RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now the story of a band, its name and deliberately subverted expectations. Last year, Quentin Tarantino's movie "Django Unchained" resurrected a word with some ugly associations. Mandingo is the name white colonialists gave to a group of people from West Africa, people who called themselves Mandinka. Several hundred thousand of them were sold into slavery. This year, three black musicians have claimed the word for themselves. They're releasing their debut album under the name The White Mandingos.
This year, three black musicians have claimed the word for themselves. They're releasing their debut album under the name The White Mandingos. NPR's Frannie Kelley has the story.
FRANNIE KELLY, BYLINE: The White Mandingos resist definition.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK N WHITE")
THE WHITE MANDINGOS: (Rapping) I'm in a black band. I got a black girl. But I don't make music for the black world, 'cause I'm a black man. Black as midnight, blacker than Flava Flav and (unintelligible) in a fist fight...
SACHA JENKINS: What we've come together to do is just an extension of all of our experiences as black men, but we're not just limited to being black. I mean, I think our influences aren't necessarily just black.
KELLY: Sacha Jenkins plays guitar for the group, when he's not busy being a journalist. He's a rookie in this music-making game but he's partnered with two experienced musicians: Darryl Jenifer, who's played bass with D.C. punk band Bad Brains for 30 years; and the L.A. rapper Nick Carter, who goes by the name Murs. They like to mess with Jenkins about his not necessarily just-black influences.
JENKINS: Darryl, he says that I play like a quote-unquote, "white boy." So that also has...
DARRYL JENIFER: He talk like one too.
JENKINS: Yeah, OK, I talk like one too. But...
JENIFER: That shirt is kind of doing it too.
JENKINS: My shirt? My shirt's making more like a white boy, too. Anyway, I'm sorry I don't have FUBU on. But...
KELLY: The album The White Mandingos have made is called "The Ghetto's Tryna Kill Me." And it could be called rap rock. For some people, that too is a disparaging term. Some people include Jenkins.
JENKINS: I don't like rap rock at all, like I hate it. I think it's - it's terrible.
KELLY: But he says he knew a collaboration with Jenifer and Murs would be interesting.
JENKINS: You know, Murs having this really strong hip-hop background, that's kind of how it all came together. It's really cemented in rock and roll - my passion for rock, his pedigree in rock 'n' roll, but also our love and respect for hip-hop. It's very rare that you have this kind of combination of, like, a guy who's really, really a rapper. He's not some dude who wanted to be a singer, who raps a little bit. Like, this is a dude who has rapped for millions of people and is good at what he does.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK GIRL TOOF")
THE WHITE MANDINGOS: (Rapping) If I could turn back the clock, I'd get your pops to stop smoking rocks. And then maybe then I'd have a shot, since your past got your future on lock. I know you've been through a lot. I wish I could make the pain stop. I wish you loved the man that you got, instead you love the man that I'm not....
KELLY: In their songs you can hear punk and hip-hop, but also the Caribbean records Jenkins' mom used to play and the heavy soul Jenifer says he grew up listening to.
JENIFER: We came together without a lot of pretense and tripping on this and that. We just look at each other, do what we do, which is the beauty of it all.
KELLY: The White Mandingos came together at Jenifer's house in Woodstock, where he and Jenkins would hang out and jam. But what they were laying down didn't really add up to anything until Jenkins says his partner thought to call Murs.
JENIFER: Once he hit it with the lyrics, it opened up. Like something you may not like, like, wow, I don't understand that. You put some lyrics on it, oh, and then it becomes the best thing there.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WARN A BROTHA")
THE WHITE MANDINGOS: (Rapping) I sent my demo to the demons up at Warner Brothers. Now they say they want to sign me lying (bleep). I know I'm getting got, but (bleep) I need a start. I'll renegotiate once I hit the charts. But now I kick back and enjoy the ride. Spend my advance and swallow my pride...
KELLY: Murs made his name over the last 15 years on the independent hip-hop circuit, playing punk and rock festivals. He says all three musicians have never quite fit in.
MURS: We were kind of talking about identity and a term I've used before as the only; when you go to certain things and you're the only black person there. And I was like, well, why don't we just tell a story about this kid who is from the hood, gets a record deal as a rock artist, and still trying to maintain his roots in his neighborhood whilst trying to excel into this new world and the struggles that might came about. And that night I just came up with the 10-song outline.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WARN A BROTHA")
THE WHITE MANDINGOS: (Rapping) He told me sign on the line with my life. He told me that I'd had the time of my life. Hey yo, I never met this man in my life. But holy (bleep), hot damn, he was right...
KELLY: The narrator is named Tyrone White, born 1988 in New York City. And while that makes him much younger than the musicians, Jenkins says his struggles echo their own.
JENKINS: When I was coming up in the '80s, you know, Darryl has me by a few years. Like, he was a pioneer in terms of being a black person who was doing things that weren't traditional. And when I got into all this stuff in the, you know, mid to late-'80s, it was still kind of weird. If you're a black kid, you're only supposed to fit in a box. You're only supposed to like hip-hop. You're only supposed to like R&B.
KELLY: And Murs wanted to talk about interracial relationships.
MURS: Interracial relationships are modern, I think, love songs. And I wanted to tell that story, because that story of black and white people being together is only "Ebony and Ivory" - it's OK to love someone of another race. But no one actually talks about how weird it is to go to your white girl's parents' house and meet her parents for the first time. And then, how weird it must be for them and they're trying to be cool, but then they say something awkward. And you don't want to say anything, 'cause you're still a guy trying to impress your girlfriends' parents before race.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FIRST WHITE GIRLFRIEND")
THE WHITE MANDINGOS: (Rapping) We used to go to fancy dinners with the folks. It would feel like a episode of "Different Strokes." She smelled like a dog when her hair was wet. She said my hair felt like a Chia pet. She couldn't take much direct sunlight. Sunburn, no sex, not a fun night...
KELLY: Jenkins and Murs say society has moved further than music has in addressing the changes that are happening in their generation and the next.
JENKINS: Today, you know, white kids, black kids, Latin kids they can connect in ways they didn't connect pre-Internet. There were the onlys like us, who were early. And then now all that information is there. It's easy for them to process it and come together.
MURS: And they know stuff you wouldn't think they know because they just, YouTube, YouTube, YouTube, YouTube, YouTube. And so their influences are vast.
KELLY: And Darryl Jenifer says what the kids are into always sounds strange to the grown-ups.
JENIFER: One time my aunt told me she thought I made vulgar music. She thought I almost was making evil music. But I had to tell her that's almost compared to when the thunder and lightning is clapping, like a little kid will cry, but it's a glorious event. It's not a negative event.
KELLY: "The Ghetto's Tryna Kill Me" tells the life story of a fictional character, but it sounds like the life story of three other guys - guys who used to be the only one in the room and are now in a band together.
Frannie Kelley, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANDINGO RALLY")
THE WHITE MANDINGOS: (Rapping) Black righteous space, I might catch a case. I be higher than a spaceship, but as soon as the base hits...
MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANDINGO RALLY")
THE WHITE MANDINGOS: (Rapping) Never free base kid? Meditation, transcendental, my band is the band that bans instrumentals. Yoga, yogi, cigar stogies, picturing the crib and they try to fold me. Tibet, Nepal, Masonic Halls, project hallways, Taj Mahal, dichotomy, die (unintelligible), ain't (bleep) funny 'bout dying in poverty. Honestly, follow me, Greeks know astrology. Then it went crazy and crash the economy. (bleep) the odyssey and economic policy. Economic sanction, sanction, sodomy. I am cosmic...