HHF Interview: Theotis Joe

Interviewed by Omi Muhammad
Philly MC Theotisjoe sits down with Hip Hop Forum digital magazine to talk about his upcoming ep Ship It Out, his collaboration with a Jamaican artist, Nelson Williams and how he’s passing on his passion for hip hop to the next generation …   

Theotis Joe

HHF: Hey, so tell us about the new ep Ship It Out, what do we have to look forward to; are there any collaborations?

Theotis Joe: Mmhmm, the current ep right now is entitled Ship It Out, the features I have on there,  are DA Lez, he’s on the actual song ‘Ship It Out’, and Nelson Williams, he’s on the song entitled ‘In My Town’. Nelson’s from Jamaica, yeah awesome voice.

Starting with ‘Ship It Out’, DA Lez and I actually recorded it a few years ago but it didn’t really turn out the way I wanted it to, fortunately we met a guy who is a dope producer,  who goes by the name of DJ Lez. He produced the track and when I heard the track I was like yeah, yeah … let’s do that.

I started spittin’ a verse, you know the chorus and what not, set up some studio time and we knocked it out. It became pretty awesome, at first I wasn’t going to put it out, you know, but Lez, he also shot the video as well as produced it. We shot the video in a couple locations here in Philly and a location in Princeton, NJ at a radio station. A friend of mine named Phil Jackson, a radio DJ/ Host up at Princeton University, and also he’s a host on the radio station for the Philadelphia Eagles.

And Nelson Williams (…) I just wanted to recorded a new song. I met Nelson about a year or so ago right, at my brother- in-law’s barber shop. You know choppin’ it up, talking about music and hip hop and stuff like that. I happened to have a couple of beats in my phone and the person that produced the track for ‘In My Town’, his name is Andrew D-Boogie from Virginia and he’s actually a part of Hip Hop Forum. Yeah, you know him?

He produced the track and so I had it in my phone and I pulled it out and I spit the chorus. I said ‘Nelson, hey listen man, can you sing this’? Because I love his voice you know Jamaican sound and what not, and he dove right into it  man and it was awesome. I said  ‘ Yo you the missing link to this puzzle right here’, you know because I was going to do the whole chorus myself.  

But when he spit that part (Theotis Joe starts singing a part of the chorus, Nelson Williams style), I was like yeah, yeah let’s do it, I said ‘you gon’ get on this song with me. We didn’t record the song until about maybe three four months ago. I called him up and I was like are you still interested in doing that song with me? He was like ‘yeah my brotha’, he came through, he was on time, we knocked it out and it became a hit! Everybody that I played it to loved that song so you know, it’s going on the ep. Basically that’s the only collaborations. As far as producers; I produced a few myself, I’m a producer as well, Leslie Howard/DJ Lez he produced a couple, and Andrew/D-Boogie.

HHF: Your love for your city shines through in your music especially in the song ‘In My Town’, what was the intended message behind it?

Theotis Joe: Well you know I see a lot of young brothers out here pretty much being slaughtered in the streets. Young and old, whether it be by law enforcement, by their peers, accidental or something like that, or just jealousy … enemies in the streets. I grew up in quite a few urban areas and I’ve seen drugs and I’ve seen drug paraphernalia pass by and come through at an extensive rate. You know, people being on drugs and stuff like that, fights break out at any moment.

Basically ‘In My Town’ is for every town across the world, not just here in America but across the world. When you hear that song ‘In My Town’, you know it has a combination of hip hop and also reggae vibes in it because I used my man Nelson Williams on that song. He actually took that song over to Jamaica; he was over there for like twelve days and they loved it. So that song is for every town across the world. You know, you can be anywhere and you just might get bust in the head. Look what just happened in Florida, you know hat I mean, in that nightclub; nobody was expecting that, everybody was just having a good time but shit can pop off at any minute. Basically that was the inspiration to the song.

HHF: Do you think its possible for the message to be misunderstood?

Theotis Joe: People can take it how they want to but I think probably maybe … But if you listen to the chorus, listen to the lyrics, its for every town. It’s through my eyes and what I see and what I’m about. How I handle my business, and I will, if I have to. I believe in protecting myself you know, I don’t want to get bust in the head. Don’t run up on me with that bullshit, you’ll be having some problems. Even with the law enforcement, these guys man I don’t know what they’re thinking, thinking they can shoot an innocent young boy down in the street you know, unarmed, on camera, and get away with it.

That shit is wrong, it’s not right. It’s not cool, I read stories … and on the news where you know where they run up in someone’s house and shoot a seven year-old girl, a young boy with a toy gun in the park. They get out shooting, don’t even ask no questions you know what I mean? Twelve year old boy, eleven year old boy just gone. That’s crazy to me, you know that’s why I had to put a mixture of that in there as well because I feel really strongly about that and that’s not cool.

HHF: In the track ‘Ship It Out’ you hint at your work ethic, can you talk a little bit more about that?

Theotis Joe: You get what you put out; you know if you work hard then you’re going to get great results, if you’re lazy  and don’t really want to do nothing then you’re going to be in the same position you were in when you first started. A lot of folks want to sit back and have somebody wait on them hand and foot but it don’t really work like that. You got to get out here and grind, you got to hustle.

Me personally, I produce beats, I build a network of producers across the world. I built my own website. I’m my own manager, I book my own shows. I do my own tours. You just got to be pro-active in your own business and really not wait for anyone.

I’ve always been the type not to want to have someone wait on me hand and foot or wait for somebody to make a move. Like I rock with a live band, I’ve rocked with a few live bands throughout my career. Trying to pull everyone together at one time is hard and a lot of people had their own agendas. Which brought me to the realization that man I need to focus and concentrate on me, I need to build me up instead of trying to bring everybody on board at one time.

My next move is to finish completing my own studio, right now its a pre-production. Right now I really have to rely on going to another person’s facility and it kind of sets me back a bit which is one of the reasons it took me so long to put this album out.

As far as pre-production go I got it going on in the basement, been teaching the kids. I got a five year- old and a seven year-old, by the names of Zion and Jaden, teaching them how to produce and they’re dope. Jaden, man, he just helped me produce a track called “I” and we were going to record it today, you know I was going to have you meet me at the studio.

HHF: So that work ethic that you were talking about, you’re in the process of instilling that in your children. (…) I think it’s so dope to have the children involved in the process, they’re not going to be stuck someday trying to figure out what to do and how they’re going to eat.

Theotis Joe: It starts with the parents, you send them to school everyday for however many hours and then they come home for a couple of hours and go to bed. Nah, it starts at the house, you set it up so when they come back, even if its the weekend, we doing something productive, you know that’s going to be instilled in them that can carry on and pretty much if they need to make money then they got that.

HHF: Did you have any influence in your life like that growing up; what were like some of your musical influences?

Theotis Joe: Yeah well as far as musical influences, I’ve always been into like just music period. I use to listen to a lot of old school, R&B, because my pop he use to play stuff like James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, a lot of blues. Hip Hop of course, I mean I grew up listening to that late 80’s early 90’s hip hop, I wish that could come back.

As for hip hop, I was kinda influenced by NWA, Too Short, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, I grew up on that, Eric B & Rakim, KRS-One, stuff like that, Big Daddy Kane. As it progressed, then it was Wu-Tang, The Pharcyde, man, I could go on forever.

HHF: So about your sound, if I may, you have these hard-hitting lyrics like NWA but with a more laid back delivery. Where does that come from? I think you referred to it in ‘In My Town’, when you said “… sport a fedora, but got a southpaw…”?

theotisjoe

Theotis Joe: “You think I’m soft cuz’ I sport a fedora, hell nah I got a southpaw that’ll rock a hole in your jaw…”. I guess just experience, I love being in rap cyphers. People get together and just spit rhythms and stuff  like that, coming up with new stuff and I even rap to myself while I’m making beats and stuff. I guess it all depends on how the beat makes you feel, I learned to rock with the rhythm and just flow to the track like a cowboy on horseback, just flow with it.

(Theotisjoe begins to nod his head to the background music)

HHF: Oh are we about to start freestyling?

HHF: Where can we find the new Ship It Out ep and also the After Hours album?

Theotis Joe: Starting with the Ship It Out ep, its going to be released on August 16 on cdbaby.com and will be available on I-Tunes, Amazon, Spotify, all the digital download sites across the world, even my website, TheotisJoe.com. After Hours is already available on I-Tunes and Amazon and you can find the music on YouTube, I’m on Soundcloud and ReverbNation.

HHF: Thank you so much for sitting down with Hip Hop Forum digital magazine today.

Theotis Joe: Thank you for having me.

omi 2

West Baltimore native Omi Muhammad is an artist and writer, now based in Philadelphia. To see her work, please go to http://www.urban-gypsy.net/index.html

Omi is part of the New Black Writers Program, managed by Hip Hop Forum Digital Magazine, to support, nurture and develop the talents of Black American journalists of the future.

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Personal Response: Officer Nero judgement, Freddie Gray trial By Omi Muhammad

Personal response Article about the Officer Nero judgement, the officer involved in the Freddie Gray trial.

Written by: Omi Muhammad

 

May 23, 2016 11:13 AM

CBS Alert reads “Baltimore Officer Acquitted in Freddie Gray Case”.

My phone screen goes from red to blue and back to red again. I knew that it was due to a glitch in my filter app but all I saw was the symbolism. I stared at the screen, numb, not shocked just numb; I realized that in the back of my mind I expected this. I absent-mindedly logged onto Facebook where I saw all sorts of different reactions to the verdict. People were outraged and calling for blood. Parents were pleading for possible rioters to be mindful of their children’s safety. Some people agreed with the verdict. I know how I wanted to feel but in all honesty, the pain was too much for me to allow myself to feel at all.

Freddie Gray was another life lost at the hands of justice; and yet, no justice.

Over the years, countless minorities have been abused and even killed by police hands; and yet so few are mentioned. The numbers dwindle even further when asked about justice. The problem isn’t just police brutality or that this one officer was acquitted; the problem is the system that allows it. The system that enacted and later amended the Three Fifths Compromise. Over 150 years later, why are we still fighting to be considered human?

Minorities are taught as children how to survive before we even begin to learn how to live. Imagine being told that you and anyone who looks like you is a target, for anything from a mean look to death. Imagine being told to talk, dress and behave a certain way just so that you don’t arouse any more unwarranted suspicion. Think of the worried glances at the clock when you are late coming home. Tears dripping onto clasped hands as someone prays fervently that you’re one of the ones who makes it. We need a paradigm shift in this country; one that doesn’t create an ideology of selective humanity.

We need to reclaim our humanity. As a human being, I have choice words for the officers and the judge; but that doesn’t bring anyone back or prevent these situations from occurring. It doesn’t help us cope or build for the future. This is why I’m especially proud of the Baltimore youth. They have yet to lose their ability to feel, that was made evident by the explosion of art following the riots. From murals to national slam poems, our youth have been re-establishing their power. To Freddie Gray and all other lives lost, we honor you and will continue to reclaim our humanity.

West Baltimore native Omi Muhammad is an artist and writer, now based in Philadelphia. To read her work, please go to http://www.urban-gypsy.net/index.html

 

Omi Muhammad
Omi is part of the New Black Writers Program, managed by Hip Hop Forum Digital Magazine, to support, nurture and develop the talents of Black American journalists of the future.

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HHF Profile Interview: Changa Onyango, Executive Director at Community Mediation, Baltimore, Speaks following Officer Nero acquittal in Freddie Gray trial

As part of its community focus, Hip Hop Forum Digital Magazine reached out to Mr Changa Onyango, Executive Director at Community Mediation to hear how people in West Baltimore felt about the Officer Nero decision on May 23rd where he was acquitted of all charges over his involvement in the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. At the same time, we took the opportunity to speak to him about the importance of giving the local community a voice via mediation and his work with two local non-profits, OBI and Group Harvest.
Interviewed and written by Madeleine Byrne
Photo of young woman in Baltimore, keeping a smile on her face.
Photo of young woman in Baltimore, keeping a smile on her face.

‘Apathy is the word I’d use,’ Mr Changa Onyango replied via email when asked how people in West Baltimore responded to the decision that saw Officer Edward Nero cleared of all charges. ‘The people don’t hold out hope for justice in any tangible ways any more. Mainly they were happy to see that the world give them a nod for 15 seconds.’

Twenty-five year old West Baltimore native Freddie Gray died on April 19th after suffering a ‘high-energy injury’ an autopsy report said came from the sudden deceleration of the police van in which he was travelling, shackled and handcuffed, but not restrained by a seatbelt. As a result of his injuries – a severed spine and crushed voice box – Mr Gray fell into a coma and died a week after his arrest.

 

Baltimore’s former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said the officers stopped three times: first, to put Mr Gray in leg-irons, second to ‘deal with Mr Gray’ and then to put another prisoner in the van. He also acknowledged that: ‘We know our police employees failed to get him medical attention in a timely manner multiple times.’ After a medical examiner’s report ruled Mr Gray’s death a ‘homicide’ six police officers were indicted on charges ranging from reckless endangerment, manslaughter to 2nd degree depraved-heart murder.

Last December a jury failed to reach a verdict regarding one police officer. During the most recent May hearing, Officer Nero was cleared of all charges (two counts of second degree assault; misconduct in office and false imprisonment). Legal commentators claim that the reasons for the acquittal provided by Judge Barry Williams might indicate a higher chance of a conviction in the remaining cases, especially in that he argued Officer Nero’s role was ‘secondary’ so he was not responsible for the fact that Mr Gray was not restrained properly.

The case of the officer driving the van, Caesar Goodson, begins next. He faces 30 years in jail if convicted of a murder charge. Considering the evidence that show Mr Gray’s injuries were caused by the van’s sudden stop and a proven history of ‘rough rides’ in police vans in Baltimore, many believe that the case against Goodson is strong.

And yet, as Mr Onyango explained this raises difficult issues for the local community. ‘A lot of people see it as a color issue or race issue and one of the key defendants is black. People don’t want to see at the end that their protesting etc ends up sending a black person to jail – cop or not.’ Caesar Goodson, the driver of the police van, is African-American.

During the first Freddie Gray trial, Mr Onyango organised a series of open mics across the city so people could speak and be heard. ‘A big part of the violence (following Freddie Gray’s funeral on April 27th) happened because people had no place to fellowship. Churches weren’t open,’ he said. ‘There was nowhere you could take refuge from all the negativity. Having places open their doors and posting a sign up that says…”no judgement zone…speak your piece” was a way for us to be cultural relevant in our response.’

Mr. Changa Onyango

With more than 20 years experience working in West Baltimore, Changa Onyango is the Executive Director of Community Mediation and also helped set up two other non-profits in the city: OBI and Group Harvest. He explained the importance of his work this way:

As a mediator I facilitate tough conversations when people have a hard time getting themselves heard. The main thing we do is modelling the active listening skill in the context of conversation. We know through research that the best chance for peace is when both sides feel heard and understood. We train volunteers to do the mediations and we use local spots like conference rooms or churches to have the mediations in the community. Our mediators are trained not to input information or restate people’s position.. we only reflect, listen… listen, reflect. It’s the key to people feeling like they own the solution.

OBI is a non-profit that provides training to local boys and was founded after Mr Onyango travelled ‘around the country doing the training for other groups on contract through the United Way and Youthbuild USA’. While Group Harvest ‘came as a collaboration between myself and Rodney Powell who is now an administrator in Connecticut public schools.’

As he explained: ‘We decided to create a company that would go around and teach teachers through professional development workshops and also engaged directly with students to help build climate that over time could change the culture of student teacher relationships.’

In a series of YouTube videos, Mr Onyango has offered up some interesting perspectives on the best way to motivate young people via a concept of ‘leverage’ without returning to harsh discipline, or physical punishment that can entrench a sense of disengagement. He describes how he tries to motivate his own children to strive for better, while reinforcing a spirit of collaboration, rather than a winner take all mentality.

I asked him to speak about this more:

‘My theory is there are three main ways to motivate people; the first being to influence their preference the second being to introduce a logical idea and the third being violence. If children are people then we have to use one of these three to get them to make decisions that are in line with what we think they should do. If children are not people and they are instead property, then we can just pick them up and manoeuvre them however we wish.’

He continued: ‘I don’t wish to treat my children as property so I have had to retrain myself to treat them as humans regardless of their size I’ve had to retrain myself to respect their logical processes and to introduce to them the reasons behind my decisions and actions as well as the reasons behind what I wish for them to do. I’ve also have to convince myself to be okay with the fact that this will not always work. In our society external influence is pervasive. In poor families it’s even more so.’

The neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived in West Baltimore faces a series of issues, Mr Onyango explained. One of the most important being the lack of good quality housing. This problem is not new. Indeed, Freddie Gray’s mother won a court settlement after laboratory tests in the 1990s found Gray and his two sisters had double the level the State of Maryland defines as the minimum of lead poisoning. The lead came from squalid walls of the home where they lived. While a 2014 Maryland Department of Environment report found that more than 2,600 children in Baltimore had dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

‘West Baltimore is a very complicated set of circumstances. There’s a lot of history that still effects and informs policy at high levels as well as individual decision-making at the lowest levels. There is still plenty of bigotry and hatred between disparate groups,’ Mr Onyango said. ‘The roots if you follow them deeply enough usually go back to resources and territory or property. Everyone wants to build a legacy and in America there’s really only a few ways to do it.’ And yet, ‘the problem with trying to build a legacy (…) is that you must own the means of production. In this case that means of production is usually space.’

‘Baltimore is one of the highest concentration of dissing franchise black folk in terms of real estate meaning that the ratio of people who own is extremely low,’ he explained. ‘The fact is that this was intentional and very evident, yet no effort has been made to reverse the very real and lasting effects so this is the biggest reason that the hate endures.’

In conclusion, Mr Onyango said: ‘Poor education, Black Afluenza, discriminatory hiring practices, and media stigma are all also real contributors to the current climate,’ but in the end, the ‘housing/space ownership dilemma is the biggest piece of the puzzle for Baltimore.’

To find out more about Community Mediation Baltimore, go to http://communitymediation.org/

Thank you Omi Muhammad for organizing this interview.

Thanks to Omi Muhammad!

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