[Go to part one: http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/21716]
As the evening continued (and the alcohol flowed), my conversation with Son of Nun drifted into even deeper territory. To SON, one of the underground’s most socially active rappers, the correlation between art and politics is never static. It is ever shifting, morphing, presenting new challenges to artists who wish to make a difference beyond the strictures of "the music world."
This isn’t to say, however, that it’s intangible. The history of music and struggle is full of rich and vibrant stories where, even if songs didn’t directly change the world, they did give people the hope, courage and inspiration to fight for something better. There is a deeper level on which music exists, however. That’s the level that hits people in their emotional core. Plenty of political music misses this entirely.
Music alone cannot organize people, but it can inspire and give confidence if it reaches this deep down place. And if an artist can walk this fine line, then they can manage to do a lot more than make pretty sounds. In truth, it can make people powerful–even dangerously so. It’s a true travesty that so few are given the voice they need to put their message out. SON, however, understands all of this, which is part of what makes his music so necessary right now.
Alexander Billet: Has it been hard for you to transition from being a working teacher into being an MC? Because I know that there have been a lot of politically minded acts who have become frustrated with their music and end up abandoning it so they can do more on the actual ground.
Son of Nun: There’s a part of me that’s like "how do I make a tangible impact?" as opposed to just writing some songs. At the end of the day, it’s still a song that I wrote. It’s not like somebody can now pay their light bill. My song is not going to do that. But then at the same time you hear the story about Boots Riley (from the Coup). He was an MC for a while before he became political. But he was still a community organizer. And then, the story that I heard that made him want to put politics into his music was that the cops were harassing somebody in the projects, and somebody starting playing "Fight the Power" out of the windows, and then the people who were crowded around started growing and shouting "fight the power," to the cops that were still there. This got to the point where they left the dude alone, got back into their car, really slowly, and they got the fuck out of there. After he saw that, it was like "I’m putting politics in my fucking music!"
AB: That’s incredible! See now, those are the moments you don’t hear about when we’re taught how to think about music. We don’t think about how the art can actually affect people. I’ve never really believed in the idea that "music is the weapon," but I do think there are times when it can give people confidence, which is a pretty important element of fighting back.
SON: Yeah. And honestly, what I’ve been trying to do lately, something that I’ve realized. In doing music, especially the music that I do, I need to sometimes look at it from the role of a political organizer. What an organizer tries to do is assess the resources you have and figure out how to use them to see the change you want to see. So what I should be doing shamelessly is like, you know, "hey Alex, I’m coming out with an album." [laughter from both of us] I can’t be timid about putting myself out there when I’m saying that this is bigger than me as an MC. If I was just all about "I’m a dope-ass MC, ra ra ra," then I might be more timid, but if I’m not, if I want an interview to go down the way that we’re having it, where we’re discussing the issues, then I need to not be fearful in any way of being like "yo, this is what I’m putting out, and this is why I’m putting it out. How can we use this as an organizing tool?" Just to put it out there, another pebble in the pond, and hope it stirs up consciousness.
AB: You’re touching on something I’ve been thinking of from my end too. You know, the presence of radical artists and radicals who write about music is so needed for so many different reasons. For one thing, when you talk about being timid, there’s this whole structure in the music industry of "critic vs. the artist." And you know what? I can’t blame so many artists for thinking of music writers as the enemy because the music press is in such a lazy state right now. Rolling Stone, Spin, all of that. They’ll chop up the interview and twist around what the artist is trying to say. So, there’s a reason for musicians to look at critics like that. I think that the voice of the musician should be paramount. Specifically when you’re talking about political music. The musician’s voice matters! There are so many great musicians that take up what’s going on right now, but the music press is steadfast on either ignoring them or being openly hostile to them. I want to aid the process in making the musician’s voice a weapon.
SON: Right. And an effective weapon too. Because that’s the thing: it’s crucial, and it’s fundamental to be able to empower your community as an artist because that’s where you’re at. So you need to figure out how to help inspire the people that you’re working with on the regular. But it’s also about trying to find a wider audience. To know the reason that this doesn’t happen more, to know the structure of the music industry, to have journalists pour themselves out on that page who are part of that struggle, giving voice to artists… I think it’s fucking crucial. That’s why I’m glad to do this interview: because I know you’re in it. You’ve done this work too! It’s not just some abstract idea floating around in your head, it’s about change. This is something that you love to do that’s important and you’re tying those two things together.
Putting these ideas out there is crucial because when it comes down to it, if folks don’t know this shit they go nuts. This system eats people up. I mean it eats people the fuck up! Period. Hands down. That’s what it does. People work for the machine to the point where if you resist it you feel like you’re crazy. You’re bumping your head up against the wall. You’re coming up against the reality of a society that does not value giving you the things that you need as a human being. You’re coming up against that inequity. To have people coming together to be like "no, that’s bullshit, and we need to support each other."
AB: That’s one of the things that I think good music does, be it Rap, Rock, Soul, Jazz: it breaks through that alienation. Whether it’s political or not, it reminds people that they’re not alone. It gives them hope. But that hope needs to be channeled in some kind of direction. I think there’s a real need for songs that can give people hope in today’s world–songs that say there is a way, there is an answer, we can fight. Like your song "Fire Next Time."
SON: "Fire Next Time" is a tribute to the rebels of the past who inspire me, the giants of the past whose shoulders I stand on. It also came from the idea that Black History Month doesn’t just have to be in February. I wanted to do those two things and then also put it in a context of today. That was "the fire last time," what’s the fire next time gonna be like? I tried to write it from the point of view of a soldier in the US Army who’s Black and who’s disillusioned–who’s thinking "this is bullshit, you have me out here guarding this pipeline for Bechtel. Fuck that shit! You’re making money, but my community’s falling apart."
Jared Ball, who’s an amazing activist and teacher at Morgan State, used to be in the military. And he came into the military because he had done some shit and was facing some time. They said to him he could get out of it if he joined the service. So I try to incorporate that aspect into it too. This is where I’m drawing my inspiration from, this is what they did. Another inspiration I mention in there is the Maroons. My people are from Jamaica, and the Maroons were those slaves up in the hills of the cotton-picking country in Jamaica who could not be defeated. They’re not perfect, there’s some shit that I struggle with about them, but the reason they existed is incredible! So incorporate those things into the song and put it in the context of today. We can do some real shit. That’s why I say "the fire next time is comin’ to DC." The seat of fucking power. We have the ability to do that, and if you need a spark, you need a reason, here’s one. That’s why I wrote the song.
AB: When you do that song live the participation of the audience seems so crucial. And even on the album, I notice you leave a blank space. You say "when I say fire, y’all say next time," then you say "we the fire," but there’s no vocal where there should be "next time." Are you trying to get people listening to their headphones and chiming in?
SON: Yes. Yes. I was just kind of like "why not?" It’s supposed to be call and response. I know that even though people aren’t with me there in the studio, I want them to be coming along. Maybe after the first verse when they notice I leave it blank they’ll be like "all right, I’ll do it next time." You know? Call and response comes out of slave spirituals and that tradition. I wanted to keep that alive in that song. I didn’t want to do a different vocal track for that part on the album version. I wanted people to know that so when they go to the show they’ll be saying it with their fist raised! Also I wanted them to have the idea that they have to participate in some way.
AB: "Change is Constant" is another one I wasn’t quite expecting on that album–especially as a final track. Talk about ending on a high note! First of all the beats are really flowy and laid back.
SON: Honestly, Mentos, the producer on the album–that was his doing. He sent me that beat and the song came out of me. I just thought "this is an amazing piece of music." I asked myself how I could translate it lyrically, how I can reflect it. I wanted to try to tie everything together. I wanted to say "maybe you don’t agree with all my perspectives, but if you oppose the exploitation that people are enduring in this country and internationally, regardless of what you call yourself, then this song is something you can identify with."
And also I found that I had to acknowledge the importance of being solid in who you are. That’s not something that’s popular to do as an MC. I wanted to let people know that it’s all right, that you’re not crazy to want to resist, and that it’s all right to attempt to love yourself and find strength in resisting these things for yourself. Because all of that is coming out of a place of love for humanity too. It might sound like some hippie shit, but that’s where I am. I don’t do the things that I do because I want to be president, or to increase my own power. I want people to be all right. It’s political and it’s also in that murky space–that reality that you have to deal with in yourself and in larger society. It’s in that in between space. That’s where I’m coming from.
AB: Any last words? As a send-off to the folks at home?
SON: As a send-off? To the folks in the struggle, thank you. To the artists that are in the struggle, stay in the struggle. Your strengths will come from there, and your lessons will come from there, as opposed to something that you read in a book. Stay in it, and let it all affect you.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist, cultural critic and activist living in Chicago. He is a columnist for SleptOn.com and The Society of Cinema and Arts. He is also a regular contributor to Socialist Worker and ZNet.
[Go to part one: http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/21716]