All posts by Halldór H Bjarnason

Journalist. Traveler. Activist. Audio engineer. Music maker.

Protest Music Interview: Awkword

Not a lot of people can claim to have created a 100% for-charity global hip hop project. Awkword can. If there is someone else who has made that kind of effort to unify hip hop lovers and activists around the world please tell us in comments. We haven’t found their work yet.

Perhaps because of the size of his last major project it is understandable that Awkword is focusing most of his time on his family at this moment. He got a new single coming out though, so I hit him up with a few questions about the legendary, 2 disc, global collaborative effort that is World View as well as the new single and his extra curricular activism.

First off, for those who are not familiar with your work, who is Awkword?

Well anyone who follows the work you do should know about me by now. I’m the creator of World View, the first-ever 100% for-charity global Hip Hop project. I’m a reformed fuckup; passionate, empathic, lifelong antiracist activist; sociologist focused on homelessness and the politics of public space, mass incarceration, and race in America; Hip Hop Ed speaker; Protest Music songwriter, rapper and executive producer; Buddhist Jew; sober addict; faithful husband, and proud father of two talented adopted daughters; New York City resident turned Upstate New Yorker; underground Hip Hop influencer; journalist; director of marketing and public relations; and still-starving artist.

How and when did you get into writing rhymes and making hiphop music?

As long as I can remember, I had a pad and pen with me wherever I went — for observations, free association, and poetry. As my musical tastes shifted from punk rock to rap in my early teens, my poetry transformed into raps, and over time I learned how to structure the written raps as songs; soon I was freestyling everywhere and recording my songs in friends’ makeshift home studios.

Were your lyrics political since day one?

My very existence is political. The powers that be don’t want me here. I’m a pro-Black, anti-war, working-class Jew who wants to shatter the status quo. So, in that way, whether I’m writing about my own struggles, experiences and emotions, or about something more explicitly political, everything I write — and have always written — in the context of this unequal society is inherently political.

You mention Chuck D as a major influence for you. Do you remember the first Public Enemy track that educated you or made you think that this world was not working so well?

I knew that human beings were fucking up this planet, and each other, well before I heard a single lyric from any Hip Hop, punk rock or ‘60s/‘70s rock song — and I can thank my incredible activist mother (RIP) for that. But what Chuck D taught me was that rap music could be used to educate, inspire and empower the youth. ILL BILL taught me that I could do it myself.

Do you feel there is enough rappers making conscious lyrics? How is the protest music scene in NY in your opinion?

Just like with anything else, there needs to be a balance. No one is one thing, and as such we need different soundtracks for our various moods, experiences and phases. If all rap music were ‘conscious’, listeners would be bored, the genre would not be the most popular and trendsetting in the world, and far fewer artists would’ve made a good living from it.

As would be expected, I’d prefer certain mindsets and habits not be so prevalent in the music — the misogyny, homophobia, and glamorization of drugs, for example. But nowadays I’d say there are more artists overall who are speaking their truths and speaking truth to power — and for that I’m thankful and hopeful.

Do you follow at all protest musicians in other genres?

I love music. In particular, jazz, blues, swing, classical, ‘70s and ‘80s punk, ‘60s and ‘70s rock and folk, indie rock, and some rap you’d never expect. But I’m inundated with politics, conspiracies, rantings and righteousness from all sides every day. So now, for the first time in my life, music is reserved mainly for exercise and relaxation. Other than my homies Outernational, Prophets of Rage and the White Mandingos with the god Darryl Jenifer, I’m not too familiar with what others are doing outside of the few fellow political rappers I know.

Can you tell me about your 2014 album ‘World View‘ and the idea behind it? You got serious names to collaborate with you on the album, among others KRS One. What did that mean for you to get these people to be a part of the project?

On February 3, 2014, I released the first-ever 100% for-charity global Hip Hop project, featuring representatives of 16 countries and every continent (except Antarctica). The purpose was/is to connect us worldwide through Hip Hop culture and rap music, and leverage both to give back to the very neighborhoods that birthed them.

The 38-track double-disc album touched on topics from mass incarceration and police brutality to rape culture and toxic masculinity, and from imperialism, racism and white privilege to drug abuse, depression and suicide; was mixed ‘old school mixtape style’ and mastered by Surf School’s John Sparkz; and was released through DJ Booth to international critical acclaim from the likes of Complex, Hot New Hip Hop, The Source, VIBE, Okay Player, Hip Hop Wired, Hip Hop DX, Genius, Hot 97, Prefix Mag, and many more. It also led to that life-affirming co-sign from Chuck D himself. I executive produced, and rapped on every song.

Features include: Jadakiss, Joell Ortiz, Sean Price, KRS One, Slug of Atmosphere, ILL BILL, Jasiri X, Chino XL, Reks, Daytona, Beretta 9 of Killarmy, Viro the Virus (RIP), Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox, Poison Pen, SHIRT, Awol One, Pacewon of the Outsidaz, Block McCloud, Shabaam Sahdeeq, C-Rayz Walz, and Chaundon.

Producers include: Harry Fraud, Domingo, Fafu, Steel Tipped Dove, numonics, Vice Souletric, Tone Spliff, Tranzformer, Amin Payne of Australia, Dominant 1 of Malawi, and The White Shadow of Norway. It took me five years to put it all together.

And I got two special videos out of it: the now-classic “Bars & Hooks”, shot in and outside a Mercedes Benz tour bus in Brooklyn with my friend Harry Fraud and the late, great Sean Price; and “Throw Away The Key”, sponsored by the New York Civil Liberties Union, some of which was shot in front if a police station in the East Village of Manhattan.

What about your more recent single, ‘I Am’, can you tell us about that? It seems like there is some seriously hard work involved in such a global collaboration?

I realized after World View that the continent of Africa — being the birthplace of all this — needs more and better representation, so I reached out to producer Teck-Zilla, French DJ J Hart, and some of my favorite artists from throughout the African continent to join me. The purpose of the song and video are to show what it’s like to be ourselves, living in each of our countries. Hence the title “I Am”. It’s a beautiful collaboration, and I was honored to have the opportunity, and to see it featured by MTV in Africa.

Shouts! is all about discovering and sharing protest music. Do you have recommendations of protest music or socially conscious artists, something you are listening to these days?

My peoples Jasiri X, Killer Mike and Rhymefest.

It also seems to me that people sometimes shy away when the talk goes too deep into politics. You mention in your song ‘The World Is Yours’ that the mainstream media won’t play that song. Do you feel people are open minded to your activist hiphop?

Society at large? No, of course not. We in AmeriKKKa elected Donald Trump to be our president. Plus, the 1% wants to keep the 99% poor and ignorant, and sadly most of the 99% is all too comfortable staying that way. Let’s be honest, a lot of my records really knock. The instrumentals and hooks are catchy, the drums hit, my lyrics are smart and witty, and my vocals are strong and flow proper. It’s not the type of music that will overtake the pop charts or compete with the money behind the songs getting corporate radio spins. But my joints are played at protests and do quite well on the college radio charts. That’s my audience.

Many artists throw out there a protest song or two, but while keeping their original image intact – an image that is not that of protest. You on the other hand put the focus on the protest and the activism on your profiles. Can you tell me about that strategy?

It’s not a strategy, it’s being real. I am many things, rapper being one of them. But as a human being I am fiercely invested in the fight for justice, equality and the protection of our earth and animals. While not all of my music is overtly political, I am a Protest Music artist, so that’s what I’m going to put out. People either love me or hate me — but it’s always been that way, for as long as I can remember.

What about extra curricular activity? Do you partake in activism outside the music?

Activism — along with Hip Hop — enabled me to channel my anger, empathy and passion into something positive. As a Jew, who was targeted for my religion and bloodline, whose ancestors were tortured and murdered during the Holocaust (and before and after), I always related on a deep level with people of color, the poor, and all those oppressed in our straight white Christian male-dominated society.

My mom (RIP), a lifelong activist herself, was my role model; and she connected me in my teens with the Anti-Defamation League. That was the beginning.

Awkword holding a photo of his mom

I went on to co-chair the Student Activist Union at Vassar College, co-founding its Anti-Sweatshop Union and Prison Reform Group. I helped lobby congress, and lead marches and plan/implement direct actions in Washington, DC, Philadelphia, NYC, Albany, NY, Georgia, and elsewhere — to free Mumia, appeal the election of George W. Bush, and fight the US bombings in Vieques, Puerto Rico, and the US training of rightwing Latin American militants at the School of the Americas.

Meanwhile, I volunteered at Green Haven maximum security prison, soup kitchens, alternative to incarceration centres, elementary schools, and teen centres, leveraging the power of Hip Hop Ed to inform, inspire and empower.

Today, though, I focus mostly on raising my daughters to be thoughtful, confident future leaders, and living my life daily like a Buddha.

What is on the horizon for you?

Raising my daughters to be powerful women, and living a drug-free life (now at 106 days). My next song, “SOBER”, is in the works. It’s produced by AJ Munson.

View this post on Instagram

Thank you very much for participating and for the music! Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

Fuck Nazis!

Fuck Donald Trump!

A Protest Music Interview: Drea

“1 out of every 6 women in America has been a victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.”

This is the quote that starts Drea’s new music video.

The visuals follow Drea, with blackest of backgrounds, as she sings her way through a terrifyingly personal song. The piece is Drea’s way of using her voice in solidarity with other survivors of sexual assault.

I contacted Drea online and asked her about her new single, her work with WiMN (Women’s International Music Network), as well as a handful of other projects she has either started or is part of, and learned where she finds the time to dance, teach, create and sing.

First off, can you tell me a little bit about your background and how and when you started making music?

Music has been a part of my life since I was small. I grew up in a musical family, but was never encouraged to pursue music as a career. I started writing music and performing when I was 7, and continued through high school and college. After I graduated, I decided to try my hand at a full-fledged music career, and one thing led to another until I was making the big move to Los Angeles.

You just released “Monster”, a new single and your part of the #MeToo conversation. Can you tell us about that song and what drove you to create it?

This is a song that has been with me for many years now. I think I’ve always been waiting for the right moment, the right production team, the right time for me personally to release it. I really took my time on this one, because this is the song I wrote about my terrifying experience with rape. I know that I may never have legal justice for what I’ve experienced, so I wanted to be sure to give the song the artistic justice it deserves.  I also wanted to release it specifically during Sexual Assault Awareness Month (which lasts all of April) in order to stand in solidarity with other survivors and to hopefully continue the #MeToo conversations that are still so important to be having in our society.

Has your music always been political, made in protest or socially conscious?

You know, it hasn’t. I think I’ve always tried to have a deeper meaning to my music, but with some of my earlier songs, I was really grasping to find a socially conscious explanation that fit. However, in the last year or so, I have been much more intentional about what I’ve been putting out, partially because I’ve had complete creative control over these last several singles. My last two songs in particular center around my experience with rape and the PTSD that followed that trauma, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to release them and therefore create a platform to discuss the importance of consent, mental health awareness, and healing after trauma.

I read you have worked with WiMN (Women’s International Music Network), can you tell us about that connection and cooperation?

I first connected with the Women’s International Music Network when I won the “She Rocks So I Can Walk” contest, where contestants were asked to describe a woman or women who inspire them in order to win a chance to walk on the red carpet for the She Rocks Awards in Anaheim, CA. At the award show, I connected with many of the operators of the WiMN, and since then I have partnered with the organization for several of my music premieres, and have also been a guest writer for their blog.

Besides the music you are part of different projects, some of which you have created, such as Reclaim Movement and the For Her Concert Series. Can you tell us a bit about these projects and also, I must ask, where do you find the time to make music?

Reclaim Movement is an open level dance class for women who have survived sexual assault and trauma. I run the class out of North Hollywood, a suburb of Los Angeles, every other Wednesday. I created this class because dance had been such an important part of my healing after my experience with rape. Dance and positive, uplifting music by female artists helped me to reconnect with my body after this traumatic event. I knew I was far from the only woman who had experienced this disconnect with her body, and that many women from all walks of life would be able to benefit from a safe dance environment and supportive community of women. 

I started the For Her Concert Series after seeing so many songwriter nights in Los Angeles being run by, and therefore heavily featuring, men. I wanted to create an event that not only featured all female performers, but that also had a female crew, which is incredibly rare. I hosted the event at a female-owned business, and ran the concert to raise money for homeless women in Los Angeles. The event is “women supporting women” to the core, and that’s what I love about it. 

Over the years, I’ve cultivated many skills that have allowed me to produce these kinds of projects on my own fairly quickly. I also have a flexible job that allows me to pay the bills but also devote time to music. Organization and a lot of early mornings have been huge contributing factors to my being able to accomplish all the projects I have brewing in my head. Also, taking things one step at a time. It’s about conserving the mental energy to devote oneself to the present project, and then move on to the next thing only when it’s time.

…I am actually heading to graduate school to study public policy in the fall… After that I will be focused on working in my community to make the world a more safe and equal place for women and other marginalized groups.

Finally, are you working on a new album?

I am not. First of all, we are moving out of an album-selling industry. Singles are more the name of the game for new artists, especially independent artists. Even record labels are doing EP deals now for newly signed artists instead of album deals. The market just doesn’t care as much about albums in our streaming society; artists typically put them out because they are either under a major label contract to do so, or they want to achieve the milestone for themselves. 

That being said, I am actually heading to graduate school to study public policy in the fall, so I will be moving out of Los Angeles at the end of the summer. I plan to continue music for the rest of my life, and can do so from anywhere, but my focus will primarily be on my studies for the next few years. After that I will be focused on working in my community to make the world a more safe and equal place for women and other marginalized groups.

Check out Drea’s music and movement at dreaxmusic.com.

And if you need to call someone there are many ready to listen or help:

800.656.HOPE (4673)

www.rainn.org


“Grow Food!” – Interview With Charlie Mgee of Formidable Vegetable

Charlie Mgee is not flying anywhere, anytime soon. Not because of fear of heights, the man seems not afraid of much seeing how he lives in a vegetable oil fuelled truck-house, but because of the irony as he puts it. As you’ll learn below Charlie is a man that puts his money where his mouth is.

Charlie leads the musical collective Formidable Vegetable and sings his lyrics for the band as well. After having studied permaculture he wanted to share the knowledge with more people and through music. Hence the existence of this quite unique band.

On 15th of March Formidable Vegetable drop their 3rd LP and so I figured it was time so see what Charlie had been up to since our last interview.

So, how have you been since the last time we spoke?

Flat out! Just this past few weeks I’ve been demolishing a house (free wood for the future Formidable Veg HQ!), planning water harvesting & ponds for our little patch of land, converting my house-truck to run on waste vegetable oil… oh, and getting ready to release an album!

Formidable Vegetable has a new album coming out. What sets this album apart from the first to LP’s (if anything)?

This one is a bit more “grown-up” sounding… in parts – actually, its part grow-up (songs about wanting to find a sense of home) , part childish fun (songs about composting toilets that don’t flush).

The first album was inspired by the permaculture principles – this one is inspired by the three ethics of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share – hence the title – Earth People Fair.

You mention that the album is inspired by the permaculture ethics. For those not familiar with the subject, what is permaculture and how to you translate the concept into music and performances?

Permaculture is a way of designing things more in-line with nature in order to help us build resilience in the face of things like climate change and peak fossil-fuels. It’s pretty much a set of helpful tools that can be used to design homes, gardens or entire farms – or even less visible stuff like personal decision making or community structures.

I studied it a few years ago and thought that it was way too important not to be limited to a few people, so I wrote some songs in the hope of spreading it round a bit!

Is your music your tool for activism or do you separate the two in any way?

Music is definitely my main tool for activism. Apart from being ‘active’ and trying to do permaculture related stuff in my own back yard (ponds/gardens/house demolitions etc) I think it’s a great tool for spreading the message and hopefully inspires other people to take action, too.

This week I’m playing at the School Strike for Climate and next month I’ll join a convoy to protest the massive Adani coal mine being planned near the Great Barrier Reef, which will be a great way to integrate with other forms of activism.

Photo by Jono ‘Dropbear’ Chong

What are some other musicians, activists or even politicians that are fighting for nature and harmony that you’d like to give a shot out to and recommend to our listeners to follow?

Pete Seeger is probably my favourite musical activist of all time. He did so much for the environmental movement in the US.

Bob Brown is the former leader of The Greens party here in Australia and is the one leading the convoy to protest the coal mine. He’s a legend as well.

I saw in a recent FB post that you decided not to tour your music outside Australia for now. Can you tell our readers a bit about this decision?

I just thought it was getting a bit too ironic doing so much international travel when I sing about climate change and fossil fuels. I still have a long way to go before becoming fossil-fuel free (not just with transport, but food, business and a whole lot of things), but cutting international flights out of the picture is an important step I think.

If anyone knows of a sailboat heading to Europe, maybe I’ll try and make it back that way!

What’s on the horizon for Formidable Vegetable?

More school shows and smaller house-concerts & garden parties from the back of my veggie housetruck. I want to scale down, not just in my life, but also with my music.

It’s ironic, as obviously I want many people to hear the songs as possible, but doing smaller, more intimate shows – especially in the context of a permaculture farm or garden – I feel can have a greater impact on the people who come. I guess for everyone else, there’s YouTube!

Thanks for participating and for the music! Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

GROWWWWWWW FOOOOOODDDDDD!!!!

Find Formidable Vegetable’s music on Bandcamp and the group’s webpage. Cover photo by Patrick Latter.