Host intro: Mike Floss has been a central voice in Nashville rap for a dozen years, dating back to his college mixtapes. That’s when WNXP’s Jewly Hight first spoke with him. She says there’s always been a socially conscious subtext to his rhymes, but his new Contraband EP, which is WNXP’s Record of the Week, takes direct aim at barriers to Black Nashvillians’ freedom.
[MUSIC, “Born in the Dark”: I thought the police was about to kill me/My chest on the pavement /I was at peace I thought I would be scared but that’s not where my brain went I guess I seen it so much in my life it just kind of explained it/But I got a shot to be one of them voices I guess I’m a aim it]
Since it’s not the typical Mike Floss project, the typical interview location wouldn’t do.
[phone call scene: phone rings]
Mike Floss: Yo.
Jewly Hight: Hey.
Hight: So, do you wanna do the interview at your home studio, or what?
Floss: Ah, I was thinking we could do it at Fort Negley. I think that’d be the best place. Well, so Fort Negley was built by formerly enslaved people…
People who, Mike Floss learned, were referred to as human “contraband” when they escaped to Union territory during the Civil War. That’s where he got the title for his new EP.
Since he grew up in Nashville, you’d think he would’ve visited the fort on a school field trip, or something. But it was just a couple of years ago that he finally came here on a whim, killing time before an appointment.
Floss: I think the grounds were a little more well-kept when I when I came the first time. …Very minimal mowing happening at Fort Negley.
The unruly grass threatens to camoflauge the real focal point: the crumbling stone walls of a 160-year old Union army stronghold.
Floss: I remember walking around the time I came, just reading in different signs and trying to learn a little bit more about what was going on with the fort.
Floss stops in front of a display that’s a little rusty around the edges.
Floss: It’s got a map of the city underneath the text and there’s pictures of soldiers stealing black people from what looks like a church.
He starts reading: Somewhere between 600 and 800 Negro laborers died, and of those who lived, only three hundred and ten got paid for their work. So it just like good. The brutality of even quote unquote being free is very much so present
We follow a paved path up the hill. It’s there, sitting atop the fortress built by early Black Nashvillians, that he turns the setting into a metaphor for what their descendants face.
Floss: We get blockaded at every single turn. You know, every single turn. There’s a brick wall in front of a brick wall in front of a brick wall that you got to try to get through.
Floss speaks with the committed, collective language of a leader. That’s what he is to fellow strivers in his city’s hip-hop scene. He steers his own career, and has his own idea of what opportunities are worth pursuing.
He’s the first musician of any kind to land an artist residency with the Civil Rights Corps. Just to be clear, that’s an organization that works outside the entertainment realm altogether. It goes after injustice in the legal system, and this EP was his contribution.
Floss: I think the project, really just one that pushed me creatively, you know, trying to make something like as serious as abolition sound cool is not an easy thing to do.
[MUSIC, “Drowning”: Sitting in a cell ain’t got bail money to leave it /I’m unimportant that’s what they told me/Down here it go lonely but I don’t believe em/I know change take time and and the judge take time /I’m the caged bird singing]
The Civil Rights Corps challenges how poor people and people of color bear the burden of mass incarceration and cash bail across the nation.
Floss wanted to write songs that would be relevant anywhere, but resonate especially loudly in his hometown.
Floss: The more the more confidence you have in where you’re from, the more you treat it with respect in the present day. For a long time, people in Nashville didn’t feel like they had, Black people particularly, we didn’t really like have much pride connected to this place, you know, because we didn’t really see ourselves here most of the time. …But we have such a rich history here.
[MUSIC, “Together”: The land of the freedom riders the jubilee singers/ this the platinum south /Altogether now/Platinum South A culture built on community /Comma, unity]
Not only does Floss nod to the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Freedom Riders—he also shouts out those he believes can change his city’s future. They walk the same Pearl-Cohn High School hallways that he once did in North Nashville.
[MUSIC, “Giant”: I do this for the kids at Pearl that’s too defiant/I’ll never let this world reduce my giant]
Floss: A lot of times, especially at Pearl, especially when I was there, there was definitely this thing of the fear of being an unruly Black kid, you know, where, how the world is going to deal with Black kids that talk too much in class. They try to paint it as though it’s like a precursor to criminal behavior.
[MUSIC, “Giant”: “…we want money for affordable and dignified housing and not police.
We want money for our teachers and support staff and not police.
We want money for fair and dignified wages and not police.
We want money for a transit for working class neighborhoods and not police.]
Floss didn’t turn to familiar musical sources for that sample. That’s a speech from a metro council meeting.
Floss: They’re hearing Jamel Campbell-Gooch. … They allowed for public comment, and at this time, it was very clear that the city wanted to increase police spending, like they do every single year. And he was trying to make it increasingly clear what we can spend money on that is not police that would actually help the people, because we believe in giving people resources.
Floss sees these songs themselves as community organizing tools.
Floss: I don’t know how far this project is going to go or how many people will hear it. But it’s a lot of stuff I’m saying in there that could become a little tricky for your daily comfort living in the city. I definitely view it as something that’s volatile in that way, but I’m OK with that.
Mike Floss has never hesitated to point out inequality in his cool-headed bars, but he wanted to give people a true call to action.
[MUSIC, “Together”: You gon wonder where yo people at/Ain’t secret that we got everything we need if we all join in/We can point a million valid fingers at what the problem is but when it comes to the solution they all point in/So let’s do this together/Let’s do this together/We can do this together/Cus that’s the only way we gon get free/In our name/Amen]