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Culture Watch: Truth Universal sends social messages via hip hop

Editor’s Note: The following series “Language and Culture in New Orleans” is a week-long series curated by Lucien Mensah as part of the Digital Research Internship Program in partnership with ViaNolaVie. The DRI Program is a Newcomb Institute technology initiative for undergraduate students combining technology skillsets, feminist leadership, and the digital humanities.

This curation of articles was created to recognize the deep ties with AAVE and Black culture into the mainstream and point out the linguistic influence within New Orleans and bring recognition to it. AAVE, or African American Vernacular English, is a dialect of American English molded by Black people’s experiences during slavery, as various communities of Africans were forced to the Americas. As AAVE terms become popular online, many non-black people use and appropriate these terms with little knowledge about where they are from or what they mean to their native speech community. As each article this week is presented, readers are encouraged to think about their vocabulary and whether AAVE is actively used – and are you aware of the words you’re using that might be “slang”?

This article is about Truth Universal, a New Orleans-based rapper who talks about prison reform, education, and social justice. Rap music is a space that Black vernacular speech invites the mainstream culture to listen and hear, and Truth Universal uses this space to speak truthfully. This was published on NolaVie on January 26th, 2012.

Truth Universal: purveyor of socially conscious lyrics

There’s the East Coast, the West Coast and the Third Coast. The last one is where New Orleans lives. And, while the first two have been influential in the hip hop music world for decades, New Orleans has managed to hold its head high, if on a smaller scale.

One artist who has been on the scene for a couple of decades is Truth Universal. A 38-year-old computer programmer by day, he’s the son of Trinidad parents who moved to New Orleans when he was 4 years old.

As a teenager growing up in New Orleans East in the mid-90s, Truth recalls that this was when he started taking the hip hop movement seriously. Engaged by the whole idea of rap music and the break dancing phenomenon, he recalls that “the music just made sense to me, especially the message songs.”

And so he changed his name to Truth Universal.

Around the same time, he became a member of an international cultural movement known as the Nation of Gods and Earths, which does not claim itself a religion, but more a distinct way of life. While this movement began in Harlem, NOGE picked up believers across the country, a number of whom became popular early rappers or expressed NOGE beliefs in their lyrics: Ice Cube, Erykah Badu; Wu Tang Clan, among them.

In New Orleans, it is Truth Universal.

While he recognizes that some may think the choice of his name reflects a certain arrogance, he says that’s never what he had in mind.

“I believe a name should be what you are, or what you aspire to be,” he says. “I don’t believe I know all the truth; for me, my name describes what I am striving to do – speak truthfully,” he says.

Recognized throughout New Orleans for his socially conscious lyrics, Truth Universal still uses the traditional tried and true technique of call and response in his work. “It comes from the African griot tradition – the storyteller/musician – that gave rise to the call and response in black churches and now has a direct correlation to rap and hip hop poetry,” Truth explains.

But, as serious as his messages are – prison reform, education, social justice – he knows that if it isn’t entertaining, no one will listen. So look for more in the New Year from this vegan consumer as he focuses on world issues like genetic engineering in crops or the potential global shortage of pure water.

He recognizes that many members of the greater New Orleans community neither understand nor appreciate rap or the hip hop movement, particularly his brand of the art. But this self-described “full fledged rapper, music producer/writer/” just asks that they listen.

“What I strive to do with my music is affect social change,” he says. “I strive first to be socially conscious, but I also strive to be entertaining and hope that the language creates a dialogue. Because when folk start talking, that’s when stuff happens.”

 Sharon Litwin, president of NolaVie, writes about culture and community in New Orleans.


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