"… And during the ambulance ride, one of the paramedics kept complaining about protesters. She turned around and told me, “Don’t you know that people who come to Graceland come because they care about Elvis? They don’t care about your problems.”
—Dana, Memphis activist
On an early Thursday evening in Memphis, I am standing in the exact spot where the bullet was fired. The room is cold, or I am maybe making an excuse for the chill that has made a home in my spine. Across the street, there are people posing in front of the Lorraine Motel balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the bullet was fired. A group of teenagers recreate the iconic photo that was taken mere moments after King was shot: one of them falls to the ground and the rest of them point in the direction of the window I am standing behind. The National Civil Rights Museum is certainly more than simply a monument to death, but this part, the final part of the museum, exists and revolves entirely around a shot fired from a boarding house window, and the history that was undone upon the ending of the shot’s echo through an April sky. In order to enter this part of the museum, one must walk past a metal square which has the famous quote from “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King’s final speech, delivered on April 3, 1968: “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
To enter the space where Martin Luther King’s killer fired a fatal bullet, you must first encounter language that, perhaps, would suggest that King himself had an internal clock that he felt was running out. Or, rather, any black person in his era, in his position, maybe imagined their life as a small series of survivals. To stand in the spot of a murder, even when the spot has been glossed over by the accoutrements of a museum, is arresting. A man beside me looks out of the window, across to the Lorraine’s sign, and mumbles, almost to himself, “It’s a real shame what happened here.” And I imagine he is speaking beyond just the single bullet and the single balcony and the single death.
Marco Pavé is a rapper concerned with history. I am here in Memphis to witness a project that, for him, has been months in the making: the city’s first rap opera. Pavé is playing tonight with a select group from the Memphis Orchestra, bringing to life songs from his full-length debut, Welcome to Grc Lnd, a concept album that revolves around the revival of large-scale protest in Memphis.
Last July, in the midst of police killings throughout the nation, over 1,000 protesters took the I-40 Bridge. It was a spontaneous, overwhelming protest, one that Pavé tells me revitalized the city's activists. “We ain’t really have a protest like that since King was killed,” he says, leaning into a wall backstage at the Playhouse on the Square, an hour before his show. “The military came in back in ’68 and told all these people, You not gonna mourn. You not gonna take to these streets and honor your dead. After the riots that got shut down after King got killed, the city been scared to protest that big ever since. And then last summer happened.”
When I ask people about the protests last summer, they speak with an excitement about the I-40 action. How there was no violence, but a clear message was still delivered. How all corners of the city came out, many fed up with being stagnant, no longer afraid of anything. When the talk turns to what happened next, though, the mood changes. While waiting for the doors to open at the show, I ask one concertgoer, who had been engaging my questions, What about last August at Graceland? His eyes shift to the ground and he shrugs. “That, uhhh … that one didn’t go down like it should have.”
In August, buoyed by the success of the bridge protest, protesters took to the annual candlelight vigil that takes place at Graceland on the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. Holding candles, the protesters demanded entrance to the vigil, but were blocked by police in riot gear. The protesters, many of them black, felt they were denied entrance to the vigil due to the color of their skin, and the idea that they were going to “make trouble” on hallowed ground. Things got tense, and physical. Protesters were arrested.
On Pavé’s album, some of these protesters are given a voice in interludes, telling their stories of that night. How they were treated by police, by medics. It is haunting and deeply internal. There’s a sharp logic in this vision — to highlight not the peaceful and successful protest, but the one where the bodies of people in the city were put at risk. Pavé offers a theory: “The police were ready for us. When you don’t have a big protest in decades, you can catch them slipping one time. But that second time, they were ready.” In January, the protesters filed a lawsuit against Graceland for discrimination.
All cities have at least some history, but for a city like Memphis, its history is impossible to navigate around. It is entirely, inextricably linked to the narrative of the city’s present. Because of this, there is an intimate relationship with nostalgia that permeates Memphis's geography. In these settings, you find out what people truly value, and what those values might be preventing from moving forward. Surely Pavé is correct in his analysis of catching authorities off-guard once, and then not again. But I imagine, in hearing people talk about Graceland, that it was also an example of what will and will not be allowed in the name of nostalgia.
Memphis’s history is also attached to a very specific music narrative, one that uses Sun and Stax as avatars for what can be accomplished under the idea of performative racial unity. Over dinner before the show, Dr. Zandria Robinson, a Memphis scholar who has lived here her entire life, tells me: “People here love to reach back to the nostalgia of Stax and talk about the kind of music that was made when white people and black people were working together. But that history isn’t entirely accurate.”
In the riots that happened in the wake of Martin Luther King’s murder, almost all of the properties surrounding the Stax studios were destroyed, but the studio itself remained untouched. A year before this, in 1967, Stax lost Otis Redding and all but two members of the Bar-Kays in a plane crash. In 1968, they split with Atlantic Records, which caused them to lose more of their star roster, most notably Sam & Dave.
On the collapse of Stax, Pavé turns, as he often does, to a logic that weaves together Memphis’s tense history with music, race, and style. “Stax was destroyed by racism. People felt a way about how William Bell and Isaac Hayes were moving through the world,” he tells me, while lightly tugging at the two thin gold chains around his neck. “They were the precursors to hip-hop. They had fancy cars, covered in gold chains. In South Memphis, a black neighborhood. That upset people in the '60s, even before MLK was assassinated. People saw how much control someone like Rufus Thomas had over a hundred thousand people in Los Angeles. When people rushed the stage and Rufus said ‘go back,’ the people went back. [Stax executive] Al Bell owed Atlantic Records money, so they cut off the royalty streams to Stax, and he couldn’t pay them back. So there you have it. They tore down the building in 1989. A church bought it for ten dollars. And then they rebuilt it as a museum in 2003. The city feels so bad about it, but instead of admitting that it was all about racism and power, they only care to talk about legacy.”
It is true, though, that the seduction of legacy alone can allow a city, specifically a music city, to survive. The legacy of Memphis rap, however, seems small and distant to those outside of the city looking in. There are young upstarts making noise, like Pavé and Young Dolph, but most of the city’s rap history, like Stax, Sun, and Elvis, consists of legends. Looked back on fondly, and cast in bronze: 8Ball & MJG, Yo Gotti, Koopsta Knicca, and especially Three 6 Mafia.
In talking about what seems to be most commonly referred to as the “Three 6 Mafia Moment,” a stretch between 2005 and 2007 that yielded the group’s most successful album (2005’s Most Known Unknown) and an Academy Award victory (Best Original Song for Hustle & Flow’s “It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp”), Robinson speaks of the aftermath not as a missed opportunity, but as a calculated effort to erase Memphis’s rap potential. “The people here want to talk about all of this Stax racial harmony, but seeing young black men making it on their own was too difficult for them to cope with," she says. "Memphis rap doesn’t get the support it needs because people aren’t interested in hearing those stories from those people. The white people in this city didn’t want to be associated with a rap group winning an award for a song called 'It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,' and so all of our rappers left. Yo Gotti is in Atlanta. 8Ball is in Houston. Juicy J is in Atlanta. They’re all gone.”
After endless delays and a fight with their label over the direction of their sound, Three 6 Mafia didn’t release a follow-up to Most Known Unknown until 2008's Last 2 Walk. The album was not as successful as its predecessor, commercially or artistically, and the group splintered. Juicy J departed to focus on his solo career in 2009. Former member Lord Infamous died in 2013, not long after reuniting with several other core members as Da Mafia 6ix. In Memphis, the rap legacy is rich, layered, and strongly advocated for by the black people in the city. The legends, particularly 8Ball, MJG, and Three 6 Mafia, have influenced the sound of rap — Southern rap, of course, but not only Southern rap. The sample-and-trap-heavy production style of Memphis producers has bled into templates that are still being used today. Yet the Three 6 Mafia Moment was the city’s largest national rap look, and it has struggled to regain national rap prominence, until recently.
At the Playhouse on the Square, smoke billows out from the stage while the mini-orchestra take their seats. Looping through the speakers overhead is a narrator talking about Memphis and rivers. The beauty of the city and the darker sides of it. The night begins an hour later than expected. And because the show was sold out, there is a restlessness that has taken over the theater by the time everyone finds their seats. Through the run of openers, there are great moments: Memphis producer Kenneth Wayne Alexander coming out to conduct the orchestra through a row of instrumentals he’d produced in collaboration with them; Pavé’s tourmate Alfred Banks running through an intimate set about mental health; a DJ battle where original records were flipped into the songs that sampled them, a moment that was at its best when the first notes of Three 6 Mafia’s “Stay Fly” leaked through the speakers and the crowd, in one single wave, rose to its feet.
By the time Pavé himself took the stage, the clock was pushing past midnight, but the crowd was still awake and eager. He began with 2015's “Black Tux.” Before diving into the songs from Welcome to Grc Lnd, he takes a deep breath and stands in the center of the stage, looking out on the city that inspired what he, and many others, consider his greatest work. (When I ask him why “Grc Lnd” is styled as such, he tells me “because the Grace is broken.”) Cloaked in all black and a pair of gold sneakers that catch the light and bounce it back into the faces in the front row, he speaks with a gentle Southern warmth: “What’s up, Memphis? It’s good to be home.”
Pavé is close, some think, to really “making it,” whatever that might entail. His friend Molly Quinn, a recent New Yorker originally from Memphis who has known Pavé for years, tells me that he's on the verge of something big. “You can kind of feel it,” she tells me an hour before the show. “You know, this show is kind of bittersweet because it feels like … like maybe this is the last show he’ll have in Memphis before he becomes REALLY big.”
Onstage, you can see the kind of natural star power that he has. He is easily comfortable, commanding the stage even with a small swelling of horns behind him. More than anything, Pavé is an expert storyteller. Welcome to Grc Lnd isn’t a single narrative, but it feels like it could be. Everything, at the end, is work that is facing home. When he writes about protest, he’s writing about Memphis. When he writes about overcoming poverty, he’s writing about Memphis. When he writes about family, his hopes, his dreams, he is writing about Memphis. His writing is a highlight of the album, and it comes to life on the stage here, particularly in Memphis, where it was born.
Pavé, also an activist and community organizer, does the work of rap as it began: reportage, bringing life to a story beyond the one being told in public. Giving actual voice to those on the ground, and getting out of the way when needed. As an MC, he brands himself as “Project Pat meets KRS-One.” And while there is some truth to this in the makeup of his political approach, as an actual rapper, he is of a tone and aggressiveness that is heard in both MJG and Big K.R.I.T. He attacks every beat instead of waiting for a soft spot to land in it. He offers the occasional punch line — “They gon’ prolly think I’m ISIS / but it is what it is,” Pavé, a Muslim, raps of being pulled over by police on one song — but otherwise balances between boastfulness and introspection in equal measure.
Before the show, I ask Pavé if he considers himself in the lineage of Elvis, partially as a joke. He is direct, before I even finish the question: “No. No. No disrespect to Elvis or his family. But I’m in the lineage of Al Bell. I’m in the lineage of Isaac Hayes and MJG. I’m in the lineage of Yo Gotti and Three 6 Mafia. That’s who I am.”
There is something special about watching a musician play in front of a crowd that is, in some ways, directly responsible for carrying them to the place where they are. In Memphis, a city of some music fans looking backward and backward only, to see Pavé perform to a room of eager people, hoping he’ll be the next to make it out, is refreshing. Welcome to Grc Lnd is a project that is, in some ways, so specific to the city that it seems, on the surface, that it might not break through elsewhere. But, listening closely, it’s a story of struggle and progress that can be distilled down to a single, universal message: None of us can get free if all of us can’t get free.
Herein lies the strength of Marco Pavé — the thing that makes him different. He has figured out how to merge raps about the specific lifestyle of his environment with the anger and struggle that also lives there. He is, as he says, creating a soundtrack for a moment, so that it can’t be shaped by anyone else.
It was violence that shifted Memphis into the city it has been. It was, first, a bullet fired from a boarding house. When people talk about Martin Luther King in the romantic sense, they so rarely talk about the fact that he was murdered. There was violence that took him from the people he was sent to lead, and a city felt the weight of that violent death for years. An entire generation of protest was muffled by fear in the wake of that violent death. And yet it is a new day, it seems.
What the botched Graceland protest did, beyond inspiring Pavé’s brilliant debut album, was allow for a flag to be planted in the ground, by the people, for the people. It allowed the echo of the bullet still hanging above the Lorraine Motel to be replaced with a new echo. A people renewed, and with a soundtrack for their slow renewal. Unafraid and not going anywhere.