride Festival, Saturday, August 20, noon to 6 p.m., Cadwalader Park, Trenton. The first annual celebration of the history, culture, heritage, and arts that embrace the rich traditions and spirit of the African American community in Trenton. Live music, dance, drumming, spoken word, health screenings, African cuisine, vendors, and activities for children. www.Facebook.com/Trenton African-American Pride Festival.