Shabazz Palaces takes over the University Chapel

Experimental hip-hop celebrated at fourth annual chapel show


Hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces played at the University Chapel this week.


Seattle-based hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces — made up of Ishmael Butler, also known as Palaceer Lazaro, and Tendai "Baba" Maraire — headlined a concert last Friday at the University Chapel presented by WXTJ. The unique venue became the ideal location for a night of experimental jams. 

The night also featured two Richmond openers who did their parts to amp up the crowd for the main event. First, emcee Simpson took the stage as audience members milled between pews. She described her intention to perform some of her more experimental, unreleased tracks to go with the spirit of the night, remarking with confidence, “I made this … so it’s pretty sweet.” Her set was challenged by a number of audio and lighting issues — complications that would also plague the beginning of the next act — but her charming and emotional beats shined through the technical issues of the venue. 

Next, rapper McKinley Dixon performed an intensely charged set of tunes from his 2016 album, “Who Taught You To Hate Yourself?” as well as his upcoming mixtape, “The Importance of Self-Belief.”  The crowd connected with Dixon’s emotional realism and captivating stage presence. Near the end of the set, Dixon looked for confirmation that he had time for one more song and ended up playing three, accompanied by raucous approval from the crowd. 

Both openers did more talking than Shabazz Palaces, who came on after a considerable break in between. They let the performance speak for itself, taking the stage and transitioning between songs with little more than a brief greeting or comment. During the set, the audience watched a series of short films projected onstage. The silent films featured bits of animated illustrations and manipulated footage from different locations, communicating the duo’s various preoccupations about power, money, history and technology. 

While interesting, the effectiveness of the imagery varied — ranging from provocative, compelling and beautiful to somewhat trite and mundane. The combination, however, of live audio and visual presentation was commendable as it served to preoccupy the crowd throughout a noticeably lengthy — though enjoyable — set. 

The set featured songs from the duo’s two most recent albums, “Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star” and its sequel, “Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines,” which explore — in simple terms — the absurdity of modern America through the eyes of an alien being. Butler provided the majority of the vocals while he and Maraire enchanted the audience with new sounds and thoughtful rhythms. The crowd responded to the blend of hip-hop, celestial speculation and social critique with cheers and dancing throughout the performance, crowding the intimate venue by standing in the aisles and swaying between pews.

Despite technical issues, the venue seems ripe for more events of this nature. The acoustics inside a place of worship — designed specifically to amplify and clarify loud, powerful sounds to an audience — suited the style of music of all three acts well. The influences and preoccupations of each of the artists also gained a layer of meaning when performed inside the Chapel, a building of considerable historic and spiritual significance. 

Ticket proceeds for the show benefitted Charlottesville nonprofits the Sexual Assault Resource Agency and the Public Housing Association of Residents, which also spoke to the aspirational vision of social justice and equality. The show’s length could be felt by the end of the night, but WXTJ’s fourth chapel show managed to showcase innovative artistry in a unique atmosphere all night long. 

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