Black Thought: Ann Arbor hip-hop artist Jamall Bufford addresses life's daily opera on new LP
Jamall Bufford is one of the most influential hip-hop artists from Ann Arbor. He has influenced many MCs in town with his quick wit, lyrical wordplay, and open-minded stances on social issues.
Previously known as Buff1, he rhymed with the hip-hop collective Athletic Mic League and later helped start the performing arts group The Black Opera. For those unfamiliar with this hometown gem, The Black Opera calls itself "rap’s first performing arts group" and the duo dress as different characters each song during their live shows. Bufford is also a solo artist and his latest album, Time In Between Thoughts, continues in pushing past the typical boundaries in usual hip-hop subject matter by exploring themes like colorism and the dangers of social media.
Bufford, who has performed with Eminem and Mos Def, performs at the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown branch on Friday, November 16, at 7 pm along with fellow A2 hip-hop artist DaG. We talked to Bufford about how Ann Arbor has influenced him as an MC, whether he’s an activist, and more.
Q: What was your biggest motivating source when making this album?
A: My biggest motivating source for this album was creating something I could be proud of in 2018. When I was younger I was a lot more motivated to make music for listeners, now I make what I want to hear, primarily. Of course, I want to be known and sell records, but if I’m not pleasing myself with my work first and foremost then it’s time to stop. On the periphery, if I can positively affect other people lives, that’s always great. But it mainly made Time In Between Thoughts for my own sanity, and for the rap fan in me.
Q: What’s the meaning behind the album title and how is this project different than your past work?
A: Time In Between Thoughts derives from Eckhart Tolle’s “space between thoughts” concept, but I put my own spin on it. When I started creating this album about three years ago I was in transition between jobs, I was preparing to propose to my wife, and I was still contemplating my place in this rap game. So there was a lot going on in my head, and I just needed some space or some time that was free from all the thoughts bombarding my brain. Creating this album definitely helped with that.
This album is different from my past work mostly because I’m just in a different place in my life than I was in the past. All new circumstances surrounding me, so that influences the music. But it’s still me and it’s still hip-hop.
Q: Who has inspired you as an MC?
A: A lotta people inspired me as an MC. The biggest influence is Andre 3000, but you can add Redman, Nas, Magestik Legend, Black Thought, Common, Ice Cube, Souls of Mischief, Saba, Smino, Noname, Snoop, Jay Z, Roc Marciano, Athletic Mic League, a lotta people. Shoot, my mom is a huge inspiration for me as an MC -- and no she doesn’t rap, ha ha. At least 100 people probably have inspired me.
Q: "Sob Story Song" talks about colorism in the black community and how views on beauty haven’t changed much over time. Do you think hip-hop has ever addressed issues like these at large?
A: It has been addressed by some for sure, but at large, no. Issues like these have definitely been addressed in hip-hop but I think topics like these could be more prevalent, which is why I talked about it on “Sob Story Song.”
Q: You touch on the issue of youth being impressionable and demonstrating learned behavior. What in particular will need to change for the youth to grow?
A: It’s tough out here. I don’t have kids, but I do youth work and I can pretty much guarantee it’s more difficult to be a parent today than it was when I was growing up. Maybe not as tough as before my time, but with social media, it’s gotta be more difficult than my childhood era. Youth will always be impressionable, that’s part of what being young is about. But I think a couple things that could help is parents being more actively involved with their kids, having a bigger presence in or around their school/school work, knowing who their kids are around. Even maybe trying to find a way to connect with their kids on the social media they use/video games they play, instead of just 100% leaving these devices alone with their kids. That’s where some of the negative peer influence may come from, so if you’re playing Fortnite with your kid occasionally or you’re sharing Snapchat stories with your kids occasionally, that might decrease their chances of getting involved with the wrong people on these platforms or using these platforms in the wrong manner. But again, I’m not a parent so I know all that is easy for me to say. Probably more importantly and more realistically, having more creative outlets and activities for young people. Art, music, tech, sports, anything outside of school that can occupy their time in a productive way will help.
Q: How has Ann Arbor influenced the material for your music?
A: It really just influenced me to be authentically me. Though there was some minor craziness going on around me, I was thoroughly supported in my efforts to stay away from all that, you can hear that in my music. And in Ann Arbor, there are opportunities that can be taken advantage of if you want them. I’ve had a lot of the same experiences as other rappers that some might label as “street rappers” but I chose not to highlight that stuff. Some of my family and friends have been murdered here, I’ve had family and friends do real prison time here, including my dad. I grew up in a single parent home, section 8, government assistance, all that. But my mom made my life beautiful, my life really didn’t reflect any of that stuff because of how my mom raised me. Even with all that, going to college was the expectation, doing positive and great things was the expectation. I feel like if I rapped about all that other stuff that it would kinda be taking the easy way out for me. No disrespect to anyone who chooses that subject matter, because for some people that’s real life and if done right it makes for some incredible music but I just didn’t want that to be me as a rapper. And I’m from Ann Arbor so nobody would believe me anyway, ha ha.
Q: In songs like "Messages" you talk about the heavy effects of smartphones and social media on our culture. Tell us more about this song and its purpose.
A: It kinda relates to my answer when you asked about the youth. But this stuff affects us all -- all ages, myself included. I for sure was addicted to my phone a couple years ago, checking it non-stop. And seeing the trauma that black people experience at the click of an app can be very traumatizing. It’s the images and just using the device itself. I don’t think it really hit me until I could feel it physically; using the phone had a real physical effect on my body. I just wanted to bring some awareness to it, I think people know but I just wanted to add my voice to the conversation. I had to check myself and I’ve definitely been a lot better with my phone. Especially with not checking it before I go to sleep at night.
Q: What is one topic that you’d like to address in your music that you haven’t spoken about before?
A: That’s a great question, I don’t know. I’ve covered a lot in my career, between my solo albums and group albums with The Black Opera. Maybe I’ll try to delve into politics more. I know some people may call our music political but I’ve never really gotten specific with bills and policies to be passed, candidate track records, presidents and local government roles etc. I’ve always kind of shied away from getting specific with details in my music because I never took the time to really get informed, I’ve never really been interested in the specifics, and I never tried to push people to vote because I don’t think I ever had concrete proof of the how voting had positively affected my life or the life of people I care for even though I do vote. But maybe if I took some time to really study that stuff I might be able to influence some people to vote, who knows though. It’s always been important to vote but it seems to be more important than ever now.
Q: Your music is very conscious. Do you consider yourself an activist?
A: Another great question. I guess I don’t really consider myself an activist, not for my music at least because I know so many incredible activists who do real work in the community. But if someone were to call me an activist for my youth/community work I wouldn’t argue with them. I just never really set out to intentionally be an activist. If I’m considered one, so be it.
Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?
A: 43 years old. The end. The rest we’ll just have to see when we get there, ha ha.
Sean Copeland is a recording artist, music producer, writer, and AADL staff member.
Jamall Bufford and Dag perform at the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown branch on Friday, November 16, at 7 pm. This concert, like all library events, is free. Read our previous interview with DaG here.