Call it a hazard of the profession. I’ve interviewed many artists in all different genres, and while all have been more than willing to open up about their music, cracking into their opinions about all the myriad issues that surround us—politics, culture, race, sex, even the human condition itself—has proven something of a challenge. The way music is presented nowadays, it’s no wonder that so many musicians and artists would rather play it close to the vest. The iron wall that has been drawn between the creator and the reporter is a tough one to breach.
That’s not so with Son of Nun. A former
One might think that someone with such a formidable ability with the mic might be the hardest to get to open up. Alas, that is thankfully not the case. When I sat down with him recently, he was more than ready to talk about anything that pecked away at his brain—or mine for that matter. With Hip-Hop currently at the biggest crossroads we’ve seen in its thirty-plus year existence, a conversation with Son of Nun makes you wonder if what we need is another hero, another next big thing, or someone as real and down to earth as this MC.
I set out in this interview to give SON a platform, to let him espouse his ideas unimpeded the way so many journalists in the mainstream won’t allow. What I ended up getting wasn’t an interview so much as a conversation, an exchange of ideas that breaks down the barrier between "performer" and "the rest of us." It was also simply too much good stuff to limit to one article:
Alexander Billet: Let’s get this started: tell the folks a bit about yourself.
Son of Nun: I guess I’ll begin at the beginning. Born in the late ‘70s. Came up with sickle cell. I spent a lot of time in the hospital and shit. It’s a blood disease more common among Africans and people of African descent, and people say that it was an adaptation to deal with malaria. Malaria would infect the blood and essentially kill you. So what the sickle cell would do is that it would elongate the cell so that the malaria wouldn’t be able to attack the blood cells. But essentially the sickle cell itself can end up damaging your organs and killing you.
AB: I think you mention that in one of the songs on Blood and Fire [his first record]: "you want a battle, here’s a answer / first tackle sickle cell and then tackle cancer."
SON: Yeah, so I dealt with that. Came up still pretty quiet, then I had thyroid cancer when I was in high school. I remember the surgeon being like "there’s a chance you could lose your voice, or your voice could be damaged" because the nerve that goes to the voicebox is right in that same area as the thyroid gland. So when they took it out and I could still speak, I was like "shit!" I was a quiet dude, and it made me realize the value of my voice and how much I had not been using it.
AB: Use it or lose it kind of thing…
SON: Yeah. So that made me recognize that I’m not gonna be as quiet, I’m gonna try to use my voice to do something. And then that turned into Hip-Hop, but that was a process. Not long after that, when I was in high school in the mid-‘90s, I kind of got fed up with Hip-Hop. It was all sounding the same. I didn’t know about the 1996 Telecommunications Act or anything like that so it was like, all this shit is sounding the same, none of it is telling me why things are fucked up. A lot of it is like "things are fucked up and I’m gonna get mine." I came from the suburbs, so I can’t be like "I gotta kill this negro to get my shit." It didn’t seem right, I didn’t come up in those circumstances. My mom was a single mother, she worked three and four jobs at the same time to make sure that I didn’t have to want for anything. That reality started to dawn on me, but I still couldn’t connect the dots. I was like "there’s a whole lot of inequity going on."
My people are from
AB: When during all of this did you start becoming interested and serious about rapping?
SON: Well, as I said I was fed up with Hip-Hop, but at the end of high school I had a teacher in my English class who had us journal. I was shy and all that stuff, definitely not about myself or being a blowhard as many MCs are. She had us journal, and she would actually take the time to reply and leave comments on every student’s journal about what they had written. The impact that had on me was like "oh, somebody’s actually responding to what I’m saying and validating it." So I started writing poetry after that, and then it was February ’97 when a friend of mine in college said "I heard that you write. Why don’t write something for us so that when we jam we can have an MC?" So I did that, and the first time I picked up the mic I was like "yo…" [laughter] Hearing the poetry back with music live was music just fueled that passion for writing. I started writing more poetry, found out about spoken word and was just amazed by it. This was at the same time I was becoming politicized, so I was thinking of how I can work in what’s going on in my mind into the art that I’m trying to create.
So that’s how I came into picking up the mic. I freestyled with the band, and the DJ had records and instrumentals, so I’d rhyme over that. Then I found Drum ‘n’ Bass. And because I was so fed up with Hip-Hop I was like "yo, this shit is ill." So I got into that and started freestyling over that. Then, at that time, WHFS had this late night show called "Trancemissions" where they would play electronic music, and the host had a competition because Roni Size was gonna perform at the 9:30 Club. I submitted a CD that I did with a DJ who spun some downtempo stuff that was still Drum ‘n’ Bass. I was like "it’s a DJ competition but fuck it, I’ll just submit this." And I ended up winning and got to open up for Roni Size at the 9:30 in DC. I was only twenty-one, so I was pumped!
Then it started to dawn on me that the shit I was talking about wasn’t what people in this scene were into. And I want my art to have some sort of impact in some way. I was still doing the slam-style poetry and I realized that there was an underground scene that I wanted to be a part of. So I started moving away from the Drum ‘n’ Bass and got deeper into the slam scene. Then I came across MC’s who were doing the same shit I was. And I started to realize that Hip-Hop is alive, it’s beautiful, and it still has all the things that I remember that inspired me still intact. People are still living that shit and doing that. And I started losing the fear that people weren’t going to get me. There’s a vibrant community of people that are on that level about saying the real shit that needs to be said. And that’s where I want to be. It was a process, I had to pay my dues all over again. So that’s how I came back into Hip-Hop, and started to love it and respect it again.
AB: It seems that you went through a real heavy evolution just coming back into Rap music and discovering what it is you love about it. And really, that evolution I think is ongoing. The Art of Struggle sounds very different from Blood and Fire. I know on Blood there’s a lot more Drum ‘n’ Bass influence, but on Struggle there’s a lot more organic sounding stuff on there.
SON: Man, with Blood and Fire, I love the album but listening to it a few years later there were a few tracks where it was like "maybe this one shouldn’t have made the cut." In terms of production, in terms of rhymes, in terms of content, I’m one hundred percent proud to have my name on the cover. Period. It was a reflection of where I was at, and a reflection of where my roommate, who made a lot of beats for the album, was at. The Art of Struggle is a reflection of the time that I’ve spent working with different movements. It encompasses my perspective on a lot of issues like immigrant rights, the death penalty, the way that children are impacted the most by debt on the African continent and how that relates to child soldiers. There’s also a lot of pride on the album in term of the rebels that are in my past and my heritage—like the Maroons in
AB: At the same time Blood and Fire made a lot of waves on the east coast activist scene. I’ve seen you play at immigrant rights marches, at housing rights benefits. You did the Uprise Tour with Iraq Veterans Against the War, played with folks like Tom Morello, The Coup. Could you go a little more in depth as to how much working with those movements has impacted your material?
SON: It’s definitely impacted it in the sense that I have learned a lot more from the people who are actually in these struggles, fighting this war against their own group. Just hearing their perspective on it—I didn’t know that there was an IVAW doing the same shit that the soldiers in
AB: There was a lot that happened in between your two albums that have affected Hip-Hop as a whole too in terms of different issues and movements. Hip-Hop had to respond to Katrina, the Jena Six, and a lot of other stuff that has exposed the racism in this society. Seems to me a lot of Hip-Hop artists have been forced to respond to it and have wanted to respond to it. Has any of that affected you too?
SON: No, not at all. [laughter]
AB: Short and sweet answer. I like it.
SON: Naw, man, of course. Of course. It’s like Chuck D said, "Hip-Hop is the Black CNN." I wish I was the dude who said it. But Chuck D said that shit years ago. So yes. I could not claim to be a political artist, or even a Hip-Hop artist, if I wasn’t talking about the shit that was going on. You know what I mean? You couldn’t be a writer if you didn’t have an experience. And where are you gonna gain experience besides the reality you’re given? Fuck yeah, the last five years a hell of a lot of shit has been going on. Being a Hip-Hop artists is about exposing contradictions and putting them in your face, being like "deal with this." Why is this? Why does this happen? What that does is it opens up larger questions about the society we live in. Everybody knows that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but what does that actually look like? People don’t necessarily need that to be pointed out because you know that you’re broke. But it’s like how can I help connect those dots? And in the past five years there have been a lot of dots to connect.
AB: There’s one specific song I’ve seen you do live that takes a real cue from all the stuff that’s happened recently, and that’s "Speak On It." Tell me about that song, because when I see you do it you’re either holding up pieces of paper with the issues on them or they’re projected behind you.
SON: "Speak on It" is six issues. It’s Katrina, it’s Stan "Tookie" Williams who was executed by the Terminator out in
AB: There are a lot of artists that will talk about all these different issues, but I think there’s a big need in this fractured political society that we live in to tie those things together. That’s the job of the left, of radicals, and you do it better than most. Which reminds me of another track on the album, "Child Abuse." It falls into what you were talking about earlier with how
SON: I love it too.
AB: It touches on the diamond trade, and colonialism, but also ties it into Hip-Hop really well. Could you expand on it a bit more?
SON: Well, King Leopold was the king of
So, the reason I put Kanye into that is that he did this song that everyone knows "Diamonds of Sierra Leone." It was a great track, but what I took from it, and maybe I was wrong about this was that he was saying "yo, this is fucked up, kids are walking around with no hands because of these diamonds." But he’s also like "I’m not giving these diamonds back." And even Jay-Z has a line there where he says "the day I give the chain back is the day I give the game back." So it’s like this hard line, yeah this is fucked up, but this is how it’s gotta be. I hadn’t heard a whole lot of commercial artists make that point or even raise the issue about the diamond trade, but the conclusion was still wack. It’s not just MCs, because diamonds were around before Hip-Hop. Kanye raised the issue but he didn’t take it far enough. All of that I try to put into that line.
AB: Both "Child Abuse" and "My City" take up the connection between how war and globalization affect people at home and abroad. You talk about the inner-cities here in the
SON: I mean, it’s just what I noticed. I was a teacher, and yeah there are some computers, but they’re these shitty-ass old—you remember the floppy disc? Back in the day when it was still floppy? That’s the computers they had. They’re old. So it’s like they were lacking in quality computers, but they weren’t lacking in people who were willing to sign folks up for the military. That was the situation. It was tough to come up against that. I’d find myself in the situation where I was saying "look, I don’t have twenty thousand dollars to give you, but the military’s fucked up. You’re gonna have to risk your life and you don’t even know if you’re going to get that money." And it sucked, because that’s not gonna pay anyone’s bills.
So what I try to do in "My City" is just open it up. This is the situation from a student’s perspective. I wanted to put it out there and expose that inequity. And then at the same time show it from the point of view of an Iraqi who is part of the resistance and the reasons that he would be fighting. So it’s like how do I convey reality through song in a way that’s not cheesy? ‘Cuz that’s another thing; as a political artist you don’t want to be the guy whose CD people buy because they think they should. I also want people to think it’s dope and for it to resonate with them, not just think "well, he’s making reasonable arguments, so I should support him."
AB: It’s like, why don’t you just go out and buy a Noam Chomsky book right?
[Go to part 2: http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/21970]
Alexander Billet is a music journalist, writer, and activist living in
This article originally appeared at The Society of Cinema and Arts.