The revolutionary hip-hop band Arrested Development broke down barriers 30 years ago by releasing positive albums dedicated to Black self-love, Afro-centric themes and the end to white supremacy across the diaspora.
Co-founder and leader of the hit-making conscious rap group, Todd “Speech” Thomas, spoke to Atlanta Black Star about the group’s current projects and its upcoming 30th anniversary. During this exclusive sit-down, Thomas revealed his personal beliefs on topics ranging from the current state of the rap world to systemic white supremacy.
Beginning in 2012, the band worked on its most recent projects “Changing The Narrative” and “This Was Never Home,” which were both completed and released February 2016.
The albums have distinct sounds that appeal to die-hard fans and newcomers alike. “Changing the Narrative” is a sample-based album that has “raw hip-hop mixed with uplifting content” and it is free to listen to on the band’s website.
“This Was Never Home” utilizes the synthesizer and drum machine and focuses on how popular rap music changes the psychology of Black youths. It also tackles how marriage has been “torn down and dismantled in popular culture.”
Both projects feature tracks discussing the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, violence in Chicago and the march on Selma.
Along with producing two new albums, the band toured all over the globe making stops in the Middle East, Bali and the United States. During this time, Thomas and his wife, Yolanda, started a boutique arts complex and school in Georgia.
The Victory Spot opened its doors in October 2015 with the goal of teaching a new generation of artists. Currently, there are 30 students being taught dance, acting and singing, as well as how to play instruments, by experienced industry professionals. Eager artists will learn how to practice their craft, the ins and outs of music production and how to earn money and book performances.
Reflecting on the Past
At 21, Thomas wrote Arrested Development’s most enduring hit “Tennessee” while attending the Art Insitute of Atlanta. The group’s hit 1992 debut album “3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of …” was notable because it was such a positive departure from the gangster rap that was so popular at the time.
Popular tracks like “Mr. Wendal” and “People Everyday” cemented the Atlanta-based rap group’s place in music history. Their instant success garnered two Grammy awards in 1993 for Best New Artist and Best Rap Single for their single “Tennessee.”
“When we first started [in 1987], the whole goal was to get rid of the state of arrested development to Black people. We see this state of arrested development throughout the planet,” Thomas said. “You know, the original role we went through from slavery to the whole Jim Crow times and all of the colonialism that happened across the globe. Everywhere we travel, where there are Black people, there’s a state of arrested development because of those horrific, holocaust-like events. And so we’re in the mode [of] trying to change that.”
Over the past three decades, the band’s roster has gone through drastic changes. Most notably, the band’s co-founder DJ Timothy “Headliner” Barnwell severed ties with the band in the 1990s.
“The cool thing about Arrested Development is that we still, even the ones that left, we still talk to one another,” Thomas said. “We have a good, cordial relationship with one another. So, that is a good vibe. And sometimes, they come back and rock with us on records and on tours.”
Currently, Thomas is joined by musicians 1 Love, Tasha LaRae, Fareedah Aleem, Za’, JJ Boogie and elder Baba Oje. In the band’s storied history, artists like Dionne Farris, Laurnea, Paulette, Caron Wheeler, Toni (cat) & Foley (Miles Davis) have graced the stage with the group’s regulars.
The Music Is the Activism
Arrested Development’s voice was shaped primarily by Thomas’ desire to change how Black people saw themselves. He said that his parents’ activism inspired his own and influenced the philosophy of the band.
In 1976, his parents channeled that activism and founded the largest Black newspaper in Wisconsin called the Milwaukee Community Journal. “Since I was a kid, that activism was planted inside of me. That feeling of not only do we need to talk about the things that are wrong but how can we make a change and offer solutions. … The whole band took on that whole frame of thought.”
When asked about the current racial climate, Thomas expressed hope because of President Barack Obama’s election and the incredible success of Black artists. However, he acknowledged that there is a “white supremacy paradigm” that Black people still have to face.
“I look at the rap game and I look at, almost, new money empires like Jay Z and Beyoncé,” he told ABS. “The ability to diversify your monies. Seeing these artists do better than we ever had an opportunity to do when we were younger is encouraging. And at the same time, the race issues are just as discouraging as they always have been.”
The prison industrial complex, extreme poverty, lack of economic empowerment and lack of self-love are some things he attributed to Black people’s racial plight in this nation. He encouraged Black people to look at the whole picture to “determine what are the obstacles that are messing us up or the things pulling us backward.”
“I look at the white supremacy paradigm that’s been here since the very beginning of us arriving on these shores as [enslaved Africans]. … The thing that disturbs me more, to some extent, is what we do to ourselves. The way we allow ourselves to be used as pawns even after we know that we are being used as pawns. … My view has always been that if you can’t love yourself the most, it’s nobody else’s responsibility to love you more than you can love yourself.”
Atlanta, the Black Mecca
“When I first moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee, it was like a little Africa to me. The consciousness in the West End area, God bless it,” Thomas recalled.
The city known for its large Black population has become a cultural hub for the music, business, and film and TV industries. Though Milwaukee will always be his home and he appreciated his time there, Thomas said the city of Atlanta fueled his revolutionary spirit because the thriving pro-Black community was something he did not know he needed until he was thrust into it.
“So many people talking about Africa, embracing their African ancestors, embracing the culture, embracing Black business, embracing our women and embracing the family paradigm,” he said. “… Coming from Milwaukee, where there was so much self-hate, I come from that city. I was born and raised in that city. So, coming from that world to Atlanta was radical for my heart, for my spirit and for my revolutionary fire.”
His parents played a vital role shaping his worldview, but Atlanta was just as impactful. The city was a backdrop for Arrested Development’s Southern sound. “So, I give Atlanta all of the props for being able to do that.”
The band’s 30th anniversary is just one of many exciting projects on the band’s docket this year. Next month, Arrested Development will kick off its latest tour with domestic and international stops scheduled. The band will join the rock group Train on a two-day cruise from Tampa, Florida, starting Feb. 14. Also, Arrested Development will stop in the United Kingdom, South Africa, Japan and Australia later this year. Official dates have not be released yet, but updated information will be available on the band’s website.
Thomas is currently collaborating with Japanese musical act the Yoshida Brothers on a solo album that will be released near the end of the year. The Yoshida Brothers are classically trained Shamisen (a traditional Japanese guitar) players and Thomas is excited to work with them. The Arrested Development founder told ABS that this album will feature “some the best material I have ever produced and written.”
There also is an Arrested Development movie in the works that will depict the founding and early years of the band. Thomas has recruited the expertise of Spelman College film professor April Lundy to hammer out the script. “It will star young versions of me and Headliner and Rasa Don and all the members from the original group.” At the moment, there is no director attached to the project. But Thomas said his goal is to get the film released this year.