Andwele Allah was searching for lyrics. He had a beat, and he was awash in ideas, but the words didn't come until he drove through Baltimore one day, past kids on corners, bottles, needles, surveillance cameras and boarded-up homes.
"I pulled over and started writing the song," he said. "I just let my pen bleed like my heart was bleeding on the paper."
"You young brothers have to stop and think," he eventually wrote. "You squeeze the trigger because you're blind from weed and drink. You took a life but don't know what it took for God to create. He might have found a cure for cancer or the cure for AIDS - we'll never know. But he's somewhere dead in the grave. Hollywood turns the minds of black men into slaves. Through the television and through the radio waves. They call it juvenile detention but it's only a cage."
People have called him preachy, but Allah says he just wants them to wake up to what is going on in their community. His plea, "Just Listen," became the title of his song.
They call themselves hip-hop warriors, revolutionaries, raptivists - and barbers.
By day, Allah and his childhood friends Sundiata Ifa Toula and Jabari Natur, who co-own Baltimore's Conscious Heads Barber Shop & Natural Hair Salon, cut hair. But the barbershop has a mission beyond clean shaves and good fades, and they try to live up to their motto: "We take care of your head inside and out." In that vein, the three men self-produced Unify or Die, a CD of idealistic hip-hop music meant to counter the violence, drugs, misogyny and "fake dreams" that they believe have poisoned contemporary hip-hop.
"It's our responsibility as strong black men, as conscious black men, to make sure the generations ahead have music that instills values of self-determination, racial pride and love for one another," says Toula, who like his fellow rappers, prefers to use an adopted African first name.
(Their last names, which they haven't legally changed, appear on the CD mainly so that friends from the past will know who they are. Sundiata, 30, is Dunmore; Andwele, 32, is Jones; and Jabari, 30, is McDaniel.)
"Gang violence and killing - when you get older you don't want to hear that. I don't want to hear nothing about killing or blowing someone's brains out," says Allah, who has short locks and peaked eyebrows. He turns away from the hair he is cutting, clipper in one hand, comb in the other. "And that music, it won't transcend, you know what I mean? Whereas our music will."
It is a regular day at Conscious Heads, where the floor is checkered and conversation - with Natur, the ringleader; Toula, who laughs a lot; and Allah, who can sometimes look very serious - is plentiful.
Barbershops, Natur likes to say, are the black man's country club. The East 25th Street shop near Charles Village is also a bookstore and the headquarters of Solvivaz Nation, their grassroots community organization. Solvivaz Nation sponsors lectures, runs study groups, publishes a magazine, organizes protests and funds projects such as Unify or Die.
Several years ago, the barbers raised money to help pay for the legal defense of their friend Dontee Stokes, who shot a priest he accused of molesting him when he was a teenager. Stokes was convicted of handgun violations but acquitted of the most serious charges in the 2002 case.
The idea for recording a CD came to them one afternoon more than a year ago while they were cutting hair and watching rap videos on BET.
"They were disrespecting our women, disrespecting each other," Natur says. "`Do this and I shoot your brains out.' Songs that thrive off sexuality. ... Watching that, we became disgusted."
Corporate America saw it as profitable to market black men a certain way and hip-hop has suffered for it, Toula says.
"Most artists do want to rhyme for a purpose, but that's not what the record companies are going to sign," he says. "They want to get signed so bad, they start making music that's destructive."
Rappers, says Natur, "are no more than pawns."
The three had little musical background when they began brainstorming the CD, but they were baptized into early rap and grew up on a steady hip-hop diet, Toula says. "Hip-hop," he says, "is our life."
A barbershop customer who is a producer put together beats for them, and they started writing songs about slavery, reparations, history, love, pride, unity, black power and black leaders including Malcolm X and Madame CJ Walker.
"Central Bookings" is about the proliferation of what they see as unreasonable arrests of black men in Baltimore. "Black Holocaust" asks why it is taboo to talk about the slave trade as a holocaust.
In "Therapy" - which samples music from a Cat Stevens song - Natur says he was writing about unhealed "wounds of history."
He meant therapy literally, he says. "We need help as a people," he says. "Our people are sick right now. Our community is in shambles."