Baltimore rapper Comrade talks to The Real Music about growing up in Baltimore, being a community activist, and how hip-hop culture influences young people.
ANGEL ELLIOTT, PRODUCER, TRNN: Is it the circumstance or the culture that’s got us living like vultures? That’s a lyric from Broken Homes by hip-hop artist Comrade. COMRADE: Born in ’88, spent my whole life stressin’. Young adolescent, rage and aggression. Y’all ain’t on the same page, ain’t a thing you can tell us. Overly rebellious, runnin’ with the fellas. Sitting in class ’bout half of us felons. It’s a cold world, mother–, who you tellin’. Today I got hit with a repossession, got my eyes bloodshot, looking like a possession. Gotta make ends meet, man, how we gonna eat? With those kind of questions tell me how I’m gonna sleep, tell me how I’m going to sleep. ELLIOTT: He grew up in Baltimore City, and he has over 4 million views on YouTube. He was an activist first, organizing for causes like education equality and social justice. Today, we talk to him about his organizing efforts, what it’s like growing up as a black man in America, and where the culture is going.
ELLIOTT: You’re a hip-hop artist, an activist since you were really young. But tell me the experience of how it is growing up as a black man in 2015 in the United States, where there’s seemingly a war on young black men. COMRADE: For me it feels like a constant pressure since a young age, knowing that and feeling that the world is out to get you, the world’s against you. And just trying to figure out that puzzle, how to make it out, how to break through. How to survive in Baltimore City, how to survive in the United States, knowing the history of the United States towards black history and black men, and to see a lot of the nonsense and craziness happening even in 2015. So it’s constantly a struggle mentally, trying to deal with that, and how to break through that. So it’s definitely tough. I put it in the music. [Music playing] ELLIOTT: And that feeling, of feeling like the world or this country is out to get you is not unfounded. We know that there’s a lot of systemic racial inequality that goes on, that contributes to the inability of black people in general not to be upwardly mobile. So tell me, you’re an activist as well as a rapper. And you joined the Baltimore Algebra Project when you were in the eighth grade. And you started off as a student, but then you became a leader. Tell me about that experience. COMRADE: Yeah. So in Stadium School I started receiving the tutoring as an eighth grader, and at the end of that year I was offered a job to become a tutor myself. So I definitely took that opportunity and started mentoring the students that went to my middle school while I’m in high school. And from that it just began to groove, to receive the tutoring, become the tutor, managing the site, and growing into more leadership positions. ELLIOTT: What spurred you on towards that activism? You weren’t just a student. You were an activist. You were organizing sit-ins. You were fighting for causes like extending bus pass hours and education inequality. What made you want to be this person? COMRADE: We was in a Friday meeting, that’s like an executive meeting where everybody come together, and all the business is handled in the organization. And there was a time where they needed somebody to call the radio or something, because we were trying to get publicity on our program about to be shut down due to the lack of funding from the school system. So I guess nobody wanted to take that step, and they called me out. And I didn’t want to back out and be like, no, I ain’t going to do it. So that was my first time to really step up and take initiative and do something. ELLIOTT: What was the result of that? COMRADE: It felt good, calling the radio, talking about my program. I was like 14, so I never did anything like that in my life. And then you know, people started seeing me in a different kind of light. Like all right, he can get something done. But it wasn’t until the 10th grade where I went on the civil rights tour with City and Park High School, and went to Mississippi, went to Tennessee, went to Atlanta. Saw the museums, walked in some of the, the paths that our ancestors and civil rights heroes walked. And that really gave me a new perspective on that, you know, all of this. The civil rights movement wasn’t that long ago and we still have a lot to do. So they sacrificed their lives and their time, and they were young people. Why can’t we do the same thing? And I have an organization that’s about that life, have an organization that believes that we can make that change, so why not do it? You know. So I came back from that, and had a whole new mindset. And that same year–this was the kicker. So the trip inspired me, but this second trip really brought the anger into me. So the Algebra Project took about four, or like six of us to–but it pretty much is a public school in Essex, not that far from here. And we went on a little school tour. ELLIOTT: Were the demographics different? Were there more white students? COMRADE: More white students. We walked and the hallways were shining. There were vending machines. There was like, two gyms. Computers in the room. And we were just walking through the school like we was at an amusement park. So the lady who was giving us the tour actually started crying because of our excitement walking through the school. So one of the main things that I still remember to this day was there was a car in an engineering class. There were students building a playground. Like, in the school. So to us, we never imagined anything like–I went to City, and they tell us that’s like, one of the best schools in the country. But we–we don’t even have a lot of the textbooks we need. So seeing that I just knew. I just knew that we were being robbed. [Music playing] COMRADE: It was blatant, it’s intentional, it’s no–they don’t know how to run a school system. So we went to the office and we would tell them, hey, we want to go to this school, right. So to even get into the school, you have to take certain classes in middle school that of course aren’t provided at Baltimore City Public Schools. So like, you got to have geometry in middle school. We didn’t take geometry till like, 10th grade. So that really, like–that did it for me. I was like, oh, let’s go. Let’s–we got to, we got to do–we got to do–I knew I had to do something. I couldn’t just experience all this and have the opportunity to help be a part of something and not do nothing. ELLIOTT: And what brought you to hip-hop? COMRADE: All right. So the hip-hop was the year after that. Because I was always into poetry and stuff like that. But I just–the poetry just grew into rhymes. And I was around a lot of people in the Algebra Project that did rap. And now I’m using hip-hop as a tool to organize, the same way–I want my music to give people the same feeling that Immortal Technique did when I was organizing in high school. Dead Prez. I want to help build that soundtrack to the movement, because every movement had its sound track. From South Africa, fighting against apartheid, to the ’60s freedom songs, we need a soundtrack. So that’s–that’s what I’m building. ELLIOTT: Why aren’t there more artists who are our age or your age that are interested in being social activists and using the music, using hip-hop–and actually, hip-hop, the genre in itself, was created so that black people could express our angst about the system in a creative, artistic way. Why isn’t there more of that? COMRADE: I think my case is very unique. Because though my rhymes came from my frustration dealing with politics and the classism, and trying to–you know, I was in a constant struggle. So since I wasn’t really into poetry that much, I was into rhyming, I used that–I just had to get it out. And I think a lot of artists into hip-hop, I don’t think they came into it the same way that I did. So I naturally have an organic connection to social, political change that I can’t break away from. It’s hard to break away from it. Even though I don’t say ‘revolution’ every other line like I used to, it’s still, it’s still in there, you know what I mean? And I think a lot of artists–I don’t know. It’s hard to, it’s hard for me to really put myself in their shoes, but the hip-hop culture these days is more so about the flashy, the money, the bling. It’s been like that for a long time, but–. ELLIOTT: The women. COMRADE: The women. You know. And it’s going to be hard to get people off of that. Especially if you’re looking at music as a source of income. How are you going to–you’re seeing everybody being so successful, but very few are really kicking knowledge. ELLIOTT: Well, let me ask you this. You have a song called Clutch. [Music playing] ELLIOTT: And it’s–it’s very different. The content is different from your past songs, like Huey and COINTELPRO and Broken Homes. What made you turn towards that direction, of a song that’s more mainstream? COMRADE: So, Clutch started off as like, a freestyle. Like, the hook, that was clutch. Because everybody was saying ‘that was clutch’ at the time, so that’s how I just jumped out. And if you read the lyrics of Clutch, the content is all in there. [Music playing] COMRADE: So if you can create a song that people can feel, I can say the same things I’ve been saying in the song, and still get the same point across. And have them get what they need out of it. Like, three years ago I don’t think I would have went for that at all. But now I’m beginning to embrace a lot of my sexual feelings, views–like, even my song On You, my most recent video–. [Music playing] COMRADE: The girls in there are all nude in the video. Mostly. But I feel like it’s a very tasteful video, you know what I mean. And it really goes good with the content of the song. And I feel like I’m an artist that can touch on every level. ELLIOTT: Without it taking away from your main message? COMRADE: Well, yeah. Without it taking away from the main message, and even adding on to that message without being in a particular box. I feel like I can go to my community I grew up, I feel like I can go to a conference on black power, I feel like I can go to a strip club and get the same kind of response from my music. ELLIOTT: So let me bring it back around to your activism. Being a rapper and having this big platform to bring a message to people our age, and to people who don’t know the circumstance of black people, if you had to create an activist toolbox for the 21st century, what would you include in that? COMRADE: Well, the main thing is fearlessness. To do, to be an activist you’ve got to be fearless. Because it’s crazy that a lot of our heroes were assassinated. So if you’re trying to become a leader in this, for your people, in the back of the mind you’re thinking about, well, if what I do is impactful, there’s a high chance that me and my friends could be killed for the work that we do if it grows to a certain extent. And a lot of people would probably back away from that, to really take that on full force. ELLIOTT: You talked about how a lot of our heroes and our leaders were killed, they were assassinated. But one, a lot of young people don’t have that knowledge of, not only why they passed away, but they can’t relate to it. Because they weren’t taught that in school. They don’t have a lot of knowledge and education about black history. But they can relate to the lyrics in hip-hop. Which sometimes does promote a lot of senseless violence and killing. How do you bring that back around so that they feel spurred into action? COMRADE: I’m not 100 percent sure how to bring it back around, but I know what I can do is with my music try to incorporate those things. Because just like music from now to–from the ’90s, ’80s, there was always different types of music. And just like films and games, people are attracted to the violence, attracted to the craziness and the nonsense. But how can we take that same energy and put it into something that educates and aspires and uplifts? And I think it’s just different for either how they experience those type of subjects or it’s just something that doesn’t connect. So they need something else that’s not a lecture, but gives that same message. ELLIOTT: And that’s hip-hop. COMRADE: And I think hip-hop is, is that. But it’s difficult. Even with me, it’s–it’s very difficult to make songs like a Huey or a Broken Home that are very successful. [Music playing] ELLIOTT: You said in your song Broken Homes, is it the circumstance or the culture that’s got us living like vultures? What did that mean? COMRADE: To me that line, that song really embodied my experience growing up in a broken home. And I feel like it’s the circumstances and the culture that creates these hostile situations, or even just negative–negative thoughts, negative attitudes. So for example, you can have grown up in East Baltimore. Either you’re outside or you’re inside, you know that your neighborhood, you don’t want to be there. You feel like you don’t belong there. You’re above the mice and the police ride around every 15 minutes. So that’s the situation. And then the culture feeds from that, so a lot of times we grow up and you begin to accept the situation. So you see negative–you begin to start to be less sensitive to the negative. So you start to do negative things. And I think it’s a combination of both that really shatters a lot of relationships in families. So it’s both. I asked the question if it was either-or, but it’s definitely both. They got us living like vultures. ELLIOTT: Well, thank you. COMRADE: Thank you. This was dope. ELLIOTT: I’m Angel Elliott, and you’re watching The Real Music. And for more on Comrade, watch his videos here.
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