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reReflector 04: Big Lean & “Ghost of Vinegar Hill”

by Niya Bates | Photos by Lincoln Carr

Featured photo:Lincoln Carr aka “Big Lean” reflected on a truck hood.

I think we have all been a little haunted by what Lincoln Carr aka “Big Lean” calls the “Ghost of Vinegar Hill” in one of his recent singles. Piano chords open the track before the beat kicks in. In the first verse of the song, he talks about his grandma selling candy apples out of her home on Prospect Ave and other family on Grady Ave and 12th street. He laments watching the streets “swallow n*ggas like Reese’s pieces”: his observation of how Charlottesville’s drug and street culture negatively impacts us all and results in good people dying too young. In the second verse he speaks on Black youth being “trapped like the slave bones down at UVA”. The hook declares:

“Small city, small mindset. N— don’t grow up out it. Dreaming of making it out, but don’t know how to go about it. To live in the Ville, to die in the Ville. It’s almost like my town’s cursed – the Ghost of Vinegar Hill.”

By now, most Vinegar Hill Magazine readers are experts on the history of Charlottesville’s oldest Black neighborhood and the former Black business district that was razed in 1964 during Charlottesville urban renewal campaign – allegedly in the name of improving Charlottesville’s image, providing better housing, and encouraging more development downtown. Sixty years later, we are left with a large surface parking lot in front of Staples and an affordability crisis that is pushing more Black residents out of the city. Few buildings remain of the once vibrant Black neighborhood: The Jefferson School, Vinegar Hill Theater, the Oddfellows Hall (now Common House), and a few houses in the neighborhood. A majority of the businesses that flourished in Vinegar Hill, like Inge’s Grocery and the barbershops, have long since closed. The families who once owned homes in the neighborhood have been pushed into public housing developments, expensive rentals, or are struggling against increasing real estate assessments to hold onto family homes in 10th & Page, Rose Hill, and Fifeville. These are some of the ghosts in Big Lean’s song.

If you’ve been following Lincoln’ musical journey for a while, you’re probably a fan of his mellowed out beats and easy rhymes about what it was like growing up in Charlottesville in the 90s and 00s. When he first got into music professionally, I remember seeing him perform at Satellite Ballroom and the Tea Bazaar when those were the local hip-hop venues that supported artists like The Beetnix (fronted by Damani Harrison), Jae Griff (Josh Griffin), and Linz Prag. They hailed from a generation of local musicians whose families had been in the area for a while, and who came up in Charlottesville after its early 1990s moment as a rising east coast hip hop destination. My favorite hip hop professor, Claudrena Harold, told me that Charlottesville and UVA were even featured in The Source magazine in a “Rap on Campus” feature in 1991. Lincoln got into rap because his father had VHS tapes of 80’s hip hop music videos by LL Cool J, Kool Moe Dee, Kurtis Blow, and others. His sister introduced him to 90s rap and hip hop, but Lincoln didn’t officially become “Big Lean” until the death of his friend-turned-brother in 2009.

Lincoln Carr along a fence in Richmond, VA where he currently resides. 

Lincoln’s family family lineage can be traced back in Charlottesville for at least five generations. He and his older sister, Shameera, have been doing their family’s genealogy and learned that one of their great grandmothers was Amy Bowles Farrow. She owned over 220 acres of land and is considered a founder of the Free State community, which was located near the present day Dunlora and Belvedere neighborhoods. Their family still owns some of that land, which is mentioned in another track called “Playa’s Anthem.” When asked what his family’s history meant to him as an artist, Lincoln replied, “The farther I go back, the more I see that my family has always been here in Charlottesville/Albemarle area and other parts of Virginia.  It’s interesting to see, because we were taught that we all just come from Africa, but I am finding more, and more indigenous and native roots.”

Big Lean’s music, especially “Ghost of Vinegar Hill” speaks to ways that he feels like Black people in Charlottesville haven’t progressed as much as we should as a community. Some of the lyrics in songs point to changes in street code that put money and clout above loyalty and community, values he believes would help the Black Community find success beyond oppressive “ghosts” and past traumas. Lincoln hopes that his music catalogue will leave life jewels and inspirational stepping stones for his future descendants. When I asked him about legacy and the future, Lincoln had a few things in mind. On building generational wealth, he said, “learning my history and knowing that we owned land and were self-sufficient at one point, and then losing that as a family, has inspired me to bring that back to my bloodline and teach how to keep it.” He thinks young people in Charlottesville need more creative outlets and more support for the arts, especially Black-owned live music venues, engineering and technical training, financial literacy, and therapy. He says, “We suppress our traumas, which leak into the community.” In his songs he addresses racial profiling and policing of Black communities. He also believes that the community needs to do more to prevent youth from coming into contact with the police. Over and over, he stressed the importance of community and working toward being more self-sufficient.

Lincoln Carr aka “Big Lean” 

If his previous musical projects have addressed the ghosts that haunt us, the next complete project “Keep It Playa” is more reflective of the healing journey that Lincoln has been on personally. “I’ve been creating music for 14+ years now, so I’m really comfortable and confident with myself and my music.  Not that I haven’t always been, but I’m past the point of feeling like I have something to prove lyrically.  You can hear this in my relaxed flow on this current project.  Add some heartbreak, and loses, and you have this current project.” Lincoln’s story shows how we can all use family history as a source of pride and empowerment. This March, we celebrate the women like Amy Bowles Farrow, who left a legacy that continues to build and whose descendants are carrying the torch.

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Vinegar Hill Magazine is a space that is designed to support and project a more inclusive social narrative, to promote entrepreneurship, and to be a beacon for art, culture, and politics in Central Virginia.

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