Son of Nun Interview, Part 1
Call it a hazard of the profession. I’ve interviewed many artists in all different genres, and while all have been more than willing to open up about their music, cracking into their opinions about all the myriad issues that surround us—politics, culture, race, sex, even the human condition itself—has proven something of a challenge. The way music is presented nowadays, it’s no wonder that so many musicians and artists would rather play it close to the vest. The iron wall that has been drawn between the creator and the reporter is a tough one to breach.
That’s not so with Son of Nun. A former Baltimore public school teacher who put down his chalk in favor of a mic a few years back, SON has become something of an underground mainstay. Hearing his licks, it’s obvious why. This man is full of ideas that drip from his rhymes. They are as literate as they are urgent, as erudite as they are sophisticated. His latest album The Art of Struggle, released last summer, has launched him even further into the minds of activists and Hip-Hop heads alike.
One might think that someone with such a formidable ability with the mic might be the hardest to get to open up. Alas, that is thankfully not the case. When I said down with him recently, he was more than ready to talk about anything that pecked away at his brain—or mine for that matter. With Hip-Hop currently at the biggest crossroads we’ve seen in its thirty-plus year existence, a conversation with Son of Nun makes you wonder if what we need is another hero, another next big thing, or someone as real and down to earth as this MC.
I set out in this interview to give SON a platform, to let him espouse his ideas unimpeded the way so many journalists in the mainstream won’t allow. What I ended up getting wasn’t an interview so much as a conversation, an exchange of ideas that breaks down the barrier between “performer” and “the rest of us.” It was also simply too much good stuff to limit to one article:
Alexander Billet: Let’s get this started: tell the folks a bit about yourself.
Son of Nun: I guess I’ll begin at the beginning. Born in the late ‘70s. Came up with sickle cell. I spent a lot of time in the hospital and shit. It’s a blood disease more common among Africans and people of African descent, and people say that it was an adaptation to deal with malaria. Malaria would infect the blood and essentially kill you. So what the sickle cell would do is that it would elongate the cell so that the malaria wouldn’t be able to attack the blood cells. But essentially the sickle cell itself can end up damaging your organs and killing you.
AB: I think you mention that in one of the songs of Blood and Fire [his first record]: “you want a battle, here’s a answer / first tackle sickle cell and then tackle cancer.”
SON: Yeah, so I dealt with that. Came up still pretty quiet, then I had thyroid cancer when I was in high school. I remember the surgeon being like “there’s a chance you could lose your voice, or your voice could be damaged” because the nerve that goes to the voicebox is right in that same area as the thyroid gland. So when they took it out and I could still speak, I was like “shit!” I was a quiet dude, and it made me realize the value of my voice and how much I had not been using it.
AB: Use it or lose it kind of thing…
SON: Yeah. So that made me recognize that I’m not gonna be as quiet, I’m gonna try to use my voice to do something. And then that turned into Hip-Hop, but that was a process. Not long after that, when I was in high school in the mid-‘90s, I kind of got fed up with Hip-Hop. It was all sounding the same. I didn’t know about the 1996 Telecommunications Act or anything like that so it was like, all this shit is sounding the same, none of it is telling me why things are fucked up. A lot of it is like “things are fucked up and I’m gonna get mine.” I came from the suburbs, so I can’t be like “I gotta kill this negro to get my shit.” It didn’t seem right, I didn’t come up in those circumstances. My mom was a single mother, she worked three and four jobs at the same time to make sure that I didn’t have to want for anything. That reality started to dawn on me, but I still couldn’t connect the dots. I was like “there’s a whole lot of inequity going on.”
My people are from Jamaica. I was lucky enough to get to go there and see that contrast between my family and what they had to go through versus the tourists. All of that stuff came together so by the time I went to college, which in and of itself was a blessing, I was on a mission to figure out what was at the root of all this. I didn’t get it in high school. So I went to college, and when I came out I was still kind of trying to figure it out. I had a better conception through the groups that I met in college, like learning about Mumia’s case, that opened me up. Then hearing his perspective on different issues—that helped me connect the dots a lot more, and I felt like I was on the right path. Then I met different organizations after that, and I started getting it: that it’s actually a system that is responsible for why some people are poor and a handful are rich. It’s capitalism. It’s a system that lets GM make record profits in one year and still close up shop in America and find cheaper labor south of the border so they can maintain record profits.
AB: When during all of this did you start becoming interested and serious about rapping?
SON: Well, as I said I was fed up with Hip-Hop, but at the end of high school I had a teacher in my English class who had us journal. I was shy and all that stuff, definitely not about myself or being a blowhard as many MCs are. She had us journal, and she would actually take the time to reply and leave comments on every student’s journal about what they had written. The impact that had on me was like “oh, somebody’s actually responding to what I’m saying and validating it.” So I started writing poetry after that, and then it was February ’97 when a friend of mine in college said “I heard that you write. Why don’t write something for us so that when we jam we can have an MC?” So I did that, and the first time I picked up the mic I was like “yo…” [laughter] Hearing the poetry back with music live was music just fueled that passion for writing. I started writing more poetry, found out about spoken word and was just amazed by it. This was at the same time I was becoming politicized, so I was thinking of how I can work in what’s going on in my mind into the art that I’m trying to create.
So that’s how I came into picking up the mic. I freestyled with the band, and the DJ had records and instrumentals, so I’d rhyme over that. Then I found Drum ‘n’ Bass. And because I was so fed up with Hip-Hop I was like “yo, this shit is ill.” So I got into that and started freestyling over that. Then, at that time, WHFS had this late night show called “Trancemissions” where they would play electronic music, and the host had a competition because Roni Size was gonna perform at the 9:30 Club. I submitted a CD that I did with a DJ who spun some downtempo stuff that was still Drum ‘n’ Bass. I was like “it’s a DJ competition but fuck it, I’ll just submit this.” And I ended up winning and got to open up for Roni Size at the 9:30 in DC. I was only twenty-one, so I was pumped!
Then it started to dawn on me that the shit I was talking about wasn’t what people in this scene were into. And I want my art to have some sort of impact in some way. I was still doing the slam-style poetry and I realized that there was an underground scene that I wanted to be a part of. So I started moving away from the Drum ‘n’ Bass and got deeper into the slam scene. Then I came across MC’s who were doing the same shit I was. And I started to realize that Hip-Hop is alive, it’s beautiful, and it still has all the things that I remember that inspired me still intact. People are still living that shit and doing that. And I started losing the fear that people weren’t going to get me. There’s a vibrant community of people that are on that level about saying the real shit that needs to be said. And that’s where I want to be. It was a process, I had to pay my dues all over again. So that’s how I came back into Hip-Hop, and started to love it and respect it again.
AB: It seems that you went through a real heavy evolution just coming back into Rap music and discovering what it is you love about it. And really, that evolution I think is ongoing. The Art of Struggle sounds very different from Blood and Fire. I know on Blood there’s a lot more Drum ‘n’ Bass influence, but on Struggle there’s a lot more organic sounding stuff on there.
SON: Man, with Blood and Fire, I love the album but listening to it a few years later there were a few tracks where it was like “maybe this one shouldn’t have made the cut.” In terms of production, in terms of rhymes, in terms of content, I’m one hundred percent proud to have my name on the cover. Period. It was a reflection of where I was at, and a reflection of where my roommate, who made a lot of beats for the album, was at. The Art of Struggle is a reflection of the time that I’ve spent working with different movements. It encompasses my perspective on a lot of issues like immigrant rights, the death penalty, the way that children are impacted the most by debt on the African continent and how that relates to child soldiers. There’s also a lot of pride on the album in term of the rebels that are in my past and my heritage—like the Maroons in Jamaica, and the people from this continent who have put their lives on the line to move things forward. That’s why I’m this pumped about The Art of Struggle. Because you know what? For me this is a dope project, and if you don’t like it then I don’t care. And that’s not to say it’s the best Hip-Hop album of all time. It’s not. But for me and where I’m at, it’s a reflection of my skills and my politics, and I feel like I can argue politically that these are the issues we need to address. It makes the case for solidarity in a way that you can relate to.
AB: At the same time Blood and Fire made a lot of waves on the east coast activist scene. I’ve seen you play at immigrant rights marches, at housing rights benefits. You did the Uprise Tour with Iraq Veterans Against the War, played with folks like Tom Morello, The Coup. Could you go a little more in depth as to how much working with those movements has impacted your material?
SON: It’s definitely impacted it in the sense that I have learned a lot more from the people who are actually in these struggles, fighting this war against their own group. Just hearing their perspective on it—I didn’t know that there was an IVAW doing the same shit that the soldiers in Vietnam were doing. Everyone wasn’t always against the war in this country, but in that context, IVAW was like “no, this shit is fucked up, and we’re not standing for it.” Also, knowing that Iraqis were resisting their occupiers the same way that people here in this country would, tooth and nail. Having those experiences with those movements has been so important to me. There are a lot of political artists out there; everyone doesn’t always know about them. But when you’re a political artist who is also walking the talk, then you know people and you build those relationships. Then when those people are trying to find a way to make their point through culture, you have that relationship. When you walk the talk your ideas bump up against reality, and it helps to shape them, it helps to trim the fat. And it helps you be figure out whether you’re on the level where you’re saying something because you read it in a book or whether you see it’s what the people are actually saying. I have my perspective on why shit is fucked up, but that’s one perspective. And I need to rap with the people who are actually living that and who are actually fighting against that so that it looks like I’m coming in on high to tell you how things need to be done.
AB: There was a lot that happened in between your two albums that have affected Hip-Hop as a whole too in terms of different issues and movements. Hip-Hop had to respond to Katrina, the Jena Six, and a lot of other stuff that has exposed the racism in this society. Seems to me a lot of Hip-Hop artists have been forced to respond to it and have wanted to respond to it. Has any of that affected you too?
SON: No, not at all. [laughter]
AB: Short and sweet answer. I like it.
SON: Naw, man, of course. Of course. It’s like Chuck D said, “Hip-Hop is the Black CNN.” I wish I was the dude who said it. But Chuck D said that shit years ago. So yes. I could not claim to be a political artist, or even a Hip-Hop artist, if I wasn’t talking about the shit that was going on. You know what I mean? You couldn’t be a writer if you didn’t have an experience. And where are you gonna gain experience besides the reality you’re given? Fuck yeah, the last five years a hell of a lot of shit has been going on. Being a Hip-Hop artists is about exposing contradictions and putting them in your face, being like “deal with this.” Why is this? Why does this happen? What that does is it opens up larger questions about the society we live in. Everybody knows that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but what does that actually look like? People don’t necessarily need that to be pointed out because you know that you’re broke. But it’s like how can I help connect those dots? And in the past five years there have been a lot of dots to connect.
AB: There’s one specific song I’ve seen you do live that takes a real cue from all the stuff that’s happened recently, and that’s “Speak On It.” Tell me about that song, because when I see you do it you’re either holding up pieces of paper with the issues on them or they’re projected behind you.
SON: “Speak on It” is six issues. It’s Katrina, it’s Stan “Tookie” Williams who was executed by the Terminator out in California, immigrant rights, the uprising in Oaxaca from a few years back, military recruiters in schools and it’s also about the bombing of Lebanon back in ’06. My reason for writing that was that I was trying to open up these issues and put them up against each other in one piece so that people would be like “right, this shit happened, and this is how different people are experiencing oppression.” You can’t get around how this same system is responsible for all this. With that song, I wanted to put it all on the table and be like “this is how I see what’s going on.” After you hear that shit, you can’t not have a perspective. That’s not to say that you need to agree with me, but these are things that should be thought about and organized under. There’s a line that I have at the end—usually when I perform, though it didn’t make it to the album—where I say “agonize or organize, stand aside or moblize, close your eyes or strategize,” you know what I mean? That’s what’s going on, what are we going to do about it?
AB: There are a lot of artists that will talk about all these different issues, but I think there’s a big need in this fractured political society that we live in to tie those things together. That’s the job of the left, of radicals, and you do it better than most. Which reminds me of another track on the album, “Child Abuse.” It falls into what you were talking about earlier with how Third World debt actually plays in to the phenomenon of child soldiers. And you know, that’s the kind of stuff you don’t hear from Bono. You know, the man speaks out about Third World debt and all of these celebrities are speaking about Darfur but none of them are really putting it in a context of a bigger system. There’s a line in that song where you say “Kanye came closer than most, but he got shook by King Leopold’s ghost.” I love that line!
SON: I love it too.
AB: It touches on the diamond trade, and colonialism, but also ties it into Hip-Hop really well. Could you expand on it a bit more?
SON: Well, King Leopold was the king of Belgium, and Belgium took over the Congo in the 1800s. And he tried to play himself off as a humanitarian, saying they were going to help the poor and shit. So that’s the backdrop. King Leopold’s Ghost is a book that I did not read, but I saw the documentary. It’s about the history of the Congo. Basically, the Congo was not turning a profit until the need for rubber became more apparent with the advent of the automobile. So once they found out that they had these rubber trees, King Leopold decided he was going to make production sky-rocket. And he had Africans rounded up, forced into slave labor, and said that if they don’t produce enough rubber that they would cut off their right hand and throw it in the ocean. And there were soldiers who would get paid based on the number of hands they returned. At one point, there was a Belgian bureaucrat who said “well, you have all these hands, but how do I know these are from men?” So they had the soldiers bring back the genitals of the men, so they would have to cut off the nuts and the dicks off of men. And all of this would get thrown into the ocean.
So, the reason I put Kanye into that is that he did this song that everyone knows “Diamonds of Sierra Leone.” It was a great track, but what I took from it, and maybe I was wrong about this was that he was saying “yo, this is fucked up, kids are walking around with no hands because of these diamonds.” But he’s also like “I’m not giving these diamonds back.” And even Jay-Z has a line there where he says “the day I give the chain back is the day I give the game back.” So it’s like this hard line, yeah this is fucked up, but this is how it’s gotta be. I hadn’t heard a whole lot of commercial artists make that point or even raise the issue about the diamond trade, but the conclusion was still wack. It’s not just MCs, because diamonds were around before Hip-Hop. Kanye raised the issue but he didn’t take it far enough. All of that I try to put into that line.
AB: Both “Child Abuse” and “My City” take up the connection between how war and globalization affect people at home and abroad. You talk about the inner-cities here in the US and the schools and then also about the Iraqi resistance. First of all, did your experience as a high school teacher affect that first verse? Because that line “my high school never had many computers, but they always had plenty military computers,” that’s one of those lines that hits you. I’ve looked around the crowd after you say that line live and there’s a whole bunch of people in the audience whose faces light up. It’s like their saying, “yeah, me too!”
SON: I mean, it’s just what I noticed. I was a teacher, and yeah there are some computers, but they’re these shitty-ass old—you remember the floppy disc? Back in the day when it was still floppy? That’s the computers they had. They’re old. So it’s like they were lacking in quality computers, but they weren’t lacking in people who were willing to sign folks up for the military. That was the situation. It was tough to come up against that. I’d find myself in the situation where I was saying “look, I don’t have twenty thousand dollars to give you, but the military’s fucked up. You’re gonna have to risk your life and you don’t even know if you’re going to get that money.” And it sucked, because that’s not gonna pay anyone’s bills.
So what I try to do in “My City” is just open it up. This is the situation from a student’s perspective. I wanted to put it out there and expose that inequity. And then at the same time show it from the point of view of an Iraqi who is part of the resistance and the reasons that he would be fighting. So it’s like how do I convey reality through song in a way that’s not cheesy? ‘Cuz that’s another thing; as a political artist you don’t want to be the guy whose CD people buy because they think they should. I also want people to think it’s dope and for it to resonate with them, not just think “well, he’s making reasonable arguments, so I should support him.”
AB: It’s like, why don’t you just go out and buy a Noam Chomsky book right?
Next week: the second part of my interview with Son of Nun
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Chicago. He is a columnist for SleptOn.com and The Society of Cinema and Arts, and a regular contributor to Socialist Worker and ZNet.
His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at email@example.com.