A civil rights leader, Ward 8 hero, and four-term mayor, D.C. Councilmember Marion Barry, who died last night at the age of 78, was also prime fodder for local musicians.
In April 2013, veteran D.C. rapper Head-Roc, an occasional Washington City Paper contributor, released a tribute to Barry called “Mayor 4 Life.” On the track, Head-Roc traces Barry’s history from his birth in Mississippi and civil rights activism to his drug bust (“Now who ain’t never suffered from a crack in their armor/Been victims of attacks to diminish their honor?”) and triumphant return to local politics. The song ends with a case for his continued exaltation:
This African-American is legend, an icon, a hero who rose from zero
My knowledge of COINTELPRO lets me know,
We owe much love to this badass Negro.
Of course, for every rose-tinted tribute to Barry, there are many more that give him the side-eye. On Wale‘s “Black Heroes,” off his 2013 album The Gifted, he boasted that he had far better role models to look to than Barry (namely, football stars): “Where the stairs it’s the boys, find it hard to follow politicians/And they Marion Barry, yeah I have Barry Sanders/Never wanna be gangster, put them dirty pads up.”
Ward 8 rapper Larry Pretlow, aka LaPret, challenged Barry’s seat in the Wilson Building in 2012’s “Problem in Harlem,” which reportedly outraged Barry.
And then there’s this bunch of white guys from Sumerduck, Va., who call themselves Shades and recorded “Bitch Set Me Up,” a low-hanging, lo-fi imagining of Barry’s drug days, in 2007: “Cruisin’ around in my limousine/Lookin’ around for a little morphine.”
Barry made his own attempts at musicality, too. In an act of textbook irony, Barry lent a verse to Chuck Brown‘s cheerful-yet-moralizing anthem “Go-Go Drug Free” on 1987’s Any Other Way to Go. “I’m Marion Barry and here’s my rap/We won’t tolerate drugs in the nation’s capital,” he starts out. Then: “Life’s too short to throw away/And ‘no’ isn’t hard to say.” Evidently, Barry wasn’t cut out for music stardom—-when he fumbles his lines mid-verse, he moans to the studio audience, “This is harder than being mayor, man!”
But in the end, we’d rather remember him singing the blues ditty he broke out most often when he found himself holding a mic (including at Republic’s Monday Blues Night and his 76th birthday): T-Bone Walker‘s “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad).”