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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.

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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!

Music Action International

Music Action International is a highly interesting charity based in the UK that uses music as a connection and healing mechanism. I contacted Lis Murphy, the creative director of the project, and asked her a few questions about their work and the power of music.

For those who are not familiar with Music Action International, what is the charity about?

We are a collective of people from around the world who use the power of music to overcome the effects and causes of war, torture and armed conflict.​

How did the charity start?

​I set up the organisation a few years ago. My first job after studying music was working in Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina a few years after the war ended. I was very moved by the people I worked with who became close friends in the way that music was used as a tool to express emotions to difficult to talk about and to bring people together in a joyful and positive way. When I came home to Manchester I worked with refugees and asylum seekers in​ museums and art galleries and then decided with a group of friends that we needed to bring more music to peoples’ lives in a thoughtful and ethical way to really transform lives not only of war survivors who had lived through horrific experiences but also to connect us all together.

Lis Murphy
Lis Murphy, creative director of Music Action.

A band that formed through Music Action, called Everyday People, was performing in the beginning of February at the London Remixed Festival. Can you tell us a bit about this band?

This is an amazing group of teenagers who have been forced to flee their country because of war and are now in London without friends or family. They come from DR Congo, ​Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kurdistan, Iran and Afghanistan. We created a beautiful project in partnership with British Red Cross to support these young people through writing and performing their own music, supported by a highly experienced team of international musicians, some of whom also come from a refugee background.

What are some of the other music projects happening at Music Action?

We create music with torture survivors who are highly traumatised with our programme “Stone Flowers”, their music is really powerful and uplifting. We also support people who have recently arrived from war or conflict in drop-in centres​ through singing together in a choir, we also bring children of all ages from different backgrounds together in schools to work with refugee artists and write their own music towards interactive performances involving 300 school children.

StoneFlowers26_Marc-Sethi_-3772-1024x681
Stone Flowers

Music Action International recently ventured to Sierra Leone. How did that go?

It was amazing!! We were made to feel so welcome and it was such a joy to work with young people living on the street who have been affected by conflict who shared so many creative ideas, who were desparate to have the opportunity to learn and who were incredibly insightful and engaged with writing and performing music collaboratively in all their different tribal languages.

How can music help people who have suffered?

We know that music, when used in a particular way physiologically changes the heartbeat, breathing and stress hormone levels​ in an incredibly positive way. Heartbeats synchronise when people sing together. Music connects people with themselves and with others. With people who experience trauma, all of these are incredibly important, as well as bringing people out of isolation and bringing back positive memories of the home they have lost.

How does this job affect the professional musicians within Music Action International and their music development?

We are really lucky to have such an amazing group of people who have joined our movement. There is such a great vibe at our performances that people often say it was the highlight of their working year. Having the opportunity to meet and work with people from across the globe, to share ideas, ways of working and philosophies on life is something really compelling and life-changing for everyone involved.

“Our main aim is to get the message of people we work with who don’t have a voice to more and more people.”

What are some of the favorite protest/socially conscious musicians, current or old, at the office of Music Action International?

We’ve just had a really interesting discussion in the office, so thank you for the question!! We of course love Sly and the Family Stone who wrote the song “Everyday People” as they were the first the first major multi-racial, mixed-gender band in rock history. Bob Marley was also a key peace activist. As well as the lead figures or musicians who represent protest movements or social causes, we love scenes and spaces that build movements that encourage activism and movements of positive change.

What is on the horizon for the charity and for the music groups within?

We are expanding our programmes in the UK to connect with and support more people affected by war & torture in schools, drop-in centres and with torture survivors​. We are also going back to Sierra Leone and are developing programmes with local organisations in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Our main aim is to get the message of people we work with who don’t have a voice to more and more people.

Harmonise kids

How can musicians help and work with Music Action International?

We need more people from around the world passionate about what we do to join our movement and share the music and stories from people affected by war, torture and armed conflict who don’t always have a voice. You can sign up to our newsletter here, or connect with us on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

Thank you very much for participating and for helping to create music! Anything else you would like to shout from the rooftops?

​Thank you too!! We are shouting no words from the rooftops, just​ some sounds for ya!!!