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Music is the universal language of Gullah

Generation after generation keeps Lowcountry culture alive

By Lisa Allen

Trying to tease out only music from Gullah culture is like trying to detect only the salt in the rich aroma of pluff mud.

The word Gullah fires every sense. The taste of the food, the sound of the music and the language, the sight of sweetgrass baskets and vivid paintings. The feel of fabrics and the smell of salt air and rich soil. In short, it captures all that it means to be a Gullah descendent in the Lowcountry.

Music with a message • Anthony “Baby Joker” Johnson is a member of the local rap group Spiritual Gangsters. His lyrics touch on Gullah history and the many challenges the community faces.

Enslaved people created the Gullah culture, a blend of their African roots and the traditions and language they formed as a way to express themselves and communicate with each other within the confines of bondage.

The music encompasses everything from spirituals in the 1600s, to the international fame of Beaufort’s Hallelujah Singers in the 1990s, to today’s Grammy-award-winning group Ranky Tanky from Charleston.

DEEP ROOTS • The Lowcountry quintet Ranky Tanky specializes in jazz-influenced arrangements of traditional Gullah music.

Locally, artists are preserving Gullah music and adding jazz, blues, even gangster rap to it, keeping it vibrant and relevant.

On Hilton Head, the Spiritual Gangsters, comprised of Anthony Johnson and Quintin Smalls, wrote 23 tracks on the album Spiritual Gangsters Mixtape to tell about the issues and struggles of the Gullah people, then and now.

I am using my platform to bring these issues to the public and anyone who is willing to listen and assist us in getting our concerns and issues addressed as well as to help save the Gullah land and culture,”

Johnson, 34, who started rapping at age 2 and launched a record label at age 16, said he was pulled to Gullah music from gangster rap when he learned more about Hilton Head where his great-grandmother grew up. Today, the family is fighting the validity of a last-minute change to a relative’s will that took land from the family.

As he learned more about his Gullah heritage, Johnson realized his family wasn’t alone. He said the Gullah community has lost countless acres to fraud and deception.

“Now I rap about history, mystery, Biblical truths and spiritual enlightenment. I learned how land was taken from the original first free slaves of the Americas,” he said. His current project, Angel Code, intends to shed more light on that oppressive history.

Smalls, 28, and a Hilton Head native, began writing poetry and songs at age 14. He met Johnson and became the other half of Spiritual Gangsters because of its focus on his Gullah history.

“Gate2GateG2G Records created Spiritual Gangsters for the purpose of identifying Gullah issues and promoting the Gullah culture,” Johnson said. “Spiritual Gangsters’ music evolved out of the bad conditions the culture has been put under by corruption, and loss of land through deception and fraud,” Johnson said.

“This area, Mitchelville, was the foundation of our civilization. The land is the culture and it has been and continues to be taken from our native Gullah families,” Smalls said.

Johnson said the group’s name comes from blending his old gangster rap with a larger spiritual component based in his Gullah heritage.  “My lifelong vision is to use my lyrical rap talent for God in a way that even gangsters can understand.”

Singer and songwriter Mahoganee Amiger, 50, of St. Helena Island also uses Gullah as the core of her music.

“I love our dialect and the phrasing and the emotion and memories it evokes,” she said. “That’s what makes it Gullah. I try to be as authentic as I can be to the music.”

She considers Gullah an international culture with its roots firmly here. She’s heard it in Belize and Cuba where she was an artist in residence.

Sea island songbird • St. Helena Island’s Mahoganee Amiger released the song “1619” to celebrate Juneteenth and Black culture in the South Carolina Lowcountry.

“After returning home to SC, I realized I didn’t really know myself until I came back home and was able to see it through a different lens. My heart sometimes struggles with how I feel about home because of the treatment of Black people. Music allows me to channel those emotions in a way that makes it make sense to my soul.

“It is my purpose and intent to create music that has culturally relevant content to let the listener know my roots. I am immensely proud and excited to just do and be me, which allows me to be authentic. I don’t subscribe to anyone’s view or perception of who I should be. I am at the core, a Black woman, a country ‘gurl’ from South Carolina, and the more I learn about my history and culture, the more I fall in love with myself. Gullah allowed me to tap into a magical place within myself and within my music. I’m a storyteller who tells in a way that only I can relay. For that I am forever grateful.”

The flexibility of Gullah music is what will keep it alive, said Anita Singleton-Prather, a storyteller and one of the founders of Hallelujah Singers, and now Aunt Pearlie Sue and the Gullah Kinfolk. “It has evolved, and we have to be careful to not deem the new music as not authentic. I don’t see it dying. There is a renewed appreciation,” she said.

Singleton-Prather added Gullah to South Carolina’s ETV, brought it to classrooms, the stage and to the annual Gullah Festival each Memorial Day weekend in Beaufort.

“I’ve told white children that they are Gullah,” she said. “I’ve taught Black children that they are Gullah and shown them who they are and whose they are. This is not a second-rate culture that exists just to entertain the tourists. It’s the foundation of American music. We are a ministry. Our job is to be seed planters.”