Q&A: AWKword On Occupy Wall Street, The Power Of Protest Music, And Hearing N.W.A. For The First Time


N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” burst into Awkword‘s life thanks to his baby-sitter. The Manhattan-based rapper visibly remembers the day when his part-time watchdog turned up with a copy of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube’s anti-establishment rant; hearing the song kick-started his first forays into writing his own raps. True to that song’s sentiment, today Awkward is as much an activist as an artist, channeling the idea of conveying a message and a viewpoint through rhyme and attempting to cause a change in the world around him. His upcoming World View project is the next stage in his mission, with all profits from the project going towards the Guns 4 Cameras (Aim To Live) anti-street-violence organization.

With the Occupy Wall Street movement set to snag more headlines today, we checked in with Awkword to speak about the potential for instigating social change through music, the dynamics of organizing a successful protest, and how his music is equally as inspired by Ill Bill as The Beatles.

Do you think it’s possible to effect a change in the world through a song?

I don’t know if a song can change the world but it can certainly spark the change that can come. For example, I made a song called “Mr. President (The Wisconsin Song)” with Y-Love, another New York kid, and that was dealing with a specific situation where Obama said it was not a national issue in Wisconsin with the governor eliminating workers’ rights. We saw it was happening in a lot of states and becoming an issue to be addressed on a larger level so we made a song. Did that song especially lead to the recall initiative to remove [governor] Walker from power? Probably not. But the song was tweeted over 30,000 times and appeared in the Huffington Post and The Nation—which are obviously not just hip-hop outlets—and I think it definitely inspired people to go to the protest, to lobby, and to sign petitions. Indisputably, I know it was played live at protests and used in schools to educate kids. So I think music in that way can keep people thinking about positive ways of thinking. I do think that’s effective and it’s through hip-hop.

Growing up, can you remember any specific songs that prompted you to change the way you behaved or acted?

I have a very personal connection to the Beatles, which is not a traditional hip-hop answer. I’m a pretty messed up guy in the head and I’m also a smart guy. A lot of geniuses are really creative and put out a lot of work but also have a really hard time doing basic stuff, and I’m not saying I’m a genius but I know a lot of my creatively goes hand in hand with the pain and the issues I deal with. My mom is really the person in my life who kept me alive and she died on January 2nd of this year, and I made a tribute song about her that will be on World View. She loved the Beatles, loved John Lennon, and probably married my father ’cause he looked a little like him. I have great memories of listening to “Imagine”—which I know is a John Lennon song—and other Beatles songs with my mom, and just knowing she was an activist and an anti-war activist, so I know music inspired her and knowing that inspired me.

What about any rap songs that had an effect on your life?

For someone like me [N.W.A.’s] “Fuck Tha Police” was a very powerful song. But I’d say a lot of artists have been influential more than specific songs. Someone like Ill Bill is my homie now, but I met him when I was like 12-years-old and he was just starting Non Phixion; DJ Eclipse was spinning at Fat Beats and Bill was going around putting up stickers and shit like that. I had been listening to his music like “I Shot Reagan” and stuff off the first tape they did on Hebrew National, and being another Jew with the New York background and being a tough Jew and seeing so many problems with the world, he was very inspirational to me to show me I can do what I’m doing. [Ill Bill’s] “The Anatomy Of A School Shooting” is another one: he’s rhyming as the Columbine killers and I think that was misunderstood by a lot of people and created controversy—I think controversy is good and it gets people thinking and talking—but that impacted me. It made all the kids who never fit in feel okay; he wasn’t saying you should go and kill people but he was saying like he could relate to the kinds of feelings that made them do really foul shit like that.

You mentioned the impact of N.W.A. Can you remember the first time you heard them?

Yeah, my babysitter used to come to my house all the time. My cousins played me all kinds of rap as well as punk music—that’s how I got into both—but I remember visibly my baby-sitter bringing over N.W.A. I remember her jumping up and down and listening to it and me doing the same shit.

Did that inspire you to start writing raps yourself?

Absolutely it inspired me. I immediately felt hip-hop in a way that I had never felt any other music before that. It was immediate—I wanted to pick up a pen and put out the feelings I was having in the same way. It seemed the perfect way to express yourself. I was the kid at eight-years-old who would get depressed at kids starving in Africa. I was always the kid to express myself differently. Like when I was a senior in high school I ended up creating my school’s first diversity day and that was the first time I ever performed rap music.

Beyond music, you’ve also been involved in organizing protests, right?

I can’t lie, a lot of kids in college go to protests and I was certainly one of them. But I think what separated me a little bit was I did on a number of occasions lead specific actions along with other people my age—like anti-globalization protests and anti-police violence protests. We went down to Fort Benning in Georgia—we were on the military base protesting because we train thousands of soldiers who go into Latin America who then go back to their homes and kill innocent people. So I appreciate the need for protesting, but I think in terms of impacting me directly, more important are the other things I’ve done like hands-on running hip-hop education sessions at teen centers.

The Occupy Wall Street protest is set to continue on May Day. A lot of rappers have endorsed the protests. Are you a supporter of that organization?

I’m certainly a supporter of it. I was aware of Occupy Wall Street way before it happened—it was building on Twitter and other online communities privately before that; they had a planned date it was going to start—so I was involved in sharing that information and offering advice. I was asked to come down early on to perform and it didn’t work out but my homie Jasiri X did a lot of work—he’s on the World View project—and he’s done a lot with them. I feel like he’s holding them down, so I don’t necessarily need to be doing it.

Do you think the Occupy Wall Street message has changed as it’s received more media attention?

Of course. I’m not the expert, and my word isn’t bond on the underlying shit that’s going on, but I can say in a more general way that every single movement is corrupted, every time. Without a doubt there are undercover police involved, if not the F.B.I. Who knows the level of [how] they got people inside the shit, pretending that they’re for the cause but just collecting information. I think that automatically creates rifts and problems and then there are always people disagreeing and not necessarily aligned motives.

It’s just like with the globalization protest. It was funny because the pictures I was taking there, every sign was different, every single group was there for a different reason. It was dope we got so many people there but the message was hard to get out to the general public and it’s definitely the same with Occupy Wall Street. I’ve shared many times with people articles that have explained what the real intentions of Occupy Wall Street are about, but if you go down to Occupy Wall Street you might not realize that, you might not know, because there might be people painting little kids’ faces and then a sign about big business with the 99% versus the 1% and then a sign about police brutality—they’re all important but not necessarily related.

Is there more danger of that happening when protests and causes get popular?

Yeah, every time a new cause comes up, like the Trayvon Martin situation now, there’s a protest but everyone tries to hop on to whatever’s happening at the moment. It’s like hip-hop in that sense. It’s hard to know what’s going on at at the moment and what matters if people are just trying to hop on the best bandwagon.

Is that inevitable?

It may seem inevitable, but other movements have been successful in the past. Not that long ago there was slavery in this country; blacks were not allowed to vote or drink at the same water fountain. You had Martin Luther King being nonviolent with his protests and the Black Panthers creating a lot of hysteria, which made Martin Luther King’s message that much more palatable. Together they were really effective in creating change. So I think there’s not one way, but you can always take notes from the past. The number one rule is to be organized. In order to be organized you have to have grass roots leadership and these leaders need to not be egoists and have their own motives. They need to listen to the people ’cause without the people they have no movement.