The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #265: Tennessee by Arrested Development (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #265: Tennessee by Arrested Development.

A lot of people I know are not into Hip-Hop as a musical genre. Their reasons tend to revolve around the lyrics which contain misogynistic depictions of women and/or that glamourize the so-called, “thug lifestyle”. Fair enough. Women should be treated with respect and admiration. Drug dealing and violence are never ok, either. So, I understand why some people tend to tune out whenever a Hip-Hop song appears in this list or else, appears on the TV or Radio. That having been said, I still feel that Hip-Hop is a valid musical form and an important avenue for people to express their feelings. As you may know, if you have been following my posts on such Hip-Hop pioneers as Afrika Bambaataa, Hip-Hop originated as a means of unifying communities that felt under-represented in mainstream music. The origins of Hip-Hop as being community-oriented were warranted and, for all intent and purposes, remain so today. If, as a racial group, you have been excluded from “the system” and subject to systemic mistreatment then, having a means of self-expression that is dedicated to your culture is vital.

In the late 1980s/early 1990s, as Hip-Hop was becoming more mainstream yet, seemed to be wallowing in sexism and violent content, a group of Hip-Hop musicians gathered together to see if there was room in the industry for Hip Hop songs that were equally as representative of the views, needs and History of the Black community but, told from a more positive point of view. One of the groups that emerged from these talks was a band called, Arrested Development.

***Just as a trivia aside, the band, Arrested Development existed prior to the advent of the successful TV show called, “Arrested Development”. In fact, the band actually sued the TV show for using its name without permission and won a lawsuit. Obviously, when I use the term, Arrested Development in this post, I am referring to the band, not the show….just so we are clear.

Arrested Development was formed by Todd Thomas (rapper) and Timothy Barnwell (DJ). They went by the stage names, “Speech” and “Headliner”. Their aim was to create Hip Hop songs that sounded like Hip Hop sounds are supposed to but, with content that was more “professional” sounding and more “positive and uplifting”. Their debut album, “3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of…” was a smash hit! The band won the Grammy Award for “Best New Artist” and were approached by Director Spike Lee to contribute original music to his film about “Malcolm X” starring Denzel Washington. The album sold 6 million copies worldwide. Since the success of that album, Arrested Development have broken up and reunited several times. Mostly, they have focussed their energy on touring the world; especially, in Africa.

The song, “Tennessee” was the biggest hit from their debut album. It is a song that evolved out of the separate, health-related deaths of “Speech’s” brother and grand-mother within weeks of each other. The shock and sadness of these deaths caused “Speech” to question his belief in God. As he worked through his feelings, he wrote and he wrote. One of the things that resulted from this grief-filled writing was the broad outline of the song, “Tennessee”. In the song, the lyrics speak to the historic nature of the suffering of Black people and then, combines this with the personal suffering that was being felt by “Speech” and, in the end, the question is asked of God as to whether or not there is an actual plan from God that is worth following. The tone of the song is not anger but, rather, one of beseeching the Lord for answers and guidance. The depth of the emotions on display, as well as, the connection between systemic suffering and personal tragedy, helped make “Tennessee” relevant to many people across North America and around the world.

If ever a song and a band deserved to have the spotlight shone upon them, it is Arrested Development. “Tennessee” is a fabulous song that follows the true traditions of Hip Hop. It is a full History lesson told so smoothly as to be immersed into the “sound” of the song. It touches upon the roots of Black music, which is Gospel. Finally, it is hopeful, in a time when Hope seems to be in short supply. I hope that you give this song the respect it deserves and take a few moments to watch the official video presented below. Thanks and enjoy!

The link to the video for the song, “Tennessee” by Arrested Development, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Arrested Development, can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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