For everyone still thinking the Mannequin Challenge was the new hot thing, I’ve got an amazing story to tell you about the U NAME IT phenomenon that’s been the highlight of my November by far. If you don’t listen to Hip Hop you might have missed this one, so sit back, relax, and learn how two artists took the raw grist of the internet and turned it into magic, one after the other.
Way back in 2010, a gospel singer named Shirley Caesar uploaded a performance of her singing a gospel tune named Hold My Mule. The epic performance, clocking in well over nine minutes, describes a tale of an honest priest tilling his fields and praising the Lord. When a bunch of idolater & materialist Reverends come from the city in their fancy cars, telling him that he’ll be thrown out of the Church they all preach at for his meager and overenthusiastic ways, Shirley utters these words (~5:55 for those interested), that will forever go down in meme history:
“I got beans, greens, potatoes, tomatoes, lamb, rams, hogs, dogs, chicken, turkeys, rabbits — you name it!”
This video lay fallow until the beginning of November, when ATL-based DJ Suede the remix god released a minimal, yet massive hip hop remix to her performance, pulling the electrified vocals through some understated but perfectly executed trap beats. An instant classic, the beats became the backdrop for a new viral dance craze, called the U NAME IT, after Shirley’s vocal climax.
Thus, the #UNAMEIT challenge was born. The original video by RemixGodSuede (on Instagram) blew up until it was taken down, but by then, it had already spawned dozens of compilation videos on YouTube and Instagram submissions to dance it out on this new new. Crucially, at that point, the track had some traction on social media and earned a dance submission from Chris Brown, who has posted other compilations earning 1.3m views and logged 9276 comments on this post alone.
It’s hard to tell exactly how big the challenge got, as many of the video compilations were copies, but to put this in perspective, the BBC covered it today here is “U Name It” on Google Trends:
If the story ended here, with a massive viral dance hit that you could bomp in your car or dance in the club at, I would’ve just shared the video on Facebook and left it at that. But Grey, an ATL-based Vegan rapper took it and went one step further. This step is the crucial one that most artists flub. Everyone tries to take advantage of the viral video or hit and make it about them. But in the depressing majority of cases, this doesn’t occur. A lot of producers don’t bring anything new to the table, nor are they competent enough to understand how to use the source material, given their talents. Grey is one of the only artists I’ve seen to take the viral ball and run with it. He did so by dropping this on the Internet a week before Thanksgiving:
This blew the hell up. It managed to make it from ATL Hip Hop Instagram to Vegan Facebook in under a week, just in time for the Thanksgiving dinner arguments about food. This took the phenomenon to an entire other level. While the implications of the gospel song in the original were entirely ignored, Grey pointed the conversation onto an entirely new topic. The sick flow and the topicality ensured that by the time I sent it to a pescatarian I knew in Boston, she’d already been bombarded with it by her entire vegetarian cohort. And suddenly, there was this odd perfusion of ATL Hip Hop & Trap Beats flying through the largely white, non-urban Vegan Vlog/Blogosphere.
I think this is a hugely important feat, one that not only gave a relatively boring topic, veganism, but it was a reminder that issues can be presented in entirely novel ways. It’s relatively rare for hip hop that breaks through to the general public to be both “good” and activist at the same time. But Grey didn’t stop there. The full music video for Vegan Thanksgiving dropped on the 23rd and it is delicious. Shot in a single house, with kids, aunties and grand parents dancing, it’s as thought provoking as it is booty-shaking.
The video adds a 2nd verse and fuses Thanksgiving with a spot on send up of house party hip hop videos. There’s even a Mannequin Challenge IN the video, which is, in and of itself, the most elaborate UNAME IT Challenge submission we’ve seen since it started. The thread of using the art of their time to raise awareness remains constant. In Shirley’s case, it was about rejecting materialism and finding sanctuary in the glory of God. Grey took an amazing pass from DJ Suede and made something special, that started conversations in thousands of homes across America yesterday. We can all take some notes looking at how this was executed, especially the activists among us. Grey got more people talking about veganism by sitting in his car rapping over a remix in one day, than PETA does in a year. As per their financial statement, between International Grassroots Campaigns & Public Outreach and Education, they spent $21m on that in 2015. Maybe just cut a check to Grey huh? Or maybe spend $5-8mill to buy a Netflix show about an ATL-based Vegan black family. Donald Glover can guest star. It’d be like the Cosby Show, but instead of date rape, there would be veganism.