And I’m here for it.
Phony PPL and openers (Akron’s Own) Red Rose Panic were the icing on the cake of a fabulous Cleveland Book Week. After a week of nonstop activity, packed rooms and theaters, and always trying to sound smarter than I am, this show was a much needed moment of respite, a safe space to be audaciously and auspiciously vulnerable.
Let me start by saying: Black women are dope. Black women came out in fangirl force, sporting headwraps, lacefronts, locs and fros. The Grog shop was redolent with the scent of cocoa butter and edge control.
With that being said, this night was all about the fellas. I got there halfway through Red Rose Panic’s set and was actually disappointed about missing part of the opener. Red Rose Panic’s dynamic hip hop is a mix of rap, R&B and rock that makes you want to smoke sativa and write the entire outline for a thirteen book afrofuturistic fantasy series. Or maybe it just makes me feel that way.
Anywho, Red Rose Panic, which consists of drummer Reo Dinero, keyboardist Lou, frontman Luminari, lead guitarist Styxx and bass guitarist SMOKEFACE showed their versatility, switching effortlessly from their own rap hits like Change Your Mind to a cover of Mario’s 2004 R& B banger You Should Let Me Love You. Styxx and SMOKEFACE had stellar guitar solos, and the band had great chemistry with the audience.
After Red Rose Panic played a full set, Phony PPL took the stage. They opened with one of my personal favorites, Helga, a tribute to the innocence of young love and Hey, Arnold character Helga Pataki. Frontman Albee Thrie’s voice is even clearer and more ethereal live than online. Percussionist Matthew Byas was in the pocket from the first bar and stayed there the entire night. Elijah Rawk was flawless, and Aja Grant gave the single best keyboard solo I have ever heard at a live show (Pro tip: Get earplugs! They’re only a dollar and you can hear the music so much better).
All of these guys are incredibly talented, but bass player and visual artist Bari Bass Stole. The. Show.
Bass was at home in his own skin and not much else, taking the stage in tight grey jeans and a level of confidence that signified big-dick energy. His guitar solos were incredible and his stage presence was off the charts. At one point, Bass jumped off stage to mingle with the crowd, posing for selfies before leaping back onstage like a brown (hairy) tittied spiderman without missing a single note.
Phony PPL did a mix of newer songs and hits from Yesterday’s Tomorrow. Ladies went nuts for Before You Get a Boyfriend and Keep On Loving You. After an extended set, Aja Grant set fire to the keys in a performance worthy of Severance Hall, leading the band into their popular single Why I Love the Moon.
After the show, the band stuck around to take selfies and sign merchandise. These incredibly talented musicians were also incredibly humble. Lead singer Elbee Thrie must have introduced the band at least five times, paying homage to the hardworking and highly talented musicians he feels honored to play with.
Even though these guys were classically trained and had worked with everyone from Mac Miller (RIP!) to Princess Nokia, listening to Phony PPL felt like hanging out with your favorite cousins you haven’t met yet.
Both Phony PPL and Red Rose Panic make genre-bending music that some would call too ‘sensitive’ to be hip-hop. To those haters I say: On my Dick thou canst sucketh. Just kidding. I don’t have a penis.
Much as FKA Twigs is redefining alternative and Masego is redefining jazz, bands like Phony PPL and Red Rose Panic are redefining black masculinity in a way that is inclusive, emotionally mature and refreshingly guileless. In a genre that tells black men toxic masculinity is one holdover from white supremacy it’s fine to hang on to, this level of unadulterated black boy joy is an act of resistance.