Motown's Black Forum Label Revisits the Past Through Hip-Hop's Future on 'Fire in Little Africa' Album

Fire In Little Africa
Ryan Cass

'Fire in Little Africa' artists in front of the Skyline Mansion, a now Black-owned venue originally built by a KKK leader who helped orchestrate the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. This photo is inspired by a group photo of original Black Wall Street business owners from before 1921.

In partnership with the Bob Dylan Center and Woody Guthrie Center, the project marks 100th anniversary of Tulsa's Black Wall Street massacre.

The 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the most significant yet long-suppressed chapters in Black history, will be commemorated on the May 28 album Fire in Little Africa. Featuring original material by a collective of emerging Oklahoma hip-hop artists, the 21-track collection will be released through Black Forum/Motown Records in partnership with Tulsa’s Bob Dylan Center and Woody Guthrie Center.

Fire in Little Africa addresses the events that transpired between May 31 and June 1, 1921 when a white mob stormed Greenwood, a prosperous Tulsa neighborhood also known as Black Wall Street. In addition to burning down the business district, the rioters destroyed some 1500 homes, killed hundreds of Black residents and left many more homeless. Confronting the past to help inform, heal and inspire through music, the flourishing collective of Oklahoma rappers, singers, poets and producers contributing to the project includes Steph Simon, Ayilla, Medisin and Sterling Mathews.

In announcing the album, Motown Records chairman/CEO Ethiopia Habtemariam said, “Fire in Little Africa is a powerful and timely project that provides a platform and outlet for the incredibly talented and thriving music community of Tulsa. Carrying the legacy of the Black Wall Street community, Fire in Little Africa is a body of work filled with purpose and prolific storytelling. I am honored and privileged to have Motown/Black Forum partner with Stevie 'Dr. View' Johnson, the Bob Dylan Center and Woody Guthrie Center to release this impactful hip-hop album.”

Johnson, PhD and manager, Education & Diversity Outreach at the Woody Guthrie Center/Bob Dylan Center and the album’s executive producer, commented, “Fire in Little Africa has evolved into a communal hip-hop movement. We’re excited that we get to share the flavor, history and legacy of Black Wall Street with the world in collaboration with the amazing leadership of the Motown/Black Forum family. There are Black Wall Streets across the diaspora and we unequivocally know that Fire in Little Africa will inspire many people. In the words of Steph Simon, 'everything is us.'"

The album was recorded over a five-day period in March 2020 in studios set up at the Greenwood Cultural Center as well as other sites, including the former home of KKK leader and massacre organizer Tate Brady. The home, now an event venue called the Skyline Mansion, is owned by former NFL first-round draft pick and Tulsa native Felix Jones. The making of the album will also be the focus of a documentary film due later this year. And two podcasts, featuring artists, community leaders and other guests, are available: Fireside with Dr. View HERE and Fire in Little Africa, hosted by Ali Shaw and Doc Free HERE.

Open since 2013, the Woody Guthrie Center is based in the Tulsa Arts District. The Bob Dylan Center, housed on the same block, is slated to open within the next year. Both establishments are part of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the primary funder for Fire in Little Africa.

Fire in Little Africa also marks the first new material issued through Motown’s relaunched Black Forum label. Initially bowing in 1970 with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam, Black Forum returned in February with a reissue of King’s Grammy-winning speech. Last month, Black Forum/Motown re-released activist-writer-singer and former Black Panther Party chairwoman Elaine Brown’s 1973 album Elaine Brown/Until We’re Free.