Hip-hop duo Blue Scholars talks about lessons learned, effect on lyrics

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Friday’s “Night of Cultural Resistance” brought students and other members of the Berkeley community together to celebrate  and educate on the subjects of rootedness, resilience, creativity and survival. Organized by the Multicultural Community Center, the campus department of cross-cultural student development, the ASUC Office of the President and ASUC SUPERB, the night was the final event of the Week of Cultural Resistance.

As part of the night’s festivities, Seattle hip-hop duo Blue Scholars performed on Memorial Glade for its second Berkeley performance to date. DJ Sabzi and MC Geologic gave a phenomenal set that spanned their 12 years in the game. From tracks off their debut album such as “The Inkwell” to ones such as “Slick Watts” from their last album, Cinemetropolis, Blue Scholars’ politically driven lyrics and finely tuned beats created powerful waves throughout the crowd.

Before the duo’s performance that night, The Daily Californian got to chat with Blue Scholars about what cultural resistance means to them, the effectiveness of protests and what’s next for the Pho-loving musicians.

Daily Cal: What drew you to this event?

Sabzi: Someone emailed us and asked us to play (laughs).

Geologic: And it’s here, on a campus we’ve been to before and that we think is one of the best ever, only second to our alma mater, University of Washington.

DC: What is it about the campus and Berkeley in general that you like?

G: Visually, it reminds me of UW a little bit. It has that classic West Coast look: lots of trees, mixtures of architectures and grass. But I’m also aware of the militant history of student organizing, both here and across the waters at San Francisco State. I’m an ethnic studies major, so a lot of what I study came out of places like Berkeley, which was among one of the first places to have students of color or working-class students.

DC: So what does the term “cultural resistance” mean to you?

S: Well, today I’d say when I hear that, it’s about standing up and defending a space for my own identity or rallying around other folks who demand more freedom or space for their own identity. The idea of a resistance implies that there’s a dominant identity that’s overshadowing everything else, which can be suffocating on many levels. These days, I sort of stray away from the concept of resistance and towards building a new space for evolution or identity — though I’m down with both.

G: I think resistance is necessary, but I also identify with resistance when it goes beyond just the sake of resistance. In line with the resistance, there should always be the vision of what we want to see if we succeed in what we’re trying to resist against.

DC: For Berkeley, one of the most recent resistances was when Janet Napolitano was announced as the new president of the UC system. Do you have any thoughts on that?

G: I think it’s emblematic of what’s going on throughout the country. I feel that in 2013 to 2014, there’s more of an awareness amongst the general student population that they have the power to do things than I feel like we did when we were students. There’s constant rallying and organizing that goes beyond the campus and into the communities. Repression breeds resistance, so it’s going to happen, and I stand in solidarity of folks who are trying to change that.

DC: Do you feel that student protests in general are very effective, or is there a better way to communicate their ideas?

G: I participated in protests back when I was younger, but I always felt, then and now, that protests need to be part of a bigger program and vision than just for the sake of protesting. More hours should be put in to building alliances and relationships within your community first and foremost, because if you don’t do that, then when you hit the streets, you’re not bringing a range of people with you to show that there’s a solidarity across the board, and I’ve seen that happen a lot.

The first public protest I ever attended was the WCO protest back in Seattle 1999, and I saw the three to five months of teachings, organizing work within different communities and labor organizing that led up to that mobilization. There’s a lot of emphasis of what you see on TV of getting into the street, but the real work was put into the shit that didn’t get put on TV. It brought people together who may not have gotten along but who both came to this country for the same reasons, and using that relation to agree on opinions and get out into the streets.

DC: Do you feel that you are activists through your work as musicians?

G: Well, back in the day when I was actively participating in protests, that work I did reflected in the music. These days, rather than opening my notebook and trying to write and listen to beats and create political music, I think of it as making music politically. I’m going to make music and art, but I have the mind frame where I’m seeing it through the lens of politics and economics, so I’m going to let that reflect in what I do rather than trying to force all that into everything that I do as a musician.

S: What you’re calling “activist” is more a frame of mind or a way of living your life. So after trying that out in different spheres, I’m finding that, for me, the most effective thing I can do is create wealth to the point where I can create jobs so that when I hit an older age, I can be a part of building new infrastructure versus getting on board with something that still operates in an old system of power dynamics. I used to do different types of  mentoring for kids after school, where mentors and directors would come and go. A lot of youth don’t need another person in their life who’s going to come and go, and a lot of talk about changing perspectives is great, but what people need is jobs and money, and take all of that word into action to change their environment.

All of us need to recognize that, within each of us, we have a responsibility to transform our own reality in that way. Some people go to school to get a job and be fine, and then maybe they get a little disenchanted along the way, and then they protest and complain about the system that’s not serving them how they thought it would, but all of their intentions are still resting on power that’s held in the hands of other people instead of looking really careful at oneself and seeing how I can change my situation today in relation to the things standing in my way.

G: Blue Scholars started out like this. This group took the leap from just two dudes talking and occasionally making music to putting that into action and putting out records, doing shows and being active in communities from conversations like this. In general, in the circle of people I work with, there’s a dynamic between the individual and the collective that goes back and forth. I did a lot of reflecting last year, after being in the independent music game for 10 years, on what the next 10 years are going to be like. I’m always going to make music and perform, but I also don’t want to do the same thing that I’ve been doing the last 10 years. I think there’s a lot of creative energy that did come out through Blue Scholars, but I’ve always wanted to explore visual art, photography and writing. It’s all the same thing to me though, just different ways of channeling the same creative energy that’s always been there.

Ian Birnam covers music. Contact him at [email protected].