As a so-called “conscious” rapper, Garvey is plugged in to a subculture of vigilance and pragmatism. His previous recordings have dealt with the realities of life as a Liberian-born immigrant in America, tackling topics such as police brutality and income inequality. Yet Garvey has always maintained a positive outlook—not so positive that he’s looking for a place to root his mango tree just yet, but he still believes music can spur social change.
“There’s no reason for you to be pessimistic,” he says with an elastic grin. “Those are feelings. You go through feelings all the fuckin’ time. It’s all a cycle. At the end of the day, if you educate yourself and you can network with people, you can always find a way to overcome.”
Garvey introduced himself to the Twin Cities music scene with Man of the People in 2016. Boisterous and lively, that EP showcased Garvey as a bustling intellectual, ricocheting from verse to verse over producer Travis Gorman’s spare, click-heavy beats. Busy and beautiful, Man of the People proved that the MC fully deserved the surname he’d borrowed from black nationalist Marcus Garvey.
“I’ve seen people be defeated,” Garvey says. “I’ve seen them not give a fuck and be like, ‘I’m done with this shit.’ But that’s never me. It can’t be me. I came as an immigrant. I gotta keep chasing it until I die.”
A year later, Garvey has kept the same mentality as before, but he’s working in a totally new style. On his upcoming EP, Onyx Gemstone (out November 25 on Cascade Records), Garvey relaxes into a velvety mélange. Over five songs, the revolutionary raps a whisper above pillow talk. He hasn’t compromised his firebrand voice, but for the first time, Garvey serves seduction instead of sedition.
Onyx Gemstone is loaded with sex songs. First comes “Compliment,” a passionate ode to simultaneous orgasms. Last comes “Raindrops,” where Garvey smirkingly raps that he’s “kissing on your torso like I’m writing Morse code.” Neither track crosses the line into Pretty Ricky-level explicitness—Garvey’s deferential and eloquent even when he’s trying to drop your panties. To him, the intellectual and the sensual are intertwined.
“I just felt like I was on some sensual shit on a lot of those songs,” Garvey says. “These are from when I was sprung. They’re sprung songs, for real.”
Onyx Gemstone is a collaboration between Garvey and reclusive Minneapolis producer Ackryte. According to Garvey, it was Ackryte who unlocked his sultry side with his meticulous blend of soul samples and original boom bap production.
“The thing about his beats is sometimes they sound so beautiful, you don’t wanna write to them,” Garvey says. “His beats are like collages. I feel like I made some of my best music as far as mature, grown-ass-man-type music.”
For all the titillation here, the true soul of Onyx Gemstone comes on “Gorgeous.” As Ackryte provides a contemplative, piano-laced beat, Garvey describes the beautiful struggle he’s faced since coming to America as a child. He could justifiably be discouraged by the systematic obstacles he discusses, but instead, in every chorus, he treats the black condition with the same affirming devotion that he gives his soulmates. It’s in lyrics like “Appropriate our culture while we steady live in ruin / But we won’t stop moving, strategizing, and keep improving” that Garvey unlocks the meaning behind Onyx Gemstone’s title.
“There’s an unappreciated beauty of the onyx stone,” Garvey explains. “A lot of people who see the onyx stone don’t really know it’s worth a lot of money, that it’s actually a jewel, something of value.”
It’s no coincidence that onyx is also a black gem, but on a more mystical tip, it’s said to ward off negativity and unhappiness. The more Garvey read up on the ornamental stone, the more he realized it was the perfect metaphor for his attitude toward life as a black immigrant in America.
“Black is always under-appreciated,” Garvey continues. “My anthem is like, despite the adversity that people of color face, despite how the system is set up, despite the messages black youth get through the media, you have to appreciate the beauty that we can transcend all of that. In the midst of all the adversity.”
Garvey understands the difficulty of getting his message out to a wider audience. “I’m never too comfortable,” he says. “As somebody who understands the potential of society, seeing where we are and how it falls on deaf ears when you try to have conversations about making things better. People don’t wanna hear that shit.”
Onyx Gemstone is an exercise in relaxation for Garvey. The balance between sex and enlightenment is what keeps him from teetering into pessimism. In a world where Trump has ascended on a xenophobic platform, black people are gunned down on video, and there’s not a mango tree to be found, it’s that mingling of the social, sensual, and spiritual that keeps him hopeful for that perfect world.
“I like to clown and joke, too,” Garvey says, “but at the end of the day, we gotta be able to have a serious conversation.”
9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 25
Nomad World Pub in Minneapolis