Speech Thomas of Arrested Development to Create Documentary that Analyzes Racism in the Church
Speech Thomas is a legend in hip-hop. He is the head of classic hip-hop band Arrested Development who’s smash single “Tennesee” was rocking clubs and radio back in 1992. They were even chosen to pen a track for Spike Lee film ‘Malcolm X’. We had a chance to chat with the long-time artist, and here’s what he had to say.
What do you think the key to your longevity has been?
Passion. That’s really the key and being willing to fail a lot.
Arrested Development just came off a European tour where you did 25 dates in 30 days. How was that experience?
Even though we’ve done that many times before, the way I run Arrested Development now is quite different. It’s a leaner operation. My wife is the tour manager and doing 25 dates in 30 days takes its toll on you as you get older, but over there has some of the best landscape and is beautiful.
What would you say is the major difference between an overseas audience and the ones here in the U.S.?
With our fans it’s pretty much the same everywhere we go, but overseas there seems to be more of an appreciation for authentic Hip Hop, art, and expression.
In this music environment, do you see any benefit for an up-and-coming artist to be signed to a record label?
The benefit of being with a major label is the promotion and exposure and being able to focus more on the music. The negative side is the enslavement mentality of the deals. They have you for so many albums whether they release them or not and are able to tie you down. They own your masters in most cases so even after you’ve recouped they still retain ownership. It’s an unfair way of viewing art.
After all these years of notoriety, what would you say is the most positive and negative aspects of fame?
The positive is all the encouragement and having fans that genuinely love your music. The discouraging part about it is that it can sometimes cause people to treat you as not human and not allow you to be vulnerable and make mistakes without such harsh judgment. The extra scrutiny takes some getting used to.
I wanted to ask you about your documentary 16 bars. What was the most impactful thing for you in that experience?
It was a life-changing experience. I was afraid to go into jail because I’ve never visited a men’s prison before and didn’t know what to expect, so just dealing with the fear of going in for 10 days. What I learned was that I can overcome my fear and that these are human beings with a high level of intelligence, compassion, and wisdom which is so much more than the stereotype of what a prisoner is portrayed to be. I saw their humanity and it was necessary to shed the light on these men and their music. It was very moving and I’m still in touch with all four men.
With your dad having once owned a nightclub and your mom owning the largest black newspaper in Milwaukee, did they teach you specifically about entrepreneurship or did you just learn from their example?
Definitely both. They told me that you have to go at business like everything is possible even if it’s not the time yet or if there are some roadblocks. It’s about perseverance and trying to find that one open door. I saw the racism that they had to face, colorism, and systemic oppression yet they were able to push through despite it. Witnessing something like that in real life can do so much to boost your faith that it can happen for you too.
Tell me more about Victory Spot the school you and your wife Yolanda started?
Victory Spot was a 15-year dream of mine and my wife. You know that I’ve spent a long time trying to teach artists. Doing things like the ANE conference and things at my church, also the mixtape mixer where we would get artists around industry professionals. So at the school, we teach younger and older artists how to hone their craft, to be dignified in their direction and trajectory and still win. We have some amazing experienced instructors. It’s been open for almost four years.
Regarding your conversion to Christianity, how did your industry friends react to you becoming a Christian?
From a black conscious community standpoint, their reaction was really tough because of their skewed views of Christianity. When I became a Christian I got a lot of pushback and I still do. There was a lot of persecution from people who think they know better about what’s good for your life than you do. Although it was tough, it was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.
And how has it affected your creative process?
It’s been an exploration because as Christians we have to be submitting to Jesus but at the same time, not sugar coat our true life experience. I think sometimes Christians can come off like “I’ve got it all straight” and “don’t do this, and don’t do that.” The real glory of God’s love is despite who I am, He loves me. I’ve written songs like “Words Unspoken” from the album Grown Folks Table that explores temptation but the victory over it. Even in the scriptures, you see accounts of God’s people bringing honest complaints to him and it reveals their authenticity with Him.
Was there ever a time when you were tempted to make the music you heard other artists make, or was it easy to stick to the vision you had for Arrested Development?
Always tempted. If you’re a slave to sin like others, there’s a lot less thinking involved and kind of freedom in that they can say whatever they want even though there are consequences. It can be an easier path to take, it’s easy to do. Some songs I’ve heard I can appreciate the raw honesty of them. But in a way, it’s denying myself and not expressing myself in the same way even though I may have had the same feelings.
You’ve always had a unique style of dress, where did it come from? Have you always been like that?
It’s always been my thing. It came from trying to find myself. I had an older brother who passed away but he was the perfect dude. Super-strong, extremely handsome, tall, a ladies man, a doctor, an extreme sportsman, and I loved him. But I was his younger brother so I was always in his shadow. So I had to find out who I wanted to be and I think who I became was partially an answer to that. You know, carving my own niche
I’m really looking forward to your documentary “The Cross is Burning.” How close are you to completing it and can you give any more details?
It’s going to analyze the racism that is within Christian churches. I’m going to make a distinction between what people consider Christianity, which a lot of it is garbage, and authentic Christianity. It’s sad because a lot of people who slander Christianity are basing their thoughts on that outlandish representation. There’s a lot going on in the name of “the church” which is all false and the scriptures declare that it’s not just my opinion but what God says Himself. So, the documentary is going to be highlighting churches that are doing it right, not perfect, but are striving to do it right yet still affected by racism. I will attempt to help those churches and will have a lot of historical and present-day information. I’m in the stages of writing the content now so we haven’t started shooting yet. It will definitely be out in 2019.
What’s the future of Arrested Development? and do you have any solo projects coming soon?
Arrested Development has a record out right now call Craft & Optics on our website ArrestedDevelopmentmusic.com. We dropped that late last year. We have music that’s being constantly created right now. Writing songs that may either be used for solo Speech projects or Arrested Development
If you could have dinner with anyone alive or dead Christian or non-Christian who would it be and why?
Jesus. Because He’d be able to help me on the path concerning everything I’m insecure about. He could help me see things better.