A pipe burst in our collective American conscience in 2020. Under the weight of state-sanctioned violence and the systems that nurture it, our rusting foundation hit critical mass and at long last, a break. Even the most desensitized couldn’t ignore how the world rallied around Black plight, mobilized to build back better, and embraced the call for racial equity.
But while visions of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion were being workshopped in conference rooms, we continued to see manifestations of racial hatred proliferate on our screens, most notably in the continued brutality against Black Americans and the racialized violence against Asian Americans. Despite efforts to approach equity holistically, I noticed something interesting about the relationship between these two issues in mainstream discourse: that there wasn’t one. Instead of engaging in discourse about how each is linked to supremacist culture, allyship conversations were siloed. It became about which to support, an either / or game of in-group politics that fanned the flames of an age-old cultural beef.
Perpetually positioned as opponents on the racial spectrum, the divide between Blacks and Asians doesn’t only exist in public discourse, it also plays out in our communities themselves. As a first-generation Vietnamese American, I’ve had a front row seat to anti-Blackness in Asian American communities. What people often fail to acknowledge are the beautiful examples of Black and Asian solidarity that have helped move the needle in racial politics throughout the last century – histories intentionally obfuscated to maintain racial stratification. One of the only places I’ve ever heard that solidarity referenced is in a collaboration by KEXP’s own Gabriel Teodros and Vancouver B.C.’s Kimmortal.
When I got together with Gabriel and Kimm, they told me that each of their respective rap careers were intimately connected to the B.C. scene. Seeking performing opportunities outside of Seattle, Gabriel started playing shows in Vancouver in 2001. He eventually began a hip hop night called Back to the Source, a space for artists of color in B.C. and according to Kimm, “We all called it church because it really was.” Looking for community outside of University of British Columbia, Kimm was frequenting Back to the Source and listening to the early ‘00s stars of Seattle hip hop — including Gabriel — when they were asked to open for him.
Years later, Gabriel and Kimmortal collaborated on “Solidarity,” released on Gabriel’s stellar 2020 full-length ‘What We Leave Behind.’ In the conversation below, they do a deep dive into the lyrics of the song, discuss the importance of acknowledging our shared racial history as resistance, and shed light on how if oppression is collaborative, then our freedom has to be.
Editor’s note: A few weeks after this interview was recorded, the producer behind Solidarity, Wundrkut, passed away. Kimmortal shared their thoughts on Instagram. Read an excerpt below and find their full post here.
You can listen to a version of this interview on the Sound & Vision podcast below.
KEXP: How did "Solidarity" come to be? Did something catalyze the collaboration or was it just a long time coming for the two of you?
Gabriel Teodros: "Solidarity" started as a song for Kimmortal's album X Marks The Swirl. It was a beat Kimmortal had from our friend Wundrkut, and I think we had a conversation on Facebook about the idea of co-resistance. I was very inspired by dream hampton and this delegation of Black activists and artists who went to Palestine, and they did something I had never seen anyone do — they were like, “We’re asking you to stand in solidarity with us against the anti-Blackness that exists in your community.”
Inspired by that conversation and this idea of co-resistance, I was asking about non-Black people of color who have expressed solidarity with Black people in music. I was looking for song examples. And we were having a hard time thinking of songs at the time. I think that's where the conversation started.
Kimmortal: Yeah, I remember it was on Facebook and I was also curious, too, because this was also a time in which my community – Filipinos, Asians – were talking about anti-Blackness within the Asian community. I remember hard conversations in the community that were happening. And I was looking for artists that were naming that, naming that anti-Blackness. And we couldn't find an artist that was naming it. And that's really a reflection of where we are at collectively.
Our communities are intertwined, though we’ve forgotten
A few decades we’ve internalized
They invented these racist myths about me and you
It’s gonna take my whole lifetime to undo the anti-Blackness in my community
KEXP: Kim, you reference anti-Blackness in your community in the song. What was that like for you growing up? How did that manifest in the scene you came up in?
Kimmortal: So I'm Filipino. I grew up in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish territory. So even naming the fact that this is Indigenous land – that didn't start happening till I was in early years of university. So learning about decolonization, having words to talk about the racism I experienced, but also understanding how it's different from Black folks, different from Indigenous folks, but also connected to imperialism, colonization, systemic oppression – that language I did not have when I was young. And it is because of the work of Black activists, Indigenous activists that we have rap, that I've learned to have those words to speak about my experience, which is such a mind-blowing thing. Such an important thing to understand my positionality in this world.
But in terms of my community, I feel like it's still a hard thing for us as non-Black people of color to talk about anti-Blackness because our community is so traumatized with colonization and the effect it's had on our generations before us. And so my current generation, we're trying to have these convos with our elders, our parents, and no one wants to talk about it, but it's so present. So for me, growing up as a hip-hop artist and understanding my responsibility to be using Black art forms that have grown me to who I am today is an ongoing work.
Solidarity is not just – boom, I have solidarity. It's an ongoing journey of learning every day. I'm a student every day. And I have to continue practicing the art of listening through music and through being in community with other people. It's frustrating because of what is happening, the violence that we're seeing every day. It's work to stay embodied and to stay soft with an open heart to what is happening because it's so easy to shut down. And it's through art and music that I'm activated again. It has been such a source of healing for me to understand myself and others.
When I was a Brown kid in all white spaces
You gave me a language with which to name it
It’s ongoing work to confront what’s inside
The way we’ve hurt you, the way we festishize
KEXP: I was wondering about the line where you say "When I was a brown kid in all white spaces, you gave me a language with which to name it." That is really powerful, first of all. And it speaks to the power of being able to articulate oppression within different spaces, too. "Solidarity" does a really great job at recognizing that it is ongoing work. And also recognizing that there is,this shared history of co-resistance between Black and Asian communities — but you mention how we've forgotten. That's a really interesting disparity that I'd love to dive into a little bit more.
Gabriel Teodros: You want to start, Kim? Because you actually have a lyric that I have that I've wondered about, which is the history. You name some people and some things in history that I'm actually not even up on.
Kimmortal: You know, I have to totally give it up to Filipino elders in my community that have documented this history. The BLM movement has catapulted me to look into my own history, which is the work of solidarity. A lot of the civil rights movement of the 50s and the ‘60s and anti-colonial struggles – that was the framework for minority communities in the ‘60s and ‘70s to organize. That in and of itself is our foundation to fighting. And one of the lyrics I think you were referencing is "ever since I was a brown kid in white spaces, you give me a language from which to name it, it's ongoing..." What is it, it's like…
Gabriel Teodros: “So from General something to our workers rights.”
Kimmortal: That's it. Thank you. General Fagen was an American soldier in the Philippines that rebelled against the U.S. and joined the Filipinos to fight against imperialist powers and to this day, people don't know what happened to General Fagen — if he passed in struggle or if he left. But the story there is that there was an awareness of our shared struggle. Fagen has been an icon of that solidarity.
In the Philippines, we have compounded struggles of colonization with the Spanish, the U.S., the Japanese, the British; we have a long history of whiteness being centered in our motherland. The Filipinos were called savages and unfit to govern their own country at the turn of the 20th century. A lot of this history is forgotten. So being in the States, being in Canada, it's interesting because there's the model minority that was invented to make us believe we are better than other racialized folks, which is a center point for so much of our disconnection because of the forgotten history. It takes us talking to remember our shared struggles.
My history shows we fought side by side from
General Fagen to our worker’s rights
Our resistance shows we were organized
Gabriel Teodros: I can't believe I never asked you about that lyric. I was like, Kim's dropping history. I need to do my research. In the Black Power movement, with the Black Panthers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they worked side by side with Asian activists from around the country, and specifically Filipino and Japanese activists on the West Coast. Asian folks were foundational to the Black Panther Party and even the concept of ‘Asian American’ as a Pan-Asian identity was inspired by the Black Power Movement.
It’s intergenerational in my life, and in hip hop. I don't think you get to hip hop on the West Coast without the influence of Filipino people. We talk about hip hop as something that started in New York with Black and Puerto Ricans. But on the West Coast, it was Filipino people that were right alongside Black people with the entire evolution of this culture and for me growing up in Seattle, a lot of the best DJs I know were Filipino. Most of the break dancers that I knew were Filipino.
Kimmortal: Hell yeah!
Gabriel Teodros: I am Ethiopian. I am the first Ethiopian rapper that I ever met. There's tons of them now. But I had never heard somebody tell a story in hip hop of an immigrant's child growing up in America and navigating these two different cultures — until I read Suheir Hammad's poetry and until I walked into an open mic hosted by isangmahal in Seattle, which was a Filipino arts collective. Those two influences had such a profound impact on the way I approach music that I don't know who I am without the impact of my Filipino homies who were doing hip hop with me from day one, you know?
"Solidarity is not just – boom, I have solidarity. It's an ongoing journey of learning every day. I'm a student every day. And I have to continue practicing the art of listening through music and through being in community with other people." - Kimmortal
KEXP: I'm glad you brought up the Filipino influence on Seattle hip hop. KEXP is doing Filipino Hip Hop 206 episodes on exactly that and awhile ago, you mentioned that when you were growing up in the scene here, there wasn't a precedent for defining people based on race or ethnicity. And you are starting to see that divisiveness now, which I found interesting because growing up Vietnamese American, I always saw a cultural divide. And it seems like there's a bit of a generational gap there.
Why do you think that relationship between Black and Asian communities, within music and beyond, has changed over the years to the point where it’s now more divisive?
Gabriel Teodros: Sometimes I wonder if it's the post-Eminem, the post-Macklemore, the post… like seeing white rappers blow up where we started, like thinking about the co-optation of culture, [the sentiment that] culture is getting stolen and we need to hold on to our culture. But I remember being younger and not even tripping on white people listening to hip hop at all. Like Macklemore came from our crew. A lot of times he was the only white person in a room with us. And we never questioned his heart because he loved the same music. And he was dedicated to the craft. A lot has changed since the 90s. But back then we were just excited about the music and a bit naive to the impact that the white faces getting celebrated over other faces would have.
Kimmortal: One thing I keep thinking about is how hip hop is everywhere. I had one producer say pop is hip hop now and it's everywhere. And the people using it… there's a lack of authenticity. And you can hear when people are not speaking their truth or watering things down. And the resistance within hip hop is what I was drawn to, that's what I felt. That's what I heard. That's what moved me, and that's where I've also created from. With the big beast of the music industry that wants to take whatever it can, absorb it, and then sell it for numbers and profit, there's all these competing voices that are impacting how artists make decisions.
So artists need to be real, and really do the work of excavation and research and self-awareness. For me it’s important I see that in other artists because it's so easy to just drop a track and try to go up the ladder, but It's a dead end. And it sucks your soul out. If that's [your] source for hip hop, that’s not sustainable. And a lot of that is community, which is the antithesis to the music industry.
KEXP: I appreciate how meta this conversation is getting — we’re talking about the community within hip hop in the context of a hip hop song that the two of you created. I think that's why "Solidarity" stuck out to me immediately. On that first listen, I told Gabriel that sonically it captured my attention. And once you dive into the lyrics, there's so much there. I can't name another song that addresses Black and Asian solidarity. It's the opposite of what you said, Kim, people who are chasing revenue or etc.
Going back — to 1955, the Bandung conference, for instance, the very first conference that gathered folks from Asian and African countries to have conversations about decolonization — that history does go far back. And like you reference in the song, it's not [present in] mainstream racial discourse. That history is forgotten. And I feel like it does have an effect on how the tension between our two communities has found new footing in this current political moment.
Gabriel Teodros: It just feels like with both of our communities, it feels like our backs are against the wall, especially this last year. Like there's a white supremacist violence hitting both of our communities. We're scared and in both situations, we feel like nobody has our back. Nobody sees our experience. That, ironically, is a shared experience between our communities. Sometimes, I think it’s done by design. Like, it's not helpful to the empire to have marginalized communities remembering our history of linking up and having each other's backs. I definitely feel like our communities are, even in the last year or two, more divisive than I've seen.
Kimmortal: Most definitely. Yeah, there's misdirected pain and anger. It is by design, I would also agree. Society is not allowing our communities to meet. We're on each other's teams, we're fighting for each other, and that's what we also need to hold on to. It is by design that we're not meeting, but this song is a testament to our communities doing the work. It’s for all the people that have nurtured us as artists and it's forgotten history, but it's also remembering that history...
Gabriel Teodros: That's hella real. I'm glad you said that because the song is a reflection of our communities and the history of our specific communities working together. Even just Seattle and Vancouver – like it didn't come out of a vacuum. It wasn't like Kimm and Gabriel had this great idea – no, we grew up seeing this type of solidarity, you know, and working towards it.
KEXP: I'm excited that this song exists so people can use it as an example of what it means to support one another in this fight towards equity. Right now, there's Stop Asian Hate and then there's Black Lives Matter. And like you said, by design, they're happening in silos or at least the mainstream wants us to talk about and support these different movements as separate things that don't relate to each other, which is just not true. And that plays out in how our communities and our allies and opponents perceive divisiveness between us when in reality, how we support each other is by embracing each other and embracing the nuance of each other's struggles.
It reminds me, Gabriel, of the quote that you showed me from the Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan who said, "We really need to deeply understand the root causes of each of our issues and see how our shared perpetrators or states work with each other to keep us individually oppressed. And when we see the collaborative nature of these empires, then we can also have a collaborative transnational strategy." And like, oh, man, that's like....
Kimmortal: Wow. That's all of it.
"A lot of times we start to identify ourselves with the thing we're fighting against instead of the thing that we're fighting for. The thing that we want to build. I think it’s really important to have a foot in both worlds. To really visualize the world that you want to see." - Gabriel Teodros
KEXP: That's all of it. And that's what "Solidarity" means to me, like that's the spirit of the lyrics. And I love that you reference that “We have to make sure we don't harm each other when we fight” and “our freedom is intertwined.”
Gabriel Teodros: I love that you had the Thenmozhi quote on hand because Thenmozhi was also the person who I ended my verse with when I said, "Knowing yourself is where solidarity starts." That quote has guided the way I think about solidarity. Like, we really have to know ourselves first and be solid in that to build bridges. Yes. I just love that you get Thenmozhi’s quote there.
so often we hurt hearts, it's like we all lost ours
for freedom we go far but
knowing yourself is where solidarity starts
KEXP: I was going to ask you about that line "Knowing yourself is where solidarity starts." There's this really beautiful undercurrent of self-awareness in the song – prioritizing understanding your positionality in the world and how you identify in order to fully get how you can support another community.
Gabriel Teodros: Yeah, yeah. And with the lines in the chorus "We got to make sure we don't harm each other when we fight" – it's exactly that. We have to constantly be hyper-aware of our impact on each other. As many great activists have said: turn up on the system, don't turn up on each other.
Kimmortal: I like that.
Gabriel Teodros: It’s just knowing how we impact each other, you know?
Kimmortal: Yeah. I think we're quick to be like ‘we are fighters, we are lovers,’ but we're not as quick to say that we can also potentially harm each other. That's hard to admit. And that happens in our communities when we come together to fight against white supremacy, against colonialism, against all these oppressions. And that pain can just erupt sometimes. We've all seen it in our communities. So, yeah, there is that call to go in and to do that work inside of ourselves because sometimes it can be projected.
I feel like what you said, Tia, about Stop Asian Hate and the BLM movement —how they're siloed and they're isolated. It's interesting how mainstream media latches on to Stop Asian Hate and there’s a lack of conversation around Black Lives Matter and Indigenous sovereignty movements. But they’re all connected. I saw a meme recently that said "Stop Asian Hate”; it was crossed out and it said, "Stop White Supremacy.” And that's really the core. Focusing in on how we're all connected. That's what’s missing. That's erased on purpose.
Gabriel Teodros: In that chorus, we're also calling out to communities that may not be on the song. In terms of Indigenous rights, showing up for that. Disability rights, showing up for that, and making sure we don't harm each other. I think I can speak for both Kimm and myself in that we believe that no move for liberation on stolen land can happen without moving in solidarity with Indigenous people for the land you occupy. And that's something I learned from my Indigenous folks up in Vancouver, Unceded Coast Salish Territories. To me, that's a really important part of this song. And disability rights, man. We don't talk about that enough. There are so many hidden ways that we leave people behind and access is so important. I wanted to make sure that was named in the song, and there's so many other communities that we want to be in solidarity with.
i know i can't see it through your eyes
so i listen for your vision even when my hands tied
if oppression is connected then our freedom's intertwined
gotta make sure we don't harm each other when we fight
for our freedom, for the land, for each other, for our lives
for our people locked behind bars & enemy lines
for Black & Indigenous lives, for disability rights
we don't get free if we leave anyone behind
KEXP: You say "We don't get free if we leave anyone behind” and I feel like that is… that's it. Within our political culture, it seems like there are strategic moves to keep all of those conversations separate. “Solidarity” says we do it together or we don't do it at all, at least not effectively. What do you think the best approach to mutual liberation is “if your freedom is bound up in mine,” just like you say?
Gabriel Teodros: That's like a question of a lifetime, isn't it?
Kimmortal: Yeah. It truly is. I feel like it’s about looking at your sphere of influence. It's your fam, it's your friends, it's your community. It's what you put into yourself. The work is already here, you don't have to go somewhere else to do it. It's happening. Everyone's activism looks so different. I often think I'm not an activist, but as an artist that works with words and visuals, understanding the role of an artist in our community and activating and lifting each other can be done in so many ways. And that's the beauty. In solidarity work there's not one way. It's ongoing learning. I'm a student of this forever. And every day I change and I evolve. And that calls for making sure I'm connected to others.
Gabriel Teodros: I would say build community any and every way you can. Especially with solidarity work. It's got to be real, it's got to be authentic. It can't just be like “I want to be in solidarity with this group so we can march together and have our little organizations together and look cool.” Nah. Like really get to know each other, build with your neighbors, break bread. You'll learn so much and the more of us that are building those real bridges and building community any and every way we can, creating spaces to build community, supporting spaces that exist to build community... All that is so, so important for our move for mutual liberation, like you said. Like we really, really got to get to know each other. We got to be in community with each other, you know what I mean?
I did an interview about the history of isangmahal recently for the Filipino Hip Hop 206 series and my friend El Dia, who formed Youth Speaks Seattle, dropped a term on me that I just loved —
Kimmortal: I want to know it, too.
Gabriel Teodros: — prefigurative politics. The act of living in the politics of the world you want to see. The Zapatistas are an example of prefigurative politics. It's not just theoretical. We are in community and we are building this thing that we want to exist for our kids that doesn't exist yet — and we're actually going to practice it in every way we can right now. To me, that's really important.
I always talk about having your back against the wall, fighting all these different monsters of sexism, racism, homophobia, imperialism, all these things. A lot of times we start to identify ourselves with the thing we're fighting against instead of the thing that we're fighting for. The thing that we want to build. I think it’s really important to have a foot in both worlds. To really visualize the world that you want to see. So you're not defined by the thing you're fighting against. If you define yourself by the thing you're fighting against, when the thing you're fighting against is no longer there, usually you create the thing because you don't know who you are without the thing you're fighting against. You know what I mean? Like we become those monsters. So build community and dream big. You know, Marcos on the Zapatistas said "Build a world where all worlds can fit.” I think about that quote all the time.
Kimmortal: Oh, wow, thank you for sharing that.
KEXP: Seriously. I don't know if we can follow that. That might be it.
Kimmortal: I got to, like, write that quote down, Gabe.
Gabriel Teodros "Build a world where all our worlds fit." Subcomandante Marcos from the EZLN. Yeah.
KEXP: What a way to end.
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