Rebel label gives radical rapper new lease of life

Son of Nun
Son of Nun
Firebrand Records

For Baltimore-based rapper Son of Nun, the forming of Ryan Harvey and Tom Morello's new rebel music record label Firebrand Records offered an opportunity to redeem his rhymes.

Born Kevin James, the 37-year-old emcee took a lengthy hiatus from hip hop until Harvey, who he met through activist circles years back, approached him to become part of his experiment.

“I wasn’t performing and hadn’t been writing,” says James. “I had gone through some shit and I didn’t know when I was going to pick the mic up again.”

But he did, leading the way for Firebrand with the politically charged “It’s Like That” — the label’s first release.

Before joining Firebrand, James started out writing spoken word poetry in a Maryland high school. From there, he went to the University of Maryland Baltimore County and encountered radical politics and music.

“I grew a lot in college,” he says. “That’s where a lot of people get radicalised and the same is true for me.”

It is also where he started performing when a friend in a band invited him to collaborate on a song.

The cross-section of music and politics became heightened during those years. James became politically active organising against the death penalty, joining the International Socialist Organization (ISO) for a while.

A politically minded MC, he energised rallies on issues of Palestine and abolishing the death penalty — becoming a cultural fixture of local social movements. After college, James worked as a school teacher in Baltimore, continuing his activism through the student-led Baltimore Algebra Project. “I kept rhyming the whole time,” he says.

As Son of Nun, James lived out the common experience of a social justice musician, making conscious hip hop, opening up for acts like dead prez and taking his songs out into protest arenas. He released two albums, Blood and Fire in 2004 and The Art of Struggle in 2008.

Two shows proved pivotal in the rapper landing on Firebrand. Harvey, a co-founder of the Riot-Folk Collective, organised an event in Baltimore around 2006. “We knew each other through activism,” James says. “In terms of the music, there was a show for Iraq Veterans Against the War in Baltimore and he was trying to get musicians for it.”

Son of Nun performed and Harvey, impressed by what he saw, kept in contact over the years.

Then, in 2008, James had the chance to open for The Coup and Morello's Rage Against the Machine for a protest concert outside the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, where the band led a demonstration after rocking the masses.

“I felt like that was one of the best displays of how culture and activism can work together,” the rapper says.

After that high-water mark, James hit some hard times. The MC suffered bouts of depression and a second battle with cancer. He had to pull away from activism and hip hop.

But the chance to reclaim the mic in a major way came courtesy of his old friend Harvey. This time, the activist was looking for artists to form the core of Firebrand Records.

“He knew what my sound was like,” says James. “I definitely felt like I could come back to it if I had this deal.”

The idea was to bring activist musicians from different genres and James was tapped to represent rap music.

Sun of Nun re-emerged, trying to shake off the rust of his creative hiatus when Baltimore exploded around him after the in-custody death of Freddie Gray earlier this year. “At that point I was working on a song, it wasn’t coming together,” the rapper says. “As the protests happened, then it really came together.”

James went out to the marches as a street medic and felt the righteous rage of the people. He transformed the experience into “It’s Like That,” an urgent critique of police violence that shows Son of Nun not missing a beat.

“It’s Baltimore and beyond!” James says. “It’s justifying what’s usually not justified, rioting and rebelling.” The single is exemplary of what Firebrand is trying to accomplish.

“Something like this should have been in the works a long time ago,” he says. “It means having more opportunities to put the reality of oppressed people on blast.” The rapper believes that the new label will change the relationship between music and activism, giving it a more organised base.

Firebrand, he hopes, will reinvigorate protest songs now that artists know they have a place to potentially call home.

“The label is about giving that aspect of the music a platform,” James says. “Political music is kind of like the Black people of music in the sense that they’re the last ones on and the first ones cut.”

Firebrand is on the move, connecting the content of its songs with the urgency of movements across the US. Police brutality is a key front.

Son of Nun is heading to Ferguson, Missouri, to do a show in early August with label head Morello and The Coup. Firebrand has also put out a new compilation “A New World in Our Songs”, a riff on the famous quote from Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti.

“It does a really good job of reflecting how diverse we are and what our values are,” the rapper says. “It’s good music!”

[Slightly abridged from Red Wedge Magazine.]

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