Jabee Williams collects himself underneath yellow dangling lights. Wearing a black hat with the Black Panther logo embroidered over the familiar text “Make America Great Again,” the hip-hop artist from Oklahoma City picks up the microphone and begins to rap.
“My brother got killed,
My cousin got killed,
My best friend got killed,
Man, this life is real.”
In a small loft at The Third Space on Campus Corner, Williams, known by his childhood nickname "Jabee," shares the story of his life through beats and pauses.
An intimate crowd of about 12 people fills the room. College students bob their heads to the beat in the front row of foldable chairs, while a few friends and supporters of Williams filter in the background.
Later that week, the third incident in 2019 of an individual wearing blackface occurred in Norman. Williams was scheduled to perform at another local venue, but after the incident, he was warned by friends not to.
“That’s exactly the reason I should play,” he responded on Twitter.
Williams said, if anything, incidents of ignorance make him want to show up, stay and spit his truth.
“I think it’s important to always go out of my way to fight racism, and anyone who knows me or knows my music ... (knows) that’s a big part of my mission,” Williams said. “If I don’t show up because of something like that, they win.”
Showing up to share his life story through his melodies — addressing racism, poverty and the power of the black community — is Williams’ version of social justice.
Williams proudly shares the values of the Black Panther movement, combating the slogan that directly negates his existence as a black man.
“MAGA, to me, it really is a symbol of hatred and racism — and for me, the Black Panther logo is a symbol of hope and community and black people and minorities and people who don’t have anything,” Williams said. “(The hat) is saying, really, if we’re 'Making America Great Again,' then we’re the ones who built America. It was built on the backs of people who were slaves in this country and black people who were imprisoned.”
Williams made the hat himself after he saw a similar version on Spike Lee’s Instagram and couldn’t find it available for purchase.
To Williams, the hat represents a rebuttal to an argument. He said wearing the original MAGA hat is a bold statement, “so I want it to be a bold statement when I wear mine.”
He’s created several versions of the altered hat that he frequently wears in the community. He sells them on his website, and on occasion, he gives them away for free.
“I was at a restaurant, and this white kid said it was bold for me to wear it and said he wished he could wear it,” Williams said. “I took it off my head and gave it to him — that lets me know that I’m really on the right side of history when it comes to the ... racial divide that people still (see) when they see a MAGA hat.”
Williams, a father of two daughters aged 4 and 7, stopped wearing the hat in the presence of his daughters after a waitress made negative comments about it in front of them.
“I don’t want them to have to deal with some of that stuff that I have to deal with,” Williams said.
Growing up on the east side of Oklahoma City, Williams experienced gang violence by the time he was in middle school. When he was 18, his 16-year-old brother, Junie, was shot and killed.
While his years of adolescence were filled with uncertainty — attending 11 schools by graduation, moving between homes, sometimes crashing on a friend's couch — he sees the east side as home, a home he’s devoted his career to improving for future generations.
“I want to be in a better position to help my people and take care of those people who took care of me when I was growing up,” Williams said. “To help build and enrich and educate my community.”
From his early years of waking up to his mother listening to Tupac while she got ready for work, to school days, rapping with his friends while making beats from banging on their desks, hip-hop has always been a way of life for Williams.
He was 7 when he rapped into his first microphone. His mother saw his love of the craft and bought him time at a local studio, MD Productions, to record with his friends, encouraging him to nurture his passion.
“Rappin’ and hip-hop has always been there. It’s not something that just came,” Williams said. “That’s just who we was — some of us rapped, some of us played ball, some of us (joined gangs), just everybody did something, so it was a natural progression.”
Williams' younger sister, Elizabeth Williams, recalls him rapping along with their cousin D’Angelo in their grandmother’s living room while taking apart TVs and stereos to make their own studio equipment.
By 15, while his friends were in gangs or spent their nights smoking and drinking, he was performing across Oklahoma City in local clubs and house parties, making a name for himself.
“It’s crazy because most of his friends, like D’Angelo, and our brother Junie that was all around us when (we) were kids — they’re all dead now,” Elizabeth said.
Williams can recall countless friends from high school who are either dead, doing life in prison or on death row. If it weren’t for rapping, he said, a similar fate awaited him.
Through the pain of losing those closest to him, Williams devoted himself to his rhymes and protecting his sisters, Elizabeth said.
Williams took any opportunity to push his music into the world. He began rapping with a Native American group and traveling to Dallas on weekends for rap battles.
“I could do this for a living,” he remembers thinking the first time he made $100 from a show at a house party. “If I do this three times a week, that’s $300.”
Williams spent his days working part-time jobs and rapping at night and on weekends, but in 2013, he decided to quit and focus on his music full time.
Pretending to be his own PR agent, Williams would send emails to press and venues, getting himself through the door, gaining equity and building his name out of sheer force of will.
He went from making $100 a show to touring nationally and internationally with household names in the hip-hop industry, and he won an Emmy Award in 2014 for his creation of a commercial for Science Museum Oklahoma. In 2016, he released his most recent album, “In the Black Future, There’s a Place So Dangerously Absurd,” which was inspired by a poem of the same name by local poet Najah Amatullah, about a future where the black community is allowed to succeed without social barriers placed around them.
The album includes three tracks of Amatullah reading the poem aloud and several other tracks with featured artists, including Chuck D of Public Enemy, who is a fan of Williams and his music.
“Feelin' like a beggar out here asking for some change,
Strange tryna keep my focus,
My mom’s broken, she gotta keep her nine loaded,
Bumpin' Ice Cube tryna decode it,
Chuck D said I could change the world,
Tryna change myself, let the world react,
If they don’t like it — then change it back.”
‘This world is so fragile and cruel, I’m glad I got you.’
Williams had a dream that he died.
“I was thinking I want people at my funeral — you know, if I’m not here — to know how they affected me,” he said. “I felt like my life was changing, and things are getting better. I was being lifted up, (and then) I had that dream that I died. And it was like, ‘OK, how do I want to go out?’”
The dream inspired him to get back in the studio and record a new project, “This world is so fragile and cruel, I’m glad I got you,” which he plans to release in early 2020.
Williams took a four-year hiatus between musical projects, and he said he’s excited to get back in the studio.
The time away, he said, allowed him to experience life in order to write about it.
During his hiatus, he became an entrepreneur as part-owner of Oklahoma City’s historically black Tower Theatre, a member on the Clara Luper Legacy Committee, which commemorates the life and legacy of Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City sit-ins, and a future adjunct professor of hip-hop at OU.
Karlos Hill, associate professor and department chair of OU’s African and African-American Studies department, became a friend of Williams when they both joined the Clara Luper Legacy Committee in the summer of 2018.
In that time, Hill has come to view Williams as an artist reminiscent of the hip-hop movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s, a powerful activist for change in the black community and a close friend.
“What makes him ... a very special hip-hop artist is that he's genuine,” Hill said. “He's genuine in talking about his life, his struggles. He's genuine about his commitment to the community — it’s not just something that he does on the weekend.
Hill, who teaches a class about the history of hip-hop at OU, said Williams understands the importance of hip-hop as a cultural art form and political platform, and he uses that importance to better the black community around him.
“He, like other conscious rap artists, understands the importance and the impact of the art form, and how it is cultural expression,” Hill said. “But it's also a political platform — what you say in hip-hop music becomes a way ... in which young people actually conceptualize the world and take action in the world.”
Through Hill's friendship with Williams, the two plan to teach a new hip-hop class together in the 2020-2021 school year.
“I think hip-hop music is just this tremendous force of culture and politics and identity in society,” Hill said. “Nothing like it has existed in my mind in the last 50 to 60 years (that) has had that same kind of impact.”
Williams’ new album continues the story he’s been telling since he was 7 years old.
“The idea is, every day, we encounter somebody or we know someone and they have affected our life or impacted us, whether it was good or bad,” Williams said. “Because of that, it’s helped to make us who we are ... I've been through some really hard times, and because of that it’s made me who I am. I've been through some really good times, and because of that (it’s) made me who I am.”
The album is the story of Williams, the history of black people, the story of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, the lives and times of those who have come before him and those who will come after him — all who inspire him to keep moving forward, he said.
While he’s changed in social and financial status, he’s still the same Jabee that Elizabeth remembers protecting her from danger, she said.
“It's amazing to see what he's what he's done,” Elizabeth said. “I never would have thought that ... he would even be at this point, and so it's really a blessing.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — his notoriety, Williams said he has no plans to leave Oklahoma City.
“I want to stay here forever — I ride and die here,” Williams said. “What good am I to Oklahoma somewhere else? What good am I to my people if I can’t touch them? ... I just feel like if them fools who play for the Thunder can live here and pursue their dreams, then I can, too.”
My tomb say my birth name,
Michael Jordan playin' with the flu,
2Pacalypse Now came out in ‘92,
Melle Mel wrote the message,
Chuck Berry got arrested.
Try to close your eyes at the right time,
I got my kids tryna share mine,
24 hours tryna multiply,
Tomorrow ain’t promised, so subtract mine,
Livin’ in this skin, yo it’s so divine,
The melanin within how my soul designed,
That’s some real ni**a shit,
Amistad, a real ni**a ship.”
—Jabee, "Birth Name," from the album "This world is so fragile and cruel, I’m glad I got you," to be released in 2020.