The Bayou City loves Bernard “Bun B” Freeman so much that he’s been given the title “Houston’s unofficial mayor.” But the Grammy-nominated renaissance man of Texas rap actually hails from Port Arthur, a struggling refinery town 90 miles east.
The surviving half of legendary hip-hop duo UGK, Bun B has become a sort of cultural ambassador for the region. In the past several years, he’s published a coloring book, co-lectured a wildly popular Rice University course (“Religion and Hip-Hop Culture” with religious studies professor Anthony B. Pinn) and documented the rise of Trump as a 2016 election correspondent for Vice News.
The Observer spoke with Bun B about his hometown, his music and the meaning of trill. His fifth album, Return of the Trill, is out August 31.
Tell us about your experience growing up in Port Arthur and what it’s like for you going back there now.
When I was growing up in Port Arthur, the only real employment for people was always the refineries. The conditions haven’t really changed. Opportunity out there is small, probably a little smaller now than it was before, because we lost businesses during Hurricane Harvey that haven’t been able to reopen.
It’s going to places and seeing friends you grew up with and them telling you they lost everything and their parents lost everything. The high school hallways that I’ve walked through were turned into a shelter. For those of us who have been able to make it out, and kind of prosper a little bit, it’s imperative that we make whatever efforts we can to help those people.
Your cousin, Port Arthur Mayor Derrick Freeman, is asking residents who left after Hurricane Harvey to return. What’s your take on that?
If you look at the fact that a lot of people still haven’t returned to New Orleans [after Hurricane Katrina], that kind of puts the Port Arthur conditions into perspective. There’s more industry in New Orleans than there is in Port Arthur — they still have tourism.
The problem in Port Arthur is people would have to go back to the same area they left. They’re basically moving back to a home that would probably put them back in the same position if another storm comes. For those who were able to leave, they don’t really have much to go back to.
How did growing up in Port Arthur influence the issues that you’ve gravitated toward in your music and activism, like poverty or police brutality?
The music is a reflection of, at younger years of my life, how bleak it seemed for a lot of young people in Port Arthur. Don’t get me wrong, I love the people, I love friends that I’ve made growing up there, but as far as opportunities, there just really aren’t any. So for me, the music I did always reflected that.
But the activism, I think that comes with having a voice and having a different platform now that I’m older. If people like myself don’t speak up for Port Arthur and the conditions there, then no one will know what’s going on in that small town.
Your new album is titled Return of the Trill, and the cover features a highway sign for Port Arthur. Do you try to bring attention to the city with your music?
That’s what we call Port Arthur, the land of the trill. So when I refer to the “Return of the Trill,” it’s not necessarily about myself, it’s about the entire city, trying to come back from what we’ve been through. We’re not just gonna lay down and roll over when something like this happens. We’re taught to persevere, we’re taught that if people don’t do anything to help us, we’ve got to find ways to help ourselves.
I tried to make an album that’s representative of the mentality of people in Port Arthur post-Hurricane Harvey, and really after any kind of traumatic experience. But no matter what happens, you’ve gotta bounce back, you’ve gotta try to bring it back to what it was. Do the best we can, or try to figure out what our new normal is gonna be and make the best of that.
How do you define “trill?”
Trill is about being honest with yourself about the people around you. A code of honor, so to speak, to block from the negativity and the frustration and sometimes the depressing and difficult things that tend to hold people back.
Trill has always been something that came from the city of Port Arthur. Port Arthur was the home of trill; that’s the street where the word trill came out of. That’s the term that we used in Port Arthur to separate ourselves from everyone in the world.
What do you think about politics in Texas right now? Do you think Texas could turn blue?
We can’t change anything nationally until we change things on a local level. It’s very important that we get people interested in local politics, because presidential elections only happen every four years.
You keep people like Greg Abbott and specifically Dan Patrick in office, then people of color, they’re gonna constantly get the bad end of the stick. They’re not gonna get the changes in their communities that they need to prosper. We want elected officials that reflect the communities that they serve and that take the opinions of the people in their districts into consideration.
What’s the relationship between religion and hip-hop culture?
It’s about what they both represent to people. [In my Rice University class] we define religion as complex subjectivity, and basically it’s what you do to make sense of the questions of life that you want answered: Who are we? Why are we here? What is our purpose? For some people, hip-hop culture is what allows them to be a better person, allows them to contribute.
We also look at religion as a voice for people of color across America, from post-slavery to modern times, and we work through all the modern art forms before we get there. We start with the negro spirituals and then kind of work our way up to hip-hop. We use the culture of hip-hop and the culture of religion to show how people tend to define their lives by the music they listen to and whatever it is they choose to worship. People that worship God don’t tend to hang with people that worship the devil, you know. The music you listen to kind of defines the kind of people you want to be around, the kind of environment you want to be in, all that kind of stuff.
You’ve said you want to make a difference with your music. You’ve been involved in activism, education, politics, journalism — how do all these fit into your identity as a rapper now?
Well, it’s about, what did you do for the culture? How did you impact the culture? Did you just release albums to try to make money and all that stuff? And that’s fine if that’s what you got into it for. But at least don’t get in the way of people who are trying to do more with the culture, and make their legacy stand for something years after they’re gone.
Initially hip-hop started as part of a contribution to culture and local communities — trying to lift up your people. Once hip-hop got commercialized and people started making a lot of money off it, records tended to center on more party music. I’ve done enough party music. I will still do some stuff that gives people moments of levity, but we can’t live our whole lives partying. There are certain things that need to be said.