The massive “cannagar” is practically billowing smoke as we pass it back and forth between us on the top-floor patio of a lodge in the outskirts of Seattle; roughly 12 grams of cannabis with 3 grams of rosin, all wrapped up in cured cannabis leaves — the cannagar is the perfect expression of decriminalization and the freedom that comes with it.
My smoking partner — Memphis, Tennessee-based rapper and activist Marco Pavé — is relishing that freedom with particular gusto. The look on his face is one of awe, tinged with subtle sadness.
“We don’t have anything like this back where I come from — smoking something like this would be asking for trouble,” he says. “I got plenty of friends who got weed charges — just weed — and it f*cked their whole life up… it’s not a moral game, it’s a money game and we’re keeping people in the jail.Tennessee has one of the top prison populations and it’s mostly black.”
With so much national momentum behind cannabis decriminalization, it’s easy to forget that much of the U.S. is still living under full state and federal prohibition; you can pretty much put Tennessee on that list. In recent years, Nashville and Memphis both passed modest decriminalization bills creating a civil infraction for minor possession and giving police discretion over arrests, but they’ve already been all but reversed by the state legislature.
Suffice to say, it’s far from more liberal states on the West Coast. Speaking with a true Memphis original gave me some insight into just how far.
Memphis is a city blessed and burdened with history: It possesses a rich heritage of music and culture, but in the minds of many Americans, it will always be the city where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Hip-hop — Pavé’s primary form of expression — is an art form similarly weighted with social stigma; even at the age of 44 (if you count hip-hop’s origin as an August 1973 high school party in the Bronx), hip-hop bears the dicey reputation of its turbulent adolescence. How much of that negative aura is the product of the art itself and how much is a reflection of the galvanizing nature of revolutionary art in general? That type of thing always depends on where you’re standing.
What’s undeniable is that hip-hop — despite several public declarations of its death by sources of varying degrees of authority — is still a potent and vibrant expression of the American story, just not the story you hear on the nightly news or in the morning headlines. As Chuck D, the legendary frontman of Public Enemy famously told Spin Magazine: “Rap is black America’s TV station. It gives a whole perspective of what exists and what black life is about.”
If that’s true, then Pavé is the man on the ground in Memphis, broadcasting his community’s story from the frontline. His entire demeanor — from the polite but assertive cadence of his speech to the thick, unapologetic drawl of his words — is dripping in the culture and history of Memphis.
Pavé has the quiet intensity possessed by many emcees, the quiet but lethal demeanor of a well-sighted and polished pistol, loaded and ready to fire explosive rounds at a moment’s notice.
It was just such a pistol (a mercifully less reliable one) that started the second act of Pavé’s life and career.
“In 2009, a friend and I were playing with a gun and it almost went off in my face,” he said, pausing for just a moment to acknowledge the gravity of the statement. “That was the day; I said I’m done messing around with the hood sh*it. It pushed me into using my music to uplift my community.”
Like most people deeply rooted in history, he’s preoccupied with the future; the future of his city and his community. He says his involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement grew from his involvement in music, and that music remains his primary tool for telling stories that speak to the truth of the city he loves.
“When I was like 13 or 14, [my music] was just real very aggressive, in your face hood, gangster type of rap,” he said with a soft chuckle. “It was influenced by that lifestyle, a lot of that was happening in my neighborhood and a lot of what was going.”
But when the 2014 death of Michael Brown ignited the already roiling passions of the then-developing BLM movement, it also sparked the political consciousness of Pavé. Now he sees music (and teaching others about music) as his weapon, and it’s one he’s got squarely aimed at the injustice he sees in his city.
It was also hip-hop that initially connected Pavé with cannabis, which he says he avoided until he was in his late teens. That was until he heard the Wiz Khalifa mixtape “Kush & Orange Juice,” which he said changed his perspective drastically.
“I had a stance against weed as a teen, I didn’t do that,” he said. “I was going through a lot of shit, it was just a crazy, crazy time. ‘Kush & Orange Juice’ had just come out, it dropped 2010, and I got into it, listening to the tracks and just feeling and it was very influential into how I got introduced to weed and participating in it.”
He added that his introduction to the more “connoisseur side” of the plant and culture coincided with a similar cultural expansion across his city.
“In Memphis, you got your southern spots where you might have some dirt weed… but then once it started becoming legal other places, it’s been easier to get better quality stuff,” he said in a phone call, during which he said he was smoking on some OG Kush — the undisputed favorite in his city.
Having toured the country for his music, Pavé said he’s developed tastes beyond the simple OG, although he loves that as well.
Pave added that — far from being a hindrance — cannabis is a crucial element of his creative process. “If I’m really trying to be in super creative mode, I go sativa, sometimes it keeps me up too long — just 16 hours working off music getting into a writing craze and finishing like a whole project.”
He’s also hopeful cannabis can help alleviate some of the economic pressure facing his community by creating new jobs. But until decriminalization comes to Memphis, he’s not holding his breath.
“I believe in the black community getting self-sufficient through business ownership, and cannabis decriminalization is an incredible opportunity for financial stability. I’m seeing how much it does for Seattle and places like Denver,” he said. “With any influx of money is going to come the opportunity of oppression, but it’s definitely a possibility of ending poverty, especially in a place like Memphis.”
TELL US, have you heard Marco Pavé’s music?