Entering the Kingdom of McKinley Dixon

Watch the video for his Kitchen Table Session of "Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?," premiering below

Music Features McKinley Dixon
Entering the Kingdom of McKinley Dixon

There’s a sequence of lines in the titular poem from Hanif Abdurraqib’s first collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, that I often return to: “you get high enough you gonna lay on the asphalt / ‘til your blood runs back to where your mama stay / ‘til we pray over your feast for summer / you get high enough / the whole world gonna know your mama name,” he wrote. I consider the impressions of crowns; what the weight of royalty might look like when there’s violence involved in acquiring such a treasure. How many rungs can be climbed in the name of sacrifice? When McKinley Dixon opened his 2021 album For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her, he wrote these words: “We twist our fingers into guns / They get torn apart by the sun.” It was clear from the jump that Dixon would leave no truths unchecked; that every instance of uncomfortable brutality in his close proximity would find a place on the page—and some type of beauty would exist within the same margins.

The familiarity of Abdurraqib’s voice is the first thing you hear on Dixon’s new album Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?, as he reads an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel Jazz: “I’m crazy about this City. Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half, I see looking faces and it’s not easy to tell which are people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is a shadow where any blasé thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep. It’s the bright steel rocking above the shade below that does it. When I look over strips of green grass lining the river, at church steeples and into the cream-and-copper halls of apartment buildings, I’m strong. Alone, yes, but top-notch and indestructible-like the City in 1926 when all the wars are over and there will never be another one. The people down there in the shadow are happy about that. At last, at last, everything’s ahead. The smart ones say so and people listening to them and reading what they write down agree: Here comes the new. Look out.”

Abdurraqib and Dixon are both Morrison scholars who have let her words shape the ways in which they see and interact with the world around them. Getting the two together on something as immense as Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? is a collaboration that makes sense completely. When Dixon asked Abdurraqib to guest on the record, the record in question wasn’t even finished; “Sun, I Rise” and “Tyler Forever” were the only reference points Abdurraqib had to go on, but the decision to read the opening of Jazz wasn’t a hard one to make—despite Dixon not giving him any suggested direction. “That specific excerpt is one of my favorite stretches in Morrison’s writing, because it does a thing that I think she does well—it’s maybe the best example of that—where she’s slowing down,” he says. “That form of writing that’s like, ‘How can I make a scene feel like an entire universe?’ That’s what I feel like [Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?] is attempting.”

Like Morrison, Dixon has forged a unique universe within his body of work. The caveat is, however, that that universe is the real world he’s spent his whole life making sense of. The characters in each song are people Dixon knows and, almost always, loves dearly. And they—and the settings and the events—often recur across his entire catalog. As Abdurraqib lovingly calls him, Dixon is a “tour guide” whose story is constantly unfolding beyond one single project. “The albums I love the most and the albums I return to the most do this thing where they’re asking someone to witness something from afar and see every moving part of it as it’s coming together,” Abdurraqib adds. “One of Morrison’s greatest skills, I think, is simply having her characters point out things to a reader and do it in such a way where the reader feels like they are fully invested in the process of the scene unfolding.”

And that is where we meet Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?, with Abdurraqib charting across the city, narrating atop a science-fiction soundscape and ending at Dixon’s house, where the story begins with “Sun, I Rise.” Through symphonious jazz arrangements that conjure flashes of the Roots, Dream Warriors and De La Soul, Dixon inculcates his songs with a poetic vision of his own upbringing as a Black man in the South and the places and people he’s long loved and written in-service of.

The influence of Morrison, who is, in Dixon’s eyes, “the greatest describer of love,” is always there. The album is named after three of her novels, and songs on For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her had references to Songs of Solomon and The Bluest Eye. His work is like an ongoing novel, one that projects a very plainspoken, beautiful articulation of how Black love intersects with violence and community, and what tenderness might look and feel like when it interacts with wreckage—a theme Morrison was often gnawing at in her own bibliography.

“People see her books as African-American literature but, past that, she is one of the greatest horror writers. Killing your baby so that the colonizer cannot, honestly, is some shit nobody is even writing today,” Dixon tells me, as we kick it together at Paste’s SXSW party. “I often say that Jordan Peele is inspired by Toni Morrison and my friend was like, ‘Jordan doesn’t have enough chip on his dip for that.’ Love is not just beautiful, love is also horrible,” Dixon says. “I want to describe moments where there’s a juxtaposition of beauty and sadness. On ‘Sun, I Rise,’ where it’s like, ‘My n**** just passed away / I made my n****s laugh today / So, for me, it’s fine if I don’t make it to tomorrow,’ the juxtaposition of those things, that’s Toni.”

Morrison’s understanding of how brutality is one piece of Black life that must be written about with the same beauty that romance and closeness is is also understood by Dixon, who writes immensely about the affections and kinship he shares with the Black folks he loves—many of whom are always scraping from a vestige of survival. A song like “Run, Run, Run” is catchy and memorable for its tangible, enchanting, upbeat arrangement. But it’s also a devastatingly sad song about Black children living in fear of gun violence. “Running from the gun / Breaks my heart / If you decide to fly away now,” he raps. Generational and childhood trauma and grief are themes that Dixon returns to often in his work, as they are fixtures of living as a Black person in America. It’s something he’s determined to keep examining for as many records as it’ll take him to find a concrete answer as to why it exists and plagues him and his community—if there’s even such a corporeal explanation to begin with.

For My Mama was very much a record about time travel. Time travel, to me, is not a literal thing that happens. To me, it’s something where you listen to a record and you’re like, ‘Now I have the language to explain what has happened to me and what will happen to me.’ With [Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?], I wanted it to be like, ‘Now the community will have the language to be like, “This is how I process the death of my friend, the death of my father, the drugs—all of these things that are now very regular to Black life, and I think it’s more about making language and time travel accessible,” Dixon says.

Accessibility—and the lack of consequences for the white people who exploit it—was a big, big piece of For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her. Dixon grappled with how white people are lauded for making uninspiring art, while unpacking why Black creators must become sadomasochists in conversation with their own turmoil—often in order to find praise from critical think-tank machines playing God. For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her denounced martyrdom by having everybody and their mother in on the project—including Teller Bank$, Alfred., Abby T and Michah James—which is a mode of collaboration that Dixon thrives on. “McKinley has the skill and capability to isolate and make music all by himself, but he’s always incorporated other people’s talents. He recognizes potential and trusts people to contribute something special that may influence the whole process or change what he had in mind,” singer/songwriter Lucy Dacus, who’s been close friends with Dixon for a decade, tells me.

In turn, Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? is about an entire ecosystem crafting its own optimism in the wake of surviving together. The progression is natural, earned and celebratory. But to achieve optimism, you have to first grieve through the cyncism and fatalities that come before it. Five years after the death of his homie Tyler, Dixon is still learning how to cope with that absence in his heart. On the For My Mama song “Never Will Know,” he ruminates on it: “In search of a level of peace / That I’d never reach / Convinced I won’t get there ‘til I’m deceased / Weaving my grief up inside instrumentals / In case you were wondering, dawg, I been nowhere, just floating through time / Taking L’s for my friends,” Dixon raps. Likewise, he returns to eulogize Tyler once more on Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?, on the track “Tyler Forever”: “Propelled forward by vengeance, penchant for taking yo’ pendants / Accountability process is loaded in them extensions / We done fixed on ascending, my boys might break through the roof / Y’all become killers all of a sudden when you find dusty loops.”

When I spoke with Abdurraqib, we talked at length about how the mechanics of Dixon’s work tick similarly to those of the poet Frank O’Hara. It’s likely that Dixon isn’t thinking about O’Hara, but the same approach to a living, evoling record is present in both artists’ bodies of work. There are distinct differences at play, of course—O’Hara’s writing was not laced in metaphors, while Dixon’s language is often rife with complex undertones, schematics and interpretations—but the way they each make the people and places in their writing feel like people and places you, too, have loved and visited speaks to the grander mission of a poem or an album.

Like O’Hara, Dixon sees the world and allows us to step through it with him. Take a poem like “Walking,” which is very much about O’Hara chronicling a random venture through the streets of New York: The beauty of that piece is not because it is some great undertaking or moving image, but because it is real and sublime and boring. The beauty is in the ordinary, and the syntax in which O’Hara is working from, much like Dixon’s own approach to songwriting, is a method that acts a microphone for the people and the architecture he’s indebted to. “I see a moment and I describe it. I don’t actually write verses,” he says, pulling out his phone and showing me individual fragments of a song, reading a line that goes “I sit in the room and watch flowers cover parts of you I shouldn’t name” out loud. “Something will happen to me, and it could be a tiny moment, and I’ll just be like, ‘You know what? How can I make this sound beautiful?’”

And Dixon uses that approach when he attempts to unlatch his own albums from the plague of wall-to-wall cruelty. He plugs nods to cultural or mythical references, like 50 Cent, Icarus, Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry” or Chris McCandless from Into the Wild, into the tracks, and, each time, it is a very deliberate piece of Dixon’s vision of the place he comes from—even when that vision also, at checkpoints, confronts a violent reality. “I don’t want to separate the harrowing times from the kids who are just playing Xbox when it happens,” he says. “People think that the ‘hood is just everybody banging all the time. When, in actuality, the situation is a lot of these folks are just living. And living comes with mundaneness. People think that it’s always time to go with these groups. But, really, these groups just want to survive. These groups want to live and have accessibility to a lot of resources. And that’s why I don’t want it to always be serious. I want it to be like, ‘Oh, yeah, of course the n**** who can shoot a gun can also know who this person is.’”

Dixon’s interest in literature and a widened palette of cultural touchstones comes from a tradition passed down to him by his mother and grandmother—both of whom have gone from being not only his guardian protectors to guiding figures for him in the music he makes. “In my family, everybody was taught a poem and they know it forever,” he says. “My grandmother learned a poem when she was a kid, she can still recite it today. My mother learned “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou and can still recite it today. I learned Langston Hughes when I was growing up, so it became this tradition to pick a nod to these Black poets—because this is how I was first presented to the world.”

Beyond titling his last LP in honor of his mother, Dixon usually writes from a place of homage towards the women in his life. It echoes something Abdurraqib told me, how Dixon’s work is done as a way of building an annal that tends to the conversation around Black art—a far-ranging and breathing memoir that is eternally in progress via the forever-evolving ways that Black people write about place or experience place. “You have to archive the beautiful corners of where you’re from, because if you don’t then no one else will,” Abdurraqib says. “Or the people who will maybe don’t have the best interests of your people in mind.” Those corners are usually bright because of the light a Black woman lent to it, and the way Dixon presents the women he loves as messengers of wisdom and affection speaks to a greater issue in the Black community, one that revolves around who gets to grieve and who doesn’t:

“A Black man cannot mourn if he’s in a space with white people. But a Black man can mourn if he’s in a space with Black women. And I think that does not allow for Black women to mourn. That is my whole thing—at the end of all these stories, there’s usually a mother that cares more than the person who’s going through it,” Dixon explains. “There’s always a Black queer person or a Black trans person—who is fighting for their life every single day doing everything—who gets the brunt of it more than me, a Black cis man. With my mother and my grandmother, specifically, it really took me a while to be like, ‘I come back home to her. I come back home to my grandmother.’ My mother taught me everything I know, and I think these things need to be talked about. I think Black men are definitely going through it, but I think, sometimes, we don’t understand that Black women are really at the end of all these stories.”

Dixon points directly to a For My Mama song like “Chain Sooo Heavy,” where he raps about the convergence of his grandmother’s mortality and the survival of his peers: “Same thing for the homies / If I speak her name, will it keep her alive? I’m so selfish.” “These people, they’re meant to be a part of your life and change it forever,” he says. “They’re not supposed to be there forever to keep changing your life. You have to be like, ‘Now I must take what I’ve learned from this moment and go into the world and hold this space also for Black women.’”

I first discovered Dixon’s work five years ago on YouTube, when he—with only two self-released albums, Who Taught You to Hate Yourself? and The Importance of Self Belief, to his name—took to the Audiotree studio to play five tracks. Perhaps you recognize Dixon from his feature on Soul Glo’s “Spiritual Level of Gang Shit” off Diaspora Problems last year, but longtime devotees remember the days when he was still fresh on the circuit, making DIY rap albums about the diverse landscape of Black man personalities while studying animation at Virginia Commonwealth University—which is just another part of Dixon’s surplus of talent.

VCU is where Dixon met Dacus, during their freshman year in a 2-D art class. While they spent a lot of time jamming together and going to shows, Dacus notes that, a decade ago, Dixon already had prolific aspirations and was plotting to make the trilogy of albums that would eventually become Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?, The Importance of Self Belief and For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her. “He was thinking this big in 2013. His sights go long and it’s only a matter of time before he accomplishes all of it. Even then, he had a grand architecture in mind for the music he would make. I would bully him to drop out and focus on music, but he knew better than me that he could actually do all of it. He didn’t need to drop anything,” she adds.

Dixon grew up, and remains, a devotee of cartoons. It translates to the cover of Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?, which features a comic-style sketch of a Black boy—who supports similar braids as Dixon—done by Laden Alex, someone he met in the animation field. He’s long been able to pull influences from a broad range of entertainment and culture, whether it’s 1990s Nickelodeon shows or the poetics of Octavia Butler and Audre Lorde. “McKinley does something that I respect in all my favorite artists, which is that he has a core idea of what he wants to communicate and he’ll traverse mediums to make his point,” Dacus adds. “And he can translate inspiration from one medium into his own.”

As we sit on the patio at High Noon in Austin, Texas before his Paste set, Dixon shows me a short clip—which he spliced together that morning—of a project he’s been working on outside of music: a story about two twins who deliver for their grandfather’s magic shop while studying martial arts on the side. When he is at home, away from tour, he’s drawing eight hours a day while watching, learning and studying cartoons. No longer tethered to academia and its deadlines, Dixon can keep the art precious while still writing and designing the people who look like him into stories he didn’t get to see on TV as a child.

“Growing up, if I wanted to see myself in media, I usually had to either watch three shows they allowed for me or cartoons. And even cartoons didn’t really have Black folks in them. A lot of them had them as side characters. The coolest written side characters because, you know, Gerald from Hey Arnold! is dope as fuck. All of them Black characters were dope, so I came up on cartoons,” Dixon explains. “And then, as I got older, I started realizing that, mixing community and music, the only way to last forever, truly, is to make something for kids. Because I’m still thinking about these things, and kids still think about it. I became an animator to tell a story that can encapsulate all of what I was looking for when I was growing up and to also give myself that as my own autonomy. Everybody has a part of my music. For My Mama was made however I wanted it to be made, whatever I wanted to be made. The beauty of that is: I realized that people only record if they are either in such a turbulent time that they have to talk, or they’re in such a comfortable spot. I think music touches so many people. It sort of becomes this thing where it’s not mine after a while, which is fine, but animation will always be mine.”

I was immediately drawn to and entranced by Dixon’s 2018 song “Circle the Block,” where he rapped about, in the wake of intergenerational cop brutality, preserving Black life—which included (but was not limited to) his own, his mother’s and that of his trans and queer beloveds—in an earworm cadence simmering with night-soaked horns. His storytelling, in which each word gracefully tumbled into the next, felt refreshing, as trap was swelling in the rap zeitgeist and—by extension—the mainstream had become flooded with codeine odysseys and side pieces. That is not to speak ill of trap’s importance in the genre’s history so much as it is meant to point towards how unrealistic and inaccessible that lifestyle was to the vast majority of listeners—and how it often overlooked more pressing issues, like the insurmountable death toll of intersectional folks in a country systematically designed to destroy them, in favor of fast-living and chart-topping excess.

Any chance he gets, Dixon delivers flowers to his queer brothers and sisters. It’s a refreshing olive branch of gratitude that not many rappers are keen on extending, which Dixon sees and notes constantly. He’s aware that his decision to place being a good, empathetic person over vast industry connections—with MCs who have greyed their own ethics—has probably set him back, fame-wise, to some extent, but he’s not all that interested in dismissing the work of the people who’ve made him or dismantling the infrastructure of blood and affinity they’ve erected together.

“I wouldn’t be where I am now without the Black queer folk I grew up with in Virginia, just brilliant people that worked so hard to maneuver through life that are still here with us,” Dixon says. “My n****s pass—and I love my baby Tyler, but he was in this position where the outcome usually does not end well—but, for Black trans and Black queer folk, the outcome usually does not end well regardless. I feel like I also lose a lot of faith because of that, within the hip-hop community. It is what it is because, in the end, I love my n****s. I’m not talking about everybody.” Likewise, the song “Dedicated to Tar Feather” was inspired by one of Dixon’s trans friends, and he pays tribute to her with the line: “A shaky hand sweeps the table of the crumbs / While a lil boy hopes someday he’ll get closer to the ones that set off explosive tongues / Saw one get killed last summer / He lift his head and butterflies escaped his mouth / From out his lungs.”

The trajectory of Dixon’s discography has followed a distinctive path: Who Taught You How to Hate Yourself? was told from the perspective of a Black child; The Importance of Self Belief was about a Black boy and his mother and the women that influenced his life; For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her was a celebration of everyone in Dixon’s circle (many of whom feature on the album, on a tracklist brimming with guest spots), especially Black women, Black trans women, Black queer folks and Black elders. Now, with Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? on-deck, Dixon is looking at how he can continue to archive the neighborhoods and cities around him and illustrate, gracefully, the lives of every person he loves without taking the light off of the people who have passed away. “You hit a point where it’s like, ‘You’re just appropriating a funeral and you’re talking more so about the person who took that life instead of the person who’s gone,” he adds.

Morrison released Beloved, Jazz and Paradise in succession between 1987 and 1997. In a purposeful way, Dixon opted to switch up the order of the books when it came to making this album. “Beloved is the beauty, Jazz is the Hell and Paradise is whatever after. For me, it was Beloved and then came Paradise, because Jazz is indescribable. You never know what’s going to happen,” he says. That’s the message I wanted this record to be, less about everybody and more about ‘Do you feel loved while you listen?’ Do you feel, at the end of this record, that you felt held and listened to ? Do you feel like your stories, whoever you are now, are now seen in a way that you might not have been seen on any record?’”

When the title track of the album fades out, I am still thinking about the idea of royalty. There’s a lyric in “Sun, I Rise,” where Dixon raps “When the world was on my shoulders / We bent the block so many times / Car almost flipped right over,” that shares a similar affinity to a sequence in “Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?”: “Braids for the summer, I’m less likely to falter / Gold fingertips rusted, now the color has altered / Deny food from the hand, matriarch is insulted / The house is crumbling, hurry out the backdoor bolting / The rubble recently reset my bones / Black skin to concrete, within it I feel at home.” The vividness he portrays comes from a place of sincerity coupled with clarity and growth.

Though he often sings about his adjacency to the ground—a great, overwhelming metaphor for a burial he and his Black kinfolk are always outrunning—Dixon cannot help but fantasize about becoming so big he can snatch paradise from the sky. To always be on the doorstep of a next day erased, it is second-nature to conceptualize perennial faith into the now and suffering into a bygone. In “Chain Sooo Heavy,” Dixon rapped: “Orchestrate the way we live / Maneuver through the pain that they give / You stronger than what they say you is / Little man, this chain will make you big / It’ll change your life for better or worse.” Two years later, he returns with “And though they all go / Me and dawg might see different heavens / Time alone has never once been a crutch / The worst thing for a god is you realizing they can be touched / Saw me aiming at the heavens, sun can’t give me a kiss” on “Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?”

Dixon’s work doesn’t come from a place of separation. He didn’t get out and live to tell the tale; his neighborhood is a place he still returns to every day, where his mother, grandmother and dearests remain. I think about Abdurraqib’s interlude once more, when he says: “Nobody says it’s pretty here. Nobody says it’s easy, either. What it is, is decisive. And if you pay attention to the street plans, all laid out, the City can’t hurt you.” Dixon’s songs are not figments of the past so much as they are considerations of the present and the future, depictions of how each soul around him continues to get by in the place they came from. He considers how he will continue to hold them and make their voices loud and true and generous under the sun’s, the cops’ and the system’s calamitous weight. It is not the work of a king, but the stenography of someone—born on street corners that bent inwards into gentleness at the first crack of summer sun—who has found enough language to chronicle survival. And who is the architect of a kingdom if not the tongue that dared to name the crown?

Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? is out June 2 via City Slang. You can preorder it here.

Matt Mitchell is Paste‘s assistant music editor. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, but you can find him online @yogurttowne.

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