Since its creation, rap music has been vilified for its vanity and violence, and so have its creators. However, through their music, Young Dolph and other rap artists bear witness to the consequences of decisions made in rooms they and their communities aren’t always invited to.
Young Dolph’s lyrics, even if they offend some people’s sensibilities, make plain the resilient survival and ugly truth of suffering in marginalized communities like his home neighborhood in South Memphis.
In fact, hints of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy can be found throughout Young Dolph’s lyrics, though it’s unclear whether Dolph wrote them with that intention.
For instance, as King built momentum for economic justice with the Poor People’s Campaign, he called out poverty and low wages as moral issues, and most importantly, that no one’s work should be dismissed.
“So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs,” King told Memphis Sanitation Strikers in 1968. “But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth.”
Always looking to motivate his listeners, Young Dolph stressed the honor in labor, and in a 2017 interview with Fader Magazine, he expressed a King-like respect for workers.
“People that know they gotta work every day, them the kinda people I respect. I respect people that build a career for themselves. I don’t give a damn if it’s a hustle that’s already big or you go to work at Kroger every day, the grocery store. Or you work at Walmart. You work, so I respect you.”
Young Dolph gave the world glimpses into one of the country’s poorest ZIP codes with stories of the deep poverty he climbed out of and the violence entrenched in Castalia Heights. But above all, he took pride in where he came from — he always represented South Memphis.
We tell stories about poverty, power and policy, but so did Young Dolph, whose funeral was today. Here are some of the lyrics that MLK50: Justice Through Journalism connected with most.
Lil nigga came up from shit Somedays I just sit and reminisce Who was fuckin with me back then? ... When a young nigga was fucked up And hopeless
Couldn't get it from my mama, so I got it off the block Been workin' my whole life, but I ain't never punched a clock (trappin') Nine years old, I seen a nigga get shot, damn
I could never cross my niggas out for no amount (No) Free all of my niggas 'til they out. ... Remember what it feels like to not have shit (I swear) Didn't even have no toilet tissue for when I took a shit (Damn) Now when I wake up, look in the mirror, I can't believe this (It's Dolph)
Remember all those days We had to eat hot dogs and potatoes Ain't no love in these streets, man ... You ever been so hungry You couldn’t go to sleep man
Get paid, young nigga, get paid Whatever you do, just make sure you get paid
They tried to lock me out, I kicked the door down and I took it
I took this South Memphis shit and I went worldwide
Just 'cause I'm a Black man in America That's what give them permission to treat us terrible They too smart, too ambitious, too dangerous and vicious ... You ain't one hundred, ain't got no morals, then I don't want no dealings
Where I'm from you don't make it to see 21 (shit) That's why all these young niggas ridin' around with their gun
Yeah you know I came up from shit man Literally Know what I’m sayin’, but don’t nothing stay the same forever though, ya’ mean? I ain’t never wanted nothin’ in my whole life but some fucking money (That’s all I ever wanted) No matter wherever I go, I'm still Memphis.
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.