Solomon Tetteh and his buddy Oba Amitabha are walking along a narrow path in a small wooded area, pausing briefly to marvel at an already-blooming purple magnolia and other exotic flora — a coral bark Japanese maple, Portugal laurel rose, a Korean dwarf boxwood shrub. Near a bench at the side of the trail, Amitabha suddenly stops and points to a spot in the brush.
"What kind of bird is that?" he asks. "I don't think I've ever seen one like that."
The bird is dark with a an orange breast, but it isn't a robin. It flutters to the branch of a nearby tree.
"Me neither," Tetteh says. "I'm not sure."
It's not a rhetorical question for Tetteh. The dreadlocked, 33-year-old rapper, whose rap name is Black Linen, majored in environmental science at North Carolina Central University in Durham. And this narrow path that winds its way through the UNCC Botanical Gardens, ending up in the tranquility of a traditional wooden gazebo built into a hill overlooking a small pond, is where he comes to find peace and solitude.
"I love to come here and just breathe the air," Tetteh had told me the day before, as we sat in the gazebo and talked for nearly two hours about his life and music. "My mom had a garden when I was a kid, and I spent a lot of time with her working in it." He laughed. "It probably had something to do with me wanting to study environmental science and save the rainforest."
Instead, Tetteh got sidetracked by music. Black Linen II, his second album under his new moniker and ninth overall since 2009, may be his most ambitious project yet. In addition to his own rhymes, it features a wide-ranging cast of young Charlotte-based artists including the experimental neosoul and R&B singers Bri Blvck and Jessika Shaunnelle, folk-punk singer-songwriter Le Anna Eden, and fellow rappers Nige Hood and Tetteh's younger brother Goldie.
Kicking off pensively with Shaunnelle's soaring vocals on "TTWLG: An Ode to Janet Jackson" (on which the singer also adds a hard-hitting spoken-word part), the record ricochets from the guitar-spangled "HITS" to Blvck and Nige's sparkling "Love Saves" to Goldie's haunting closing track "Fade to Black." From start to finish, Black Linen II is a simmering indictment of the mainstream star-making machine, snaked through with lines like, "I'm on a slave ship with a master plan" and "Everything they say don't touch my soul / And I just want to kill my radio."
"We wrote this music to give assurance that timeless songs that inspire still exist," Black Linen says, "that we all have the ability, with no outside help, to mold ourselves into pristine artists more powerful than our commercial counterparts." One of Black Linen's goals, he says, is to inspire not just other artists, but regular people of all kinds who struggle to find their voices amid the daily grind of life in America, circa 2017. The songs come directly from each artist's personal struggles, he says, but they "cover a range of common issues, from let-downs to uprisings."
Tetteh's Frustration with the fatuousness of celebrity culture comes from an honest place. Like so many independent rappers and other musicians, he spent too much time lost in the pay-to-play hustle, where clubs and promoters "offer" artists a "chance" to showcase their music for a fee. Sometimes it's $50, sometimes more. And it almost always involves the artists having to sell a certain number of tickets. It's a way for clubs and promoters to provide music entertainment to paying audiences without the club or promoter having to actually pay for it. In fact, they get paid for it. And it's marketed to budding artists as being good for their careers.
Tetteh was running fast on that track when, in the late 2000s, he and Goldie found themselves at yet another pay-to-play event with the promise that a big star — in this case, Big Duke of Atlanta's Boyz n da Hood — would see them and perhaps offer them the opportunity of a lifetime.
"We went hard that night," Tetteh says. "I'm taking my shirt off, I'm jumping in the crowd, I'm doing this and that. And I did get to talk to [Big Duke], you know what I'm sayin'? And he was hot at the time, and I'm such a Southern rap fan — I'm thinking, I know Southern rap better than anybody — so I'm thinking, man, this is gonna happen, I can already see the CD cover!"
When he awoke the next morning, Tetteh had an epiphany. "I was like, 'I don't think it works this way. I don't think this is how it happens.'" He decided that from that day forward, he and all of his past and future rap alter egos would trust Solomon Tetteh. "I said, I think I'm going to do it another way. I think I'm going to do things my way."
In 2008, he released a set of instrumental tracks, Cafe' Carolina, then launched a series called Fuck Money, Get Free. Between 2009 and 2015, Tetteh released five volumes of FMGF under the names Swag.A.Persona and 7th Soana. "When I came up with Fuck Money, Get Free, it freed me up to do what I wanted to do. I started doing music with no expectations. And I didn't feel bad when nobody listened," he says.
"It's a hard road to travel to learn that," he goes on. "But I'm so grateful that nothing took place before I reached that pinnacle in my artistic development. There's no telling what people might have persuaded me to do, because people will take you down a long road where you get to a place where you're saying, 'How I get back from here?' Some people don't get back."
The road for Solomon Lamptey Tetteh began in Walterboro, S.C., but his dad, a Ghanian immigrant, soon moved the family to Decatur, Ga. At 10, he joined his elementary school band — as a trombonist. "All the other kids wanted to play everything else but the trombone, so I picked the trombone," he says. "And I got good at it." By the time he reached high school, his family was living in Charlotte, where Tetteh's band teacher urged him to study music theory. He got good at that, too. But it was the late '90s. The South had a hot hip-hop scene based in Atlanta, with Goodie Mob and OutKast ruling the roost. And Solomon Tetteh got hooked.
"When [OutKast's 1998 album] Aquemini came out, that was it for me. I knew I wanted to do this," Tetteh says. "So by the time I got to about 11th or 12th grade, I had to figure out how I'm gonna do it. I was still thinking about it from my marching band background. I hadn't really figured out how hip-hop was actually made."
Digitally sequencing beats and melodies required a different language from traditional music theory. Tetteh knew about computers. His dad was a computer analyst, and even as far back as the mid-'90s young Solomon had owned one of the earliest iterations of a laptop. But he didn't know how to make music on them. Then, in 2000, his mom got him a Casio for Christmas.
"It was some kind of workstation keyboard, and I just started banging away on the thing. I figured out how to sequence stuff, but it was a different world," he says. "It had all these sounds on it, and I was like, 'I think I've heard these sounds on this or that album, but I never heard them in the band room.'"
A couple of guys he knew at school — guys who were not part of the marching band world — started using an unfamiliar term. "They were talking about 'FruityLoops this and FruityLoops that,'" he says, "and I wanted to know what FruityLoops was." Now known as FL Studio, FruityLoops was a popular digital audio workstation — one of several DAWS on the market, including Logic, Cubase, Reason and Pro Tools — used by music producers. "So I went out and found FruityLoops, and that kind of jump-started the whole thing," he says.
It took a while for the young trombonist-turned-rap-freak to decode the language, translating his knowledge of music theory to a new platform. In the mean time, he formed a group, wrote some rhymes, played some football and rapped under a few different names. By the time he got to North Carolina Central University in Durham, he'd put music on the backburner. At 18, Tetteh was ready to save the planet.
"Growing up, my two loves had been art and science, so when I got to college . . . well, bottom line, the plan was, I was gonna save the rainforest." Tetteh slaps a hand down on his turquoise-blue hipster pants and lets out a big belly laugh. "But then you get a little farther into your studies, and you're like, 'I don't think this is what they're trying to teach me to do,'" he says. "I started to feel like — I don't want to say that it didn't feel real, but it felt as if the route I was taking wasn't really what I was wanting to do."
Around that time, he had a daughter and decided to drop out of college and get a full-time job. And he slowly began to take music more seriously again. Almost every weekend, he would take the train from Durham to Charlotte, lugging along his massive tower computer, mic stand and a bunch of other equipment. "My dad would trip out. He'd be like, 'What are you doing?' I would set up in my brother's room and we would record. I did my first recording at my dad's crib. I was so proud of that track" — he laughs — "and it sounded like shit."
By 2006, he was working with a mentor, Dewitt Alston (Orion Ra), who also produced some of Tetteh's music. "We would have these learning sessions at his crib," he remembers. Tetteh's beatmaking really took off. "I think my musical background started making a difference by then," he says. "I didn't look at it that way at the time, but I can see now how that affected my ability to craft good beats. And I think it's that way with any art — if you can get to the point where you find the translations and see the connections, you make better art. There's even a connection between visual art and music."
The one thing Tetteh never felt he'd mastered was songwriting. He could write rhymes, but writing songs was different. That's where meeting artists around Charlotte who worked in different genres — like Le Anna Eden — came to play. But when Tetteh was ready to make the transition from Swag.A.Persona — the kid who kickstarted the Fuck Money, Get Free series — through 7th Soana and finally Black Linen, he had to reach way back to another influence.
"I always liked John Lennon, mostly his political ideology — love, peace, anti-war," Tetteh says. "And sometimes people forget that he was murdered. He had these ideas and beliefs and he was murdered because of them. And as a child, I would always hear 'Imagine,' and that's a song that just does something to you. So I started thinking back on 'Imagine,' and that's when I started thinking about songwriting, about my lyrics.
"I started getting into the actual art of songwriting — making these incredible songs that could represent what I'm about and what I'm thinking, but also can still reach the masses — like 'Imagine,'" he says. "To be able to reach a young child and an old adult and still get across the same concept — there's not many things out there now that can bridge that gap."
He named the project Black Linen as a subtle nod to Lennon's name, but also for the texture of the late Beatle's voice. "I didn't really want to take his name. I wanted something that was different and broader; something that would still give out that same vibratory idea," he says. "Linen is a word that represents a smooth texture. And John Lennon was also smooth and cool, so I just blended those ideas into one name."
Lennon's smooth and cool voice could also rage. And Black Linen's smooth and cool project, which blends soul, lounge music, poetry and rhymes, a little reggae and hip-hop and jazz, and features a smorgasbord of Charlotte artists — well, it rages, too, under a warm blanket designed to protect.For Tetteh's full discography, go to the Black Linen Bandcamp or Soundcloud pages. For booking or any other information, email Tetteh.