Earlier this summer, four years after writer Jabari Asim published a highly acclaimed book, The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why, San Francisco rap artist Sellassie made a video that addresses the same topic. And just like Asim's tome, Sellassie's nine-minute monologue -- a history lesson and a plea to stop using the word -- elicited an avalanche of feedback. Most of it was positive ("Sellassie speak that truth" commented someone on YouTube), some of it was negative -- and all of it was welcome by Sellassie, who at age 34 has become a kind of elder statesman in the Bay Area (and national) rap scene.
Among Sellassie's many projects is a rap contest in different U.S. cities (including New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Honolulu) where up-and-coming rappers compete before judges and each other for a $2,000 prize. The competition's next stop is this Saturday, August 20, at San Francisco's Rockit Room, where Sellassie will be emcee. Co-producer of the contest, Sellassie features people who, like him, are doing what he calls "progressive rap music." You won't hear songs that denigrate women or talk about killing people in revenge. You will hear songs about racism, poverty, economic disparity, pop culture and other subjects that are on people's minds.
"The first thing we say when we talk to people who want to be contestants in our rap contest is: 'Do you do negative, violent or gang-banging hip-hop?' You'd be surprised how many say, 'We do,'" says Sellassie, a San Francisco native. "That music is easier to manipulate listeners with. It destroys children's minds, as opposed to the conscious, smart, creative imaginative hip-hop that can inspire generations and improve the world."
Sellassie's profile has risen steadily in the last five years, and he's now a regular performer at Michael Franti's annual Power to the Peaceful Festival. Here are excerpts of my interview with Sellassie:
Q: Earlier this year around Memorial Day, you made "Come Home," a video about U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, which features the refrain: "Come Home. Don't Get Your Head Blown. I know you feel all alone trapped in a war zone." What prompted you to do this song?
A: I'm someone who studies history, and with history comes wars, especially in America. The War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War -- in all these wars, people have died for causes that weren't always true, and there's always politics behind it. For me, the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are just like me; sometimes I wish I could go there and fight. Sometimes I think I will because I love this country that much. But you can love this country and disagree with this country. I wanted to do something about the troops coming home, and the ones who made the ultimate sacrifice. I'm an anti-war protester to the heart, but I do appreciate those sisters and brothers of all colors and creeds who are going over there and fighting for what they believe. I've gotten a great response to that song.
Q: On YouTube, your N-word video gets packaged with a video of white Bay Area rapper V-Nasty, a member of Kreayshawn's group, White Girl Mob, who often uses the word "nigga" in her music. SF Weekly did a recent cover story featuring V-Nasty and Kreayshawn, who are both getting lots of attention. You say V-Nasty shouldn't be using the N-word.
A: The N-word is really something that's horrible. As a young boy, I was called that by people who said, "Get out of here -- we don't want you here." So to see the word where people use it like it's nothing? If you told these people what it means and why they shouldn't use it, they wouldn't use the word. I think it's an education thing. I don't think V-Nasty is a bad person. I don't think she's a bad rapper. But she's uneducated on what the word means, why she shouldn't say it, and, frankly, why no one should say it, that it was used as an antagonizing, condescending slang word for 300 years. I'm one of the few people in this rap generation who (has protested the word), and that's why my video has gotten so much attention.
Q: Will you turn your video on "the N word" into a rap song or will it remain an impromptu spoken-word piece?
A: It depends on what I think is the best way to reach people. When I just tell it like it is on that video, that's a bigger, bolder step that a rap song. I just let it all out. People get to know me personally for those couple of minutes. I think I could make a rap song that's as powerful, but it's still a rap song. This is more of my activist stance -- who I actually am.
Q: I've seen signs for your rap contest posted around different areas of the Bay Area. How is this contest different from other rap contests?
A: It's called "2Racks," which is street term for $2,000. It's a 32-contestant, single-elimination, five-round contest. We connect with independent talent from all over the country who are ambitious, motivated and entrepreneurial and have cool music -- as long as it's not negative, violent or gang-banging. We look for hip-hop from the roots, from your heart -- the kind of music that I do, and I'm not going to book something I'm against.
Q: Growing up in San Francisco, did you think you'd be doing rap music and producing as a career?
A: I've said before, "Be careful what you wish for." It will really happen. Everything I'm doing I asked to do when I was a young man. I would say, "If I ever had a shot, I would do it like this." Through some dark times, I never gave up. I never had a lot. All I had was dreams. But I was taught, "it don't cost nothing to dream."
Q: What's one piece of advice you give to young rappers that you've learned over the years?
A: You accept what people say (about your songs), good and bad. The more truth you say the more people will like it. You'll get maybe one nasty email that says, "I can't stand your music." And you'll get 10 emails that say, "Keep it up." It comes with the territory. And a lot of (beginning) rappers, especially rappers trying to do good stuff, get discouraged when people talk about what they're doing. Say you don't want to do gangster music. I know a lot of gangster artists who talk about killing and shooting, and who say, "I want to go gospel, but I don't think I'll be able to sell." They think they're going to be able to sell more talking about killing somebody. That's a psychology I never bought into. I do conscious, revolutionary black rap music in San Francisco, where there's three percent black people, and I'm one of the most known black rappers in the city. You have to take a stand and you've got to stand there.
Sellassie hosts the San Francisco stop of the 2Racks Rap Contest Saturday, August 20, 2011, 8pm at Rockit Room, 406 Clement Street in San Francisco.