Son of Nun (SON) is a former Baltimore City School teacher and current MC who performs class-conscious, revolutionary hip-hop. (see his MySpace at: http://www.MySpace.com/socialistmc and his website at http://www.sonofnun.net/index.shtml). In addition to building for the next show, SON is also active in the anti-war movement as well as being an activist with several other causes. He recently performed at the Winter Soldier hearings put on by Iraq Veterans Against the War, and has appeared on stage with artists ranging from Dead Prez to Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, as well as activists like Howard Zinn and Cindy Sheehan. Joshua Koritz interviews SON for Justice Newspaper:
JK: Which came first for you: political activism or political hip-hop? And can you describe how they were linked for you.
SON: Political hip hop and other political music definitely came first for me. Before I ever heard of Bob Marley, before there was a Rage Against the Machine, [Public Enemy]’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” blew my mind. That song posed an alternative to the watered down Dr. King and miniscule mention of Malcolm X my so-called education provided… [The Black] Panthers? What Panthers? You know what I mean? I’m so glad that I grew up at a time when a black political musical group was mainstream and making it cool to be black, intelligent, and strong.
By the time the mid ‘90s came around I was frustrated and bored with hearing the same thing in hip hop over and over and over again. I kinda felt like “am I crazy or is this the same shit over a different beat?” I wasn’t impressed anymore with “the hot new artist regurgitating the same old garbage” and I stopped running out to buy it. I wasn’t very political but I knew there had to be more to these modern day slave narratives, sanitized of any mention of master’s role. At the time I didn’t know that media ownership was being deregulated and hence consolidated so less and less variety could be found on the radio, the TV, and the record store… This was when the internet was still new and a mixtape was something anyone could make by pressing “play” and “record” simultaneously on a stereo with a device known as a “cassette deck,” hahaha.
It was around this time that I started listening to music outside the segregated box that the four or five major record companies thought I should exist in. I can’t believe how trapped I was by that idea – I didn’t even tell anyone when I copped my first rock CD’s!! Black people invented rock in the first place!
I didn’t become an activist until I went to college but I left high school knowing that I wanted to get involved. I think Spike Lee’s “X” had come out around that time too (yeah, I’m that old), the O.J. [Simpson] trial before that, and the L.A. riots in response to the verdict in the Rodney King beating by the LAPD before that. I knew things were fucked up for a lot of people the world over but I didn’t know what I could do about it or have an analysis of the root causes. The picture became clearer my first year in college through learning about Mumia [Abu Jamal]’s case and hearing him articulate the roots and manifestations of oppression. He galvanized me and made me an activist. After seeing his story and hearing his words you can either get engaged in the struggle, not just to free him and others but to fight injustice and inequity, or you can go back to sleep.
The music of Bob Marley & the Wailers, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, etc. were all sources of education, inspiration, and vindication to learn, fight, and press on in the face of defeats, or celebrate when there were victories. Rebel music has been that soundtrack that was woven into my experience in the struggle.
JK: What causes/movements are you most active in? Why?
I’m most involved in the antiwar, funding for Baltimore city schools, Baltimore labor, death penalty abolition, etc. movements. My level of activity fluctuates between being more of an organizer to being more of an activist as the frequency with which I perform ebbs and flows.
Why these movements? Antiwar: the war targets working class youth of color to enlist and risk their lives killing other poor people of color for the chance to go to college and live a better life.
School funding: underfunded schools are conduits to prisons and the military, my experience as a former high school teacher in Baltimore city showed me that this inequity isn’t the result of neglect or happenstance, this shit is deliberate. The Baltimore Algebra Project, founded by Bob Moses of SNCC, is an amazing high school student-led group at the forefront of this struggle that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with.
Baltimore labor: the United Workers Association in Baltimore, the collective of workers that clean the baseball stadium in Baltimore is an example of working class blacks and Latinos coming together for a living wage. They waged a 3-year campaign that was ultimately successful in guaranteeing stadium workers $11/hour, up from $6. Currently the UW are organizing to secure their ability to benefit from the victory (unitedworkers.org). Unite HERE is also organizing a Columbia Sussex hotel workers’ boycott campaign at the Sheraton in Baltimore for a decent contract since they’ve been without a new one since August of 2006.
Death penalty abolition: we already know the basic reasons it’s racist – it targets the poor. It’s not a deterrent, it kills the innocent, and it’s cruel and unusual. I want Maryland and every other state for that matter, to follow New Jersey’s lead!! I’ve worked with Campaign to End the Death Penalty chapters in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.
JK: How did you get involved in anti-war activism? Why do you continue to be active in the anti-war movement and in other struggles?
I was involved in the anti-globalization movement before 9/11, the political landscape shifted after that day and in my opinion an anti-imperialist perspective would have enabled that movement to pivot, link the issues, and initiate the anti-war movement instead of what ended up happening. Why do I continue to be active? Change is that universal and historical constant, and the powers that be use their institutions and infrastructure to influence and manipulate change for their benefit… we’re the only ones who can do it for our side.
JK: I noticed on your MySpace page you list upcoming anti-war and other events that you are trying to get people out to. I think this is very different from most political hip-hop I’ve heard, does this set you apart in anyway in the hip-hop community? Are you able to bring out any other political artists? What is their response to your activism?
I don’t talk about specific protests in the songs but I’ll talk about the issues addressed at demonstrations. I’m an activist with radical politics so my music, my website, and MySpace page reflect that. Does it set me apart from the hip-hop community? Does being an activist/organizer set you apart from the community in general? How about your politics? Know what I mean? It’s always love and respect in hip-hop, the only negative vibes I’ve gotten have been from Zionists.
Bring out other political artists? It’s a small scene where I’m at, so everybody knows each other and brings each other out. I’m organizing a benefit with Ryan Harvey for IVAW on 3/22 and all the artists performing are political activists – Militant Advocates (members of the Baltimore Algebra Project – BAP), Head-Roc (Mayor of DC hip hop/activist), Ryan Harvey (anti-war organizer), and myself. These are all people who walk the talk. I just ran into Abeer, one of the female Palestinian emcees in Slingshot Hip Hop, at a planning meeting for the BAP’s next action here in B’more! Not at a show but at an organizing meeting for getting B’more city schools adequate funding. Walking the talk. So their response to my activism is my response to theirs, we’re in the same circles fighting the same fights.
JK: You’re are a former Baltimore High School teacher, how did your students respond to your activism? Are you involved with the Baltimore Algebra Project? As a teacher, were you able to encourage students to be active, or was this difficult for you? Was there pressure from the administration of the school to stay away from that sort of thing?
I’m not teaching anymore but I definitely see it as a form of activism. I had great students who taught me a lot. I always felt like they didn’t need anybody to tell them the score, I just helped to clarify some of the players, the architects of the game, and some of the shoulders they were standing on. I’d put the word out about different events that were going on when they came up, and offer incentives. A lot of things were put into perspective by the reality of that situation… like why should they go to an event about this or that issue when it wasn’t going to address what they had to deal with day in and day out? That’s why I helped advise a student group and helped coach debate in the Baltimore Urban Debate League.
Pressure from the administration? My department head was the bomb and I worked to pick up the slack created by the underfunding… and I’d just close my door and teach. As long as the lessons were solid they couldn’t say a whole lot.
JK: You perform at some colleges among other venues – what is the response you’ve found over the past year or so to the political message in your music? How is the response on college campuses different (or similar) to other venues you perform at?
The response over the past year has been very positive within the various movements. If I’m on a college campus it’s not because the loaded student events board brought me there, it’s usually because a political student group did, so the audience is full of politically minded students and the response is good. As for other less political venues, the response is always positive too. Everybody doesn’t always agree with everything I say but they respect what I’m doing and feel where I’m coming from, and they know the feeling is mutual.
JK: How do your co-workers respond to your activism? Are you unionized? If so what’s the situation in the union? If not are there any attempt to unionize?
I was part of the Baltimore Teachers Union and when I was there I think everyone agreed there was room for improvement… a lot of room.
JK: What do you think of the state of hip-hop today? It seems that with the exception of a few artists all political hip-hop is forced well underground to the level of MySpace, how do you find out about new artists?
The state of hip-hop today, like the state of the media, is corporate dominated and unbalanced. What calls itself the political left is segregated, fractured, and barely exists outside of this or that protest. What’s this have to do with political hip-hop? No strong organized movements… no shift in consciousness and no national platform putting it out there. There’s an ebb and a flow to everything and struggle is no exception. How do I find out about new artists? My friends and MySpace.
JK: What’s the most personally rewarding response you’ve gotten from your music and/or activism?
I performed at the concert for Palestine Week at UNC-Chapel Hill recently; some of the other artists were students at the school. After the show one of the brothers who played told me that after seeing my set he was inspired and determined to put politics at the heart of his art! That’s another soldier in the struggle you know. That’s not something you hear every day in hip hop. Emcees will give you props for killing a show but saying you’re going to change your approach because of what you just saw… I thought those words were reserved for the ears of Rakim.