Black History Through Music: Talking with Kagan McLeod
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Black History Through Music: Talking with Kagan McLeod

Kagan McLeod and his History of Rap poster

The term “Black History Month” has a scholastic sound to it, like a category on Jeopardy you skip in favour of Celebrity Rhyme Time. Yet there’s a lot to be fascinated with, from Kush to Kentucky from Jim Crow to James Brown, and to tackle the topic it makes sense to look at what excites many people about black culture and history: music. While there are many great black artists who are movie makers, painters, and playwrights, it is the Western musicscape that has been dominated by black styles of music, from rock ‘n’ roll to reggae, from the blues to hip-hop, from jazz to funk, from disco to drum and bass. It has become the most accessible doorway into the world of black experience. This series explores how some Torontonians found music opened that door for them.
Kagan McLeod is a Toronto-based illustrator and comic-book creator who made the infamous History of Rap poster. It has headshots of dozens of our MC forefathers with little crib notes on the back explaining their contribution to the sound. He’s an illustrator for clients like BET, Sports Illustrated, Spin, Mad, Playboy, and, most frequently, for the National Post.
Hip-hop was at its coolest and most creative when McLeod was a kid. “This is roughly around ’88 to ’94. That era of music had a sound that I fell in love with, mainly based on samples from the late ’60s and early ’70s,” he says. “I guess it was only natural that when rap started to change and move away from that sound that I’d start to explore its sources, kind of reverse-engineering my favourite music.” This led McLeod into blaxploitation movies, concert videos from that era, and, of course, more music.

“Anyone who’s interested in music at all is going to come across a lot of black history if they do the smallest amount of digging,” he says. “But for me, rap absolutely introduced me to whole new worlds of speech, poetry, storytelling, politics, religions…”
Still, it wasn’t the message that drew him in; it was the power of the sound. This is especially true when the message isn’t clear to a white kid in Windsor, even if he is close to Detroit, the birthplace of Motown and techno. “The message of the music, or the cultural snapshot you could get from an album, wouldn’t always sink in right away. But it was there in the back of your mind,” he says. “For example, Brand Nubian’s music was kind of hard to understand—to an ’85er—but as you learn the language and terminology used in the Nation of Islam, it becomes more clear and interesting to the outsider. Dr. Dre’s The Chronic paints a pretty vivid picture of life in L.A. during the time of the riots, which was current then but is a big part of history now.”
While other outsiders are quick to negatively judge the one-upsmanship of rap, McLeod has a more informed understanding. “Battle raps are connected to history. At first they seem like nothing but boasting and machismo, but it stems from street-corner games like ‘the dozens,’ where you trade insults back and forth,” he says. “Bo Diddley recorded a lot of stuff like that in the ’50s and the correlation is fascinating.”
Finding something of value beyond the immediate emotional vibe of music is something McLeod will do with all kinds of sound, but there’s a style that really hits home with him. “I’ll always love soul, and how each city seems to have its own brand of it,” he says. “New Orleans is inspiring to me. The hybrid black and Native American culture you see in groups like the Wild Magnolias is really interesting and rich in history. The first paths to freedom taken by runaway slaves led to friendly First Nations villages, and you can see a lot of the result of those crossed cultures in Mardi Gras costumes and, of course, the music.”
“Also Stax and Motown—basically anything from before I was born—I feel a duty to discover for myself; otherwise I’ll have completely missed out on it.”
In Torontoist’s Heroes and Villains this past year, MuchMusic made the Villains list. It really just isn’t the same as it was back in the day, and McLeod feels the same way. “I’ll never stop giving props to early ’90s Rap City on MuchMusic with Michael Williams. That show was a constant education even if I didn’t appreciate it then,” he says. “They would go back and show clips of The Last Poets or George Clinton, when of course you just wanted to see the new stuff. They wouldn’t dare do that today.” Looking at the current programming, there may well be someone in ten to fifteen years who does a poster of the History of Indulgent Reality TV Brats.
When asked about being a white man delving into black history and culture, McLeod talks about people’s response to his History of Rap poster. “I looked at it more as a novelty item than a genre-defining piece, but at the same time I still wanted to make sure I could stump the most hardcore hip-hop head. I definitely made some mistakes in people I didn’t include—that did feel a bit weird when I realized it,” he says. “These are the people that invented and make up hip-hop, and me, the outsider, I’m going to sit and pick and choose who’s important and who’s not? I felt it was pretty complete but, when I started to meet some of the artists, it made me wonder why I didn’t check with the primary sources from the beginning.”
Since black history is often an oral history, it makes sense that it’s told through music and it’s a bit unusual that McLeod would attempt to chronicle it. Still, it has been well received by the hip-hop community, even by rapper NYOIL who appears on the poster in an early-’90s incarnation as part of the group UMC’s. It wasn’t until seeing the poster that NYOIL revealed his past identity, appreciating that he was recognized as more than a mere footnote in rap. Still, he said that he’s dismayed it took a white cat to point out whose shoulders the new MCs are standing on, and he encouraged his own people to take part in writing their history as well.
McLeod doesn’t look at his art as contributing to the story of hip-hop, though. “I’ve never thought of it like that… I’m just thankful that art is a way for me to jump into different worlds, or to meet my heroes,” he says. “Same way theirs reaches out and inspires people like me, it’s great to try and give something back and come full circle.”
You can track down Kagan McLeod’s History of Rap poster on Facebook or at the Beguiling. His graphic novel, Infinite Kung Fu, will be out from Top Shelf next year.
Lyrical postscript: McLeod believes this track from the Jungle Brothers speaks to the hunger to learn about black history that isn’t always there in the scholastic system.

“Acknowledge Your Own History”
My forefather was a king
He wore fat gold chains and fat ruby rings
Nobody believes this to be true
Maybe it’s because my eyes ain’t blue
You ain’t gonna find it in your history book
Come here, young blood, and take a look
Dig down deep inside this hard cover
Don’t you know you was bought, brother
All you read about is slavery
Never about the black man’s bravery
You look at the pictures and all they show is
Afrikan people with bones in their noses
That ain’t true, that’s a lie
You didn’t get that from my lemon pie
Yeah, I cut class, I got a D
Cause History meant nothing to me
Except a definite nap
That’s why I always sat in the back
I’d talk to girls or write a rhyme
Cause I didn’t know (all times are black man’s times)
When I was young my mama told me stories
Of black peoples’ fight to bring us glory
I used to think these were stories to put me to sleep
But now I know mama’s talk wasn’t cheap
I know Afrika’s for Afrikans
And history’s the blood of every woman and man
Page one, page two, page three
And still no signs of me
Yeah, so I looked into the table of contents
They wrote a little thing about us in the projects
Only history we make is if we kill somebody
Rape somebody, but other than that we’re nobody
Speaking like a Brother living in the Jungle
I know I was here first but I remain humble
Now it’s time to rekindle the fire
A tribe of young brothers with the eye of the tiger
Acknowledge your own, we have a home
Put on this earth to live and roam
Christopher chose to explore
He thought the planet was square
Travelled many places, we already had been there
We left tracks, backtrack back
First civilisation, you know where that was found at
Looking for the true black days of glory
That’s history, that’s his story
The red’s for the blood and the black’s for the man
The green is the colour that stands for the land

Co-written by Brian McLachlan and Jaclyn Buckley.