McKinley Dixon opens up about upcoming jazz/rap fusion record and the importance of diversifying hiphop's message

Posted by: brad – Apr 07, 2017


In his forthcoming album, The Importance of Self Belief, Richmond rap/jazz musician McKinley Dixon broadens the scope of the challenging subject matter and sentimental dialogue indicative of his prior album, Who Taught You To Hate Yourself?. With an ensemble of gifted jazz musicians and an arsenal of talented collaborators, Dixon brings new perspectives, experiences, and crucial conversations to his captivating narrative.

These albums follow the story of a young, Black man who, after witnessing a drive-by, is confronted with the grim realities of the sociopolitical atmosphere and class struggle around him. “The first [album] is the boy sees a drive by in his neighborhood and starts reflection and seeing things: racism, police brutality, gang violence, what is okay what is not okay,” said Dixon in an interview with RVAMag.

The sophomore album in what is to be a trilogy, The Importance of Self-Belief, does not have an official release date yet, but Dixon said it continues the storyline of Who Taught while taking up issues that didn’t come up in the preceding album. It focuses more on Dixon’s conversations with trans people, femme people, and black women.

“The flaw about Who Taught You To Hate Yourself is it didn’t talk about women/femm people enough,” he said. “There’s a line - it’s not my story to tell so I try to portray it as lightly as I can while definitely jumping to the issues and that’s not something I expected to do with Who Taught You to Hate Yourself. I was just thinking about Black issues. Now with this one, I realize without femme people, without specifically Black femme people, there’s nothing - there’s nothing without women.“

The Importance of Self-Belief progresses the narrative of personal growth and identity established in Who Taught. In the upcoming album, Dixon parts from traditions of the familiar “coming of age” trope to create a coming of age story that is bigger than the focal character himself.

The lens, which focused on the young man who witnessed the drive-by in the last record, is now shifted to be more so from his perceptive, accounting for the depth and influence of femme figures and the characters own conceptualizations of race and gender.

“This one includes more concepts of femininity, maternity, and masculinity in how it is seen through the Black male subject,” said Dixon. “I decided to talk more in celebration of women and femme figures in my life and how, even at the base of this world that I created that is loosely based off things that I’ve experience, it’s still the Black mom who is the main figure.”

“The drive-by is the fictional story,” said Dixon. “But the experiences of going through stages of questioning, experience of losing loved ones and friends to different things, and being in different environments that force you to do different things are all based on things that I’ve experienced or things that loved ones close to me have experienced.”

Dixon said that there is much he has learned between the two albums regarding the importance of visibility of marginalized people, motivating much of The Importance of Self-Belief’s content.

“Trans rights are something that we need to talk about and how trans rights are human rights. We need to discuss these things. Or the murder rate for Black trans women,” he said. “These issues that face and surround Black people, my brothers and sisters [and family], but how nobody is talking about them in the community and out of the community.”

Both albums have featured a significant collaborative effort. Dixon worked with producer Onirologia on each. Both albums also feature a number of guest artists. The indie fusion outfit Vanilla Summit return to collaborate on the forthcoming album as well.

And of course, Dixon’s band of adroit jazz musicians lights up each song, on and off the record. Dixon began making music hardly three years ago as a college Freshmen. He recruited most of his band through VCU’s jazz program, and they have been growing together since.

“They’re all incredible and you can hear the maturity from Who Taught You To Hate Yourself? to the new stuff,” said Dixon.

Live performances give an especially electrifying experience. The chemistry between the band is infectious and necessary for the improvisational style. Dixon notes that the pleasure in playing with seasoned jazz musicians is his own anticipation for what he might hear. “Every solo is different,” he said. “Every time is different.”

As for the third and final installment in the trilogy, Dixon isn’t ready to share information.

But keep an eye out for a release date on The Importance of Self-Belief on Wadada records. In the meantime, the single for the album, “The Story So Far” is available below:

Catch Dixon on May 5 and May 29 at Strange Matter.

Words by Greg Rosenberg, top image via David Muessig