Music. Art. Culture. Writing.
I connected with Mic Crenshaw recently in Portland’s Old Town over some Stumptown coffee to talk about music, hip hop, activism, and some history behind our current social and cultural systems. A well-known emcee, Mic has produced two records and a number of singles, and has recently connected his work in music to global activism through projects such as the Afrikan Hip Hop Caravan that links hip hop to political struggles and collective efforts to “challenge the values of the ruling class.” Constantly creating and striving to make an impact, Mic shared his views on Portland and international hip hop, finding balance as a father and artist, background on systemic racism and oppressive policing, and much more. Check out the highlights from our conversation:
About the music: It started with listening to my parents’ and older relatives’ records that they were playing, R&B, funk, and soul. As I got older I listened to classic rock, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, in part because when we lived in smaller towns in Illinois, we lived in an area with no Black radio station and rock was what they played. Then as a teenager I got into punk rock. Some of my music draws from punk and metal influences, but in high school I was really listening to punk rock and hip hop, and some reggae and ska, and that mixture of music formulated the soundtrack for the life I was living on the streets. Right now, I’m writing hip hop from a place that comes from a consciousness that began to develop in my teenage years, a time when I started to become socially conscious. Music and activism have been interconnected by the same consciousness I have had since I was a kid.
On the relationship between being an activist and a hip hop artist: I understand that the roots of the culture that we call hip hop comes from people who experienced marginalization and oppression in the US in the South Bronx, and their experience came out in the music. I feel that still holds true to this day. Hip hop is a voice for people who are marginalized, who don’t have access to power in mainstream culture. So even though some people have become wealthy from marketing rap music, there will always be some aspect of authenticity in the culture that’s present because of people’s experience with oppression. That’s true globally, and I’ve stayed committed to certain areas of work dealing with social justice activism and connecting the struggles with people here locally, and historical struggles of Black folks in the US, to global struggles of Black people in the diaspora and in Africa. Through doing that, I’ve been invited to Africa many times. I became a lead organizer for the Afrikan Hip Hop Caravan, an international project, where different radical collectives of indigenous African activists and artists host hip hop related activities for a week. That’s how I got to see how much people have taken ownership of hip hop wherever they are at. Often it is a little bit truer to the roots of the culture, intentionally, than what we see in US, particularly in today’s commercial hip hop. In my travels, I’ve been able to meet artists, hear their stories, have an opportunity to understand who they are and where they come from, and learn about the scene that has developed over many years. It’s eye opening to see what hip hop means to people.
The mix of musical traditions: There is a very deliberate discussion where people are asking these questions: Is hip hop American? Is it African American? African? How African is it? How Black American is it? How universal is it? How global is it? That conversation is constantly evolving, and it’s not that any of us has the correct answer, but each of us brings something to contribute based on our lived experience. We understand that it was created in the US, but in the creation of the form, you have older traditions that influenced it through traditions of movement, oral, dance, and rhythmic traditions. We can see evidence of this when we look at older forms that are still alive today linked to the Black Diaspora. The movie Rize is an example, simply comparing similarities in dance forms. This is what we get to see through the music when we visit Africa, similarities and differences in traditions, hearing people rapping in their indigenous languages. It’s a modern expression of an ancient consciousness in the music. It’s very clear that it’s a kind of decolonization of hip hop. On a recent trip to Africa, I had a chance to perform a song with a brother singing in Masai, two brothers rapping in Swahili, and an ex-Black Panther rapping in English and Swahili. It allowed us to discover words in our languages, trace cultural commonalities, and find ourselves being brought together through hip hop.
The layers of hip hop music internationally: In Tanzania they have bongo flavor which is like commercial hip hop, it’s a little more polished, it has a club flavor… it’s more pop. But there are layers of underground hip hop in every country. You have your premier artists and handful of people that have been allowed into the mainstream and in turn the issues they address are mainstream issues. But there are underground artists of all varieties, of exposure and professionalism, with varying levels of reach depending on their following through social media or the popularity of a particular song. And about the difference between American hip hop and international hip hop, particularly in places like Ghana, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, we see traditional elements worked into the music and that creates a kind of pride and ownership, whether they are concepts or specific features in the music.
About the Portland hip hop scene: It’s growing, it never stops growing. I’m sometimes surprised. Right now a group of young guys in their 20s who are influential are Mic Capes, Rasheed Jamal, Vinnie Dewayne, and Glen Waco. Those are the names I see having a consistent strong presence, and making music that is consistently good for people everywhere. They will continue to create. I work with them on different levels, our paths intersect, and now that I’m the co-manager at KBOO, I recently found out that one of them was putting a show together and I asked him to hit me with a press release so we could properly co-sponsor the show. And he never did and I remember reflecting on that and thinking, we could have really helped. It turns out the show was almost sold out without any of our support. So the ability of this younger crowd to independently promote and get a showing is strong and it’s a good thing. The narrative in this town for so long has been that hip hop is not respected, it’s under attack, and there’s not enough support. But now I see they can do it to the level we were doing it at and even surpass what we were able to accomplish.
On finding the balance as a father, artist, and musician: It doesn’t balance. I was talking with Supaman and he told me that any time you are away from your family you are out of balance. He was just doing stuff on reservations for a while and then he did that song Prayer Loop and did a video for it and kind of blew up. It was the first time I’d ever heard anybody say it that way and it resonated with me in a way I hadn’t thought about. I’ve always been self-centered in a way that I don’t feel whole if can’t do a certain amount of art, if music isn’t enough of a priority for me. Not just intellectually but actually what I’m doing with my time, making my dreams come true. I feel like I’m not as healthy. As I get older, I grow into being a middle-aged father, a family man, and my values are shifting. But that leaves a lot of unanswered questions about how to weigh balance… what you put into your dream that you’ve been fighting for for over 20 years and what gets compromised in the interest of your family.
Staying creative, and working with music as a medium: I feel like I have a gift with words and articulation that would be there no matter what. It was put into me by a source that wasn’t entirely my own. But the fact is I enjoy taking my gift for language and communication, telling a story, and crafting a message. I love writing it, recording it, performing it… especially when I can share a reflection of my deepest thinking, simplify it, and share it with the audience. The inspiration comes from some place, put into you, flows through you, and as long as that’s available to me I will continue to perform and distribute my work. But I also want to diversify, look at other mediums. I’m a poet, a writer. I’m like an analyst, a social scientist, I channel my observations through the pen and microphone. So I’m looking at other opportunities now, acting, some autobiographical work, and other kinds of writing.
Systemic racism, policing, and white supremacy: There’s a film called Arresting Power that looks at police terror in Portland, the killing of unarmed Black people and others. We just need to look at the news and social media right now and we are reminded that police terror and the brutalization of people of color, and working class people, is epidemic and also historical and a continuation of something political. It’s a permanent feature of the cultural landscape of America today. In order for the United States of America to be what it is today, there had to be the genocidal wars against and displacement of indigenous people, the enslavement and dislocation of African people, and the control and subjugation of the population of working class people that were made up of indegenious people, the Africans who had been imported for their labor, the migrant population, and poor Europeans and working class people. So police, government, military – policy – one of their main roles is to control the population. Police departments have a history that stems from slave patrols. The migration of Blacks in the US was policed by posses, slave patrols, terrorist organizations like the KKK, and that’s the root of police departments and a lot of the policy that takes place in policing, and many of the attitudes that make up the fucking police force. The bottom line, to make it clear, is that white supremacy is integral to policing, and I don’t know that that will ever go away in the US. Without white supremacy we become a different country.
On how to make change in our systems: It’s a protracted struggle and goes back to the arrival of the colonial settlers that began a process of dominance. Right now it’s really a struggle for humanity in that the dominant culture, which has become global in its reach, now controls the environment, the military means it uses to secure it’s power…. and this process threatens our ability to survive on this planet. The existing power structure will affect food and water supplies, the threat of mass extinction of species and human beings. All these problems are related to this dominant system. The ability for us to shift… we need to think about what to change, and what outcomes we want, about how much can we actually change within the current system. Because it’s based on private property, exploitation, and just a few having access to real resources. As long as they are in control and influencing politics, we won’t change much. New systems need to be created. I’m not sure how possible it will be to see change on a global scale in a united way, but local efforts will be real and they will continue to fight it out. With my music and activism… I try to contribute but I don’t know how long I will be alive. I just hope that what I do in my lifetime is helpful. I just have to continue working and hope I can have an impact.