Missippi Burning

The East Bay's newest soul sensation battles racism and his gangsta past.

Missippi — next in the endless line of East Bay soul singer superstar candidates — is so named because of his birthplace. And we aren’t talking the comparatively cosmopolitan, left-leaning enclave of Jackson, but two hours away from there, in the segregated-schoolin’, irrigation-ditch-swimmin’, rodent-huntin’ rural hinterlands. As a teenager, he actually chopped cotton for a while. His grandfather was a preacher who not only banned “devilish” music like the Jackson Five from the house, but such lowly vices as marbles and cards. Furthermore, after a close friend died in a crop duster accident, Missippi’s mother adopted the victim’s five children, adding to the ten blood brothers and sisters the budding singer already had.

Now, sitting in his condo in Hercules, Missippi remembers his first trip to the West Coast, which he took in his teens to visit one of his fifteen siblings.

“It was culture shock, man,” he says. “My brother took me to a breakfast place, and I went in and saw black people sitting with white people, and then this white guy brought water and put it on the table. I froze — do I say thanks or what? My brother had been out here for a while, and he had to tell me, ‘Don’t trip, stop staring.’ I had never been in a restaurant where white people brought food to you.”

Missippi removed the extra “iss” from his name as a remembrance of this sort of social struggle, which his people still face in his home state and beyond.

He moved to Oakland after attending a festival at Lake Merritt — Tupac, Too $hort, and E-40 were on the bill, and Missippi dreamed of performing with those artists and getting his own record deal. Fifteen years later, he’s actually accomplished all that — sung on a few Tupac songs, collaborated with various high-profile Bay Area gangster rappers, and got signed to Universal, one of the last mighty major labels still standing. Missippi’s full-length debut, Book of Life, was co-produced by Rick James right before his death.

We in the enlightened Bay Area would love to see this voyage as a classic overalls-to-riches story, with Oakland playing the part of the tolerant, black-supporting land of milk and honey. But this is a tad simplistic. “I had never heard ‘nigger’ until I moved out here,” Missippi says. “Whites in the South are too afraid to use it near you, and black folk call each other ‘Blood’ — meaning family, not gangs — and ‘Bro.'”

That wasn’t the only eye-opener for the one-time choirboy after moving west. The clique he fell in with got mixed up in stuff his grandfather’s most inflamed sermons against demonic influence never even hinted at: Missippi became homies with the chronically incarcerated, Crip-affiliated Sacramento rapper C-Bo. A few years ago, at a C-Bo video shoot deep in Sacto Blood country, rival gang members in U-Haul trucks rolled up and unloaded automatic weapons into the rapper’s entourage. Missippi was so close to the gunfire that he saw bullets kicking up dirt by his legs; the military-proportioned firefight brought out two medevac helicopters and landed C-Bo back in jail. And in another brush with death-by-crossfire, Missippi and C-Bo narrowly missed going to Las Vegas to party with Tupac on the night of his killing. That time, C-Bo got arrested the night before, so Missippi decided not to go.

This calamity eventually resulted in a jarring moment of clarity. “After I moved here, I started doing thug-life shit, but it wasn’t me at all,” Missippi remembers now. “I was singing with all these gangster dudes, singing Straight killer this and Bitch-made nigga that. I sat back and wondered, ‘What benefit is this doing me?’ I decided I could make the right music and not worry about whether anybody liked me or not.”

The music he gravitated to instead was perhaps something neither his thug friends nor his grandfather would endorse wholeheartedly, but which they both might hum along to nonetheless. Crafted with a full band — on Rick James’ recommendation — Book of Life is optimistic, clean of any gangsta shit, and steered by a love of classic soul and R&B. His band, which at times features two of the guys from Tony! Toni! Toné!, knows its way around syrupy Curtis Mayfield-style funk and heartfelt acoustic neo-soul. The album has two or three potential KMEL-worthy cuts, about the number trailblazing East Bay crossover success Goapele managed on her own 2002 debut, Even Closer. Surely Universal had her model in mind when it signed Missippi, whose songs are also free of R&B’s current fur-coat-and-top-shelf-liquor aesthetic.

Missippi, who arranged and co-produced Book of Life, often sings as buoyantly as a teenage Michael Jackson, who was Church Enemy Number One on his grandfather’s list of secular singers. And yet, Missippi still considers what he does God’s music. “I would say my music is still gospel,” he explains. “There’s a spiritualness to it, but there’s a contemporariness to it too. So I kinda mixed them up, the gospel music and the devilish music — well, I don’t call it that. As long as you’re thinking about the Lord when you sing it, it’ll be all right.”

As he often does, he sings a few lines here to explain his point. “So now when I turn it around and sing, Every morning, I’m yawning/Waking up next to you/Admiring your pretty face/And your brown skin, I don’t think that’s devilish music. There might be some temptation in it, but nothing evil.”

Missippi maintains this balance between his Christian upbringing and worldly matters throughout the album. On “Heaven,” a song he wrote a few hours after the 9/11 attacks, he couches the event in Biblical imagery, mentioning the bloody moon from Revelations and recommending that one take refuge down by a sycamore, an allusion to the tree a curious onlooker climbed to catch a glimpse of Jesus.

Growing up, Missippi saw the visceral connection popular soul singers had with their audiences as just another side of what his grandfather was achieving when he spit heavenly fire to his congregation: Both managed to touch people in a profound, immediate way. “I realized at five years old I wanted to be a singer — I’d watch TV and see Michael, and then I’d hear momma singing songs in the kitchen, those old spiritual hymns. You’d pick up on a line here and there with her, and then go to church and see her sing and watch old ladies throwing their wigs off, just screaming, she was so good. You’re thinking, ‘Ooh, that’s power. She must be touching those people.'”

Equally blessed with the sacred and the profane, it’s time for Missippi to inspire some screaming and wig-throwing of his own. He’s quietly been preparing since the real Mississippi. “That was power for me, too, because once they realized I could sing too, they put me on stage,” he recalls. “I was six years old, singing over dead bodies, for my mom’s friends, for church meetings. I knew I’d do this because my whole family sung. I wanted that power that came from singing.”

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