KAMAU is your first name?
Does it mean anything?
Do you think that’s what you are?
I think I am what I am.
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September 22 was a sunny Friday afternoon on a strangely subdued Sproul Plaza; with the golden light softening the charred London Plane trees from previous riots, chalked hate speech eroded by the soles of a thousand pairs of black vans, the absence of screaming demonstrators, and that beloved Bancroft and Telegraph buzz a couple frequencies lower than usual, it was truly the calm before the storm.
As I walked with KAMAU from the basement of MLK to Mario Savio steps — where he would perform five hours later as part of a black consciousness celebration put on by UC Berkeley’s Multicultural Student Union — I tried to explain through his happy humming and poetic riffing that this muted environment was not only disturbingly out of character, but also eerie given the events that would unfold on these same steps in the coming hours.
First would be his show — which, as predicted, proved to be loud, upbeat, provocative, enlightening, and galvanizing. And less than 48 hours after that would be what was planned to be Free Speech Week, an extremely polarizing and highly triggering event planned and hosted by the Berkeley College Republicans, which scheduled controversial speakers including Milo Yiannopoulos, Steven Bannon and Ann Coulter. Though the same patch of land would host two acts boasting polar opposite ideologies in the same two-day period, KAMAU remained unfazed.
Flaunting fresh glasses, watercolored sweatpants, and a pinecone necklace, the young hip-hop artist waltzed through a graveyard, danced over history, and flitted over the pathway to the site that has buried thousands of tears, planted thousands of seeds in thousands of young minds, and yielded thousands of polarizing, radicalizing, enlightening and sometimes destructive demonstrations, mass assemblies, and conversations orbiting the very same ideas of race, humanity, love, and human rights that dominate the messages woven into his art.
I sat down with KAMAU underneath a tree on this monster of a site — Upper Sproul — before soundcheck to talk about his upcoming show, the release of his new album TheKAMAU-Cassette: ŭRTH GōLD (2017), race, love, police brutality, free speech, personal growth and the unity inherent in that, and the Land of the Free…which is really all anybody seems to be talking about now, anyways.
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Welcome to Berkeley, welcome to the madness, this is Sproul Plaza, the heart of our campus. You’re here for the black consciousness celebration, which is being put on by our Multicultural Student Union, which is partnering with SUPERB for this event, which will be the finale to this larger celebration. What does black consciousness mean to you?
I don’t think true consciousness has a color. I think that consciousness is awareness and I think it’s important that we connect with our consciousness, because the more aware we are, the more informed we are. The more informed we are, the better decisions and the more effective our decisions are in the name of growth and progress.
I think that nature inherently is extremely aware, and there is no mediator between the awareness and the action. But for us, I think our ego is like this crazy translator, it distorts what we perceive in our awareness. In the translation between what we perceive and what we need to do to grow is some type of distortion. That makes us grow strangely sometimes.
Yeah. That’s fair. Is there anything you want us to hear though, especially in terms of tonight? I think that your performance does have a political undertone. I don’t know if that’s a deliberate thing on your end or not, but it is part of a black consciousness celebration. And I think a lot of students are going to be attending the show listening specifically for that.
It’s not that it is not political. It’s not that it’s not black consciousness. It’s just that I think that for us, in our music, I think we’re just trying to express the reality that we’re experiencing as loud as we can so that people can feel it.
I think part of the confusion that I’ve experienced growing up as a so-called black person that “black,” “Negro,” “colored,” “African,”— arguably African — I’m not sure if African is actually an African word. Most of these words are definitely terms that weren’t created by me or even for me, as in like with me in mind…as a beneficiary, you know what I mean?
I mean, if I’m talking about identity as like a human physical body and not just as an energetic entity, but as a human, physical body, that word “black” wasn’t a part it. It wasn’t even a part of its creation, wasn’t part of its communication, it wasn’t a part of its culture, wasn’t a part of its construction, wasn’t part of its achievements, any of that. You know, I know I’m speaking English; I communicate through English, but I don’t know.
So the words are difficult sometimes. I think that sometimes knowing that certain things in language don’t fit… It can be harder to use language.
No yeah, totally. Vocabulary is crazy to me; it’s just someone else’s perception of reality and then like a shortcut to that.
Yeah it’s like if my black consciousness is something that I’m addressing and taking care of for me to grow, it’s hard for me to consistently call the thing that I am addressing — potentially one of the most important parts of my growth — to name it, and repeatedly call it something that was created by an entity that has been one of the biggest predators on that growth itself. So do you call that a conflict of interest?
Definitely. So have you found a word or a term that you can use to convey your identity or is there not one yet?
Communication is important. And I understand the importance of words. But for me, I don’t feel the need to call it anything. In communicating ideas I understand that we do need to…or that it helps to have words that we all understand that represent an idea.
I mean that is an interesting irony because what you do for a living is you use your words, you use your words to convey a message…
I realized recently that the point actually isn’t the words, but the words are for the point. The point isn’t just to say words.
The point is to communicate. And words aren’t communication — they help make communication possible. Trees communicate. Everything communicates, and most of the things that communicate don’t use words. So words aren’t the necessity. Music has always been about communicating, you know what I mean? And there’s such a huge portion of it that doesn’t have words. Miles Davis is communicating. You can know exactly what he’s saying. What he’s communicating…he doesn’t need words.
I think the point for me is to figure out ways to make my words more supportive of what I’m actually trying to communicate.
What ARE you actually trying to communicate?
Well first I’m trying to become a better person. I’m trying to grow — or I’m growing. I think the point is for me to just be honest with myself. Through my songs, I need to be honest with myself. It helps me. I think sometimes when I actually take things outside, I can create a way to look at myself outside of myself in music and actually see what I’m doing and critique it in a way that promotes my growth.
Let’s talk about your music. TheKAMAU-Cassette: ŭRTH GōLD just came out, congratulations! The last thing you put out was A Gorgeous Fortune in 2016. Did the election have any impact on the content of the new album?
I think the world affects everything inside and outside of it. Everything in an environment reflects the nature of the environment. And so making music while things are going on, things that are going on are either going to directly or indirectly show themselves within.
What about sound? Your sound is so hard to confine to one genre. I feel like it transcends all of the genre binaries that probably shouldn’t exist. The first song I ever heard of yours was “PohLease,” and I immediately thought gospel, this is gospel rap. But then you hear “Doo Wop,” you hear more R&B, you hear more traditional gangsta rap in it. How would you describe your sound, especially in the new album?
The most recent project [TheKAMAU-Cassette: ŭRTH GōLD] had a heavy presence of the voices and instruments in the production.
With A Gorgeous Fortune, I collaborated in production with No Wyld. So it was just No Wyld and me in the production for the entire project. With TheKAMAU-Cassette: ŭRTH GōLD, the production was split between a bunch of producers in different places.
We collaborated with some producers who were New York-based, some producers that were Paris-based, London-based, Virgina-based, different places. It got a lot of different perspectives when it came to the production, which I feel gave it a wider spectrum of sound because of the wider family, or the wider village, that created it.
What about lyrical content? I mean these lyrics that are so explicit and graphic. Look at “The Icarus.” You’re writing that from the perspective of a slave. No one does that. Especially compared to colossal African American stars right now….such as Kanye West, who is rapping about having sex with Taylor Swift…
If I’m just speaking on black artists, speaking on artists who are expressing themselves through a perpetual state of battery—not even talking about from society, but from our own sense of identity, you know we’re taught from Day 1 that we are black, which we are also taught is synonymous with evil, you know? And everywhere we go, we come face to face with our blackness and consequently come face to face with evil and we identify with that. But we also deep down inside know that we’re not, so there’s this initially, from Day 1 conflict. There’s this deception within ourselves, this battling within ourselves, the self seeking to prove itself to the self that society projects onto it.
And so through all of that, a lot of times, it’s just tiring and people want to escape. I’m not making excuses for music that can be derogatory, but I’m just explaining how sometimes when things are suppressed for a long time — like in physics, if the pressure keeps getting built up, it explodes. In every direction. Not in a good direction, not in a bad direction, in every direction.
A lot of the time, our creativity is that. The letting out of the building up of pressure, because a lot the time it’s us reacting, us having our natural reactions to the things that we feel is dangerous for us, it will end up with us being perceived as overly aggressive or militant, or being killed.
I mean even when we were talking about the free speech…that’s just people protecting their human being. But if we were to have the natural reaction to protect ourselves in a situation like that, it would be a massacre.
Your music still stands out to me as unique, though. The reason I started liking and listening to your music was because it reminded me of that ‘90s rap brutally honest, very explicit, recounting of at least what is partially the black narrative in America. And I think that that was lost, especially within the last decade. So why are you doing that with your music? And why is no one else really doing that right now?
When it comes to making music that is reflective of narratives that need to be spoken, I don’t think that it’s something that’s not happening. I think that I do that, but I think a lot of other people who do it…I do it in a way that reflects the way I was raised. And other people do the same thing, you know. So I might describe “The Icarus,” or let’s say we’re talking about “PohLease,” I might describe it from the position of someone who is more of a questioner. I mean “Who do you call, when you’re food for the law?” I’m asking all these questions in the song. My song ends up coming out that way because that is the product of how I have come up.
But someone may make that same song from the perspective of someone who’s getting directly attacked, and they’ve literally felt the burn of that happening. I’ve observed a lot of things, I’ve been lucky enough to experience things, but also to observe a lot of pain without it actually being directed at me PHYSICALLY. But some people don’t. A lot of my people don’t get that luxury.
So there’s value in a variety of voices and different experiences in this larger “black narrative”…
If the same person as a child hasn’t been taught self-love, this person is just going to react. They’ve been fed hate towards them and given hate to themselves to give to themselves as well…how is that person going to express it? Are they going to express it in some super Zen-like, wholesome, worldly way? Or are they going to express it in the way that the world has taught them to? I used to be very judgmental too, in talking about things like that in rap. Now, rather than talking about the things that people like Kanye may do that may be derogatory, I’d rather focus on the things that they do that’s not.
You could find a lot of truth in creativity in general, regardless of who it comes from, and it may not be the intent of the artist. I mean, one of my favorite poems is called “If” by Rudyard Kipling, who is not someone I would want to hang with. He’s not someone I would aspire to be like or want my children to aspire to be like, but I feel like through our creativity, truth has a way of coming out of us.
What would you do if you were in that situation? If you experienced police brutality firsthand, if you witnessed it? As in someone getting beaten, or even a nonviolent situation in which you get arrested for no reason, or screamed at, you know?
That’s something that you get used to, as a black person. We kind of have a relationship with law enforcement, it’s not one where that’s who you call to save you…it’s a relationship where that’s who you need to call someone to save you from. There’s no one to call.
Do you have different expectations for the decoding of your lyrical content across racial lines? What is your message for your black audience? What is your message for your white audience? Do you know what I mean?
I try not to expect anything. I just want to help. In America, outside of the so-called black individual, racism creates a willing or unwilling practitioner of hate or a feeling of superiority. And within the so-called black individual, it creates a reality of self-hate and a feeling of inferiority. So from that point on, from wherever they are, they’re going to hear whatever they’re going to hear. But I think that those things that we experienced internally and that are manifested in our external actions…I think the point is to try to recognize those things and work on creating a healthier environment within ourselves.
So you think it starts from within?
I don’t think there’s a real separation, you know, between inside and outside. I think one is the reflection of the other. I’m not sure which comes first.
I’m really just trying to become a better person. And I’m trying to do it honestly and out loud. And I hope to inspire that within everybody else.
I think that’s really humble.
I’m not elite, I’m not a spokesperson…
I mean you don’t have to be, but at the same time you must be conscious of the fact that you do have a following, and that people do look to you for leadership.
I mean, I’m in a position where I have more people listening to me than maybe I did a couple of years ago. But the teacher is this process, you know, not me exclusively. We’re all students of it. And I’ve just got to be a good student, which means I have to accept the fact that I may be wrong a whole lot and I need to recognize when I’m wrong and accept that. Or when I’m wrong, right, or are less efficient than I can be, and then correct that, and then keep it moving.
I don’t know how much you know about UC Berkeley, we talked a little bit about the Free Speech Movement, but this is a very intense, very dynamic, and very political campus.
Those windows behind those trees, those were all smashed last year. This entire building was surrounded. Yeah, we were surrounded by hundreds of cops in SWAT gear. It’ll turn into a warzone and that’s going to happen 48 hours after you take that exact same stage. And I think that gives students a conflicting message. On one hand we’re celebrating this black consciousness, and then immediately after that there will be cops in here with clubs, with tear gas, with rubber bullets, and kids everywhere…and it’s going to be unpredictable.
I think it’s very likely that people get injured, that people get caught in the crossfire. It’s also possible that the police do absolutely nothing. That’s happened, too, they’ve received criticism for that. So how do you feel gracing the exact same stage with kind of completely different messages?
I feel that [conflict] every time I step on this ground and I’m walking on a grave. This is the Land of the Free, we were just talking about that. I mean you pay for freedom. You know. But the you in America hasn’t paid for freedom. America…this corporation, took a group of people and said we’re going to create this so-called freedom and we’re going to make them pay for it. And then we’re going to torture them for hundreds of years and then we’re going to get politically correct and turn that torture into something that can be done without being criticized.
Because we were so good at hiding it and we’re so good at making it…You know what I mean like. But this is the Land of the Free. It’s like an ecosystem – there’s violence in an ecosystem.
And that freedom that exists in the wild is paid by everything in the wild, but that’s not how it works here. So if we’re talking about contradictions, I’ve been walking on a contradiction since I’ve been born. We all have.
No I totally agree. You can’t ignore it. I mean people do, but it’s becoming harder and harder and harder.
I’m grateful that other people are able to see what we see every day when we look in the mirror, you know. We’re able to see, when other people look at us, we’re able to see the communication that we have with people. When people talk to people, it’s different when people talk to black people. There’s a difference, you know what I mean?
“I’m grateful that other people are able to see what we see every day when we look in the mirror…I’m grateful that the numbness racism awards people outside of black people in America is wearing away.”
The way that we look, our history, the pain that we’ve been subject to, the investment in freedom that we’ve had to make without actually being able to get that product back, we see that every day.
It’s not that I’m grateful for the violence, but I’m grateful that people are able to SEE it because when you’re able to see it, then you start to dress the wound.
I’m grateful that I’m able to feel, and I think I’m also grateful that I think the numbness that racism awards people outside of — in America, outside of black people — is wearing away. And everybody else is not able to become as numb to it anymore.
I’m grateful for that. And I wish everybody’s safety and I wish everybody’s peace, but peace has a price. You know, I think the most peaceful place is the jungle.
Absolutely. You know because there it’s fair. It’s not symmetrical, but it’s balanced. I think that maybe we’ll get into a place where—if everybody is able to feel their weight on the scale—maybe they’ll shift to a place where the scales aren’t as off.
Let’s just kind of take a step back. What about tonight? Do you have any pre-show rituals? Do you get nervous?
I get very nervous, I’m very nervous right now.
How do you manage that?
It’s just the reality of it. You know. I get nervous, and then I perform, and then it’s over. I try to breathe. Other than that, I mean I try not to do away with it. I don’t think the point is to not feel nervous.
I feel like the point is to be able to appreciate that nothing bad is balanced, because nature doesn’t do that. Nature does the day/night, cold/hot, lying down/standing up, inhale/exhale.
Oh, so, can you talk to us about your decision to start showing your face more?
I just didn’t want to not show my face anymore.
So you were purposely not showing your face? Because it’s subtle.
I was purposefully trying to highlight something other than my face. And then at the point where I felt like I was hiding my face, I was like the point was never to hide anything, so I decided to highlight the same thing I was highlighting which was trying to highlight my growth through these wave files, through these songs. But to do so without covering my face.
Also I think the good thing about not being in front of everything is that it makes it easier for me to establish a sense of community, not just like with my home, but within my work. If I’m not starring in my videos, I have other people who are great actors and great talents who can also show their creativity as well.
Yeah. Because the videos are highly creative…and you were a film major so…
You know, even in the next project, I’m not in all of the visuals, I’m only in some of them. I think it’s good to have community with you. Community is one of the most important things we can have.
Absolutely. I mean it has “unity” in it. The unity is one of the most important things in the universe, nothing can exist without the unity of the things that compose it.
So I guess on that note, what can we expect for the future from you?
I don’t know. You know, I don’t expect anything. Just, you know, appreciate what you get.
I’m grateful to be here. I think this is a very important conversation, and I’m honored to be part of it.
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Written by Natalie Silver
Photos by Alice Langford