The fact that governments censor music and openly show their fear of lyrics and an artist’s performance demonstrates the power of that music. It can strike courage into the good and fear into the greedy and it can move the masses.
Iranian singer Mehdi Yarrahi had to walk off the stage at a recent concert because the Iranian government has censored his popular protest song Pareh Sang. This is an anti-war song in which Yarrahi sings about the conflict between Iran and Iraq that has been hurting people on both sides for many years.
Because of the censorship only the song’s audio was played through the sound system and Yarrahi left the stage.
So, the audience took it to themselves to carry on the message and joined together singing the uncensored lyrics, as seen in the video below.
Cover image is a snapshot from Mehdi Yarrahi’s music video on YouTube.
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?
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.
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.
Last August, a debut album was released called Songs For Rojava. The songs are all dedicated to “freedom fighters around the world” and a special focus is directed towards the Rojava revolution. The musician and activist behind the album is a self taught singer-songwriter, writer, activist and, more specifically, an anarcho-communist. All this led me to believe he’d be a perfect fit for a Shouts interview. Hit the play button above for a protest music soundtrack to the interview!
Who is Lee Brickley?
“I’ve been a freelance writer for the last five years, but my real passion has always been songwriting. After teaching myself to play the guitar at age 12, I started writing my own music almost immediately. Since that time I’ve written thousands of songs on many different subjects, but in recent years my music has taken a political slant, and that has thankfully put me in a position where I now have somewhat of a fan-base and am able to release my music publicly.
If you’re asking about my political views, I’d call myself an anarcho-communist, in that I believe it is possible for society to organise in variations of a commune-like structure without an authoritarian state at the helm. This is why I find Democratic Confederalism (the system currently in full swing in Rojava) to be of particular interest, and thus, why I chose to release my latest album that attempts to educate listeners on the Kurdish struggle and the Rojava feminist revolution.”
When did realise that you wanted to send out a message through music?
“I think I realised it was important to write songs aimed at educating, amusing, and encouraging social change when I was very young. Even as a 12 year old with my first £50 guitar in hand, I attempted to replicate the greats like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. I might not have quite understood the significance of their lyrics back then, but their songs spoke to me more than any others.
It has only been during the last couple of years that my songs have begun to get attention, and I believe that is because conditions have deteriorated across the world, and the international working class is closer to revolution than at any point during my lifetime. I write songs about worker’s revolts, I write anti-monarchist music, and I despise the class system. The number of people who agree with me seems to increase every day, and so, as a songwriter, my natural instinct is to create a soundtrack for the revolution.”
Has your music always been political?
“My music hasn’t always been political, and I have hundreds of songs about other subjects. I just think the current political situation globally should encourage all artists to turn their talents towards the issues at hand. We’ve had decades of freedom to dream and create art in all forms on all subjects, but the planet is in a terrible state, psychopaths are in control of nuclear arms, and 99% of people on this Earth are nothing more than slaves. I think it’s time artists and intellectuals did their part, just as the Kurdish, British, and Internationalist volunteers do in Rojava.”
What is your connection to Rojava? How did you learn of it? Why is it important to you?
“As I said, for me, the ideology behind the Rojava revolution is highly appealing. It’s not perfect, and it never will be – nothing is. However, it’s an ideology based on real democracy, freedom, and equality between races, religions, sexes, and minorities. Whatever happens in the future in Rojava, the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan and his ‘Manifesto for a Democratic Civilisation’ writings are some of the most rational, compassionate, and empowering I’ve ever come across.
I want to see an international revolution in which the people of the world remove the current banking system completely, redistribute wealth, eliminate the oil and gas industries in favour of renewable energy sources, remove all monarchies, aristocrats, and those born into positions of power. I want to see a bottom-up structure of organising society where people make the decisions that directly affect themselves, and upper-structures are only there to implement the will of the people. I see this happening in Rojava, and so it’s something I must support. And I encourage all others to do the same.”
How is the music scene where you live, in terms of activism and protest? Do you feel alone in using your voice how you do or do you have comrades around you doing similar things?
“There isn’t much of a music scene for political music where I’m based, and so most of my releases etc happen online. However, I am planning a tour for 2019 which will see me play around the UK, Ireland, and Europe. I should be announcing some of the dates for that tour in a few weeks.”
How do you feel people are receiving protest music these days?
“Due to the state of the world at the moment, and the fact that politicians are clearly only focused on keeping the peace while dictatorial corporations pillage and rape the planet – I think people are now looking to protest music more than at any point since the 1960s. Which is good news for me because it means more and more folks out there are listening to my songs, but I’d imagine those in positions of power are getting rather concerned. And they should be concerned.”
What’s your take on musicianship vs. journalism? Many protest singers used to write about very current topics, like a journalist, and some do still to this day. Do you think the media is not doing its job today?
“Despite the fact that my song called “Ocalan” repeatedly gets removed from Facebook and YouTube even though the lyrics are historically accurate and simply tell the life story of Abdullah Ocalan up until his imprisonment in 1997, I still think I can get away with saying things in songs journalists wouldn’t dare to write in their propaganda mainstream news articles. But even I appear to be treading a thin line. There are more and more people being arrested in the UK for supporting the Kurdish struggle in one way or another all the time. And there have also been some arrests of songwriters for releasing music on other subjects.
So I don’t necessarily blame the journalists for not having the balls to write articles that go against the official propaganda line of the state. They risk being classed as a terrorist and getting arrested just like me. The only difference is I realise that I have nothing to lose but my chains, and they’re wrapped up in their ever-so-important lives.”
What about activism versus art? Should they be mixed? Do you ever get feedback or criticism regarding that?
“There are a lot of people out there who think musicians and songwriters should keep out of politics, but those people shamefully underestimate the power music and lyrics can have over a human being’s perceptions. When the mainstream music industry is filled with songs about sex and getting wasted; what happens? We get a society filled with teenage mothers and drug addicts. People who listened to that music and took inspiration from it long before they were experienced enough to make a rational decision on the matter. Music is incredibly powerful.
If you want to start a revolution, raising an army and asking the IRA for information about their old gun-smuggling routes simply isn’t enough. Not this time anyway. If the people of the UK and other countries around the world are to rid themselves of their authoritarian rulers, they must be united in their efforts. Art and music are essential tools for educating the masses, showing them the reality of their situation, and teaching them how to free themselves.”
Do you partake in activism outside the music?
“Yes. I regularly attend protests for issues I think matter. I also write articles and blog posts, and sometimes I’ve been known to engage in a bit of guerrilla art.”
Who are you musical heroes? What about current protest musicians? Anything you are following or can recommend?
“My musical heroes have to be people like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, James Taylor, Neil Young, and Johnny Cash, but there are really too many to mention. As far as current protest singers, I’d like to mention a couple of people that everyone should check out. David Rovics has been writing and releasing protest songs for what seems like forever, and he really is a master in the game. Seriously. There’s also a guy from the UK who’s blowing my mind at the moment called Joe Solo. Check out his song Start a revolution in an empty room.”
What is on the horizon for you?
“I am about to record another eight songs that I will release under the title of “The Working Class Revolution EP” ahead of the tour of the same name I am currently in the process of planning in Europe. I still have lots of room available to book extra shows, and the tour will run from April 2019 onwards. If there is anyone out there who would like to arrange a show, please feel free to get in touch with me and I’ll be happy to discuss and send all the information.”
Thank you very much for participating and for the music. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?
“No problem! And yes, there is! I give all my music away for free to anyone who asks for it. It’s possible to buy it online, but I upload it to YouTube, Spotify, and other places so anyone can listen for free. I also happily send out MP3 files of all my music to anyone who sends me an email asking. The reason for this is that I want to make sure as many people as possible hear and enjoy my songs, and I completely understand how tough it is out there at the moment financially. So if anyone wants all my music for free, just email me 🙂
Likewise, anyone who wants to support my music and ensure I can continue to write political songs, record them, and distribute them for free to the masses can make donations however big or small [insert: Lee’s PayPal site].
Thanks for the interview!”
You can also follow Lee’s work through his social media and the event page for the online concert here can be found below: