Meet Timothy Welbeck: Professor and Attorney by Day, Rapper by Night
|thenorthstar||Jul 10, 2019|
“If you’d said I’d be rapping, lecturing, lawyering,” states Timothy Welbeck on his 2019 record Living Wage, “It’d sound to me as real as the life that Tom Sawyer lived.” The opening lines from the track and newly released video of “Working Professional” expresses the creative fusion of Welbeck’s work as an MC, a professor at Temple University, and a civil rights attorney with the Council on American Islamic Relations Philadelphia chapter.
He’s a writer who produces scholarly articles on hip-hip and journalistic essays in various outlets (including The North Star). The story behind the rap music he has created across four albums possesses deep roots in Black history and culture.
What is unique is how he merges the fields of education, law, and rap on his records and in the classroom.
As a rapper, Welbeck released his first album Paint the Town Red in 2005 following his graduation from Morehouse, where he performed as “Red Baron,” a stage name in tribute to his grandfather. Six years later, he released Shades of Grace, followed by No City for Young Men in 2017 and his most recent album, Living Wage. Threading together Black history and culture, Timothy’s music reflects a community-oriented, justice-focused, spiritually-conscious philosophy of life. It blends the sounds of southern rap with the boom bap of the east coast and the layered rhythms of the west coast. He uses 21st century entertainment platforms like Bandcamp to distribute his music directly to fans and connect with a global audience.
Welbeck’s art is rooted in his birth city of Memphis, Tennessee, a city steeped in Black history, racist violence, and the power of resistance. He grew up hearing his mother discuss the early liberation journalism of Ida B. Wells. She also recounted more recent events of the modern civil rights period including Martin Luther King, Jr.’s support of the city’s striking sanitation workers in 1968 and his April 3, 1968 sermon, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” delivered at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ (COGIC). The King story added meaning for Welbeck because he was raised in the COGIC denomination.
The African Diaspora also defined Timothy’s childhood: his father is Ghanaian and a musician. He grew up in the 1950s and 1960s as the colony achieved independence. “Lived in Memphis when King was killed, my mother was only a little more than nine / My father came from Ghana, from the ocean’s other side / Came to the States and saw Southern pride wasn’t so benign / So when you see I’m so inclined to move above the color-line,” he raps on “No City for Young Men: The Forethought.” The song title is drawn from W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, the central text about double consciousness.
Timothy inherited a love for music, especially the soulful sounds of Otis Redding, James Brown, and Sam Cooke.
These influences are evident in his work, which crosses several genres, as he raps on “No City for Young Men”:
“Born in the bedrock of the blues, raised in the home of R&B / Classically trained in violin and piano partially / From Mos Def to Mozart—the music’s part of me / From Bach to ‘Pac, it flows from the heart of me.”
When he was 9, Timothy’s family moved to Atlanta, where he came of age as a man and a musician. As a home to Southern rap, Timothy benefited from exposure to Atlanta’s hip-hop royalty such as OutKast. In the church, he served as an usher and in school, Timothy’s interest in history, politics, and culture led him to Morehouse College.
Tomeka Carroll, Timothy's longtime friend and musical collaborator, told The North Star, “Tim has the ability to see people and inspire them right where they are. He effortlessly communicates matters of the heart, mind, and spirit with creativity, ingenuity and wisdom.” His mentoring of Black youth translated into leadership positions in law school at Villanova. He came to see the practice of law as his life’s purpose. It was a calling, not simply a career. An understanding he discusses in the song “Mr. Incredible” from his 2011 album Shades of Grace. As he sings on “Born Day,” the opening track of Living Wage, he joins a long tradition of freedom fighting in which “generations of “Black barristers” wield the law to “attack barriers” of injustice.
Timothy’s life experiences, educational achievements, professional aspirations, and religious ideas inform his musical creativity. Welbeck’s varied interests form the bedrock for his art. His music creatively translates the Black history of specific geographical locations (e.g., Memphis, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Ghana) into a contemporary Black soundtrack. Further, he draws on the witness of Black figures like Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Ida B. Wells, Kwame Nkrumah, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Frederick Douglass to address contemporary issues and challenges.
Adán Bean, an Atlanta-based artist and another of Timothy’s closest collaborators, shared with The North Star that Welbeck has “emerged into such a clear voice on pressing issues [who] weaves his musical interests as an artist and professor into his vital and necessary legal work.”
Examples of such creative overlap about in Welbeck’s artistry. The music video for “The Souls of Black Folk” from No City for Young Men draws from Du Bois’s work to tell the story of a Black church burning and ends with reconstruction and revolution. Other tracks like “Of Monuments and Men” and “May You Ever” present tributes and critical reflections on Black historical personalities who have shaped his identity.
Welbeck’s merging of social justice with creative and scholarly pursuits has precedent among Black public intellectuals. Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock fame, for example, combined the power of singing and activism through her work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s. Scholars such as Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson merge scholarship with musical endeavors.
In an interview with The North Star, Welbeck said that “What’s in you will come out. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” With roots in Memphis, and broad influences from Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Ghana, Timothy’s music delivers compelling and creative accounts of global Black history.
The living memory of the global civil rights movement and the prophetic, Pentecostal religion that shaped his upbringing infuse his music. His records are soundtracks to freedom, and musical manifestos of justice. Through “rapping, lecturing, and lawyering,” Welbeck innovatively combines education, religion, music, and the law in a struggle for Black liberation.
About the Author
Phillip Luke Sinitiere is a sections editor at The North Star. He is a historian who writes on race, religion, culture, and society. He teaches history and humanities at the College of Biblical Studies, a predominately Black school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. Sinitiere is the author or editor of several books including Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History; Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity; and Citizen of the World: The Late Career and Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois.