The Activists’ MC: An Interview with Rapper Son of Nun

Blood and FireMost progressive-minded hip hop fans and culturally-inclined activists have not heard of Baltimore rapper Son of Nun yet. After listening to the Son’s first album, Blood and Fire, I can only say this: they will.

Despite this being his first album, Nun — a high school teacher, activist, and organizer from Baltimore — is clearly a superb, smart lyricist who is on his way up. The fact that he is able to successfully use his skills to express intelligent, radical politics in a style that ranges from poetic to in-your-face is one reason I recommend hip hop fans get this album.

Blood and Fire is united thematically by the Son’s vicious vitriol against capitalism, imperialism, war, poverty, sexism, and racism. It also touches on the Son’s own personal struggles. One of the songs on the album — the antiwar head-banger, “Fight Back” — was chosen from over 500 submissions to appear on a recently-released antiwar compilation alongside Sonic Youth, Jane’s Addiction, Paris, and many more. Another one of Nun’s songs, “Free Palestine,” was voted the best song of the week on NPR’s Open Mic site. Son of Nun has performed and appeared on releases with the likes of Ani DiFranco and Jurassic 5, and he frequently performs at rallies, underground clubs, activists conferences, and universities.

Son of NunWhile the current underground political hip hop scene is extraordinarily vibrant, most artists that fall within this scene have some weakness that leaves one a little hungry: too much posturing, weak beats, amateurish lyrical skills, misogynist and/or anti-gay lyrics. In Blood and Fire, Son of Nun avoids these pitfalls, producing one of the best underground political albums in recent years. With diverse beats, sophisticated and powerful lyrics, a mature flow, and just the right amount of swagger, Son of Nun is a rising star, and it’s only a matter of time until more people begin to notice.

I had a chance to interview Son of Nun through e-mail. To get a taste of the Son, listen to the samples below. You can purchase Blood and Fire at <>.

Fight Back

(Lyrics to “Fight Back”:

One Solution

(Lyrics to “One Solution”:

Free Palestine

(Lyrics to “Free Palestine”:

Interview with Rapper Son of Nun

By Derek Seidman

Seidman: Blood and Fire is your first album. Clearly you use hip hop as a way to express your politics. When did you start rapping, and why did you choose hip hop as a way to express your political ideas?

Son of NunSon of Nun: I started rapping back in 1997 when a friend asked me to jam with his band. Up to that point I’d only written poetry, so I wrote a little piece for the session and I haven’t put the mic down since. Before that, I messed around a little in high school from about 1991 to 1995, trying to write rhymes that sounded like whatever I was listening to — you know, Cypress Hill, Biggie, Onyx, Mobb Deep — but I wasn’t serious about it and probably only wrote a total of three rhymes.

Towards the end of high school, I started getting real frustrated with hip hop because I was starting to look at it in the context of how my consciousness around America was beginning to change, the struggles that blacks had endured, and just the overall redundancy that you couldn’t avoid noticing in mainstream hip hop itself. There used to be balance on the radio in terms of the content you’d hear from artists. But I think by the end of high school, that had all pretty much vanished — and so did my interest in hip hop. I think early Wu Tang, Tribe Called Quest, and Digable Planets (Blowout Comb) held the flame till I found out about The Roots, Labtekwon, Black Star, and Common.

Overall, I think Bob Marley, conscious dance hall reggae, and Rage against the Machine had more to do with me expressing my ideas in hip hop than hip hop did. Even though my first two tapes were Run DMC’s Raising Hell and Salt N Pepa‘s Gitty Up (I think that’s the title), I didn’t know about KRS-ONE until he dropped “Rapture” off I Got Next, and I didn’t know about Rakim till after that — even though I had seen “Juice” and was into the song. I know, I know, it’s sad but it’s true.

I also got into drum n bass in college and knew it was the next level for hip hop (yeah, I said it). Around that time, some of my friends started DJ-ing and one was spinning drum n bass, so we got together and I started writing and freestyling over it. Another friend in the crew got us residencies at a couple clubs and it was on. I honed my skills and got to play with and open for some of the greats: Roni Size & Reprazent, Adam F, Diesel Boy, and others.

Then I started feeling like, drum n bass was great but most of the folks who came to the shows were just into dancing, not listening. Hip hop would obviously be the best way to get a point across musically, so now I’m paying dues all over again, this time in hip hop. It’s great, because I’m at a point where I’ve learned a lot more about it as an art form and politics through study and activism. I feel like I can bring something unique for this time instead of the same ol’ same ol’.

You said that you started getting real frustrated with where hip hop was at. What’s your take on the state of mainstream hip hop?

Man, that shit is weak. Thank god for the underground and hip hop overseas. Again homes, balance. It’s not the fault of the artists that the companies in control only want to invest in one sound. At one point in my life, I used to be a purist and hate mainstream rap with a passion until I realized that the criminal and materialistic styles have always been there and America itself has an infatuation with gangsters (oh sorry, I mean gangstas) and materialism. How can I like Goodfellas, Casino, and Scarface and then attempt to reject the same qualities embodied in these films when they appear in hip hop by saying that mainstream hip hop isn’t really hip hop? In the underground there are hundreds if not thousands of 50 Cents — so I’d have to say that the underground isn’t truly hip hop either.

Now does that mean that I condone what the artists say and do? Hell no — sometimes I feel like I’m listening to Klan propaganda — I sure as hell don’t approve of what they do in those movies I mentioned either. Do I understand that for some of them hip hop is their ticket out of the debilitating manifestations of institutionalized racism? Of course I do. But does that mean that they can’t use the brains in their head to write songs that question why things are the way they are? I feel like when you have that much influence you can save a few spots on your album to shake shit up for real. I mean let’s be honest and rational for a moment . . . if on my album all I talk about is committing crimes against other black people, who the fuck am I threatening with my “hard-ass” alpha male persona? No one in any position of power anywhere considers them threatening in any way, shape, or form that can’t be handled with a parental advisory sticker. People in power consider “gangsta rap” to be about as dangerous to them as an R-rated movie is to a minor. They’re a fucking joke to these people, not because of what they’re saying but because of the position of influence they have but predictably fail to use.

I don’t know, man. Maybe these rappers think that’s what they’re doing in the world of hip hop. Maybe they think that their style is revolutionizing the face of rap and shit will never be the same because of them and the new way they’re talking about guns, misogyny, and materialism. Maybe I’m the one who’s out of touch and missing the boat because there is no interest in politically relevant hip hop. I doubt it.

Seriously, though, when I do my lesson at school on 9/11 and drop the lyrics from Mr. Lif‘s “Home of the Brave,” 90% of my students ask if they can keep the copy of the rhyme I gave them to follow along. And they listen to Three 6, and 50 Cent, and all the popular shit. And these aren’t kids of privilege, these are students in a school system that was found to be underfunded by $400-800 million dollars by the state of Maryland. At my school more than 90% of the kids get free or reduced lunch and the drop-out rate is greater than 70%. We had plenty of fires, fights, a stabbing, a rape, a couple lockdowns because of weapons, and of course some military recruiters. These kids ARE getting left behind.

So if Lif can get props in the hood and everyone else follows that trend, then there is plenty of room for politics in the mainstream, which means that companies and artists (especially established ones) share in the blame. And if you don’t think the Lif example is real, look at Jada Kiss and the success of “Why?”.

What do you feel are the main themes connecting the tracks on Blood and Fire? What are you trying to get across to the listener?

Struggle and skills, man. On the album, struggle comes through politically and personally because those are the struggles I know, and if I’m putting out something with my name on it, it had better represent who I am and what I know in a realistic way. I wanted to make music that talked about the issues I was interested in and organizing around. I wanted to get people off their ass, contribute to a soundtrack that vindicated and emboldened those already active, and I wanted to get some shit off my chest.

Politically, the album touches on war, Palestine, racism, and capitalism — these were some of the issues I wanted to speak about. I didn’t write a blueprint for the CD or anything like that. I just selected the songs I liked the most and called it a day. Countless books have been written on each of these topics, but I guess my ego was big enough to feel that I could weigh in on the debates . . . hmmm. Seriously though, they’re much more than abstract topics for discussion — they’re unforgiving realities that people endure across the globe.

Is a song or a compilation going to solve all our problems? Probably not. Does music resonate with people in a way that can challenge and/or galvanize their beliefs and help move them to action? Hell yes. I’m living proof. When Bob [Marley] said, “Get up, Stand up,” I took that shit seriously.

I also think it would be a big mistake to get your set of politics from a recording artist. Political musicians, just like charismatic leaders, emerge from movements, not the other way around. I think artists can and do help inspire people to action — and once people get involved, I think they should do their own research and draw their own conclusions about how their efforts can be most effective. Personally I’m a socialist and I’m a member of the International Socialist Organization.

The alienation caused by the way our society is run is unavoidable. Every day, people get up and go to jobs they hate and it crushes their souls. The best part of their day is taken from them in exchange for some ridiculous wage, and when they get home, they don’t feel like doing shit, let alone doing something about it, or they pursue their dreams which have often been relegated to “hobbies.” Then we have kids and bequeath to them this sorry existence with the hope that they can somehow “make it” if they just work really hard, which is crap. If hard work determined your wealth in this society, people like the president would be broke as shit.

Personally, I love my job, but I hate that I don’t have what I need to do it as well as I could. Not only is our school system underfunded, but teachers are, as if I need to say it, underpaid.

So if you take this dynamic created by exploitation at work, a false American dream, racism, sexism, etc., what do you think the outcome is on the personal lives of everyday people? Lots of alienation, escapism, self doubt and self blame for not having more money, friends, and beautiful women, and on and on and on, you know. More specifically and personally, racism fucking hurts, man, and it’s important and empowering and therapeutic to organize and rally against it in its many forms — but it still hurts. Growing up without a father and seeing your mom bust her ass to provide for you so much that you hardly get to see her fucking hurts, and when you know the sexism, racism, and immigrant discrimination she endured in and out of the black community, that hurts too.

Growing up is hard enough by itself, but when you add all this other stuff to the mix that you can feel the effects of but can’t always directly identify at the time, one’s experience can be pretty rough. I wanted to add some of that to the album, to inject hip hop with an alternative to the alpha-male/super-hero “I-ain’t-never-scared-or-hurt” perspective. I don’t care what anyone says, nobody’s hard all the time.

So that’s what I wanted to get across on the album.

“Fight Back” is one of the best songs on your album, I think. What is the background of this song?

Thanks. I guess I’d say that the background for the song was this thinly veiled imperialist power grab sold to the American people as a pack of lies that we and the Iraqi people would have to pay for in our blood. The background was being a part of the largest pre-war antiwar movement in the history of the world, watching Bush give us the middle finger, watching the antiwar movement shrivel up and get hamstrung by the Kerry campaign — and saying fuck no! Now is precisely the time when we need to be standing up and saying no to war as loudly and clearly and often as possible.

My producer and roommate at the time (yeah, real convenient), DJ Krimson, put the beat together, and we recorded the track around late spring or early summer of 2004. It sounded like it was missing something, so I thought the samples would just make it all the more real. The first sample of a man speaking was from an impromptu interview I did at an antiwar demo in DC before the invasion of Iraq. The second sample of the people chanting “that’s bullshit, get off it, the war is for profit, war and occupation will never bring liberation, that’s bullshit. . . ” was from a DC demo after the invasion.

The timing of the song was pretty clutch, too, because we completed it just before the submission deadline for Peace Not War 2, the definitive antiwar compilation with Jurassic 5, Sonic Youth, Paris, Ani DiFranco, Lyrics Born, Jane’s Addiction, and more. I was looking for labels to release the CD and came across <> like two days before the deadline. I sent my song through Fedex, emailed an mp3 version of it, and crossed my fingers. A couple days later, I get an email from Mudge in the UK, and he’s like, “Talk about cutting it close.” Turns out Fedex screwed up the delivery, so if it weren’t for the mp3. . . .

I have to say a little more about Mudge, though, because he put all of himself into this and the previous Peace Not War compilation. We got to meet up in DC and he broke it down for me — he put it all on the line and he’s giving half the loot to antiwar groups while he’s living in the red. He’s organized benefits with major artists against the war and the “authorities,” at the last minute, deny the permit they already approved for the show and he takes the hit. But he still does it.

You mentioned your students and how they could relate to politics through hip hop. Can you talk about this — how hip hop can serve as a way of expressing things in a way that might be able to resonate or connect with certain people more deeply?

Man, I think it’s a matter of respecting the craft and speaking to each other in a language we already appreciate and understand. When it comes to respecting the craft, I mean caring enough about hip hop to learn about how it came to be and why it looks the way it does today, as well as seeing it as a source for information that’s just as valid as any editorialist, pundit, or expert with an axe to grind. My students see it that way already because they reference hip hop songs as evidence when they’re supporting their statements. And when discussions take us into the history of hip hop, everyone’s interested and engaged because we’re getting into something that’s a part of their everyday life.

I was an assistant debate coach this year, and earlier this summer, I taught at a debate camp that’s a part of the urban debate league, which is a program designed to get inner-city middle-school and high-school students involved in debate throughout the year. The camp is rigorous, demanding, fun, and mind-blowing. I know adults who haven’t even considered the complex concepts that these kids were wrapping their heads around and then arguing both sides of competitively. This year, as part of their evidence and argument materials, they included a compilation CD featuring the music of various political artists that’s relevant to this year’s resolution. Why? Because experience has shown them that validating hip hop and exposing students to artists who use hip hop as a political weapon is not only empowering but can attract students to their program, which does a better job at preparing them scholastically and financially for college than their schools often do.

Hip hop is music and music strikes chords within us that words alone can’t. To me, hip hop is the youth of an oppressed group saying, “I’ve got something to say and I’m gonna say it the way I wanna say it, and if you don’t like it . . . fuck you!” That’s inherently attractive, especially to young people, and especially to young people whose experience is directly being expressed in hip hop. If you’re a young person in an oppressed minority in our society, wouldn’t an art form built around your experience, expressed by other young people like you, be attractive?

To give another example, I wrote a song called “Free Palestine” which I submitted to National Public Radio’s (NPR) Open Mic website where it received a record number of votes earning it the title: Best Song of the Week. Those votes were cast by people around the world who stand in solidarity with Palestine. Haithem El-Zabri, the owner of the <>, encouraged people on countless Palestine solidarity listservs (like Al-Awda) to vote, and word spread to Indy Media Centers from Vancouver to Italy. I received emails of encouragement and invitations from the occupied territories and the song, lyrics, and the contest were even referenced in the Jordan Times. Now, this was NPR’s Open Mic website where over the history of the program many songs had been voted for and against, but for the people who voted in support of “Free Palestine,” it wasn’t about my song — rather it was about their desire for justice for the people of Palestine. Expressing that through a vote, particularly on NPR, resonated deeply with all involved.

Son of Nun at a Protest

You also mentioned the underground. It’s funny, a lot of the great underground rappers — from Black Star, to Common, to The Roots — aren’t really so underground anymore. What’s the underground rap scene looking like these days, and how would you define “the underground” as opposed to mainstream hip hip?

The underground is diverse and thank god! The underground, as far as I’m concerned, stretches from U.S. school cafeteria battles and ciphers to the Palestinian hip hop of the Philistines, Life Convicts, or Iron Sheik. For me the mainstream is heavy rotation on MTV and major radio.

Who are some of the artists you most respect?

Bob Marley (need I explain?), Burning Spear (his voice strikes dangerous chords in the soul), Fela Kuti (suffering and smiling, he’s a razor), Nina Simone (I don’t know if it gets any more real), Zap Mama (extremely creative, very empowered), The Last Poets (nobody can fuck with them), Jimi Hendrix (again, no explanation necessary), James Brown (I know, but music was never the same), Saul Williams (he’s putting it down for real), The Doors (they got the guns but we got the numbers and some times you feel like music is your only friend), Cannibal Ox with EL-P as the third member (listen to The Cold Vein, compare it to Vast’s and Vordul’s solo joints and you’ll know), Black Star, Common Sense (cuz that’s his real name), The Roots (because it was about time), Nas (yeah, I know, but his talent and creativity are undeniable), Labtekwon (Baltimore’s most prolific, skilled, and dedicated emcee), Steel Pulse (Tribute to the Martyrs), Buju Banton (changed from “Boom Bye Bye” to “Circumstances” — not that rastas aren’t homophobic), Capleton (reachin’, teachin’ the people fi sure), Rage Against The Machine (because we can do something), The Clash (when they kick in your front door, how ya gonna come?), Radiohead (their sound is tangible), Portishead (the pain in her voice is beautiful), System of a Down (their sound is as schizophrenic as U.S culture).

And many, many more. Can’t forget Public Enemy, and mf doom & mad lib on Madvillain — sick!

That’s funny that you didn’t mention Tupac Shakur. He seems to embody more than anyone this paradox of hip hop (though maybe it’s not a paradox). On the one hand, he’s was totally righteous — militant, political, radical, rooted in the Black Panther tradition, really able to articulate the experience of post-industrial black oppression in a powerful way. On the other hand, his lyrics could also be incredibly misogynistic. What do you think of Pac?

I know I’ll probably get a lot of shit for this but I never really got into Pac. Maybe it was the freedom and confidence with which he expressed his own contradictions as a human being that I wasn’t ready to hear at the time because I wasn’t able to accept them in myself (no, not in terms of being misogynistic) or maybe I just wasn’t feeling his music, or both. It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to any of his stuff, but I’m definitely open to checking it again now with some more years under my belt.

What artists have been most influential for you — on your style, and just generally?

Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Public Enemy, Rage — all of them never let me forget that injustice must be confronted and things don’t get better unless you do something about it. They also entrenched in my heart the significance of history as one of the most important tools in our arsenal, a mirror to the present.

As far as my style? Well, anyone who doesn’t say Rakim is a goddamn liar — unless your doing one of the “I’m the only one who understands what I’m saying style” styles. I’m definitely still aspiring to the awe-inspiring skills (which are different from content) of hip hop’s prodigal son, Nas. Zack De La Rocha’s undeniably left his mark on my brain, and Saul Williams is certainly knockin’ around in there too, and so is Mr. Lif.

What are your upcoming plans? Tours? Another album?

Man, I’m just trying to rock all the shows I can. I’ve sent kits out to clubs and college radio with no feedback, so I’m just like, fuck it, I’ll make them come to me. I know what my potential is, so I’m going to do it my way and create a grassroots following among the people I’m organizing with. I’m relying on people who believe in the music enough to help support it in whatever way they can, you know, from writing a review to organizing a show to having me perform at a political event. Ultimately, I want to take this around the world, and I know it’s possible, so that’s what I’m working towards. Folks can always check my website for show dates — <>.

The next album is coming along, just met a producer from the U.K. who I’m going to collaborate with on a bunch of tracks, and there are some cats around the way I’m going to work with too, so. . . . I don’t want to put any dates out yet, because there’s still a good amount of work that needs to be done.

Derek Seidman lives in Providence, RI. He can be reached at <>. Seidman is a co-editor of the radical youth journal