Black Indian
Black Indian in 2016 with his Titan Arts Awards for his contributions to the local music scene; Instagram

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D.C. hip-hop pioneer Joshua Culbreath, a.k.a. Black Indian, died on Jan. 17 at the untimely age of 45. Culbreath was a larger-than-life figure both musically and stylistically, and was one of the first local rappers to sign a major record label deal when his hit single “Get ’Em Psyched” became popular nationwide.

Culbreath was born and raised in Northeast D.C. and attended Fletcher Johnson Jr. High School and Duke Ellington School for the Arts. His lyrical skills were noticed at an early age. As a teen, he was already hanging out with influential rap crews like Infinite Loop and attending the famous Freestyle Union sessions organized by cultural hip-hop ambassador Toni Blackman

It was through the Freestyle Union that Culbreath met the rappers behind Opus AkobenKokayi, Sub Zero, Steve Coleman, and Ezra Greer. They were looking to add another rapper and hired Black Indian to accompany them on their European tour. Culbreath, who was only 15 years old, had to get permission from his mother to go overseas with the group. The tour was successful and Opus Akoben released the critically acclaimed album Art of War on the BMG France label in 1997.

After Culbreath returned from Europe, he was introduced to MichaelMike NiceBrewington, a local music promoter and manager. With Brewington’s financial support and studio expertise, the two recorded and released the 2000 single “Get ’Em Psyched” on the local independent label Liaison. And when the music video hit the viewer-powered video channel Music Video Box, it instantly became a fan favorite. The hard-core lyrics and gritty imagery appealed to hip-hop fans around the country.

“My video dropped on the Music Video Box at the same time Nelly released ‘Country Grammar,’” Culbreath recalled in a 2009 interview with this reporter. “The first week, Nelly was No. 1 and I was No. 2. The rest of the summer I was No. 1 and he was No. 2. When ‘Get ’Em Psyched’ blew up, it attracted a lot of attention from the major labels. I signed with MCA Universal and recorded a second single, ‘Making Cash Money,’ produced by and featuring Biz Markie.”

Culbreath went on the road again to support the Get ’Em Psyched album. His tour hit all the major cities, but was especially popular in the south.

“I did shows with Snoop, Master P, and E-40. I went to the Bayou Classic in New Orleans and sold out the House of Blues two years in a row,” he recalled with pride. “I had gained a following in New Orleans. If you look at the cover of my album, I’m wearing my hair in dreadlocks and smoking a blunt. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out where Lil Wayne got his style from. If you look at the Cash Money videos during that era, they all had short haircuts.”

Unfortunately, the MCA contract Culbreath signed was typical of most rap deals in the early 2000s and was financially advantageous to the label—not the artist. Culbreath was growing weary of music industry politics and rapping about drugs and thug life. He was no longer a precocious teenager. He’d grown into a more socially conscious adult and understood the gravity of his words. He began to change his focus and incorporate more religious themes into his music. It was a drastic change from his previous image that neither the label nor his fan base were prepared for. Eventually, he separated from the label. 

Back home in D.C., Culbreath began working with a nonprofit where he mentored youth offenders, but he also continued to release new music independently. He connected with talented local producers such as Judah, Don Cox, and DJ Crank, and rappers such as Kenilworth Katrina, Uptown Shane, and Deezy Flint and dropped albums The Future in 2003 and Proverbs 1-31 three years later on his own Black Indian Music label; his new material was lyrically more profound, but his core audience continued to support him. He gave up-and-coming artists valuable career advice and provided them a platform to perform by hosting the NU Energy Radio show at Listen Vision studios on Georgia Avenue NW.

“Black Indian was one of the most spiritually enlightened people I’ve ever met,” Jeremy Beaver, owner of Listen Vision and founder of the National Hip-Hop Museum, tells City Paper. “He paved the way for the D.C. hip-hop scene that followed in his footsteps.”

Culbreath was one of the rappers, along with Nonchalant, Section 8 Mob, and Questionmark Asylum, who put the spotlight on D.C. in the early aughts. Together they made the music world acknowledge that the nation’s capital had a viable hip-hop scene. The doors they opened made the path a little smoother for the next generations of rhymers such as Wale, Tabi Bonney, Lightshow, Fat Trel, and Shy Glizzy

Culbreath loved his city and it loved him back even harder. He received a “Living Legend” honor at the 2010 DMV Awards, and was honored by the Titan Arts Awards Committee in 2016 at the Howard Theatre for his contributions to the local music scene. He performed at a Washington Wizards post-game concert at Capital One Arena in 2019.

“He was a very caring brother, funny as hell too,” says RonDJ RBIBrown. “He had a big heart and impacted my life and the lives of others countless times. He never failed to advocate for me and I appreciate him for that.”

Culbreath battled health issues in recent years, including kidney and heart problems. He often used social media to document his struggles, sometimes posting videos from his hospital bed. He suffered physically, but bravely greeted his followers with spiritual affirmations and positive messages. And he created new music, remaining true to his hip-hop ethos until the end. On Jan. 5, he shared a new anti-violence rap song he was working on via Facebook. Priest Da Nomad, another legendary D.C. rapper who befriended and collaborated with Culbreath, remembers Black Indian’s raw talent, energy, and creative fearlessness. He says, “My heart is broken today. Black Indian unapologetically bled D.C. from the inner sanctums of his soul and left an amazing legacy for our artist community and in the streets.”