Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Detroit MCs Invincible and Finale Speak to Basics on the Gentrification of Detroit

An interview by Corrie Sakaluk
Basics Issue #10 (Aug/Sep 2008)

The Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid hosted Detroit-based emcees and community activists, Invincible and Finale, with headliner Dam, for an incredible show at El Mocambo on May 15, 2008. BASICS got a chance to hook up an interview with emcees Invincible and Finale, and the following is an excerpt.

BASICS: We’re here with Invincible and Finale who just finished ripping it on stage here in Toronto. Is this your first time in Toronto?

Finale: It’s my first time in Toronto, yeah.

Invincible: I been here a couple of times but this is my first official solo show up here. I’ve been up here before with the Pied Pipers but have never been up here doing my own material and never been up here with Finale. We do most of my shows together. It was a real big event tonight, especially opening up for Dam because they’re one of my biggest inspirations to keep making hip-hop. They really go back to the essence of using hip-hop as a tool of resistance.

BASICS: How did you guys find the Toronto crowd?

Finale: It was a hit once they got into it. They had to get used to us but once they got used to us it was cool.

Invincible: We’re very lyrical and when the sound isn’t perfect you got to slow it down and do a couple of acapellas for them. Once they heard what we were talking about and they could really feel the production – we got Detroit production on most of our music - they warmed up to us and were able to really vibe with it.

BASICS: Your music has a lot of conscious, social lyrical content and some crazy flow. Why is it important for you to have social lyrical content in your music?

Finale: It’s important to have a message behind whatever you do. I talk about my city because I grew up on the East Side of Detroit and I’ve seen what’s happened to it, what’s happening to it now and where it’s headed. In order to avert that and change that, we have to work for the youth and for that work it’s really important to have a message behind what you say out there. If there’s nothing behind it then you’ll lose them in 5 minutes.

Invincible: I feel that everything has a message to it. No one is apolitical. For me a lot of our music has overt messages to it but some of the music we just slip the medicine in. We might be focussing on the flows, and put less emphasis on the lyricism but when you listen close you’ll hear the references slipped in there. Like a battle rhyme, you know what I mean? We always try to slip the message in and make it accessible to people who might not normally hear the message. That’s one of the greatest things about hip-hip as a whole, is that you can make something accessible for people. With hip-hop you can take something that normally feels like someone is preaching to you or talking over your head and you can make it relatable and accessible through the music.

BASICS: Today's show was put on by the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA). Why are you performing at an event for a group that is a political group focussed on an international issue? What does Palestine mean to y’all when you’re from Detroit?

Finale: There are a lot of similarities between Palestine and Detroit. No matter where we are on the planet there’s so much that we can relate to with people. My community might be similar to their community, and that’s the way music bridges the gap. For me to have that message behind my music and for them to have a similar message behind theirs is great to see. I’m here to support them.

Invincible: We really see our struggles as inseparable. I had the honour of going and hanging in Palestine and there are a lot of very similar issues to Detroit. You have people’s homes being demolished, community being uprooted, and the government uses the excuse that they have to get rid of them, because of people being terrorists and criminals or in Detroit it’s selling drugs. But in reality they’re not looking at the root problems. In Detroit, and other cities in the U.S., drugs were flooded into poor communities. All other economies were disinvested from our communities and so drugs became an unhealthy alternative, but it is the only economic alternative for the most part. The focus of our song Locusts is that we still need to create development in our communities but in a way that’s accountable to the community itself. Of course what’s happening in Palestine and Detroit are connected, because all of our communities are trying to figure out how to solve our problems, and the more that we are in communication with each other the more that we can learn from each other’s approaches to solving the problems. It will help us to be able to solve things locally and on an international scale, to really have some concrete blueprints and models that we can exchange.

BASICS: You mentioned, Finale, that your grandfather spent some time taking the both of you around Detroit and sharing his knowledge and memories. Could you talk a bit about that with us, what you saw and how people are organizing to resist and fight back against gentrification and displacement?

Finale: My grandfather has been in the city from day one so he’s seen everything changed. From when we had a neighbourhood in Detroit called Blackbottom totally run by blacks, everyone used to come here, Joe Louis and everyone, we had our own doctors, lawyers, and everything. Then the city changes took everyone out. My grandfather took us around to different areas and told us what used to be and what is now. He said downtown doesn’t look the same, the old hangouts are all gone.

Invincible: I really realized from looking around with his grandfather that the whole history of our city is being erased. For example, the Motown building was an international landmark. Motown internationally changed how music is listened to and performed, and the Motown building was torn down for a parking lot for the Superbowl. That’s a really shocking blatant example of how our history is being laid to waste not just locally but internationally. Beyond just the sentimental value of a historic landmark like that, there’s real spirit and community attachment to those types of places. I have a song on my album called People not Places that deals with the fact that although people constantly change their relationship to land, there are still certain aspects of it that you can’t disconnect. Some people look at displacement as a natural course of things, they think that people’s neighbourhoods and the make up of who’s living there are always going to change so we should just get over it. But when there’s a community like Blackbottom or Paradise Valley in Detroit, it’s a historic neighbourhood with a strong infrastructure. When these communities are completely uprooted it has a long lasting impact on the whole community on many many levels.

To give you a concrete example, in several US issues (and this is probably true in Canada as well) whenever there was a self-reliant community of colour, especially Black communities, that’s where the highways were built, right through those neighbourhoods. And now what we have is that in all those neighbourhoods that are communities of colour that’s where for the most part condos are being built, it’s like a new pattern. In many cities there are very strong infrastructures economically, of small businesses and people really taking care of one another and building micro-economies. Every time the destruction and displacement happens it completely uproots that, and people have to start all over again.

In certain places it happened very blatantly like for example when Katrina hit New Orleans, we saw the next day all these developers like Haliburton coming in and displacing everybody by tearing down project buildings that were still inhabitable. Or take it back more historically to a place like Kansas. There was a place in Kansas called the Black Wall street with hundreds of businesses and that area was bombed by the white communities around it. These are blatant examples, but now what we have happening is a more insidious approach to how those communities are being uprooted. It’s not happening as blatantly, it’s happening drawn out over 30 or 40 years with a long period of disinvestment in that community. We have to really look at the connections because it’s going to happen differently in each place, whether it’s in Palestine with the colonization from 1948 and on until now, or whether it’s on a smaller scale with gentrifying our communities.

BASICS: Do you find it easy or difficult to navigate being an artist and trying to make a living and at the same time trying to stay true to the political principles that you have? Also can you talk a little bit about your experience of connecting with other artists who are also politically motivated and what you are trying to do to build those networks?

Finale: I believe the way to get your message out is to not be too preachy. You lose when you over-preach stuff. I might be in the middle of a verse that’s bangin' and slip in a little consciousness, and my job is done. Knowing how to navigate and balance it is important, you can’t go over the top, and you have to try to ride that line. It’s definitely possible and we’re doing it right now. It’s a way to put your message behind your music and that’s what hip-hop is for. Independent hip-hop is on the rise. People want to hear about what’s happening around them. They need some inspiration, and that’s where our music and other politically conscious artists’ music come in.

BASICS: If I can throw a wrench in that, though, last summer I was down in NYC for Rock the Bells and I still have a picture that I use as reference point. It’s a shot of the crowd with hands all up, but all the hands are white. How do you see that in terms of the way that hip-hop is going? I’ve seen the same thing in Toronto shows. You’ve got someone like Talib or Mos or Common and it’s a mostly white crowd. Then you’ve got someone like T.I. coming and that’s really where the black youth come out.

Finale: I think that hip-hop shows do get marketed to a predominantly white crowd, a suburban crowd. It’s the artists’ prerogative to take the music to the hood or where the ghetto kids get too. I take my music where I grew up. I want people from the East Side of Detroit to feel my music just like I want people in suburban Michigan to feel my music. Part of balancing it is the artist’s obligation to take it to different communities. Take it there. Artists have to stand up. If you let someone navigate you as an artist, they’re going to take you where the money's at. And the money’s not in the inner cities right now.

Invincible: To answer the initial question, it’s very few artists that are able to make quality art and not let their conscience overshadow that, or vice versa. Some artists might make quality art but the message gets watered down. For me, I strive to make sure that my music is not an essay or a lecture, because if I want to do that I can do that in a different forum. I got to make good songs, with the message inherently in there. I also want to point out something that it’s very important to me: the music is not the end all be all of the message . Like you said, someone like T.I., he may not be the most overtly political artist musically, but you don’t know what he may doing in his neighbourhood back in Atlanta. That’s not to make excuses for counterproductive content. For instance Master P did a lot of things in New Orleans for that community but his content in his music was sometimes counterproductive. So I’m not saying it makes up for counterproductive messages, but you have to look at the whole picture. Because some cats they got message, but they’re studio activists. What they do outside of there is not that effective. You got to look at the whole picture.

As far as going to hip-hop shows with mostly white audiences, I think it has to do with when you make music that’s thinking music, that makes people think and not just party or have a good time music, but you’re actually combining thinking and having a good time, in general you’re not going to be able to have as wide of a reach. It’s not as marketable. With us, we reach a lot of youth and we reach a lot of people that we want to reach but we do it on a small scale. We will go to the community centres and do a small event. We’ll organize something small. Let’s say we’re doing a show in a city where the show is not going to necessarily reach who we want to reach. We will do that show, but then we’ll organize a second event in a neighbourhood where the people might not have been able to come to the main venue. We will go to the people.

Artists who are doing this on a larger scale have the marketing behind them to be able to reach the kids who are only influenced by MTV or BET and others in the media monopoly machine. But for us, we’re going against the status quo. We’re going to still reach them, but we’re going to reach them on a smaller scale. Maybe when you go to an Immortal Technique show or a Kwali show you see all white hands, but I know these artists do hundreds of speaking engagements with youth on a small scale. Immortal Technique will go to every single migrant worker village in California when he does those big shows in L.A.

Everybody has their own personality. We’re all real people, we’re not out here trying to be politicians, we’re artists. It’s a complex thing when as an artists you’re trying to balance your music and your message and trying to make a living. For me it really comes down to building a relationship with your listenership. I just started a label called Emergence Music (emergencemusic.net is the website) and before I was on a label called Interdependent Media. Both go under the same concept, that we’re part of a larger community, we’re not just artists in a vacuum putting on a spectacle for a crowd. We’re part of a community and we’re making music that represents our larger community as well as our own expression. And so we really want to build connections with those listening to our music and through that have a mutual support type of thing.

I want to make music that’s accountable to that community that’s listening to me, as opposed to making music that’s accountable to major labels that are completely disconnected from our communities. And that’s going to be a longer road to really do that successfully. I’ve been doing this for 12 years and I am just releasing my first solo album. Finale’s been doing this for 7 or 8 years and he’s just now about to release his first solo album. It is a longer road but to me it builds a much more stable foundation. And then also to balance it with your message. Not all your message has to be in your music. Some music can just be about having fun, good times, but then on the side you’re really doing the work with the youth or in that community.

BASICS: Ok last two questions! Are the Pistons going to have a chance against the Celtics and if they beat them, who do you want them to face the Lakers or the Hornets?

Finale: Aw man! I believe in the Pistons. We the bad boys so I’m looking forward to a Pistons and Lakers clash.

Invincible: Detroit in general, we’re the under-dog-est city in the world. We got to root for the underdog. Our official city motto is rising up from the ashes, so even if we have the worst loss in one game, we going to do that because that’s our official city motto. We’re always going to have that mentality where all the odds are stacked we’re going to change that crisis into an opportunity for a new beginning and be the world champions once again. We’re visualizing it right now!