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Marco Pavé: River King

As rapper Marco Pavé preps a new album, he brings a unique collaboration with Opera Memphis to Playhouse on the Square.


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Marco Pavé is a hip-hop artist who values live performance. "It's literally my favorite thing to do! I'm very inspired by the soul, blues, and jazz that comes from this region, that the Mississippi created."

Artists often fear putting untested new material in front of a crowd, but for Pavé, that leap of faith is an essential part of the process. When he started out in 2010, "People told me that, as a hip-hop artist, you can't get a show booked without a project out. I was like, what does that even mean? I just started booking shows for myself. I have music that I need to perform ... I've tested out plenty of songs before I recorded them in the studio. That's how I get better. I'll test out a song live, I'll perform it 10 times before I record it, and if it gets that same reaction every time, I hit the studio with it. If it's not, I won't record it. It's not worth it. Why would I waste money on it? ... Time is money. Why waste time on something that you don't know if people want it?"

The fruit of Pavé's experimentation will be heard on May 12th (pre-orders open this week), when he drops his new album Welcome to Grc Lnd. "I called it that because the grace is broken in Memphis. It's a metaphor for a recreated Memphis."

Recorded last year in three marathon days at American Studio, the record features guest bars from Al Kapone, Iron Mic Coalition's Jason Da Hater, and Jamey Hatley, as well as three Memphis Black Lives Matter activists. "It was inspired by the I-40 bridge protest last year. There's no music for this moment. There's no music for the feelings that people have, no soundtrack to it. When the civil rights movement was in its heyday, we had music, we had a soundtrack. Stax was a part of it, a part of the story. That's what I wanted to do with this album — I wanted to add a soundtrack to the movement, to what people were feeling."

Right now, Pavé is on out on the road with New Orleans rapper Alfred Banks. They call their self-booked sortie the River Kings II Tour. Pavé saw Banks perform at the On Location: Memphis film festival and found their styles to be a natural fit. Their second tour is more than twice the number of dates as the first. "I want people to look around, study, know about your country. Don't live in a bubble. Go out and touch people. That's why this tour is so important ... I'm learning, I'm on a journey. I want to know about every city I go to. What makes a city be a city? What's the history? Who lived there? Who made it famous? Who drove these roads before we did? It's more than performing; it's like a pilgrimage for me. Let's go out and learn some stuff about our country."

The River Kings' return to Memphis on Thursday, April 6th will be an opportunity for Pavé to try out some daring new material. After his Tedx Talk in 2015, the rapper was approached by Ned Canty of Opera Memphis. "They wanted me to write a hip-hop opera for them," he says. The full work won't be done until next year, but Pavé and Opera Memphis have gathered an impressive and varied team of collaborators for their first big public performance. Together with Sam Shoup conducting Opera Memphis, Pavé will be joined by DJ Wise and DJ Chris Cross spinning classic hip-hop songs and their contemporary responses, neo-soulsman Juju Bushman performing with the Opera, sets by Robin X, and River King partner Alfred Banks, and Robinson Bridgeforth from the Reach band will accompany Pavé on drums. Pavé will debut a new song called "Memphis Tragedy." "It's the story of a 12-year-old kid with a mother and father who have disappeared into incarceration and is trying to find a way out of this terrible situation," he says. "It's also an anti-gun violence song."

Pavé and Opera Memphis will bring this grand experiment in genre crossing to Playhouse on the Square. "This show will be showcasing the potential of what we're doing together."

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