By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
It feels like a very long time since Jordan Montgomery released his 2016 record, Driving While Black. But the record itself is easy to remember. From the bold album art—a black and white photo of a group of young black men dancing on a defaced cop car—to the lyrical subject matter, Montgomery’s superb debut was a stirring indictment of unjust, racist systems. But it also pivoted justified rage into a celebration of black culture and black lives.
This week, Montgomery releases his sophomore record, Dark Horse. This release, he says, is characterized by his personal and artistic growth. “It’s very different from Driving While Black because [that record] was very focused on that subject matter of what was going on in America, and what’s still going on,” he says. “Police brutality and race issues and things like that, and basically how it felt to be young and black in America at that time.”
Montgomery was just 21 when Driving While Black came out and Dark Horse, he says, showcases his creative progress over the past four years. “Growing as an artist musically, trying new sounds, taking my current sound and [adding] a more modern twist on it,” he explains.
The title references Montgomery’s sense of being, if not a rap game underdog per se, than at least an artist who isn’t yet totally understood.
Dark Horse opens with an introduction addressing doubters, skeptics and critics who might claim his tracks don’t slap “that much.”
“It’s just the intro, man,” he promises coolly over a minimal piano line. “Let y’all know what I’m comin’ with this time around.”
“After hearing Driving While Black and other singles I have, people started to get the idea of the type of artist I was, and a particular sound associated with me,” he says. “Like, this traditional hip-hop sound, which I love. And that is me, but I just kinda wanted to show people that I have more to offer.
“I think people started to think of me as a one-trick pony, in a way,” he adds. “At least that’s how I felt.”
Montgomery’s interest in hip hop was a natural extension of a childhood love of reading and writing. “I used to go to the library as a kid and just have stacks and stacks of books and fly through them and then return them and fly through a whole new stack of books,” he says.
For high school he attended CAPA, the Creative and Performing Arts magnet school, with a concentration in writing. It was there that his social consciousness was born. He was a freshman when fellow CAPA student Jordan Miles was brutally beaten by three white police officers while he was on his way to his grandmother’s house in Homewood.
Organizers from Art’s Greenhouse, Carnegie Mellon University’s hip hop-focused after-school program, reached out to CAPA to see if any students there might be interested in dealing with the Miles incident through writing or rap. Montgomery jumped at the chance, writing and recording his first ever track about police brutality.
Not long after he met rapper and activist Jasiri X and got involved with the social justice-focused hip-hop collective 1Hood, which nurtured Montgomery’s work and gave him a network of artists, many of whom are still close friends and collaborators.
Montgomery is still deeply invested in social justice issues, and always endeavors to use his art to help create a better city and a better world. Like Driving While Black, Dark Horse is a bold, confident record. But it’s more inwardly focused, dealing with past pain and personal failings (“Bad Habits), as well as success (“Level Up”) and the endless hustle (“The Come Up”).
“I want to show people that while those things are important to me, talking about issues, I’m an artist that can do more fun records, or love records, or [talk about] more personal things,” he says.
The spirit of community evident on his first record, though, lives on with Driving While Black Records. When Driving While Black came out, Montgomery says, he started selling Driving While Black shirts and hats, which were popular even with people who hadn’t heard the record. “And I was like, OK, we might have something here to promote as a brand.” Launching a label of some kind, he thought, might be a good way to do that.
At first it was just a vehicle for Montgomery’s various singles. Then, earlier this year, Pittsburgh-based artists Livefromthecity, Lucas Akira and Jaybee Jackson joined together in an effort to function more professionally as a label. “It just made sense because we all worked together already, we might as well make it official and just stand as a unified front.” Montgomery says. “It’s just a natural chemistry.”
Just a few months ago, Driving While Black Records signed a licensing and distribution deal with Pittsburgh-based, nationally-focused Misra Records. Along with Dark Horse and Livefromthecity’s recent release, Lightwork, the crew plans for a busy summer of performance and recording.
It’s the kind of collective approach Montgomery wants to see more of in Pittsburgh as—he hopes—the city’s reputation as one with a great hip-hop scene grows. “I think a lot of artists are taking it on themselves instead of waiting on booking agents and venues and publications.” As a result, he says, venues and booking agents who might otherwise be inhospitable to hip-hop acts will want in on the action. “So I think we just kind of continue to be on our DIY stuff to break down these walls. We can really make a name for ourselves.”