Album art can often be tangential, an afterthought — once the album is complete, the musician does a quick photo shoot, or commissions an abstract painting. But for ChaRon Don, the artwork on his new album, Voice of the Voiceless, says everything: The Pittsburgh rapper appears in a tuxedo and combat boots, in blackface (he's African American), with a zipper closed over his mouth. On the inside panels, he's seen, still in blackface, draped in an American flag, then in garments with the colors of the Pan-African and Ethiopian flags, then, on the back cover, back in the tux, starting to undo the zipper on his face.
"I kind of wanted to take something that was, in the traditional context, negative, and turn it around and do it how I wanted to do it," says the rapper (real name: ChaRon White). "Put a positive spin on it. Me putting on blackface, as a black person, it was like taking myself out of it, because I didn't want people to focus so much on the artist, but focus on the voice of the artist — which represents the voice of the people, who I'm speaking for and to.
"In another way, it's to say what people consider dark, what people consider unattractive, what people consider evil — no! You could switch that and make it fly. That's why I'm wearing the tuxedo blazer; I'm still bringing the style on. It's not condescending, I'm not looking down; I'm wearing this mask proudly."
It's all indicative of ChaRon Don's most cohesive and most politically charged work to date. Don't expect Voice to sound like Public Enemy, though; White, who's been performing locally since he was in high school in the late '90s, took inspiration from the traveling he did starting around the time of his last release, Thee Official.
"It's a great album," he says of Thee Official. "I put it on iTunes and all the online stores, and it was doing OK. Just OK. I never really promoted it; I didn't have the time.
"I was traveling a lot: I started traveling probably three years ago. Went to Africa for some weeks. I got married. My focus was on family and home. I was living the life: I was reading a lot, sitting out on the back porch, reading a lot of history, reflecting on what I'd seen on these travels. I went to Central America, just went on a couple retreats."
In the meantime, White's longtime collaborator, DJ Huggy, whom he'd known growing up, moved to California with the rock band he played with, The Full Steam. Music wasn't gone from White's life, but it wasn't his main focus — until he started toying around with some tracks with another longtime friend, producer Diezel (Londell Robinson).
"I'm his children's godfather," White explains. "I'm always hanging out with him anyway. He could see where I'm at, and [I was] telling him what I need: something warm, has to be live music. You can sample, you can manipulate it how you want to, but I want a lot of live music played, a lot of tribal drums."
That was the framework that emerged for Voice of the Voiceless. Where previous projects had felt to White like they were catalogs of collaborations, this was an album where he and Diezel took the lead and established an aesthetic. There are other artists (and producers, including DJ Huggy) on the album, but the overall product was ChaRon Don's vision, with Diezel's supervision.
"We have a great chemistry already," explains Robinson. "When we got about four or five songs in, he came up with the name of the album and it was like, 'Yo, that's it!' It just seemed like it was out of nowhere — we were working, and the other songs started to fit the mold of the album."
Thematically, Voice addresses social and cultural issues: Reggae artists join ChaRon Don in songs about the state of world affairs vis-a-vis Rastafarianism, as on "Inna These Last Dayz," which features Kabaka Pyramid. And, if the provocative album art wasn't enough, ChaRon shows that he doesn't shy away from the politically incorrect in order to make a point on "Cracker Nigger," a track about social status when one grows up in a mixed-race family. Throughout the album, ChaRon's flow is quick and often feels spontaneous, a product of his background as a battle-rapper and freestyler.
White says a lot of the inspiration for the direction the album took came from Nas and Damian Marley's 2010 album Distant Relatives. "They were speaking to a lot of what I'd seen and experienced, and what I studied, coming up in black arts and culture, Rasta — they were hitting a lot of points. I was like, 'Whoa, I really haven't exposed these parts of myself in my music. I want to do that before I just keep putting out these albums of battle-oriented rhymes.'"
Besides battle-rapping, White came up as a bit of a ladies' man, writing romantic material. While Voice goes deeper than all that, he says that doesn't mean he's moved on completely.
"I would still say 'ladies' is a topic," he says with a laugh. "I didn't drop that. It's whatever the music gives me. I'm not gonna limit myself to writing about one thing. With this album ... I stuck with one topic, one kind of vibe. Even at that, it's different feels."