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“like the best of Rakim
or Nas’ first record”
“citizens of sleep
seem to resurrect
the golden era
“one of the best
traveling poet live acts
on the planet.”
– illiterate magazine
“I got this record in a cracked slim line jewel case with nothing but a free vistaprint.com business card inside that said, “check out my new album.” The disc the same reflective blue green of my favorite Memorex bootlegs and I’d put money on the off center label being a home printed Avery sticker. It sat on my counter for days before I got up what I felt like was the patience that would be required to listen to what I assumed would be home demoed ramblings passed off as an album. The Hip Hop requisite movie clip introduces the album, the movie of choice Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Okay, I’m not excited, I walk off to grab something from the other room and then…BAMM! It takes 54 seconds to hear that this record has the potential to say something entirely new in the coming tracks.
Maybe that shouldn’t surprise me from a kid that earned a full ride to Oberlin College to study theater. Baraka Noel isn’t an emcee. Or rather, it would be ignorant to pigeonhole him in such an obvious way because his record is sitting in front of you. Check out his CDBaby.com page and find out that he is also the author/director a one man show used as a companion piece to the record. The idea of Hip Hop expanding into performance art beyond the boundaries of Jay-Z’s bikini clad video vixens is nearly unheard of.
That said, it seems obvious that Baraka is an extremely literate man. He links vowels together like the best of Rakim or Nas’ first record but he does it with a vocabulary that will leave Hot 97 artists reaching for their Roget’s. Even the unassailable “mine is bigger than yours” bragging rights so synonymous with rap get turned on their head in the Puff Daddy meets Shaft “All Right” when he quips, “length of my penis proportionate to willingness to be evil.”
I hear Mixtape Philosophies… as a step out from the ever-present shadow of A Tribe Called Quest. Low-key jazzy productions laced with intelligent topical lyrics that stretch the stereotypical limitations of hip hop. Take “Europe’s Not A Continent,” which screams about the US violations of the Geneva Convention and name drops Cornell West (See The Matrix’s elder advisory board or Harvard’s liberal messiah) while proclaiming “they keep our freedom’s safe by taking it away. Till the one right remaining is the right to remain silent.” These genre-bending themes are consistent. Ecological concerns, the lingering mentality of a nation that murdered Emmett Till, the list just goes on.
I couldn’t find any kind of bio on Baraka Noel, and the record doesn’t even list a label. My take on it is this is a college kid (maybe recent graduate) who is pedaling homespun records on CDBaby.com and at a corner table in the lobby after performing his play at small university theaters. The music here is well above average but won’t revolutionize hip-hop’s sound. The lyrics however will change your perception of what intelligent hip-hop could be.”
The DeCafé bustled noisily around us, but I hardly noticed as hip hop artist Baraka Noel OC ’06 spun a web of dreams in front of me — a web in which he hopes to catch the hearts, minds and ears of anyone who will listen.
When I began to define this column in my head, I must admit that I had prematurely boxed myself into the smaller space of folk music. While not a bad space to be, it would have left me blind to the growing hip hop scene here on campus.
Baraka had e-mailed me when he saw that I would be writing about Oberlin musicians, just hours after the Review had gone to press that week.
“[I] got kind of excited about all the people I knew who fit into the mold of what you were talking about,” he wrote.
So we ended up sitting in the DeCafé on a busy Monday evening.
Baraka graduated officially this summer after taking some extra classes to fulfill requirements, but he is still on campus, working at the Multicultural Resource Center and beginning his career as a hip hop artist. In addition, he’s trying to pull together all the individuals and groups here on campus already creating hip hop music.
“I want to form more of a hip hop community with people here, with people everywhere else, because I feel like if artists — instead of pushing each other down to get up — if we all work together and put our money together and come together, we have so much power; there’s so much energy and passion that can come out of that,” he said.
As an Oberlin student, Baraka was heavily involved in theater. His album, The Mixtape Philosophies of Mushroom Black, is first and foremost the soundtrack to his show by the same name.
The hip hop theater movement has spread widely across the country. Baraka praises it for its universal message and ability to cross state boundaries.
Change is also an integral component of Baraka’s philosophy.
“You don’t have revolutions without revolutionary art,” he said.
In particular, Baraka would like to see a change in the education system.
“I feel like poetry can be science; it can be a way to think about the world and question assumptions. Anything that you can express in a book, you can express in a song,” he said.
Once, while taking a course on LGBTQ identities, Baraka had trouble completing the response papers the professor required.
“I was struggling because I was really interested in what was going on, but I couldn’t get myself to do these readings and then write three pages to respond to it — I couldn’t connect with that,” he said.
The professor suggested that he write his response in verse instead of the traditional academic prose.
“Instead of trying to format my thoughts in this really formal, artificial way, I got to process it in a way that was meaningful to me,” he said. “And I think that there are so many ways — if we value art — that art can be used to educate.”
I listened to Baraka’s album (which he produced himself in order to have something to send to reviewers and labels), and the education issue comes through most strongly in track nine, “New Year.”
“I’m trying to grow up / but I was raised by the school system / they forgot to teach me what to do if I ever get loose from it,” he sings.
In his music, Baraka tackles other issues as well, spanning the diverse areas of politics and religion through sophisticated lyrics.
Now he is working on setting up a career. Okayplayer, an online hip hop community, has reviewed his album with high praises. He is hopeful for the future.
“The moment is rich / like I’m holding the holy scriptures / hoping to paint a poem picture / of road trip visions,” he says in the opening track of The Mixtape Philosophies of Mushroom Black, “Road Trip Visions.”
More than anything, Baraka hopes that we can help get hip hop musicians going here on campus through general support and recognition.
“If you love hip hop, and you’re at the ’Sco and you’re an Oberlin student, I hope you’ll play Oberlin hip hop,” he said.
He has a point. Here’s to playing our own music in our own venues as often, and as visibly, as possible.
Here’s my funny story: 2 weeks ago, in my weekly downloading spree, I downloaded some tracks by a guy named Baraka Noel and began listening to them only to discover that this rapper I’d never heard of was essentially the long-lost brother of Immortal Technique. The lyrics alone, provocative, angry, and thoughtful, were worthy of the comparison. Meanwhile, this unknown rap artist had somewhat sophisticated instrumental backing – a lilting violin in one track and a bright brass section in another. Who was this guy?
I ran a google search (the solution to all my problems) only to discover that this amazing rapper was virtually unknown and… an Oberlin student. I swell with school pride.
Mumbles, a.k.a. Baraka Noel, is a slam poet residing in San Francisco. He recently organized The Sky Is Falling, a seven-day poetry/music/painting/entertainment festival in which I had the privilege to participate. Scroll below the fold to hear some of Mumbles’ art, or keep reading for his and my conversation:
Grant Valdes: Did you want to be doing what you’re doing, or did you kind of grow into it?
Baraka Noel: The booking?
Grant: No, the whole thing. Performing. Period.
Baraka: I think the most accidental piece of it was the scouting. I’ve been an accidental talent scout for years and years, just because I like to learn and I like to be around dope people. So that’s a process. I’ve befriended just a bunch of really dope artists, and other ones, I’ve at least figured out how to get their phone number if not become their friend. That was accidental. I mean, I went to Oberlin [College] to learn how to write and perform better. I think that worked out pretty good.
I knew that had bad grammer, by the way. I just want to say that’s intentional. So fuck its.
Grant: Anything you want to say about Oberlin? I can’t imagine I’m going to use this on the internet…
Baraka: I had a lot of sex at Oberlin. That was great. No, I’m just kidding. I mean, I did have some sex. Not enough. On the real, I didn’t pay for it. I was really glad about that. Oberlin was great. Oberlin is small. I learned how to be small and awesome at Oberlin.
I learned how to rhyme, at least during the years I was in Oberlin. We would have never been able to recordCopyright Law, which some people have heard. So thanks, Oberlin, for that.
Grant: Baraka is too modest to say this, but some guy in Nebraska just [voluntarily] duplicated a hundred copies ofSometimes I Just Can’t Get Outraged Over Copyright Law, and sent some of them over here.
Baraka: Actually, he did the full catalog of what he had access to.
Grant: The full catalog.
Baraka: Okay, we could talk about that. So, I have a couple of hip-hop records: The Mixtape Philosophies of Mushroom Black, Freestyle Theater Presents: Stolen Time, and Sometimes I Just Can’t Get Outraged Over Copyright Law . And then there’s some poems. People sometimes like those.
Grant: What does the recorded side mean to you?
Baraka: Well, I differentiate pretty wildly between poetics albums, which take no time at all to record, and are very easy, and hip-hop records, which take lots and lots and lots of hours. I really annoy engineers all the time. Black Cock and Other Fairy Tales, Beautiful Shit City, Zach Approves This, and Drugs are all poetics albums. And they’re just attempts to do something interesting with that form, which is mostly pretty boring. ‘Cause I like poems sometimes, and I don’t really like to listen to poems that are recorded as albums, usually. But hip-hop records have saved my life so many times that I’m just trying to, you know, have a reason to speak.
Baraka: If I can make music that’s pretty, that’s pretty awesome. It used to be that I had a message, but I don’t really have a message right now. I just want to produce the craft and have it be beautiful. And then, the message can be whatever?
Grant: What happened to the message along the way?
Baraka: It’s not like I don’t have any message, it’s just that I don’t have an agenda in the same way. My agenda now is being able to make my art sustainable more than it is communicating to people that the U.S. government has raped and murdered people of color, primarily, for hundreds of years. I think we know that.
Grant: I’ve reached a very similar point, actually, which is where I felt that the music I was making in the Empty Mirror was like an alert to people, and they get it by now. People get it.
Baraka: They know, you know.
Grant: If I kept pushing that button it would get out of hand, honestly. It would get too extreme…. We just need to start building up places of beauty, because the government is in many ways irrelevant, and it’s not gonna last, so…. Maybe I don’t want to necessarily kill myself trying to take down the government if it’s just going to implode anyway. If I may put it in more concrete terms.
Baraka: I have a new sense of purpose about writing. I was writing songs and recording, and then I lost the opportunity to do that for awhile. I freestyle, whatever, and when I’m onstage, I’m not super concerned about what I’m saying to the audience because it’s just a tool to get them to do something. Which is my new purpose in writing anyway is to…
Grant: To control people?
Baraka: To write spells. I want to write spells that have an impact on the world. There’s a few things I’ve written that have actually changed people’s behavior in some way, and I think that’s interesting and awesome, and I think that that is a purpose to write.
Grant: So making music is sort of a form of sorcery? I know that that’s an antiquated term, but that’s kind of where my thinking has come around to. I think about the concrete ways that my life has evolved on a different path that was set by the music. And in a way, now when I write a song and it comes out, I take it seriously, because I feel like it’s forecasting. That spell is now out, even if I haven’t put it into the world even. It’s gonna influence my future.
Baraka: I want to care about what I’m saying, and I want to write about things that actually are important. The music for me is a little bit different. I have to differentiate between writing and music, since I have the power to write at any time, but recently I haven’t had the time to clear out space where generating new thoughts on paper is valuable, ‘cause I’ve been too busy. I can’t afford to take my own work seriously, because it’s too painful. But I take my friends’ art real, real seriously. I’ve been more invested in creating the possibility of people really having an outlet for their work. Which is why I don’t tell people how long to perform for in the shows. I just choose people who I think are so dope that I shouldn’t have to put a limit on what they do.
But at some point, I would like to go back to writing and I have a few spells that I already know I would like to write. I want to write, this sounds funny, and I like talking about it for that reason, but Ainsley Burroughs is one of the first people I heard speak sorcery. You can call it whatever you want, but I can move people from place to place. Hold them in place. I can control whether or not they speak and plant thoughts in their head. So that’s pretty cool.
Grant: You know what? PR people realize that. People in politics realize that. They realize the power of words and imagery to control people’s lives…
Baraka: Oh yeah.
Grant: And a lot of responsibility should come with that. I think of people with the ability to do that as a class in society who, you know, should have an ethical sense of how they use that. There’s a song – I’ve played it in bars – called “Mutiny,” that is about, from a character’s perspective, about breaking into a job that ran out of payroll money and killing the boss. It’s basically about inciting violence. You could literally incite violence with the song, I feel.
Baraka: That’s the thing man…
Grant: Maybe I don’t want to do that. I want to disperse the mob. I want to remind people that they’re individuals.
Baraka: I think that craft has much less weight and importance, theoretically, in the spaces that I exist in, than I hope that it had in the past. You know what I mean?
Just simple shit, like I trust that if you make me a chair out of wood, that I could sit in the chair and it won’t hurt me. It will support my body and hopefully even be comfortable. I trust that if you ask me for money and then I enter your show, I will be entertained, and you’ll say things that are interesting, or that’ll sound nice. Or even like a party. I trust that if I pay to enter your house, I’m gonna get drunk and at least, for several hours, think that I have the chance to maybe get laid. There’s a certain expectation for how you build the party.
I think that that’s not valued very much among most people that I know now. I mean, some of the artists, not most of the artists. Artists don’t show up when they say they’ll show up. Or why they act as though they’re doing a favor when they fulfill their commitments at the minimal level. Or why Kanye West brags after he drops a mediocre or just competent verse. It’s because we’re not interested in craft. We’re more interested in perceived outcome based on numbers or what someone in a suit tells you is successful. Or possibly getting a lot of people into one room at a certain time. But not based on the qualitative aspect of the impact that can’t be seen necessarily in the room.
Grant: That’s what’s drawn me to classical music more and more, is its total commitment to craft. I mean, you have an instrumental piece of music, often without a name that tells you about what it’s supposed to make you feel, which is the opposite of Kanye West telling you what’s happening as he’s doing it.
Grant: And you have total trust that it’s going to fit into the key and that there’re not going to be notes that are off, because the guy knows how to write, you know? There aren’t weird stray notes, and it’s a totally crafted piece. Right now, music itself is infiltrated by the language of marketing.
Baraka: I have a Chris Parker rhyme over a classical instrumental, it’s kind of like violin shit. He just heard this really old piece of music and wrote a verse. It was so dope. I want to just rhyme over old songs.
Grant: To more specific, to put a name on it, what I feel I’m reacting to in the sense that I was just agreeing with you? I’m reacting to postmodernism.
Baraka: Oh, finally!
Grant: What do you mean?
Baraka: I want to hear more.
Grant: It’s a way of experiencing art with several degrees of remove. And it just feels inorganic to me. It’s not rising out of a human perspective, out of human experience. I think that we’ve lived in, broadly, a postmodern zeitgeist since like World War II. Everything on television is postmodern. It has that degree of irony and remove. Even a newscast where the artificiality of their emotional… “And now, on the lighter side!” And they just talked about something devastating, but they’re not reacting in an appropriate way. And if you were to be like, “Why are your emotions fluctuating in that odd way?” They would just be like, “Well, it’s a newscast. I’m not really telling you the news.” And it’s that degree of remove with everything.
I just want to make melodies that reflect the actual melody of human speech. Things that remind people to value the texture of real life. I couldn’t reconcile that with being in the rock game, because that whole thing is about the image of the rock band, but let’s be honest: It’s me writing the songs and rehearsing with people, and for the most part, telling them what to play. Or I’m recording most of the stuff on the record, at least.
Baraka: I’m really enjoying persona a lot though, man. It’s there anyway, so I might as well play with it.
Grant: But postmodernists didn’t invent that. Having a persona used to just be part of being a mature adult, you know? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. You don’t have to have a thin skin and be emotionally volatile. I’m not talking like that. I’m not talking Sturm und Drang, I’m just saying that…
Baraka: I was talking about lying to my audience… It’s not so much lying with the idea. It’s lying with the presentation and then revealing the lie and going back to it. I want to speak really direct, honest truth to my artists, the artists who are around me. I’d like to be able to just communicate, cut through all the bullshit there. But with the audience, in a lot of ways, I feel like what I tell you isn’t important. It’s what I show you that’s gonna be important. Simple shit, like, “This is where you should sit right now. This is how to show appreciation for how awesome this show is.” Or, “This is how to pay this person for the work that they’ve put in.”
Grant: What you’re putting together, it seems to be a whole cultural lesson for the audience. Like you’re trying to give them the whole pure vision of how you think people should interact. Because if you didn’t care…. Every choice you’re making that’s different from the typical way is a lesson, right? You’re trying to show people.
Baraka: I think the other piece is that I don’t know what I’m doing. It seems like I know what I’m doing because I have a lot of confidence about it…. At the same time I’m really crafty, I’m just learning. Other people know because they’ve done it before.
For example, talking about headliners – who is that for? Even the biggest name that I booked in the festival is someone who most of the people who saw him on that day had no idea who he was. But I call him my headliner, just like you’re my headliner today. You’re my headliner because you came in from out of town. You’re my headliner because I’m gonna pay you and I’m not gonna pay anyone else, so I have to justify it in some way. You’re my headliner because you’re very dope. You’re my headliner because you’re not someone who the people in the audience are going to be able to see frequently. They can’t go to your show next week unless they go to Seattle. It’s a lie to some extent, if you have a certain concept of what the word means, but really it’s trying to find the right series of lies to tell people to get them into the room so they can see the truth.
Grant: Again, that’s something I like about classical music. It has this total honesty where it’s like, “This is a recital of this performer performing works composed by this person.” Or, “This person who composed it conducting these other performers.” And the relationships are understood and very transparent, and it’s a more educated audience in a way, because they’re not deluding… I’m fully aware of what it means that I’m headlining today, and it’s not going to mean anything to the actual experience tonight. Who knows the ebb and flow of energy, when it’s going to peak? All that.
Baraka: There’s so many customs that we have, though, that are like, “We’ve got a performance.” For example, in theater, it’s like, “This shit starts on time.” That’s something that happens. In music, it’s supposed to be, if you go late, whoever goes on last is the most important and the best. These are things that are customs, but it doesn’t necessarily function that way. You might put me on last, and then the whole audience is gone. Or in poems, it’s like, “I’m supposed to mean the shit that I’m saying to you, and I’m supposed to be vulnerable.”
Grant: The customs matter. Some artists know that fully consciously, and try to change that. Like Wagner, I believe, is the person who didn’t let people come in late to his operas. And before that, it was acceptable. And he also had a problem with people applauding too much.
Baraka: I have that problem, too. I’m kind of a Nazi, though.
Grant: And he also built himself an opera house. When he shifted the rules in a way that served him, he also made people experience other artists in a way that was more influenced by him, as well. He was shifting the whole psychology of the audience.
Baraka: All assumptions get removed, so then you realize this thing you’ve been doing over and over again, you don’t have to do it. It’s just that you didn’t ever think of another way.
Grant: Yeah. I’m trying very much to not lazily go through the forms of being a rock performer or being a singer-songwriter.
Baraka: Are there particular assumptions that you’re trying to break? You said you’re trying to write the mundane more?
Grant: I’m trying to break the assumption that it’s acceptable for a person to come out with, like, one album every two years. I don’t think that’s enough at all. I think it should be every few months. I don’t know…
Baraka: No, I feel you because it could be… a couple days. A couple days of recording , in my life right now, could mean a seven-song EP.
Grant: Yeah, and the audience doesn’t fully appreciate that because they’re used to bands that have to tour for two years. But in reality, I think we’re slacking off as artists when we play into that system of expectations. And what really drove that home for me was using classical music not as a bible, but just as a healthy reference of how music can be made really productively. They would come out with several opuses a year.
Baraka: Have you studied M.F. Doom at all?
Grant: I have not at all.
Baraka: He, until a couple of years ago, was adhering to a model of, like, three or four albums in a year.
Grant: Another assumption is this assumption that the music you make, you’re bleeding out your emotions onto the page. Again, that’s why I think the show I play tonight is going to have different songs and a different emotional tenor than the set I played last night, because I just want people to get the lesson that it really is about craft, and a good songwriter can cover a different emotional range in the same day. He could write two songs in the same day that are very different. You’re drawing from, you know, your memory of those emotions, and sometimes you do write in the heat of the emotion, but it’s really not like that at all. And people will also get that if I release a few albums in a year that have different emotional tones. People are used to bands that just sort of choose a sound, and slowly evolve the sound in a way that it’s like, they can’t help but evolve over twenty years.
Baraka: Julie Indelicato is really good with that in her pop songs. She doesn’t write, she does covers. But it’s amazing to me because she’ll inhabit the cover so completely that I’ll think that, one, I think that that must be the way that she really sounds, and two, it kind of blurs the line where I don’t feel like she’s singing someone else’s song. I feel like she is copying Ani DiFranco’s style, but she makes the song her own. But then the next song, she does Radiohead, and she commits to it equally, and it sounds on-point just as much, and it’s like, after five songs, I have no more idea who she is, really, than I did before.
Grant: I think that’s great. As long as a song takes you there, in itself.
Grant: I’ve been recording a lot of covers…
Baraka: I think that covers are really interesting, the place that they have in society now, versus fifty years ago, seventy years ago. Now, there’s this element of sometimes it’s looked down upon. But back in the day, it was just, that’s what you do. You sing the same songs over and over again.
Grant: Yeah, it’s like paying tribute. I can still… I can say with a clear conscience that I only write a song if I can’t find the right song that’s already written to put on that hits that emotional spot. I write it out of necessity because there’s nothing out there I can think of that is gonna hit that spot.
Baraka: That’s pretty. I like that.
Grant: So I have to write my own listening material, almost. But I still love performing other people’s stuff.
Baraka: How much do you listen to your music?
Grant: Pretty often. Usually in sort of a critical way, like I’m listening to a mix that’s not done. So I’m just getting used to it.
Baraka: No, but once you decide it’s done.
Grant: Pretty often. I’m not gonna lie.
Baraka: Again, that’s another thing that people look down upon.
Grant: But I do feel detached from it.
Baraka: Like, how often do you hang out with your kids?
Grant: That’s great. I dunno. Not very often. I never see ‘em.
Baraka: I’m too busy listening to music.
Grant: Another thing, I think more and more when I cover songs… I think there’s an essence of a song, a spark of a song that hits somebody. Like “Airbag” hits Thom Yorke of Radiohead. And then he brings it to his band, and the band shapes it. People treat the final recorded version…
Baraka: As the song.
Grant: As the song, but…
Baraka: It’s just one moment.
Grant: Exactly. When I cover it, I try to get back to the essence and imagine that I wrote the song. I’m using [“Airbag”] as a template because I just recorded a cover of it… It has this giant, stately guitar riff, and I just took that whole element out. Every other cover I’ve heard includes that, but you don’t need it just ‘cause it’s in there. You just rewrite the song from scratch.
I first heard the song, “Say, Say, Say,” by Michael Jackson/Paul McCartney in this mash-up of just Michael Jackson songs, this long medley. Only hearing one section of that song, without the context – it just sounded different than if I’d heard it any other way. If I was to cover it, I could use that section, ignore the other sections, and kind of grow it in a different direction. If someone was covering me and doing that approach, that’s really honoring the material, in a way. I also use Thom Yorke as an example ‘cause he fully talks like that. He talks about his own writing… it’s part of the “Radiohead” name… the songs are beamed to him. He doesn’t feel that responsible as the originator of them. It’s more communal. It’s like, “Yeah, we’re all just tackling this material.”
Baraka: I’ve been thinking about party jams a lot. I do covers. In hip-hop, the language and the concept behind covering someone else is very different. It’s like, sampling, but it’s like the same shit to me. I’ll just steal people’s lyrics that I think are dope and then do two or four of the lines, and then go off of there to this free style. Writing now, it’s just not that important in my life. It’s like, “I sing it so clearly / Sometimes you don’t hear me / Niggas don’t listen sometimes / It’s illmatic.” It’s just a Mos Def line and a Nas line. I kind of fucked up both of them and put them together.
When I say, “party jam,” it’s some way that I can hang a phrase where it’s a hook and people can hear it, but it also gives them some kind of a mental place to put their minds, so then they can possibly understand some of the freestyle. I have really accessible ones, too, Like “The Kevin Costner Song,” where the hook is, “It’s the Kevin Costner Song,” and then I say some other stuff, and then I say, “It’s the Kevin Costner Song.” And then I just talk about Kevin Costner’s career for awhile, and people are like, “What, did you say, ‘Waterworld / Tin Cup / The Postman’? You’re talking about Kevin Costner.” And then you go back to the hook. It doesn’t matter. But for the party, having some tiny nugget of comprehension of what’s going on is useful.