Rapper AWKWORD tackles Hip-Hop's awkward issues

April 21, 2014
AWKWORD has worked with more than 100 artists globally.

World View
February 2, 2014

US rapper AWKWORD has teamed up with more than 100 artists worldwide to put out his charity album World View. The 38-track epic tackles may of hip-hop's awkward issues, from misogyny and materialism to drugs and guns. It also pulls no punches politically, hitting out at fracking, jailing rates, inequality and injustice. Green Left Weekly's Mat Ward spoke to "one of the most impactful and globally active Hip Hop personalities in the game today" (The Hype Magazine) making “quality music that deserves to be heard" (Chuck D of Public Enemy).

* * *

You've worked with more than 35 producers and 65 emcees from all over the world on this album. Tell us about your Australian collaborators, Amin PaYnE and Jay Daniels.

It all started more than five years ago, on myspace, with US-based and international producers asking for acapellas from my solo debut to make remixes. I turned that into a contest, which brought in more than 100 submissions. I chose the best, then spent the next half decade working with them and other artists around the world to create what amounted to the first-ever 100% for-charity global Hip-Hop album, World View: Nearly three hours of critically acclaimed music across 38 tracks on two discs, with representation from six continents and 16 countries. Australia's Amin PaYnE was one of the original remix contest winners. When it came to making cuts for the final album, very few of the original remixes were selected for inclusion, and I had known for years that that would be the case so I started early reaching out to my favourites among the winners to collaborate on entirely new tracks. Amin PaYnE put "Notorious" together across continents, all through email. I went back and forth more times and over a longer period with him than perhaps any other World View producer, evidencing the truly collaborative nature of this record. I was inspired by the stabbings and shooting that occurred across the US at premieres of the [late rap superstar] Biggie biopic Notorious. I chose the emcees I thought belonged on the record alongside me. And I gave direction to Amin PaYnE on how to rework and incorporate the original Duran Duran "Notorious" sample that Biggie used in his song by the same name. It was extremely successful. The song was world premiered by AllHipHop.com and has been acclaimed by leading Hip-Hop voices and fans alike. One of the sites that featured "Notorious", 2DopeBoyz, was the first major outlet to give me a chance. They did the same with Australia's Jay Daniels, for a song he did with American rapper Royce da 5'9". Royce and I have spoken before, and he works with Joell Ortiz, who I featured on lead World View single "Go!". I enjoyed Jay's song and took note of his ability to, like me, work globally and attract attention from our older peers. I asked Jay to submit a verse for "Requiem", one of the songs, alongside "Rainy Daze", "Back to BK" and "The People's Champions", which elicited a lot of responses. In all of these cases I had to carefully select which verses stood out among the rest, in terms of adhering to the theme, providing a unique voice, and delivering skilfully. In the case of "Requiem", Jay and Mark Deez from the US added great depth to the chorus, but did not beat out the verses from Ess Vee, SoulStice and CuzOH! Black. Jay and I respect and communicate with each other to this day. There are no hard feelings, which shows the young artist's maturity.

You got sponsorship from Morgan Stanley for the album, who even put your name on their Times Square ticker in New York City. Was that a bitter pill to swallow and did it come with any kind of rules about what you can rap about - like their many controversies and lawsuits?

What's really telling is that you are the first to ask me this question. In Hip-Hop culture, unfortunately, we are too easily blinded by money. I have been asked by many how I was able to pull it off, but never asked why, how it might cause me inner conflict or what it might have meant regarding restrictions on artistic freedom. Kudos. The answer: There is no guilt. I could have gone a vengeful, perhaps more gossip-friendly route, and targeted Morgan Stanley throughout the album, highlighting the specific company's misdeeds. But all banks are the same. I don't trust any of them, and that is clear throughout the album. Plus, my mission is greater. With World View, I am highlighting for the larger world the international impact of Hip-Hop, as well as how Hip-Hop can connect us worldwide to do something good for society - and specifically those who need it most. I am proud that I thought to take money from the very people who have the most. My grant from the Morgan Stanley foundation made World View possible.

There's a lot of misogyny in rap and one of its biggest stars, Rick Ross, recently lost a sponsorship deal after he rapped about date rape. You've gone in the opposite direction with your track "Rape", which samples the victims talking about their harrowing experiences. Tell us how that track came about and the reason for including the victims' testimonies.

Misogyny is one of the biggest problems with rap music today. It dehumanises and fetishises women, and it makes me sick. My wife is my queen and my two girls are my everything. Why would I waste a hot instrumental to rap about "beating it up". It's cheap, corny, classless and, simply, not art. I have been feeling personally disrespected by rap for years, and with the recent loss of my mother and rape of a family member, I couldn't resist any longer. I knew off the bat that this song would not be an easy listen. What I wasn't expecting was the amount of positive attention the typical rap blogs paid to the song in their World View album reviews. I am glad. These things needed to be said, and in the name of my co-signer and greatest influence Chuck D, there's nothing harder-hitting and more impactful than doing it with rap. I knew former BLESTeNATION producer Fafu would provide the perfect (read: catchy, melodic, daunting, eerie) backdrop, and I asked him to use real testimony where a chorus would otherwise be. In the midst of the process, he sent me an email that said: "I gotta say, as a guy who has two daughters this shit is mad disturbing. I can only take so much at a time." That's how I want everybody to feel. NO MEANS NO.

What kind of reactions have you had to your anti-fracking track, "Gas Land (Frack Off)"?

It was all over the international anti-fracking community, and the Hip-Hop community has really supported it too. It's now the number-seven song on the college radio rap charts. And, more importantly, it has led to new collaborations with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and The Ocean Project. This song is especially important to me for a couple reasons: I think it is one of my best works to date; and it represents the first time I ever tackled an environmental topic. By creating it, pushing it, and using it as the World View intro, I feel like I am, at least subtly, honouring my late mother, who was an environmental activist from childhood until her untimely death in 2012.

You also rap about your mother in "Thank You (A Tribute To My Mommy)". Tell us about your mother, her activism and the effect it had on you.

As I say directly on World View song "Doctor Doctor" and less explicitly in almost all of my music, I am psychologically unstable and always have been. My mom, a professional therapist, told me when I was in my early 20s that she knew I had emotional problems from the time I was a toddler. These issues have manifested themselves in aggression toward others, self-destructive actions (e.g. drugs) and episodes of mania (think: writing for more than 24 hours straight). My mom was the only one who understood me for most of my life - she kept me from killing myself, and she espoused non-violence and taught me restraint and self-control. She understood my lifelong near obsession with justice and equality, and how my negative behaviours have almost always been the result of trying to fix myself or problems in the world and others (e.g., racism, bullying, sexual assault, etc.). Before I learned as a junior in high school that I could use Hip-Hop and activism, instead of violence, to fix problems, my mom was the only thing keeping me out of jail or a coffin. In my song "Thank You" off The World View Bonus Disc, I go into detail not only about our relationship but about her as a person: the selfless, loving, brilliant social worker, activist and mother that she was. She was my biggest fan and, every time she saw or spoke to me, asked me "when are you going to finish World View?". I am saddened that she didn't get to see the anti-fracking song or album's release or success, but I am so thankful I got to play her the song I wrote for her, in her honour. Today, I strive to live as she did. I am not even close. But I keep trying.

What did you make of the fracking industry's attempts to discredit the anti-fracking documentary Gasland?

Completely standard and unsurprising. The corporations and polluters collude on all things that benefit the rich and hurt the poor and working class. Fracking is no different. Just listen to my song, it's all there.

You're donating all proceeds of the album to Guns 4 Cameras, which brings to mind a quote from The Cult's lead singer Ian Astbury: "Everybody has their camera on their phone and in their hand. That’s become like the AK-47 for non-violence." What are your thoughts?

I love this. Watch the watchers. Film the police. Use art not violence. Aim to Live, not to kill. It's all righteous, timely, and crucial for our survival.

Your track "Throw Away The Key" advocates for prison reform, for which you've campaigned since your youth. You also say you've "worked or volunteered at Green Haven maximum-security prison, an alternative-to-incarceration centre, a probation office and an at-risk youth centre." The state of Texas is one of the pioneers in "Justice Reinvestment", which pours money into at-risk communities rather than prisons, as a way to fight crime. What role do you think hip-hop could play in justice reinvestment - hip-hop workshops for at-risk youth, for example?

Yes, I think the prison industrial complex is the most destructive and clear-cut example of the injustice and inequality that permeates all of US politics, economics and culture. In regard to your question, I have been doing these types of things for years at the alternative to incarceration centres, teen centres and schools at which I've volunteered and worked. And that is specifically the concept behind Guns 4 Cameras, the 501c3 charity recipient of all proceeds from World View. Instead of taking guns away from the kids, the idea is to educate and inspire them to find better alternatives. And what better way to do that than with Hip-Hop and rap, the culture and music that they trust and that dictates their world views, dress codes and vernacular. Hip-Hop heads have been doing this for years. Activists have also been using Hip-Hop artists in their work. I think also that now more than ever we are all getting a little more respect from the mainstream. But we have ways to go. I want to be on every damn university-hosted panel, on CNN and MSNBC news talk shows, and everywhere else. I am an artist first and foremost, but I do more much more than make music.

You also collaborate on the album with rapper Capital-X, who is an ex-convict and big campaigner against the death penalty and the prison-industrial complex. Tell us about your friendship.

I am honoured to have the OG [original gangsta] Capital-X on the album. His was a case similar to Jay Daniels in that his whole verse did not make it into the song "Notorious", which Amin PaYnE produced. Instead, we elected to use part of X's verse as the intro to the song. It's powerful, and even more so as an acapella. The song simply would have been too long had we not gone that route. In terms of our friendship, there is obviously mutual respect there. We know what each other's done and what the other's doing, but we've never met. We were introduced by a then-mutual Internet “friend” through myspace about five years ago. He was one of the earliest connections I made.

Your song "Got Class?" says: "Girl, nice guys wanna meet their wives, just about anywhere but where we met last night". Couldn't the tables be turned though, by women calling out double standards and asking why would they want to marry any man who was there?

Yes, absolutely. "Got Class?" represents a different side of me, the little bit of normal perhaps. Instead of being standard AWKWORD and rapping from the woman's perspective, I thought about myself. How does a good man who really does not like clubbing feel when he gets pushed into this situation and finds himself really enjoying himself. For me, before I settled down, letting myself go and allowing situations like that was therapeutic.

You're also a sociologist. What life lessons has sociology taught you?

I see everything through a lens that you could say combines Cornel West sociology, William Upsi-Wimsatt Hip-Hop activism and Foucault and Rousseau philosophy. There is a lot of depth and complexity to my ideology, and my world view is supported by my studies. Sociology, specifically, gave me facts and historical theory to support what I've always known: The human world is designed for and controlled by the rich, white, Euro-American, Anglo-Saxon, Republican, Conservative, heterosexual male. The rest of us are either their slaves or enemies, or both.

You say of your song "Doctor Doctor": "It’s about mental illness. I’m known for honesty, and this song is perhaps the best example as I delve into my eccentricities and the intricacies of my world view." Apart from the fact that you take medication, do you think just looking at the world more critically than most people can make you feel like you're going insane?

Absolutely. It is directly tied into my psychoses. Since day one. I am that kid who was depressed about starvation in Africa and the plight of New York City's homeless and prostitute populations in the '80s before age 10.

You criticise the mainstream media in your lyrics. 

What about the poor moms, when they children is wronged
What about the neighbourhood, when half the males is gone  
What about the shit pay, the hours is long 
And the mainstream media, they won’t play this song

What media do you follow and why?

Gothamist, Village Voice, The Daily Dot, Complex, Mass Appeal, FRANK 151, VICE, EV Grieve, The Nation, Think Progress, Truthout, Salon, Slate, The Grio, Daily Kos, {young}ist, Urban Times, Policy Mic, Counter Punch - for the truth.

Your track "Radio 2.0" asks: 

Ayo, where’s my play on mainstream radio? 
While all the rappers who get spins, really slay me though 
Like they really pimps with prostitutes, really slay for dough  
I’m serious it’s funny how way they really chase them hoes

It really is a case of the less you have to say, the more likely you'll get played. Your friend and collaborator Jasiri X says independent artists can earn more than those on major labels, yet others like Rap Rehab suggest this is unlikely. Do you see any hope without mainstream radio play?

I think they're both half-right. Independent artists can make a lot of money if they have a large and, more importantly, devoted fan base, they tour regularly and they understand and practise good business. Most independent artists do not have all of the three, many don't have any. A buzzing rapper can get a huge advance from a major label, but then squander for years “on the shelf“. An artist who goes completely DIY or signs with an indie label will never get that major money right away, but probably has a better chance of maturing and growing and making more and more money, as long as the art stays quality and the label and/or artist continues to connect with fans through live Q&As, giveaways, in-store appearances, etc. I, personally, would be interested in considering any offer, and I have done so in the past. I started independent and, as of now, I remain that way.

What are your musical plans?

Fans can expect the NYC Remix of "Go!", the hit World View single featuring Joell Ortiz, Slug of Atmosphere and Maya Azucena, with production from Domingo; my contribution with OG Bobby Johnson to The DJ Booth Freestyle Series; and a few other appearances on other people's mixtures. But mainly, I will be working on a new solo project, with no motive other than the art. I expect to work with only one producer.

Any plans to come to Australia?

Not if my Seven- and 10-year-old daughters have anything to say about it. They love the show Nature's Deadliest and, according to them, almost everything on the deadliest list lives in your great country. Fortunately, they don't make the decisions. My good friend lived in Australia for more than three months. I met an Aussie in a bar in NYC who could house me. I've loved Istanbul, Amsterdam, Florence, Greece and Ecuador. I would love to experience Australia. Who's booking me appearances and paying for that long flight?

Hear and buy the album, donate, download the free bonus disc and contact AWKWORD here.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.