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 Nationwhich are obviously not just hip-hop outletsand 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 songand 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 controversyI think controversy is good and it gets people thinking and talkingbut 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 musicthat's how I got into bothbut 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.