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These Gullah rappers have a stern message for Hilton Head — and America — in their new rhymes

These Hilton Head natives are 'gangster' for God

Quintin Smalls and Anthony Johnson, members of the rap group Spiritual Gangsters, explain the meaning behind their group's name and why it is so important for their message.
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Quintin Smalls and Anthony Johnson, members of the rap group Spiritual Gangsters, explain the meaning behind their group's name and why it is so important for their message.

U.S. 278. If you live in southern Beaufort County, you'll likely find yourself driving that road every day. Running from the Hardeeville line to the bridges to Hilton Head Island, the highway moves locals and visitors past a long line of car dealerships, businesses and neighborhoods. Along the way are people, places and stories you don't know. Get to know them in this occasional series. Come drive the road with us.

They shot the music video on the island’s north end, and the people showed up, and so did the bicycles.

The bikes were important. They were strong visual elements of the video, and the act of riding them — people uniting around a common purpose and traveling toward it — was critical to the message of the song.

“Ride for the Island,” the song’s called, one of 23 tracks on Spiritual Gangsters, a mixtape featuring Hilton Head Island Gullah rappers “Baby Joker” — Anthony Johnson — and “Q. Smalls” — Quintin Smalls.

Since early September, when the video was shot along Gumtree Road, about 1,500 copies of the mixtape have been distributed in Savannah and the Lowcountry, in other parts of South Carolina, and in Atlanta and Washington D.C.

Its tracks are “clean” — no profanity — by design. The mixtape avoids messages of violence and drug use, for example, found in some modern hip-hop — Johnson and Smalls wanted to make sure their message was heard. Their songs retain the in-your-face quality of gangster rap but channel it through faith.

And one of the themes is something that’s come up in various Hilton Head Town Council meetings, a problem that’s discussed in the Native Islander community — and the refrain of “Ride for the Island:”

“I ride on Hilton Head Island

A Gullah Gullah culture that they kickin’ to the side

Tryin’ to take the land but can’t sell piece of my pie

My family means forever-ever ’til the end of time”

Tai Scott, who’s lived on Hilton Head since 1997, said he’s never seen local Gullah artists share this kind of message through hip-hop. Like Johnson and Smalls, he worries about the disappearing Native Islander culture: “The way we look at this now, we’re the last of the Mohicans,” Scott said. “It’s now or never.”

And Scott thinks Spiritual Gangsters will resonate with people outside the Lowcountry, throughout the “Gullah-Geechee corridor,” where — as on Hilton Head and in other parts of Beaufort County — the descendants of freed slaves continue to challenge partition sales of heirs’ property; work through complex zoning and development regulations that restrict land usage; and fight to preserve their culture and history.

Writing for The Nation in June, Leah Douglas focused on Hilton Head’s Allen family in her in-depth examination of heirs’ property and disappearing black farmland.

“A 2001 report from the US Agricultural Census estimated that about 80 percent of black-owned farmland had disappeared in the South since 1969,” Douglas wrote. “Approximately half of that land was lost through partition sales.”

Earlier this month on Hilton Head, town council reached an “ultimate compromise” to prevent the rezoning of Robert Singleton’s land off Bradley Circle, an agreement one council member said was necessary for Singleton’s land to retain its value. But the compromise was controversial and took months to reach — and highlighted what some perceive as a dismissal and lack of understanding of Native Islander culture and history.

Recently, Johnson, 32, has been on a quest to better understand that history.

Born in New York and raised in Washington D.C., he started living on Hilton Head full time about five years ago. His mother, Vivian Woods, lives on the island and has been battling to save family lands for more than a decade — part of a recorded conversation between Woods and Beaufort County Master in Equity Judge Marvin Dukes over a property issue can be heard at the 3:24 mark in “Ride for the Island.”

Johnson traces his roots back to Cyrus Bligen, who, according to documents — census data and voter-registration lists — from the Hilton Head Heritage Library, lived in the area before the Civil War.

Johnson shares his mother’s love for music. He learned his ABCs through hip-hop, after Woods saw he was struggling with the traditional sing-song most folks know. He needed a different beat, and Woods borrowed one from LL Cool J. Later, she taught him a rhyme she’d authored about black history, one teachers overheard her son rapping — they asked her to perform it for his classmates.

“It’s like a cry for help,” Woods said of Spiritual Gangsters. “This is what we’re going through. ... But the cry is a little louder this time because my son put it to music, and music moves things.”

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Johnson, like Smalls, has recorded tracks before — songs with explicit lyrics. Johnson’s Jokers Wildin’ album can be found on the Spiritual Gangsters website, and Smalls’ “F--- up the Island” song resides on YouTube.

“I believe you’re strictly hearing Satan’s voice,” Johnson said of profanity and messages of violence in some hip-hop songs. To be clear, he’s not against profanity, and he’s not challenging artists’ messages — rather, he acknowledges they exist, and that, like sin, they are things that tempt man. Satan appears in many forms, he said, such as oppressive governments, which is what he attacks “with word and with spiritual toughness” in Spiritual Gangsters.

Johnson had the vision for what would become the mixtape what a listener might describe as a collection of songs rooted in spirituality with overtones of social consciousness and activism — but wasn’t able to sharpen it till he met Smalls four years ago.

Smalls, 24, a Native Islander, began writing poetry and songs when he was 14, and he’s lived in Boston and Greenville for short periods to promote his music.

One of the musical influences for Spiritual Gangsters “was top songs that were on the radio, and just because we know people know them, we (sampled) them,” Smalls said.

Sampling has deep roots in hip-hopsee Public Enemy’s song “He Got Game,” which layers original lyrics and beats over the instantly recognizable Buffalo Springfield 1960s protest anthem “For What It’s Worth” (“It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound; everybody look what’s going down”). Someone listening to “Ride for the Island” will hear original lyrics atop Kyle’s “iSpy.”

The message of the mixtape, according to Smalls, is unity, desperately needed on Hilton Head, which he and Johnson say continues to ignore, segregate and “attack” its Native Islanders.

He and Johnson, who’ve begun attending civic meetings, cited discussion of a National Action Network protest — planned but never carried out — of the RBC Heritage golf tournament as an example of their community’s frustrations.

“(The Heritage) is the biggest avenue we have to bring awareness to the Gullah history,” Scott, president of the Hilton Head NAN chapter, said in March, before the tournament. “Do these golfers and tourists even know there’s a Gullah cemetery (in Sea Pines). My family is buried there.”

Smalls and Johnson see plantations like Sea Pines — and Hilton Head’s government — as continuances of the master-slave relationship: new-wave, new-look oppression of people of color, something they see more broadly in America. And on the island, they see their community as being overlooked, ignored and excluded.

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“Basically we’re not part of Hilton Head,” Smalls said. “It’s like they’re their own island and we’re our own island, too. It makes us feel like the tourists.”

Which is why bicycles — aside from the beaches themselves, perhaps Hilton Head’s most iconic symbol of tourism — feature so heavily in “Ride for the Island.”

Smalls likes the notion that bike-riding is a family activity, and he recognizes its tie to Hilton Head’s image.

And in the video, it’s hard to miss the irony: people from the forgotten part of the island coming together and pedaling toward a common goal — rather than moseying down a bike path.

Smalls will continue to play with such ironies on his next album, which he’s currently working on. He plans to call it Salt Life, a phrase you might see on a bumper sticker on vacationers’ cars.

For Smalls, “salt life” is home.

Johnson’s working on his next album, too — Jokers Wildin on Gullah Island. He’s released a preview of one of its tracks, called “History.”

As the title implies, it’s an education through rhyme.

Rapping in his mother’s footsteps.

Wade Livingston: 843-706-8153, @WadeGLivingston

Want to listen to Spiritual Gangsters?

All 23 tracks from the mixtape are available for free download at www.spiritualgangstersg2g.com.

For more information, call 843-304-2710 or email gate2gateg2g@yahoo.com.

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