Sen. Warnock’s trap: Long insulated from politics, senator taps energy of Atlanta’s Black art renaissance
Raphael Warnock / Shutterstock
SUMMERHILL, Atlanta — U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock is on the wrong side of the street. At least one more accustomed to junkies looking for a trap house than to hosting a U.S. senator and his entourage of young campaign staffers.
Every few minutes a police car slowly circles the block, keeping their distance while also keeping a watchful eye on the dozens of young Black artists milling about a newly opened garage-turned-art space southeast of downtown.

After the first-term Democratic senator takes the mic and tells his rags to Ph.D., pulpit, and politics story—a hope-filled account of conquering the generational poverty still shackling many Black southern communities—an artist takes me outside to show me the new, new South.

Rick Ross - Trap Trap Trap (Official Video) ft. Young Thug, Wale youtu.be

“Look at this real quick, I’m gonna show you something,” Jordan Brown, 37, excitedly—not happily, mind you—says as we cross Terry St. SE, which is the street the squad’s been creepin’ on. “If you look on this side of the street, you see clean facades, new brick buildings with new murals.”

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Art by Jordan Brown. He can be found on Instagram as @favor178.

Brown is also an educator, hence he’s taking my northern self to school. Once we land on the other side, he flips around and points to the new artist space Warnock just spoke at.

“That side of the street is Summerhill. That’s the hood. That house that’s kind of dilapidated—that green one right there—so this is the line right here. This is the line. Know what I’m sayin? Like, this is it,” Brown exclaims as his adamant arms keep pointing at the invisible red line woven into the pavement. “That’s the line. This is where it ends. Right here. This is the line. You see corrugated iron buildings, fences, nice facades on buildings. It’s beautiful, but look that way: Gentrification line.”

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The street separating historic Summerhill from its newly gentrified downtown. Photos: By Matt Laslo

Warnock seems to get it. He lives it. Many Sundays, the senator reverend can still be found preaching in the pulpit he inherited from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Ebenezer Baptist Church. The historic site, and the shuttle loads of picture-clicking tourists it draws daily, attracts many of the city’s homeless—refugees of the city’s new development boom and resulting soaring rental prices. He’s even taken heat from the right over eviction actions taken by the private management group that operates apartment’s his church partially owns.

Local issues like these have received short shrift in this year’s nationalized U.S. Senate contest. Warnock’s opponent is football legend and first-time candidate Herschel Walker—a Trump-backed Republican whose lies, embellishments, and scandals have gotten the most attention in this key contest.

The race is expected to be one of the tightest in the nation, and Warnock knows if communities like this don’t show up, the Senate seat is Herschel Walkers. One hurdle his campaign has to surmount is that the very oasis-like role that’s enabled Atlanta’s contemporary renaissance in Black art has also historically provided a layer of insulation here that’s made Washington feel distant and meaningless in the daily lives of Black residents.

Warnock’s here to convince them Washington matters, which is a hard sell to some.

As Atlanta grows longtime Black residents suffer

The senator—whose ads have been playing on gritty, local hip-hop stations—knows to leave his tie at home for this crowd, even as he’s rocking a sharp dark suit, expertly tailored blue collared shirt, and brown church shoes. His stump speech starts a little differently on this turf.

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Atlanta artists and Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock. Photo: Laslo

“When you think about our great movements, when you think about the moments when we have seen great progress. When we’ve seen a march towards the future that takes us closer to our ideals of justice and equality and inclusion, artists have always been at the center of that conversation,” Warnock tells the 50 or so young artists standing in front of him. “Artists are a different kind of creature. They see stuff what other folk don’t necessarily see.”

The senator gets sympathy from this crowd—“Ooooh”—when he informs them he’s the 11th of 12 children. The Savannah, Ga. native is also the first in the family to make it to college. He didn’t have help from his parents, so he leaned on the federal government. He owes his expansive resume to Head Start and Pell Grants, he says, and that’s why he ran in the first place—to fight to ensure the next generation gets the same opportunities he did.

Warnock’s pitch resonates. But will it motivate?

“I know a little bit about small towns and being the son of a preacher, so he’s kind of there but, you know, I’m an artist. He does what he does; he is who he is,” local painter Tim Short tells me as the senator poses for pics. “If anyone gets my vote it’s definitely going to be him.”

But Short’s not motivated enough by Warnock to promise to vote. Today’s reality TV-like political theater repels Short.

“Personally, I’m just kind of beyond politics,” Short says.

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Photos of Tim Short’s oil paintings taken from his Instagram feed @culturestruggle

Short’s not alone. Many down here are over politics—well, if they were even invited in the first place.

Atlanta’s poppin’ these days.

Even with money tight for many, this is a unique period in Atlanta’s history. Sure, back in the day, clubs from coast to coast bumped, say, Outkast or Ludacris—along with Kris Kross who made the nation, jump, jump, but their unique sounds were their own and almost impossible to replicate. These days, ATL isn’t just owning the charts, it’s also now the epicenter of contemporary hip-hop, trap music. A renaissance is afoot.

The trends Atlanta keeps setting are tied to it being the birthplace of trap music—a revolutionary genre that’s heavy on synthesizers, autotune and BIG on bass drops, but which is also marked by its slower pace, tireless monotony, and a patience mirroring the southern culture from which it came. While trap music is now beloved globally, it’s the pulse of ATL.

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Atlanta’s Trap Music Museum was established by hip-hop artist T.I. Photo courtesy of @trapmusicmuseum

“Trap music is the biggest genre right now, and from that stems creativity,” Atlanta art curator Adlia Halim tells Raw Story. “Like New York back in the 80s, and you had hip-hop just starting. All the art was like—the art scene was going crazy. It's kind of wherever that culture is, right? Wherever that culture is for that time and that moment.”

Atlanta’s more than just rap, sneakers, streetball, visual art, and fancy whips these days. It’s also a lot of white folks. That has people asking: ‘Whose Atlanta?’ In recent years, the nation’s ninth-largest city lost its coveted Black-majority status for the first time in 52 years. Blacks are now just 47% of the city’s residents, even as Atlanta’s population of some 6 million makes up roughly 57% of the state’s population.

The city’s rapid evolution has fueled local economic growth. In the past decade, roughly 775,000 people have flooded metropolitan Atlanta, making it America’s fourth-fastest growing city. They’re moving here in droves, in part, because there are thousands of good jobs. Like, Silicon Valley’s finest are establishing new roots here, including Amazon, Microsoft, Google (“Our new office is a love letter to Atlanta”), and even Airbnb is opening an Atlanta Tech Hub.

Many Blacks remain excluded from the city’s contemporary gold rush. Even as many residents are reaping fortunes from all the new money. “At least 90 percent of the people living in concentrated poverty in Atlanta are Black, compared to no more than 5 percent of white people,” according to longtime local reporter and analyst George Chidi. With white people continuing to ditch suburban life in exchange for one of the city’s chic new condos, all the gentrification—“that’s the line!”—continues pricing longtime residents out.

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By artist: Tay Hill, IG @tayhillart

Just like big cities elsewhere, the city’s forgotten poor neighborhoods have been ground zero for a deadly surge in violence of late. This year the city even hit the 100 homicide mark a week ahead of when they hit the tragic marker last year. That’s life in these neighborhoods, which makes Washington and the politicians who dwell there feel so distant down here—even irrelevant, to many.

Just this week, Georgia’s own Takeoff—a talented rapper from the chart-topping group Migos—was murdered in Houston after a gun was pulled and emptied over a dice game dispute at a private party. Besides the 28-year-old, born Kirshnik Khari Ball, Migos was founded alongside his cousin Offset (born Kiari Kendrell Cephus) and their uncle Quavo (born Quavious Keyate Marshall)—all who hail from Lawrenceville, a suburb of Atlanta. The group was declared “the Beatles of this generation” by rapper, actor, and director Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino), the creator and star of FX hit Atlanta.

“Until something happens, they’re not really on your radar. Most of the time, it's controversy or if you get in the news for something, and then I’ll be like, ‘Oh, okay,’” Jordan Brown, the artist who gave me the neighborhood tour, says.

Brown supported Warnock in 2020 but forgot to in 2021. With no Senate candidate netting more than 50% on that Election Day, the state held a runoff in early 2021. Democrats nationwide helped bankroll because control of the Senate was at stake, but Brown didn’t get the message.

“I fell off in the special election,” Brown says of missing the runoff completely.

He’s vowing not to repeat that this year, but life comes at you quickly.

“I'm aware that all politics are local politics”

Luckily for Warnock, he’s got ‘the Black Bill Clinton’ on his team. That was Terry Tetris’ nickname back when he was enlisted in the Army, and it speaks for itself.

“I'm aware that all politics are local politics,” Tetris tells me.

He founded Can I kick it?—streetball and sneakers are art, after all—a creative design agency and product development company. They represent artists, creatives, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits, helping “be that bridge in-between the culture and the community.” They’ve collaborated with brands like Red Bull and Jameson, for example. They’re all about networking, which comes naturally to Tetris.

Can I kick it? Yes you can. @canikickittho

He’s a force. With his expansive list of connections, Tetris is trying to get the Black community to realize its power. He says when they come out in droves, politicians like Warnock are forced to focus on their community.

“Historically, with African Americans, that's our thing, is that, we don't use our power to lobby. Easy to complain and throw rocks, or whatever have you, but when do we come and try to talk to a senator and try to talk to a senator and say, ‘Hey, we are a group that is underrepresented, these are the things that we would like some help with,’” Tetris says. “And if you can promise, then we can put our almighty power behind getting you elected.”

Team Warnock didn’t pick this event accidentally. All these artists are social media influencers in their respective circles—circles the senator needs in his camp.

When Warnock’s asked about the lack of enthusiasm in some communities ahead of Election Day, Warnock demurs.

“The people of Georgia certainly didn't hire me to be a pundit, so I'll let them do the punditry and then I'll stay focused on standing up for hardworking families,” Warnock replies. “I think we've achieved a lot, and people still are feeling the pinch. They've been paying record prices, and the corporations have been experiencing record profits.”

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GAB House in Summerhill, Atlanta. Photo by Matt Laslo.

United States senators don’t usually come to Summerhill. This is a hip-hop hood. Besides Evander Holyfield who grew up here, natives of this neighborhood include artists Ciara, Young Dro, and YFN Lucci — who’s currently behind bars. Prison and Atlanta hip-hop continue having their almost eternal bond these days.

While out on bail for allegedly taking part in a drive-by shooting, among other charges, YFN Lucci was re-arrested along with 11 members of his crew in a separate, 105-count racketeering case that includes allegations of aggravated assault, murder, illegal guns, armed robbery, property damage, theft, and gang-related charges. The judge has denied the millionaire bail, even after he was stabbed in jail earlier this year—a hit that allegedly came from three members of rival ATL hip-hop collective YSL (aka Young Stoner Life).

That collective was founded by Atlanta’s iconic, Grammy-winning trap artist Young Thug who is also currently locked up, along with Gunna and 26 other YSL members, after being hit with a 56-count RICO case. These two hip-hop RICO cases are being watched by artists nationwide. The prosecutors are trying to use the trap artist’s lyrics against them, which has sparked a unified outcry from artists like Jay-z and even ATL OG ATL Killer Mike. They’re now advocating for The Petition to Protect Black Art, because they say hip-hop artists need further first amendment protections.

Young Thug, Yak Gotti, & Gunna - Take It To Trial (Official Music Video) www.youtube.com

That local issue didn’t come up in the two Senate candidates' one televised debate this cycle. Other local issues were glossed over too. That’s why Warnock’s here. To show he cares.

Up until the end, Warnock—who surprised many pundits with his last victory—continues hitting as forgotten communities like this and even small towns across Georgia. He tells Raw Story it’s the same game plan that worked last time.

“I would show up at small towns, and folks were surprised to see someone running for the Senate in their small town. They were surprised to see me. I was surprised that they were surprised, because I was running to represent the whole state,” Warnock tells Raw Story.

Showing up matters here. In an era of Black book banning and the resurgence of newly emboldened white supremacists, even a glowing Black face is political, even as it’s art.

“I’m really enamored with people's faces, because you can see what somebody's been through just looking at them,” portrait artist Shawn Stewart, 35, tells Raw Story. “There's always just a regal richness that comes from melanin, or pigment, in those dark umber shades—pinks, orange, yellow, green—there are so many pigments in the skin, man, that push through. It just always looks so rich when it comes out and you’re done with it.”

Sen. Raphael Warnock with Shawn Stewart and his painting in Summerhill, Atlanta. Photo credit: @the1theycallstu

As the senator enters, the hosts—who own Atlanta’s popular and expanding burger joint GAB (or Good Ass Burgers)—are playing Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”—“Teachers keep on teachin' / Preachers keep on preachin' / World keep on turnin' / Cause it won't be too long.”

Music’s always been infused with Black visual art.

“I just love all things culture, you know, all things hip-hop. All that stuff, everything that pertains to my immediate community, you know, I want to shed a positive light on it,” Stewart says. “It all ties together in some way. Different threads of a larger shirt, you know what I’m sayin? It all ties together.”

“Does Warnock get that?”

“I think he does. It's one of those things where you come from a certain community—the environment, the things you experience growing up in a community, leaving and coming back—they’re imprinted onto you,” Stewart, a credit analyst by day, says. “There's no way you can get rid of those life experiences—what shapes you, what molds you, what makes you who you are—you can’t shed that.”

Even just stepping through the door makes Warnock stand out.

“These are the small parts and small places that make a difference,” Stewart says, before recounting how Black Atlanta voters turned the state purple when they sent Warnock to Washington as the first Black Georgia senator in history. “How we turned Georgia the color we turned it, is from those type of individuals coming to these places and believing in the people who live here.”

ATL’s influencing and upending culture nationwide

Trap’s not just been invited to join the head table; trap artists bought the head table and are upending things as they go.

Trap artists are scrappy survivors, but they’re also envelope-destroying trendsetters. Many of today’s Atlanta artists are intimidatingly chill on their tracks—showcasing a confidence grounded in their pride, which extends to the very yard they grew up in—and many of these tatted-up rappers are rough in the streets—clack, clack, clack, clack. They’re also the top names in the game coast to coast.

This youth-filled generation of trap artists has energy, street smarts, but, mostly, they got vision & talent. They’re one with social media, effortlessly using their feeds to consistently take the meaning of viral to new heights. They’ve also rejected some of hip-hop’s long-standing sins, especially homophobia. Social media’s empowered younger artists to carve their own paths, redefining the game as they go.

From shiny gold or platinum, but always diamond-infused, grills covering their teeth to their invention of nouveau bling, like proudly showing off their prison-issued ankle bracelets in videos. It's more than just appearance; influential Atlanta artists have also deftly used new media to establish a more intimate and direct connection with their ever-expanding fan bases. Take Migos (RIP Takeoff) and Lil Uzi Vert. Their banger “Bad and Boujee” was memed all the way to number one on the charts. The video also sits at 1.1 Billion views on YouTube, giving them bragging rights for joining an exclusive club previously reserved for mainstream pop artists, like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry.

Migos - Bad and Boujee ft Lil Uzi Vert [Official Video] www.youtube.com

Trap artists are also influencing fashion. Young Thug has confronted hip-hop stereotypes through wearing dresses, which made many in the game uncomfortable, until it didn’t. Georgia’s own Lil Nas X has taken on hip-hop’s long standing homophobia just by coming out of the closet. Atlanta’s Bali Baby is also turning heads as “one of the very few openly gay female rappers with any skin in the game,” according to i-D magazine.

Lil Nas X - Old Town Road (Official Movie) ft. Billy Ray Cyrus www.youtube.com

Other female trap artists are upending the game in different ways. New York’s Nikki Minaj and Cardi B. have been honored for their contributions to trap with each getting their own exhibit at ATL’s trap museum. But those chart toppers have also been influenced by Atlanta’s sound through their collaborations with local artists like Latto, Baby Tate, and Rubi Rose. Up and coming Atlanta artist Joseline Hernandez even made headlines for dropping a diss track aimed at Cardi B. ATL remains the capital of hip-hop.

Latto - Bitch From Da Souf (Prod. by Bankroll Got It) [Official Video] www.youtube.com

Just like earth-moving Black genres that came before it—from the spirituals slaves sang in southern fields to the trumpets, keys, and saxophones artists tamed before willing them to defy the laws of physics with their freestyling jam sessions—Trap music pervades everything here, which Halim says should surprise no one.

“You'll never, ever, ever be able to get rid of the rhythm of Black people. You'll never be able to. It is our highest form of currency at the end of the day. It's our highest form of currency because it's something we were born with. It's innate,” Halim, the curator of the Trap Music Museum, says. “It's a rhythm that we listen to, probably because of the position we are in in society. It's a rhythm that we have to listen to, you know what I mean? That we're able to just listen to. I don't know how to explain it. It's a spiritual thing.”

That spirit’s on display at Atlanta’s Trap Music Museum, where Halim is art curator. The museum was established in 2019 by chart-topping Atlanta-native T.I., who claims to be the father of Trap for after dropping his sophomore album Trap Muzik back in 2003 (though Gucci Mane also claims the title after debuting on the scene with Trap House; even as others trace Trap’s roots to Cool Breeze of Dungeon Family who dropped East Points Greatest Hits in 1999, which is straight trap, though without the synths and auto-tune which gives it more of a traditional hip-hop feel than today’s Trap).

T.I. - Trap Muzik www.youtube.com

The museum is a monument to Atlanta’s grit, creativity, and adaptability. Local creatives don’t need to look outside of the city’s own borders for inspiration. Atlanta exports its art, and, for many, Atlanta is inspiration enough for Atlanta these days.

With the midterms unleashing a flurry of hate, many have retreated into their safe places, away from their TV screens. Old, tired, and false racist tropes still pervade American politics. Those ignorant politicians must have never talked to Atlanta entrepreneurs. These artists aren’t asking for any handouts, even if they’re working two gigs or have a day job to pay for their art habit, they just want fair treatment.

“The rhythm, the hurt, the happiness, the resilience, you see all of it in the art. It's so real. We just want a piece of the pie and to live and create and be artistic. It's just like, ‘share the wealth,’” Halim says. “It's full of history. It’s full of resilience. It’s full of people narrating their own story. Atlanta don’t give a damn about like, what's going on here or what's going on there, because we have our own culture.”

Georgia’s witnessed a few instances of racism these midterms, including a ‘white-grievance’ ad campaign being run by Trump’s anti-immigration advisor, Stephen Miller, or a digital flier for a rally that the Forsyth County Republican Party canceled after Democrats complained its incendiary language was a throwback to the state’s racist roots.

As for the resurgence of white supremacy today? Halim isn’t worried. She feels protected in Atlanta. Bigots are looking backwards, clinging to the nation’s racist roots, but she doesn’t have time for that ignorance. She’s focused on the future.

“We're all one as humans, because if them fuckin UFOs coming down, they don’t give a damn if one of us is lighter or darker than the other,” Halim laughs. “Cause both you all the same motherfuckers, cause if you ain’t got eight arms, you different.”

Warnock came out. Now his future depends on whether Black folks from communities across the region come out and vote on Tuesday. He’s made his pitch, now we’ll see if Black voters believe his pitch and show up at the polls this year.

“I think if you look at my record, I have represented the home state. And by the way, I've been willing to work with anybody if it will help me do something good for the people of Georgia,” Warnock says before heading to the Black SUV waiting for him outside. “I think my record shows that I have been a Senator for the whole state and I will be deemed to continue to fight for Georgia over the next issues.”