Son of Nun – Hip Hop Artist & Activist
July 20, 2008
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SleptOn.com had a few opportunities to kick it with hip hop artist and activist Son Of Nun of Baltimore, MD. We’ve known S.O.N. for a few years and wanted to do this profile in order to introduce him to SO readers. In short, S.O.N. is one of the most extraordinary cats that you’ll ever meet. As a hip hop artist, he’s incredibly talented and his activism/organizing is both broad and deep with efforts in everything from anti-death penalty campaigns, immigrant rights advocacy, anti-war/occupation protests, raising awareness of police brutality, poverty and many other issues involving race, class, sexuality and gender politics. Hanging out with S.O.N. was both fun and informative as we learned about his work, commitment and struggle for justice for all people.
Son of Nun is far more than a political hip hop artist and an activist. He’s also a former Baltimore City high school teacher. He’s survived cancer and battled sickle cell anemia. Public Enemy’s Chuck D once described him as "[Leaving] a mean look on somebody’s face" for being "More than relevant!," S.O.N. doesn’t just entertain his crowds, through uncompromising lyrics and his deeds, he empowers them.
S.O.N. has shared the stage with everyone from artists like Dead Prez, Immortal Technique to activists like Rosa Clemente, Howard Zinn and Cindy Sheehan. Educating and entertaining, he’s kicked it with Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine as well as Liam Madden from Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Music from his 2004 debut cd "Blood And Fire" has earned him spots on compilations with iconic artists ranging from The Last Poets to Sonic Youth, won him a "Best of Baltimore" award from the Baltimore City Paper, and took "Best Song of the Week" on NPR’s website.
S.O.N. has a forthcoming cd, "The Art of Struggle," which is a collaboration with producer DJ Mentos and will be released August 2008. Please check out his MySpace Spot and website for information on how to buy and support his work.
We at SleptOn Mag got a few opportunities to watch him excite crowds as he performed as well as chances to sit down with him to discuss his music, politics among other things.
Below, we’re providing the text of our interview. Check it out.
SleptOn.com: So briefly tell the people who Son of Nun is …
S.O.N.: Who am I? I’m a political hip hop artist from Baltimore … D.C. and Baltimore, used to teach high school in Baltimore, been active in a few different movements over the years, and that’s basically where my music comes from.
SleptOn.com: What kinds of activism were you involved in over the years?
S.O.N.: The Campaign to End the Death Penalty, Solidarity with Palestine, immigrants rights, nah mean … just general working people movements. And basically trying to tie those issues together, because something that I’ve always said … when I perform or you go to an anti-war protest … mostly white people. You go to an immigrants rights protest and it’s mostly brown people Latino. You go to a police brutality protest and it’s mostly black people. The problem is that it’s not like the government or the administration in power is a single issue administration. So it’s like, it’s up to us to recognize that and stand in solidarity with each other. So that’s where my music comes from. That’s what I try to convey.
SleptOn.com: When did you begin rhyming?
S.O.N.: ’97, started rhyming in 1997 … I used to write poetry. That’s how I came into it. Basically, a friend of mine was in a band and he was like "hey we’re practicing. You should come and spit some shit". So I wrote something for that session and it just felt natural … you know. I picked up the mic and I haven’t put it own since. So …’97.
SleptOn.com: What projects are you working on right now? You’ve had at least one album, correct?
S.O.N.: Yeah, Blood and Fire. That came out 4 years ago so the new project should be out in August. It’s called the Art of Struggle …a collaboration with DJ Mentos… I’m excited about that shit man!
It’s going to have 15 tracks plus a bonus track … gonna put Free Palestine on there ‘cause we’re gonna put this album out right. Ya’ll are already helping me to do that. We’re not looking to hit commercial radio stations with it. That’s like a waste of my energy …but really community and college radio stations and I’m looking for different press outlets that are friendly to what I do… nah mean…
SleptOn.com: Like SleptOn.com?
S.O.N.: Right … I feel like I need a tattoo that says I AM SleptOn, ‘cause for real that’s what this independent music circuit is … it’s slept on and needs the proper exposure.
SleptOn.com: … and when is the album coming out?
S.O.N.: We’re set for August 6, 2008
SleptOn.com: Now did you collaborate with DJ Mentos on the first album?
S.O.N.: No that was DJ Crimson and a few different producers on the first album and some other guys on the West Coast with Innate Productions. They made some of the beats on the last album. They’ll actually have one of the beats on this album too … for the song "Pastures of Plenty" which is about immigrants rights … but it was mostly DJ Crimson on the first album.
SleptOn.com: What can you tell us about the name, Son of Nun?
S.O.N.: It’s actually biblical in origin> It’s Joshua, the son of none. He’s the one that took over for Moses and brought the Jews into the Promised Land. That’s where my head was at back in the day when I chose the name. As I got more political and started reading, I was like hmmm … the Native Americans, the British, the Spanish, the French … all these people coming over and setting up colonies. Then I looked at the bible again and I was like oh, there were already people in the Promised Land. They had to be wiped out too … but "God told them to do it." So the more political I got, the more I stepped away from that literal meaning in terms of who he was and what he actually did and I just took it to mean like this is about passing the torch. I don’t know about the Promised Land but I know about trying to put people together and build and organize for something that’s better than what we’re dealing with now. So Son of Nun, that’s what it means … it’s like passing the torch.
It’s also somebody that doesn’t get a lot of play. People talk about Moses and stuff but nobody really talks about this guy Joshua, who played an important role. It’s like that underground type and that’s kind of where I am now. I don’t have any dreams of getting on MTV or any shit like that‘s cause they don’t play music anymore. You know, it’s about no illusions, just moving forward and building and doing that work that needs to be done.
SleptOn.com: So why do you do hip hop and not some other music genre?
S.O.N.: I grew up on that shit man … nah mean, it’s like I used to fall asleep with my first two cassette tapes as a kid. They used to have those things back in the day … I first took like Run DMC and Salt and Pepa. I went to sleep with my walkman …
SleptOn.com: A walk what? … what y ou say?
S.O.N.: Hahaha … they made the cassette tape things portable … it was like a stereo in your hand … it was magical.
SleptOn.com: Really? Never heard of it … but it’s cool, please continue.
S.O.N.: Those were my first two tapes, I remember going to bed with those … that was the shit. I’m not really into rock. That wasn’t moving me … didn’t even know about punk. Hip Hop moved me … caught my attention and my passion.
I actually got fed up with Hip Hop in the mid-‘90s when it all started sounding the same. I was like everybody is talking about killing black people and it got frustrating … that’s not to say that it isn’t a reality for some folks, but I also knew enough that everybody in the hood isn’t a drug dealer. Lots of people, lots of families work nine to fives and … work very hard. But that wasn’t coming out in the music. So that frustration really opened up my tastes for other music. I started writing poetry and that turned into spoken word and into hip hop. It’s also kind of like making the music that I wish I could hear.
SleptOn.com: So how did you get involved in radical, lefty politics?
S.O.N.: Yeah, basically Mumia’s case (Mumia Abu-Jamal) back in like ’96 just blew my mind. His ability to articulate in his own words what was happening to him. He was taking up the struggle himself and obviously lots of people got around him. He said yes, I’m on death row … yes they’re trying to kill me … yes it’s a messed up situation. At the same time he suggested that there are a much larger set of issues that are global. Injustice that’s perpetuated on a wide scale. Hearing him speak about that set off a lot of whistles and alarms in my head.
SleptOn.com: How old were you then?
S.O.N.: I was 18 or 19 years old back then. He had that perspective that shifted my own and made me look. Started questioning and started looking out. ‘Cause I went to college looking for the reasons and root causes of why things were fucked up. I wanted to be a part of changing things, but I still needed to know what it was that needed to be changed and how things got to be the way that they are … how things got fucked up. Which isn’t to say that things were once great and then now they’re fucked up … it’s more like what is the source of inequality? Where does that come from?
So I went to the Black Student Union when I was at UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County), but it wasn’t that great. I thought there’d be more political involvement there. There was some political stuff but it was more like social activities and things like that. Having more of an organized presence for black folks on campus and that was a good thing but it didn’t provide the political groundwork that I was looking for. So I really came to it while learning about Mumia’s case. It was a learning process … took a long time and definitely not overnight.
I feel like a lot of people have a Mumia moment -where they learn about something that opens them up to a different reality that they’re not typically exposed to. Do you know what I mean? Like blatant examples of injustice where it’s crying out for something to be done. And they know that based on what’s happening, the only way that change can happen is if more people learn about it and do something about it. After that point you’ve got only 2 options. You can either get involved and jump in to some degree OR you can kinda step back and be like shit, I don’t know. What can I do? And kinda go back to sleep. Like "… it’s fucked up, but oh well" and forget it. For me, I wanted to get involved and learn more. The fact that Mumia was so articulate about so many different things outside of his situation and the death penalty definitely gave me a kind of a roadmap about things that I could look into.
I came into contact with different organizations that showed me how deep the rabbit hole goes … So that’s what it was about. That radicalized me, and changed my life. ‘cause, other wise, I’d just be, ya know … sleep walking.
SleptOn.com: Sleep walking …
SleptOn.com: So S.O.N., what are you thinking about the presidential race? Are you rooting for Obama, now that he has the Democratic nomination? Or looking elsewhere for "change"?
S.O.N.: Haha … I honestly think it’s great to see a black man and woman being the choices for the Democratic nomination. I think that’s an historic thing, it’s marvelous just that that’s a reality. If you look a little bit deeper into that reality and look at their platforms … it’s like oh! This looks pretty much like everything else I’ve seen before. Which is to say, the first black president is not going to be a Panther right? Not gonna be a black radical. The first woman president is probably not gonna be a radical feminist. The other thing to is like it’s two-thousand-and fucking eight … 2008. We’re all like "Oh my god, a black president!" It’s like nah, that should of happened, a long time ago. I’m not settling for any scraps. And basically people who look like us and the other folks who are down and walked with us didn’t fight and die so that we can throw our votes away on just an image, a façade. The other thing, on top of that, is that the answer isn’t gonna be found in one person. Even just looking at the branches of government and what the executive branch can do … they can do some things, but it’s still one individual, so if the Congress doesn’t support him then he’s gonna have to deal with that. He’ll be ostracized, blah blah … so the answer for me and looking through history about the way that change is made … it’s about people coming together and organizing for it. It’s not relying on the president or some politician to find it in the goodness of his/her heart. It takes people on the ground ‘cause if Obama gets elected president, what’s he gonna do about the incarceration rate? What’s he gonna do about the shitty schools in the inner city? Nah mean?
SleptOn.com: Isn’t the problem that there’s an assumption that how we should engage in politics by voting, primarily. We should engage through the ballot box every four years and then wait for 4 years and let the "intelligent people" handle it for us. We need to work to redefine, again, for ourselves what it means to engage politically, because voting is the most passive and least fruitful form of civic engagement.
S.O.N.: Exactly, and you know it’s funny ‘cause I talk with other artists and I hear cats joke about how conscious, or political hip hop is in trouble. They say "how are we gonna be able to rhyme about racism in America, with a black president…" (confused face )
SleptOn.com: Uh … easy
S.O.N.: Right… haha …but a lot of people don’t see that. A lot of people are like ‘what are you complaining about … there’s a black president.’ People are already saying that … even with Obama as just as a black candidate. Quit complaining, get a job n*gger … it’s crazy.
SleptOn.com: So SON, tell the people what you’re listening to right now in your cd player or your MP3 player … Whatever it is that you use. You were talking about tapes just a minute ago right? As a matter of fact, tell the people at home a little about tapes, those that don’t know … the younger audiences. People all into MP3s and CDs ya’ll don’t even know what a tape is. We started off on tapes right? …
S.O.N.: (to camera) I mean everybody from our generation did. You could make a mix tape, you know, that’s where the name comes from. Like you could push pause, you know, and when you hear a song … push it again then record and then you hear the click, and the radio DJ says some shit, that’s what the mixtape is …
SleptOn.com: (to camera) That’s what the term mixtape comes from, it wasn’t a CD that they made into a mixtape!
S.O.N.: (to camera) Yep, and there were these li ttle like boxes that you would put the tape in, and push PLAY.
SleptOn.com: (to camera) Wow, that’s right … almost forgot about that … and you had to push PLAY and RECORD at the same time, right? And sometimes you had to sit by the radio to wait for your song to come on, then try to record the joint, but then Funk Master Flex would talk and mess your whole joint up … haha
S.O.N.: (to camera) Yeah … those were the days, kids … just a little history lesson and tutorial for yall.
But back to the question about what’s in my CD player … Honestly, I listen to a lot of soul and some funk, Rage against the Machine, old school R&B, Nina Simone you know … she speaks to my soul. There’s an album that I couldn’t put down for months and months. Soul Gospel, I forget the label that it’s on but it’s like Etta James, Urma Thomas, the Sweet Inspirations, all those folks … Sam Cooke. I feel like it’s true for some of the other emcees that I talk to as well. The biggest thing that they listen to isn’t always hip hop. They just listen to the stuff that speaks to them. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of hip hop artists that don’t bring it. Part of the reason is that I also don’t wanna get influenced, I wanna be original so I try not to listen to too much hip hop so I can still come with my own thing. No one can be like oh, he took that from him. So I want to be original, you know …
SleptOn.com: Son, do you have any tattoos?
S.O.N.: Well, the DC police already have my identifying marks … so I don’t mind telling you about my tattoos. I’ve got a few tattoos, "Blood Fire" right here under my neck around my collar … "Change is Constant". I’ve got "Choose Life" backwards so that I can see it in the mirror and remind myself. On my back I’ve got from shoulder to shoulder the word "Maroon" with chains broken.
SleptOn.com: What does "Maroon" mean to you?
S.O.N.: That’s the Maroons man! I mean that’s the autonomous slave societies that the British never defeated in Jamaica, nah mean … so it’s like that was in Jamaica but they had Maroon societies from like Mexico to Brazil. So that’s something that I definitely identify with. My family is from Jamaica and Barbados …immigrant parents, but we’re all forced immigrants you know. So Maroon, I had to represent that ’cause my people are from Jamaica so that’s the heritage I identify with.
SleptOn.com: What books are you reading?
S.O.N.: You know, one of the last books that I’ve read was "The Narrative of the Life of a Slave" by Frederick Douglass. It gave me a new perspective. Obviously he was a brilliant abolitionist, but you also learn about what his life was like as a slave. How he was resisting bondage while he was enslaved. There’s a story in there where he said that he was sent to this slave master to be broken. So Frederick Douglass was 16 at the time …he was getting whipped and whipped and he said,’nah … I’m never getting whipped again.’ So he dipped for a while … just left, and when he came back the master said basically that he’s about to get his. So Freddy was like, ‘nope.’ …and they fought for two hours …Like a full out knock down and drag out brawl. Freddy beat him and wondered why he was not killed after their fight. Like beating up a white man is pretty fucking serious. The master didn’t want it to get out that the reason he killed Frederick Douglass was because he got his ass beat by this slave. Fred never got whipped again. That’s not the image that they put out of Frederick Douglass. They put the old gray hair image, very wise and elderly but not like … I’ll beat your ass if you touch me. That’s Freddy D though!!!
He lived a long time and dedicated his life to freeing slaves and that’s amazing.
SleptOn.com: SON, on one of your songs, you say something about certain artists spitting truth, but getting it wrong on gay rights and homophobia. When I first heard that I was thinking … oh he’s talking ImmortalTechnique!!! Was I jumping the gun? Tell us about that.
S.O.N.: But see that’s the thing … I don’t know that man … I’ve never met Immortal Technique. I’ve heard him say publicly that he doesn’t have anything against how people live their lives. The stuff that I have read about Immortal Technique … he comes from a perspective where that’s how people talk. Like if you’re weak, you’re a "fag", so I’m not saying that that’s cool … and what I say is
"Some real rappers spit truth every night, but say stupid shit when it comes to gay rights. They talk about the Panthers but they never knew that Huey woulda called their asses out for what they do."
The reason why I say that is not ‘cause of Immmortal Technique or this rapper or that rapper. It’s more like anybody that is claiming a radical or revolutionary image or past or whatever, if that’s what they’re bringing to the table, then it’s kinda like folks (including myself) need to do their fucking homework … period. If those are the people that you’re bigging up and raising up as heroes as they are. It needs to be recognized that when that issue came up, they were not on the wrong side of history. They came correct and were like ‘no those people are oppressed too’. We need to stand in solidarity with them … homosexuals.
So in my music, I try not to call out specific emcees and I want to make that clear … ‘cause the way that I approach hip hop and I know that all artists don’t do this, but I realize that I have more in common with them, then I’ll ever have in common with the label head or the corporate people putting that music out. Right? My beef is not with other emcees … period.
I listened to Killa Mike the other day … and he’ll say some ill shit, like some sexist shit, some homophobic shit, whatever … but when you read the interview and listen to some lyrics you’ll see that there’s a revolutionary consciousness that’s there at the same time. It’s not as well defined as Immortal Technique’s, but it’s there and I’d rather see those brothers as my comrades whom I can build with as opposed to people I need to chop down and diss and all that bullshit. Immortal Technique, I respect him and I have a small feeling that Mumia sees that the same way, or else Mumia wouldn’t have done the intro for Tech’s album. So for me it’s never about calling out this or that emcee ‘cause there’s much bigger fish to fry than being like crabs in a fucking barrel …You know …
I wanna hear more revolutionary hip hop … I need to hear that shit and when I hear it, I don’t want it to be clouded with bullshit like revolutionary emcees talking shit about each other, ’cause that’s bullshit. So for the record … Son of Nun did not call out Immortal Technique.
SleptOn.com: What’s your Myspace page?
S.O.N.: Myspace page is Myspace.com/socialistmc, check it out … there’s music, videos all of that stuff.
SleptOn.com: You also have a website right?
S.O.N.: Yeah … http://www.sonofnun.net
SleptOn.com: You can also access the Son of Nun website by going to the Links page on the SleptOn website and if you look a bit, you’ll see that it’s one of the banners. He’s in there somewhere …
S.O.N.: In there … like Ragu
SleptOn.com: Haha … Ragu!
It’s in there … I think it’s actually from the Prego commercials.
S.O.N.: Either way, that’s corny as shit hahaha
SleptOn.com: S.O.N, thanks for coming and talking with us at SleptOn.com, man.
S.O.N.: Thanks for having me. I’ll see ya’ll in the struggle …