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"I'm Not Into Sidewalks, I'm Into People": Draze Discusses the Power of Music to Change Communities for Black History Month

Black History Month, Interviews

In celebration of Black History Month, KEXP’s Alina Santillan interviewed numerous local and national African American artists about what Black History Month and Black Future mean to them. Seattle hip-hop artist, Draze, has been influenced by both the Seattle music scene, and his Zimbabwean roots. He was kind enough to share his thoughts on Afrofuturism and some of his musical influences.

KEXP: What does Black History Month mean to you? 

Draze: Black History Month is huge. When you think about, there's this comment or this statement that says the story of African-Americans is the story of America, right? It truly is. If you want to see where America is, you have to look at where's its treatment of people of color, and more specifically black people as well as Native Americans -- I'll include that there. I love that it's Black History Month because Black goes across the diaspora. And so you start thinking about Eritreans as Zimbabweans, all the way to those who came here as slaves, to tell the story of their history their story. There's so much rich information that people have no idea about the contributions. This country was built on the backs of black people and they contributed, not alone but they were a major part of the story. And I think it's fresh that as a country we attempt to stop take a moment and say, "What's your story. Who are you? How are we treating you? Where are we? And how do we get where we're all trying to go?" 

When we talk about black future or Afrofuturism, what does that look like for you? 

Well, because our people are going in so many different directions, I think it's fresh. Like, you have people who are getting into sci-fi -- shouldn't say "getting into," we're already there. We're into everything, so it just looks like embracing what is authentic. What I think will be important to talk about would be, what's important to make sure we keep. There are portions of our culture that feel like they're under attack, to be honest with you. So it can feel like as an African-American, it can feel like you're forced to assimilate. And so often it can feel like there's a type of blackness that is received. And there's another type that's like, "Yo, I'm good with that." And so I think what's important with wherever we go in the future -- because I think it's so vast -- I think it's important to make sure we are we are inclusive of all types of blackness. It shows up in so many different ways. You still have to receive me with my hoodie on. That guy still needs space at the table. And I know a lot of those guys who feel like they're being suffocated right there. They don't get to the table. So I just think it's important to be inclusive of all the ways that blackness shows up, not just a type of blackness that feels comfortable to you. And now it starts being more about you, it's about making you feel comfortable with who I am and my blackness. 

We have a statement that we always say. If you've ever been on a job, and maybe it's like a Thursday night football game, right? And there's that guy, the black guy at the office, and you ask him you know, "hey, you want to come? We're all going to the bar to watch the game." And you ask him, week-in and week-out, "will you come," and he declines. And often, the reason why he declines to go is because he doesn't feel like he can be his self there. He's been faking all day on his job, and now he's tired of faking. He wants to go home, throw on his hoodie, and not have you look at him. Like, now he's changed from the same guy who was at your cubicle all day. Right. He's the same guy, but when he's being himself and he's comfortable, he dresses a little different. His swag changes slightly, but he's still the same guy and if you can find a way to receive him when you guys go to the bar, then yeah. Now, you truly have what I call diversity, which is when I bring myself to the table, not when I have to change. That's not diversity. 

What would you say to young black artists who are coming up that want to make an impact, who want to make art? 

Be authentic. Be authentic, tell your story. Like being a carbon copy, it doesn't work. It's not real. And who wants that? Like, I don't want that, right. Like, the first time I heard Migos, they get bashed, right. That's what's up. I get it. I have some problems with mumble rap, too. But at the end of the day, it's wildly creative. My problem is the oversaturation of it. The first time I heard somebody I was like, "oh this is ill! This is a crazy little style." And it was dope because it was something from out of nowhere. Once the industry gets a hold of it and mass produces it, it becomes a problem. But I'm saying do you, like wherever you are. I've been talking to people back home, like I'm going through like this major Renaissance. So, "back home," I mean Zimbabwe. And I'm dealing with a lot of the young kids over there and I'm trying to inspire them to embrace their traditional cultures because they're looking at America in that mass production. We're in a global economy. So, mass production doesn't just affect us, it affects the world. So, in Africa, these things are endangered species, these instruments, you know? Praise God, my mother and father gave me the marimba, these traditional instruments that are amazing. And so my thing is, embrace who you are. Embrace what you are, whatever that is and I don't care if the powers that be say it's not OK. 

Sometimes, we embrace things that are not necessarily "us" and they become us. So, I know some cats or some gang cultures and stuff where I go, "you know, that's really not who you are. That's something you were given, right." And so tell that story, because it's a part of yours. It needs to be told. But to me, it always has to be uplifting. That's just who I am. If it can't tear down humanity, it's gotta give back and grow towards a harmony, and a love, and a unity. I mean, a better tomorrow. You know, sorry to act all hopeful -- all "Obama-esque" -- but the truth of the matter is that at the end of the day, that's what we all want. We all heard Dr. King's dream. Yes. Right. At the end of the day, that's all we want, spaces where we can be in love and interact. 

Who were some of your biggest influences when you were growing up? 

I would be totally lying if I didn't say my mother or my father. They were really, really big influences, because of the music and what they instilled in me. I had no idea at the time I'd be doing what I'm doing now. But now that I'm doing them, I'm mirroring them like, "how did this happen?" Right? And Bob Marley was huge. As a child, I was in Zimbabwe in the 80s and that was right after we gained our independence. So, we gained it in 1980. Here I am in this country that just gained independence. I have no idea these ramifications. But all we're listening to is Bob Marley, and he had just made the song "Zimbabwe." And "Buffalo Soldiers." That's what I was on, you know. So Bob Marley was huge as I really got into hip-hop, Outkast. You know, Andre 3000. I loved Kurupt. My favorite rapper's like Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest. Those were my guys. I loved lyricism. If you could rap, like the words grab me. The beats were always necessary, but yeah, if you wanted me to, like, really get into you, and like, ride it over and over and over, you'd have to say something. And I started to pattern myself after those things -- singing as well as hip-hop, so it's not just that, and then gospel music. There's such deep messaging in it, right at the core of all these things we're talking about is a cry inside of us. And so to hear people wail and to yearn and to be comfortable with that vulnerability, it's important because we don't ever have a space. And so music allows us that space to just wail. If we need to, or when we need to. 

Why do you think music matters? 

I mean, there's the obvious stuff where it's like, it's a language that we all speak. but its art has always allowed us to have a conversation and say that things were uncomfortable with much more in this generation than others. I was just sitting down at a table with some friends the other day talking about comedians and how I admire them because they're able to say whatever they want. I'm like, "Yo, I wish I could say what they can say and they get a pass because, you know, who knows if it's real or not, you know? The guy says something, and it's funny. Right. And I think they allow us to reflect in a different way. To finally sit and have that conversation with ourselves because that's the most important conversation. And so we live in a culture where, from what I understand, if you were to take white families sitting at the dinner table, they may not have that uncomfortable conversation a whole lot. And they may not have to. But if you go to black families, we are having uncomfortable conversations all the time. It is overwhelming. Every day I call my friends, they don't even call jobs "a job" anymore. I'm like, "Where you coming from?" "Comin' from the plantation, man." I mean, that's daily talk and I'm letting you peer into something. My people are like, "you know you can't give our secrets, right?" (laughs) No, but really. Music allows us to have that conversation that at the dinner table we're not having. The one you need to have. It allows you to not just hear someone's pain, but the melody allows you to feel it while you're hearing it. When I wrote "Irony on 23rd," it's not just the song and the words that capture people. If it's not set to that soulful melody with that saxophone blowing, it may not hit you the way it does. So like the first time I got onstage and performed it, there was literally tears throughout the audience. 

Music is literally the vehicle to tell these stories, the pain, the emotion, and on the flip side, music allows me to tell you, "I'm ready to turn up. I want to kick it. Let's party. I got swag. Please believe, I'm Draze. My music gotta be fly." Don't let all the other communities fool you, I come in fresh. I look fresh. I feel fresh. I mean, you look good, you feel good, you feel good, you perform good, you perform good, it connects, right? It's what Deion Sanders said. Right, I'm Deion Sanders with a microphone. And so at the end of the day, it's about music allows us to do.

Music is huge. It is one of our strongest weapons against the powers that be. And it might seem not necessarily like it because we're not necessarily drawing up paperwork behind it. Initiatives aren't necessary. There's no paperwork for you to "sign my petition." So when you get Draze, you keep it 100. Some people don't like Draze because of that. That's OK. I still bring my truth to the table. In one of my joints, I talk about the crosswalks and how if you looked at the crosswalks for a while in our community, people were saying we want red, black, and green crosswalks in the CD. We want to make sure there is equality. If you're going to put rainbows up on Broadway, we want those over here. I wasn't one of those, to be honest with you. And so they wanted red, black, and green sidewalks. I just wanted to highlight this disparity that these people are asking for it, and I saw the enormous amount of hoops that were being put in the way for them to get this done. They're crying out for this. This is what they want. Spoke about it in a song, just mentioned it, you know, keeping it moving. And before you know it, I know it made its way up the chain. I know it got to the right people. I got the phone calls and before you knew it, there were red, black, and green sidewalks. And there was music that pushed it over the edge. Do I think that somehow I'm the one? Nah, like we all played a part. But it took some time. Music can move the meter, and if it could do that on something simple like that, how much more can we start to talk about real issues?  That's what I'm into. I'm not into sidewalks. I'm into people and how we can push things forward and get equality for everybody. 

Is there anything else that you want to share? 

Black lives matter. They still matter. I know it's kind of a tagline and all that, but I don't think we think about the fact that we look at the past and when we look at the past we wag our finger at the past, like those racist somebodies. But the numbers say that we are not much different and that's the problem. I think one of Seattle's greatest sins is culpability and white culpability. The ability to say, "look, I didn't do it. It's not my problem, it's not my issue." And when you become culpable to the problems, you become a partner with them. You don't get that ability to continue to make people uncomfortable, not to force them, just to make them uncomfortable by showing up in these spaces and challenging, not demanding. Right now our community usually more "Martin" than "Malcolm." I'm a little more Martin, to be honest with you. I love them both and they both had some great ways but my philosophy is we're going to get a lot more done by continuing to love people and to be patient. Change is not easy, it's not fast. I'm not a Republican or Democrat. I'm for the people. Whoever saying the right thing, I'm rockin' with you. There are some racists that I believe, if we love them, they can change. And so I don't believe any of our mindsets are a life sentence. I've changed. I've grown. There are things if you asked me a decade ago, I would have been definitive, "I disagree with this." Now you ask me, I'm like, "you know, I was kind of wrong. "  

So, give me that space and that patience and love me and keep walking with me the same way you do with your family members. We all have family members we disagree with. So when people start saying, "that's impossible." It's not impossible. It's possible if you learn how to love. Love is more internal. Love just loves. It doesn't need help, it just does it. That's what it does. So, all that to say I want to challenge Seattle. I want to challenge Seattle to be progressive and to redefine what progressive means, and that means standing up for people of color 365 days not just in February. 

For more and a litany of amazing interviews featuring the incredible African-American musical artists that have shaped our lives, click here for all our Black History Month coverage.

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