Tuesday, October 28, 2008

THE ROOTS of VIOLENCE and the SEARCH FOR PEACE: exclusive Questlove interview

Back in March this year, I had a chance to interview the two front men of THE ROOTS, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter at their Chelsea studio. I pitched the piece for the PEACE issue of TRACE, but it never ended up getting published in the issue. Tarik talked shortly about their new album Rising Down, while Ahmir got deep on some political matters. The election a week away, I felt that Questlove's thoughts on the meaning of violence and peace, on the current elections, and on the importance of grassroots activism couldn't be more timely, so I decided to publish it myself...there is a lot to chew on in here. The day I did the interview I also met Amir Ebrahimi who took these beautiful shots, and he became a friend since. Amir's work never sees to amaze me, make sure to check his photos after reading this: here.
Here is the unedited full version of the interview.

“In a land of war, seek peace of mind through mental peacefulness/ Peacefulness is in the mind of the beholder”, rhymed Black Thought on THE ROOTS’ 1993 debut album, Organix, which put the Philly-bred group on the map as one of the most innovative and politically outspoken hip-hop groups of the early 90’s. More than fifteen years in the game, the Grammy-award winning band has lost none of its edge and remains to be the much-needed breath of fresh air amidst the blinged-out club-bangers that seem to have a financial monopoly these days. As expected, THE ROOTS still have much to say about the search for peace in our post 9/11 world. A dark musical odyssey set out to expose the hidden roots of violence, their latest album Rising Down is a highly political project and a true testament to the subversive power of rhymes hip-hop has been best known for. Like many other times before, the album was inspired by a book; this time, they drew inspiration from William T. Vollmann’s epic seven-volume opus magnum entitled Rising Up and Rising Down, in which the author presents a powerful critique of political violence through an in-debt historical analysis of why humans resort to violence and how they justify it through political means.

Lichiban: Do you think that it is important to promote peace through music?

Questlove: You know the most ironic thing you could say about this album is that it is about peace. The way we went about it though is through a back-door route. First of all, the title of the album is based on a book, entitled Rising Up and Rising Down, a massive study of the history of violence. It breaks down the psychology of why human beings resort to violence, from local to global scale. It starts with international issues, and goes from citizens against the police state down to local issues, violence in prison, school violence, domestic violence, all the way to civil rivalry. This is the first book that we based an album on that I haven’t read fully…it’s like 1900 pages. It really taught me a lot. The way we wanted to present it on this album is kind of strange. There is an underlying thread that connects though the entire record of how violence is used. There is a character Criminal who observes the hypocrisy of the government-approved violence, like war crimes.[...] They only reported that they spent 6 billion on this war, but the actual number is 3600 billion, so how come the government goes unpunished for crimes it commits, but yet citizens are still getting harsh sentences for lesser offenses. Or even the idea of the Rockefeller law in NY, where urban drugs are getting a stiff 10-year penalty, while a casual Wall Street cocaine user might get a slap on the wrist. It deals with the hypocrisy of crimes and violence from the government's standpoint and then looks at it from the citizen’s standpoint. The song “Lost Desire” expresses the mentality of why young black men are nihilistic and why they have really no passion. Lost Passion would’ve been a better title but Lost Desire gives off the same vibe. Why young men are so numbed by society that they’re just cold-blooded. You have to understand that we’re from Philadelphia. Philadelphia is the murder capitol of the United States. We’re dealing here with, on a good week, 4 murders a week, on a typical week 9 murders. New York had celebrated maybe 7 murders in a calendar year. 475 murders, that’s more than a murder a day. Imagine if all Philadelphia citizens stand in line and someone says them, every 24 hours 2 of you are gonna die, you don’t know which one of you it is.

Lichiban: It’s like living in a war zone.
Questlove: It’s absolutely like a war zone. You watch action news. The one thing that I absolutely cringe hearing...they always give you the four top stories of the night. “The big story of action news tonight: 3 murders in North Philadelhia”. And someone like “Oh my god, it’s my cousin.” And you’re always watching, praying to god that it’s no one that you know who makes action news. It’s almost like a lottery, “Let’s see, go to see the war, how many murders we’ve got this week, ah 272 not even July,.. hopefully we will make it to December without 500.”

Lichiban: I visited several civil war stricken areas where people had to live with the idea of mortality or bear the affects of sustained fear on a daily basis. The cases of untreated post-traumatic stress disorder is really high and it really hurts the community. I feel like it is overlooked in this country.
Questlove: You know what, I’m gonna tell you something funny. It’s to the point that I can’t ignore it. Even though I’m minority. Even in my celebritidom, you’d think...Years ago, I could actually say, “Eh, I’m not a part of that, it’s not gonna affect me. I’m on tour large part of the year, it’s not gonna affect me. But it does affect me. There are solutions to this now that I don’t agree with. Philadelphia wants to do away with the fourth amendment right. Basically the police can stop you whenever they want to and go through your bags. You could say, well 9 murders a week, this has got to stop. This has been going on for 3 years in a row, so maybe this is the solution. No, the real solution is you have to go through and find out what drives a person to the point where they now feel that they have to end your life. There is a lot of possible answers. One theory is that the lack of finances, lack of education, lack of job opportunities are the reasons why teens lack self–esteem and lack appreciation for life. All these things you need to catch that early. Have you seen the Wire? The Wire should be required to be watched by every government official. It is a real depiction of what truly is going on.

I told the Obama campaign that I don’t want to do the celebrity stuff…that I want to do something real, on the ground. I’ll go to the hood. I’ll drive a 16-passenger van and send along with me a bunch of people, knock on door... you know it’d be a little weird first [laugh.] I don’t know nobody, but I’m still Questlove. And they’d be like, “What the hell are you doing here?” and I'd say,"Trying to make sure that you vote here. You know you’re eligible to vote, I know because I got it on record." And then I’d let them know that the Republicans went overtime in 2004. A lot of people don’t know these things because they are not informed. That’s the kind of things I think are getting to a real solution.
You have to start from small. Like a tree doesn’t come from nowhere. You have to care for it, nurture it. And then it becomes the tree. Any solution, overseas or here has to be the same way. The way I feel I can contribute the most unique and effective way is through music. I don’t mean it in a sense of “oh Questlove, the drummer of the Roots[high note]”. No I mean, in a real way. There are 7 kids who came into my life between the ages of 9-11 about 17 years ago. Some went to college, some didn't, but one is still passionate to the point that he is now one of my main producers. I know him since he was 11 years old and now he is a 23 year-old man. I gave them my equipment to use, he taught himself, I just told him no girls in here. Now he has his own protégé, he teaches kids. I think it is way more effective than something like “Camp Questlove” with 5000 children in upstate New York. That’s nice, but I think if you really want to bring some change, you have to start small, you have to give them individual attention, individual love, and individual encouragement, and they will use that to experiment, experiment, experiment. They try to get me into this project called “Read to a Child”. I’m a little uncomfortable doing things that are personal in public. People would say “He reads to them. He takes them to baseball. Takes them to the movies." And I do it. But I do it in private. I feel like it’s more sincere that way. That’s one of the biggest thing about Obama, that he touches youth. He has to talk to 35 million people across the nation. He is really charismatic in person too.

Have you seen the Unusual Suspects? The first line goes like “The greatest trick that the Devil had played on the world was that he convinced the world that he didn’t exist.” Not that anything particularly dreadful about the Clinton administration, but there were a lot of issues that I felt were not for the best of my interest. I mean, the 3 strikes law. During the Clinton administration, there were Haitian refugees trying to come to this country and they were turned away! The AIDS epidemic in Africa..we were a little too slow reacting to that.

Lichiban: Then there was Rwanda.
Questlove: Yeah, Rwanda, let’s not forget that.

Lichiban: During Clinton, all we heard that the economy was booming, and I think the arts lost their edge. Do you think that the encroaching recession will affect music in a positive way?

Questlove: I once said that depressing times and hardship would actually make better black music, because normally that has been the case. Actually the situation is so horrible that it gave the opposite effect. People got numbed to it. It actually started in the Clinton administration. The ideals got replaced. Kurt Cobain was the down-to-earth anti-hero, and Puffy became the privileged celebratory, the Great Gatsby-esque figure. I think it’s because Clinton represented a sigh of relief after 4 years of Bush, 8 years of Ronald Reagan. Socially, economically, the 70’s were not the best of times in America, but then again, the Nixon administration set us back to the civil rights period. Kennedy’s assassination really set the progress back. Clinton was the first mainstay of an 8-year period after Bush and Reagan. We were celebrating, but while celebrating we kind of let the rope go, the rope through which we were hanging onto justice. We let the ballon go up in the sky and we can’t get it back. Since Bush has been in office, I thought that we ‘re gonna be more socially conscious, we would be more for our rights. But in fact, the exact opposite happened. I think we got more scarred, more politically correct. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the last 8 years you haven’t heard from the Rage Against the Machine. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you haven’t heard from Lauryn Hill since George Bush. Or D’Angelo. The voices that you’d think would be the most outspoken, the most political. I think the fact that he stole the election just put it beyond hope. People started to think “they stole the election, they can do anything. They can destroy your life in a second, and you can do nothing about it you can’t prove nothing to nobody.” Yeah, I would be scarred too.
I don’t know if there is going to be a Restoration, but I know that, personally, I feel as though this is one of our best efforts ever. I don’t know how it will do on the market, I don’t know if people are going to receive it well, but if we’re gonna go down, we’re gonna go down with my best foot forward and that’s more important than not saying nothing.

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1 comment:

Jelsen said...

amazing article & interview licsi. notes taken!