A hip-hop icon schools local artists on a different kind of urban renewal. Story by Jenny Dunn. Photo by Geoff Johnson.
Long before he arrived in town to lecture on communications at Savannah State University, Edward Fletcher pushed people to think critically. As an early pioneer of hip-hop and rap, Fletcher worked under the stage name “Duke Bootee.” He cut more than 31 chart hits as a member of the Sugar Hill Records studio band—including his original composition, “The Message,” a seven-minute rap elegy of urban life hailed by Rolling Stone as the No. 1 greatest hip-hop song of all time. He wrote, played and toured with the Sugar Hill Gang and Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five. He has written and produced for Snoop Dog, Ice Cube, Dr. John and Bill Wyman. His music paved the way for artists like Notorious B.I.G, Jay-Z and N.W.A.
Now, the New Jersey transplant is dropping the mic on the city’s creative class with his observations about what he’s deemed “the Savannah School.” According to Fletcher, this emerging movement’s transient charm lies in its Dickensian dualities: upstairs vs. downstairs, come-here vs. from-here, master vs. servant, and knowledge vs. ignorance—a modern tale of two cities.
Savannah Magazine: You’ve said you’re concerned about local artists who fail to recognize the Savannah influence. Why?
Edward Fleetcher: This place affects me. Every time I talk about contrasts inherent in the Savannah School, people really respond to that. Some of my friends here get mad at me for saying, “Stop painting about other places.” But you’re not in Ghana; you’re not in New York. You’re in Savannah. Even if you don’t make your work about here, you’re influenced by this city, consciously or subconsciously. My concern is, why we aren’t we seeing more of that?
What’s your take on being a “come-here,” not a “from-here?”
There’s a scene in Gone with The Wind, where a couple carpetbaggers (one black, one white) are people-watching. One says to the other, “They must not know who won the war.” Sometimes I wonder that, too. If #blacklivesmatter, make a commitment and make it better. Don’t just talk about it.
So what’s your story? How did you fall in love with Savannah?
You could say I grew up with Georgia on my mind or that Savannah seduced me just like a pretty, fat girl would. If you love this city the way I do, you’ll understand how certain things brought you here. A love of water, a certain “antiquitousness” that hooks into history and its implications, the verdant vegetation, religion and things unseen—my God, there’s more churches per capita in this town than anywhere I’ve ever been.
What artists are doing it right in Savannah?
People all over town are doing great work—visual artists like Jerome Meadows and Betsy Cain, musicians like my man Jody Espina and Eric Jones, photographer Tim Gill, writers like Jane Fishman and Chad Faries. These are some very talented people who understand and realize the Savannah influence.
What part do you play in the Savannah School?
My students think I’m an old hippie. I see my role as a grandfather. I just try to impart the canon. The novel I’m writing is a love story between a white man and a black woman. It’s a story about falling in love—and falling in love with this city.