The opening acapella performance on the new rendition of Fight The Power is an original piece created by 12 year old Keedron Bryant. Young Bryant wrote the song I Just Wanna Livein the wake of the murder of George Floyd and it quickly gained serious traction (former president Obama, among others, shared the video clip).
Then the legendary beat drops and Chuck D storms onto the screen with his megaphone, followed by younger rappers that all stand on a common stage built and shaped by Public Enemy.
Killer rhymes, social activism, teaching and sound, clothing and perfume design. These are just some of the traits of musician and activist Nejma Nefertiti. Nejma creates art in order to create awareness. Her music is her sword as she fights for social justice and a more equal and positive world.
I interviewed Nejma once before as part of the Afro Yaqui Music Collective but now I wanted to learn more about her own music and her take on the turbulent times we live in, especially in her native United States.
Halldór Kristínarson: You just dropped a new video for the song ‘Blue, White and Red’. Can you tell us about this song and the motivations behind writing it? How was it rhyming over the piano played by Nina Kennedy and how did that cooperation come to be?
Nejma Nefertiti: “Blue, White, and Red” is a collaboration between myself, classical pianist Nina Kennedy, and producer Mike Gutta, who originally designed the beat. The track was re-created by musician/producer Brenda Alderman. It was released in 2019 to honor Juneteenth. Producer April Gibson, shot the video back then but there were complications that led to it’s editing and release being postponed till this year. Sometimes you have to trust the process and the universe because Juneteenth, 2020 was the perfect timing.
The motivation for the song was inspired by the systemic racism, oppression, and exploitation, of Black and Brown people in the United States and the rape, murder, and displacement of First Nation people. We wanted to make sure it was ready to honor and celebrate the legacy of Juneteenth this year. The core people of this project are all friends or family in some way. It’s a blessing to create with people you love and respect.
Rhyming over Nina Kennedy’s piano playing was classic. We mixed our genres together and put it on a trap beat which made it something entirely different altogether. Nina has a strong and interesting history in music. It was an honor collaborating with her. Check out her newly released book: Practicing for Love: A Memoir.
HK: More recently you released ‘Create A Path’, which has some brilliant, personal lyrics. Can you tell us about how it has been for you creating your career in the rap game?
NN: Lol. I don’t know if I consider myself to be in “the game.” To me the game is the industry and I’m on a different path, one I had to carve myself. It’s been a journey of ups and downs like everything in life and a process that’s ever growing. I’ve definitely received beautiful opportunities being an emcee and revolutionary spirited artist.
I would have never thought years ago, that I would be teaching Hip Hop Culture to students and becoming a resident of universities. I’ve traveled all over the United States, to Venezuela, Iraq, Montreal… it’s been incredible to practice my craft in such a way, and perform for many different audiences in many different settings. I’ve connected with amazing people and that continues. It’s all about having a platform and what you do with it.
My earlier years were filled with lots of struggle, which advanced my work but also set it back. Right now I’m in a strong place. I have my community to thank for that. The further I get, the more I change this “game.” I’m new to many things, but not rap. I deserve to be here and to be recognized as a woman contributing, building up, and advancing Hip Hop culture. The best thing about it, is that nobody owns me or my work. I am free to be exactly who I am. I’ve learned to work with people who believe in me and accept me for who I am. If they don’t, it never works out. It’s almost always disappointing but I realize every single time, that it wasn’t meant to be and that greater things come out of the process. The process is always bigger than the product.
HK: Much of your work is very activist driven, your lyrics, your music and your work outside the music. Do you feel things have always been the same in your country or do you see any changes on the horizon?
NN: I think this country has been through many changes over time, and in my lifetime, there has always been a struggle for peace and justice. But there has always been a broken system built off of greed, capitalism, patriarchy, and racism. We can see that in history way before I was here. This country is built off of lies, murder, and deceit. It’s gone on far too long and that’s why a revolution is taking place. This country also has a history of revolutionaries fighting for justice, equality, and freedom. That will continue until we see real change.
I see changes actively taking place right now and it will continue. Nothing lasts forever, not even evil empires. I think this all goes far deeper than we may imagine but truths are being revealed because the people are saying “Enough is enough!” Things are being recognized and people are awakening. I didn’t know if I would experience this in my lifetime, but we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
HK: For readers outside of the U.S., can you describe your feeling for the situation right now in your country?
NN: It’s about damn time and it’s just the beginning. I’m proud of our people taking the streets and the many things people are doing beyond that. There’s many ways to be a part of this. It’s part of our story and legacy. We are taking back what’s ours. The demands are clear and powerful. Now let’s continue to get justice for stolen lives and free these children from cages. The list of to do’s is long but I know that together we can make it happen. We ARE making it happen. Viva la Revolución!
HK: Do you feel musicians are using their voices in protest more now than before?
NN: I do. We’re in revolution. Musicians are inspired and feel compelled to contribute creatively and are also out in the streets protesting, making music, doing virtual live shows supporting the movement, etc…it’s beautiful, the solidarity. The world aligned globally for the first time when the covid-19 pandemic went into effect. We are still dealing with that. Then when George Floyd was murdered for all the world to see, it ignited everything you see going on now. Be careful which news sources you watch and read though. The media is also corrupt. This revolution is about years and years of systemic racism and oppression. It’s important to care about all struggles that are going on in the world, whether it’s close to you or not. It’s crucial to care about all children, not just your own. This is a unique and grand opportunity to evolve our world. Musicians have always played a part in that. Voices are being amplified as they should. Musicians reflect the times and are often ahead. I can’t speak for all musicians, because there’s a wide range of consciousness out there, but the musicians I know and love are fighting for justice, truth, and freedom.
HK: What other music projects can we expect from you coming up? How are your other business ventures going like your animal friendly shoe brand?
NN: I have several projects in the works right now that I’m really excited about. Voltage Contrlr & I got a nice body of work cooking. It’s a New York/Los Angeles collaboration. I love the sound we create together. This is gonna be a jewel for Hip Hop.
I got a project going on with Napoleon Da Legend. We are several songs in. He’s one of my favorite artists to work with and is also a great friend. You know it’s gonna be that strong boom bap.
There’s some cool collabs and singles coming out, and a few surprises. Ya Habibi Part 2 is a part of all that. Something to make you wanna dance. What’s a revolution without dancing?!
My vegan sneakers are in production permanently. The black and gold, and all black. It’s just the beginning of my endeavors in streetwear. I love working with and supporting independent clothing companies and I strive to have a few of my own fly designs out there. For me, that’s what being an artist is about. I like to connect anything I do to the path that I’m on. For example, the sneakers I designed are about “Walking in your purpose”.
My preference would be for revolutionary minded people to wear them. But anybody is welcome to. I’m working with a really kind family company who believed in my vision. I also create natural perfumes and beard oils. It’s all about layers for me. Whether it’s music, perfume, food…
I definitely gotta give my Afro Yaqui Music Collective fam a shout out. For one, that’s how we became acquainted because of our interviews with you in the past. Afro Yaqui is working on an album as we speak, and I’m on that. Also, we’re having a final event, which will be the premiere of our student’s jazz opera on June 30th from 7:30pm – 8:30 online.
It’s a multimedia work that combines jazz, hip hop, spoken word, dance, and visual art, animated and illustrated by students and guest artists. I worked together with Ben Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez’s “Artivism: Intercultural Solidarity & Decolonizing Performance” course students. The piece reflects themes of police violence, migrant justice, systematic racism, climate change, and visions of a new world. The performance will premiere on the UW-Madison Arts on Campus Facebook Page and will be followed by a live Q&A session with the artists. It’s been incredible working with everyone and you will definitely want to see this piece, even if you miss the premier.
Thank you for having me Halldór! It’s truly a pleasure. I appreciate the love and support you show us all. Blessings upon blessings…
When searching the internet for contemporary protest musicians I have my techniques and keywords to filter out the real deal from the posers. With all my requirements and strategies I likely never would have found the music of Portes. She is a Guatemalan-born protest musician and activist based out of Colorado, US.
Lucky for me, her PR company contacted me after seeing what the Shouts webpage is all about and so I interviewed Portes about her brilliant latest album, the electro-pop ‘National Anthems’. She also told me about her experience fostering a child, her activism and musical inspirations and her rather unusual day job – cybersecurity and computer networking.
Halldór Kristínarson: First off, for those who are not familiar with your music and your work, who is Portes?
Portes: Portes is a Colorado-based solo indie artist creating music in all genres. As the name implies, it comes from the French, des portes, meaning doors. Each style of music represents a door to explore. Thus far, the music is primarily electro-pop, dream pop, synth, R&B, and crosses with the more aggressive industrial music that sounds like Nine Inch Nails, but stretches to ambient and even worship music.
HK: How did you first get introduced to creating music and has it always been political and protest driven?
P: I’ve been creating music since I was in elementary school coming up with song lyrics and melodies. It hasn’t always been of a political or protest nature, but I recall an early song that I wrote in high school called, “Glory?” that dealt with the Vietnam War, so maybe I had some idea early on in life that I could write music of a deeper, more thought provoking nature.
HK: Can you tell us a bit about the creative process and production behind your album National Anthems? You speak of being new to the electronic music scene, yet it sounds natural. How did the sound you have on the album come into existence?
P: It helped to write music with a producer who had the same political ideology and stance as me. There wasn’t a conflict in content or style between us. The best inspiration for me at the time of making National Anthems was to look at the music of Nine Inch Nails and that aggressive, in your face, angry vibe. It was the feeling I was feeling watching the Trump administration constantly lie to the American people and who continue to do it today, to the detriment of millions of people and the thousands who have needlessly lost their lives to COVID-19. We started with the song, “Pressure” and used that song as the base for the others. Really, the album came together effortlessly. In fact, I had “Sister” as a different type of song and I had the chorus lyrics and melody mapped out a year before I started National Anthems, so it was just a matter of turning it into this new style and revamping lyrics to address the theme of female empowerment and turn it against these high profile sexual aggressors, like Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and Larry Nassar. I’m glad you think it sounds natural. I appreciate that.
HK: Being originally born in Guatemala and later growing up in the United States how has that affected your music, lyrically and melodically?
P: I lived in Guatemala as a baby for about six months before being adopted. But, you ask a good question about how that experience has informed my music. Knowing I’m from a multicultural family grounds me in being open-minded and willing to experience other people and cultures, including their music.
HK: Have you been back to Guatemala? Do you follow what is going on there or in nearby countries? Or Guatemalans coming to the states these days?
P: Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to return to Guatemala. It is something I want to do in the future, when it’s safe to do so. I do follow the news of what’s happening in Central America and issues around societal violence, cartels, and immigration. It saddens me greatly to know the people are being mistreated and displaced. It makes me realize just how blessed I am to have the opportunities I do by virtue of having been adopted and being raised in the U.S. I don’t know other Guatemalans, so I can’t speak to that issue.
HK: Some people believe that the arts and activism should be separated, that the arts should be a form of entertainment only. Other people put forth the same argument about journalism. What is your take on how artists, journalists and other people with a voice should use that power?
P: I personally know where I stand on the intersection of arts and activism. But, I won’t dictate how others should use their creative platform to promote their activism. I can only encourage others to find their passion in politics for speaking truth in a time of when untruths are the norm. Some do it to music, like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, CSNY, REM, among others. I would love for “National Anthems” to have that same gravitas as other protest albums and artists. I have something vital to say and that should manifest into something, so I do it with my music. I’m also grateful to media outlets like Shouts Music Blog who share my art and activism with its audience. So, thank you for that! Journalists have an obligation to investigate, verify, and validate facts, so it’s about truth more so than activism. However, there are journalists like Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! who are more involved in activism.
HK: Who are some of your influences, whether them being musicians, activists or anyone else?
P: Some of my music influences are Sia, Nine Inch Nails, Iron & Wine, and Thievery Corporation to name a few. In addition, I appreciate the informative documentaries by Michael Moore. I recently watched Planet of the Humans, which was eye-opening about our dependence on fossil fuels and problems surrounding renewable energy. I was a QA Engineer for a photovoltaic manufacturer.
HK: Besides the music, you are working on a computer networking and cybersecurity degree. What drew you to that field?
P: I haven’t made music and songwriting my full time career yet, though I’d love to be at a publishing house, until then my actual career is in technology. I’ve been a technical writer, IT project manager, and customer experience consultant. However, in my previous roles, I was hitting a wall in advancement since I didn’t have a background in computer networking, so I went back to school after earning a master’s degree. Turns out I’m pretty good at cybersecurity and have a 4.0 GPA and am seeking a role in my field.
HK: What about your extracurricular activities, do you partake in activism outside of the music you make?
HK: The act of taking in a child into foster care and eventually adoption, how has that changed your view of the environment around you? I can only imagine it has also affected your music?
P: It changes everything! You still have to take care of yourself first. That’s what good mental health counseling has taught me. Self-care and self-love is a necessity. He’s incredibly empathetic. He cares about the littlest bug and other people. It’s important that he knows that this planet is finite and we have to take care of Earth by cleaning our messes, recycling, reusing, and reducing our waste. He’s also so sweet, so I actually had him sing on my last single, “Human”, which is a song about global warming, climate change, and social injustice. Although “National Anthems” isn’t really for kids, he heard enough of it that we’ve talked about some of the themes and I want to empower him to have his own voice and stand bravely against injustice and uphold the values of our nation, like liberty and freedom of speech.
HK: What do you hope to achieve with your music?
P: First, I want people to hear what I have to say because I do value the truth and this album was carefully and thoughtfully put out to have an effect that motivates people into action. Second, I hope people find their own stance about the content. Maybe there’s a person who can relate to my experience of sexual assault or who want to protest against gun violence at schools. My son shouldn’t have to do lockouts and lockdowns, but that’s what we’re dealing with now. Lastly, I hope people like the music. I think it’s badass.
HK: What is on the horizon for you?
P: Once I can get back into the studio, I need to do vocals for “Sanctified”, which is a delicate, breathy worship song in the same style as “Human”. Finished songs in queue for release are, “Rocket Crown”, a female empowerment song that blends classical music and hip hop. “I’m on Fire” is an electro-pop love song. “Good Girl” is a fun, catchy EDM song. I can’t be serious all the time. I need some levity too.
HK: Thank you very much for participating and for making your music. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?
P: Listeners can find the music on various streaming services, except Spotify. Other than that, saddle up! We’re going on a long ride with Donald Trump, so it’s going to be bumpy, but Portes is here for you in those moments when you feel like screaming from that rooftop, I’ll scream with you. It’ll be very therapeutic. I promise!