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Dice Raw rapping with The Roots


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Critical Race Theatre

Former Roots Crew member Dice Raw first made his name chronicling his Philadelphia history through music. Now, as head of Philly’s legendary New Freedom Theatre, he’s telling the stories of Black Americans throughout all our history

Critical Race Theatre

Former Roots Crew member Dice Raw first made his name chronicling his Philadelphia history through music. Now, as head of Philly’s legendary New Freedom Theatre, he’s telling the stories of Black Americans throughout all our history

The first time the world heard Karl “Dice Raw” Jenkins, it was on The Roots’ classic album, Do You Want More?, rapping on the penultimate track: “Where I’m from, it’s like a whole different world.” Dice was a teenager when he wrote, recorded and performed that line. But he already knew that his worldview mattered as a Philadelphia artist. Philadelphia may have been late to The Roots phenomenon, but Do You Want More? was (and is) considered a classic.

I love that album. But it wasn’t until the release of Illadelph Halflife that I was forced to pay close attention to the lyricism of the young Dice Raw. This verse is a telling example:

I train Black MCs in camps like ex-marines

Why the fuck you think you came home and had bad dreams

Of horrifying things that your ass never seen before

You traveled through the realm of Dice Raw.

Imagine coming up in a neighborhood that held residual vestiges of post-war trauma that reminded young minds of their contemporary environment.

Whether it was his “realm” or his “world,” Dice Raw delivered lyrics that detailed a murky underground existentialism. He articulated a Philadelphian worldview that was ill, nearly nihilistic, and lyrically gifted enough to make listeners pay close attention. Check out the video for Clones to see where The Roots came from. It’s a far cry from the Tonight Show Band iteration of the group, but it also visually captures Dice Raw’s imprimatur on the greatest band in hip-hop history.

“Where I’m from, it’s like a whole different world.” Dice was a teenager when he performed that line. But he already knew that his worldview mattered as a Philadelphia artist.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Dice for over a decade. I have had a handful of opportunities to meet him and work with him on a variety of projects. Over that time, I thought I had gotten to know him. But talking with him recently let me know that he is as enigmatic as he’s ever been. And the future of his artistic contributions is as bright and energetic as his earliest lyrical escapades.

Today Jenkins is the executive director of Philadelphia’s New Freedom Theatre (NFT), a legendary Philadelphia institution that has charted a critical new direction. The NFT has launched an impressive content streaming application, and through Jenkins’ leadership, they have produced, premiered, and streamed plays that excavate aspects of Black history that are critical to a deeper understanding of America’s complicated history with race, the experiences of Black folks who were enslaved, and those who are descended from them.

Forgotten Founding Fathers (FFF) is an important case in point. FFF is a “Hip Hop dance theatrical odyssey,” starring Vernon Keith Ruffin, Jr., who takes turns playing some of the overlooked African American figures critical to the founding of this nation and its revolution from a colony into a republic. If FFF sounds a little like Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the confusion might be rebuffed by Jenkins.

The founding figures in FFF were historically Black and the details depicted through Ruffin’s lyrical performance are straight from American history — history not readily or regularly taught in our public schools. These are the stories of Crispus Attucks, Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells — figures whose names might pop up in a refined Black History Month Google search, but rarely appear on the pages of our public school history textbooks.

This new direction for the New Freedom Theatre is more critical race theater than theory, but the impulse to revisit history with an eye towards reclamation and a studious restoration of the roles that Black luminaries have played in that history, is apparent in the work (especially FFF) and powerful in a series of dramatic productions. Productions are penned and sometimes performed by Dice Raw himself.

Dare to dream

Jenkins’ journey to this point in his long-standing career as a writer and artist has been anything but straightforward. He grew up in North Philly, born and raised in the Logan section. Crime, and for the young impressionable Jenkins, criminal-mindedness was conventional. As early as elementary school — Dice went to David G. Birney, which closed in 2012 — he and his friends were enamored with what they believed was a life of crime.

“The way we looked at (crime) was just different,” he says. “It was almost like an aspiring dream to be a criminal. Maybe one day I’ll be able to snatch a chain. Oh, dare to dream,” he laughs. “Maybe I’ll get a package. One day I just hope I can get a pack and start selling crack to my people.

Jenkins says these things in jest. As an MC/recording artist, he has always had an almost cynical sense of humor. But Jenkins is just as quick to acknowledge the trauma all around him in his beloved neighborhood. He tells a story about when he was about seven years old. He and his friend were walking to school. They kicked a can as they went to pass the time. It made a funny noise. Then his friend kicked the can into a tree and the can exploded into crack vials — “jarred up ready to go crack” he tells me.

His friend knew exactly what to do. They gathered the vials and took the package directly to the corner store/bodega where the local drug dealer held court. The dealer thanked them and gave them some money for their effort. “We bought some fake name-brand glasses from [a local] store and had cookies and juice,” he says.

Jenkins only completed a year of high school at Frankford High. He remembers his vice principal by name. “Mr. Harold gave me a hard time, but when I look back on it, he was thorough,” Jenkins says. Harold introduced Jenkins to Phil Brown, theater director at Shipley School, who is one of Dice Raw’s frequent collaborators.

The pair worked together on The Last Jimmy, a groundbreaking play inspired by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Dice Raw’s 2013 album, Jimmy’s Back, was similarly inspired. Taken together, the play and the album reflect a potent intertextual treatise on the racialized perils of our criminal justice system. On Jimmy’s Back, Dice Raw features a variety of formerly incarcerated voices to prove the point. In the play, he stars as the last Black man devoured in a cruel and often inhumane system that disproportionately punishes Black people.

Jenkins’ education is a savvy/complex combination of his experiences in North Philly, his winding artistic journey and a studious commitment to reading and self-education. When he left high school to pursue his artistic career (at age 15) his mentor, Richard Nichols — founding and longtime manager of The Roots — gave him a book: The Teenage Liberation Handbook — How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education.

That book had an indelible impact on Jenkins’s relationship with Nichols. Nichols saw Dice Raw’s talent early on, and although he already had his hands full with launching the career of The Legendary Roots crew, he still chose to guide Jenkins, a teenager with little love for formal education, but an incredible knack for rapping and writing.

To say that Jenkins trusted Nichols’ sense of the world (and his budding career) is an understatement. “He was like my music dad,” says Jenkins. “He wasn’t even like a manager to me.” Jenkins recalls Nichols’ impact on his life with some wonder and no small amount of sadness. Nichols passed in 2014 after struggling with leukemia for years. For Jenkins, Nichols was an African American intellectual of a certain “DNA generation” — people who championed James Baldwin before 2007, wore medallions back in the 1980s, and were consciously committed to Black liberation movements.

Still, Karl “Dice Raw” Jenkins laments his youthful under-appreciation for the opportunities provided to him. There were some “wasted years” for him as a teenager writing, rapping, performing and touring with The Roots. Jenkins doesn’t feel like he maximized his early opportunities. “I didn’t know what I had,” he says.

At 21, he recorded his first solo album, Reclaiming the Dead. It sold poorly. Nichols’ response was to grant Jenkins unlimited access and time to the Philadelphia studio of Larry Gold, legendary producer and composer for The Roots, Erykah Badu, Common and Jill Scott (among others). Jenkins has been writing, recording, and producing music ever since.

Telling Black history through his art

Jenkins draws a straight line from Nichols’ passing to his emergent work on the national theater scene. “When Rich passed away, there were still things I wanted to do,” he says.

People were reaching out to him and asking him to host programs at various venues like the Kimmel Center and Freedom Theatre. But Dice was already thinking through ways to dramatize his work. And his long-standing partnership with Phil Brown made the theater connection organic.

“I just want to chronicle African American arts,” he says. “I want to tell African American history through the performing arts. That’s it. That’s all I want to do.”

Jenkins was recruited into the ED role with Freedom Theatre by the former executive director, Sandra Haughton, and the organization’s Board, which includes Rennie Harris and Jill Scott.

Under Dice’s direction, the programming at the NFT has gone fully digital. You can watch FFF — and other productions — via the Freedom+ app. Jenkins also plans to tour the production nationally so that many more students and history aficionados can experience it.

It wasn’t just Nichols and Brown who ingrained a love for reading and self-education into Dice as a young man. “My mom gave me a ton of books: Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man … ,” he says. “Her favorite phrase was: If you read, you’d be dangerous.”

Jenkins recalls reading the story of Henry “Box” Brown — another critical figure in American history that Jenkins and his team have transformed into a compelling dramatic production. “Box” Brown contorted his body into a box and mailed himself from Virginia to freedom in Philadelphia. He went on to become one of the earliest (if not the first) African American performing artists.

It’s an extraordinary story of ingenuity and endurance; it should be a textbook feature of any history book that covers the Underground Railroad and the various ways in which enslaved people struggled for liberation in America. But it isn’t.

“I didn’t know,” Jenkins says about the history of Henry “Box” Brown. And he realized that a lot of smart people he knew and was working with did not know some of these stories either. For Jenkins, this bit of history within the history of Brown’s liberation narrative conscripted him to his current work, as to his older work as a musician and rapper.

“I just want to chronicle African American arts,” he says. “I want to tell African American history through the performing arts. That’s it. That’s all I want to do.”




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