Rapper Rell Be Free’s Tools for Seattle’s Revolution: Classroom, Stage, Streets

by Emerald Staff

If clichés hold true then the revolution may not be televised, but it will be sung, organized, fought for, and ultimately won if Jerrell Davis has his way.

While most prominently known for his adroit rap skills under his stage name Rell Be Free, The South End bred Davis, has simultaneously kept a foothold in the realms of education, poetry, organizing, and community building. 

The 24-year-old, who’s been rapping since the age of 12, has summoned all of them in service to sparking collective self-determination, and revolutionary thinking in the South Seattle community. Demolishing the stigma attached to the millennial generation, Davis has already co-founded youth leadership development organization WA-BLOC (Washington Building Leaders of Change) which meets out of Rainier Beach HS, serves as RBAC’s Corner Greeter Coordinator engaging community members on various blocks around the neighborhood, and recently launched “Nu Growth” his latest album.

The Emerald caught up with Davis in the middle of his Homegrown Tour at multiple South End venues in promotion of Nu Growth. Davis spoke about the current state of Hip-Hop, the seduction of Black Capitalism, the need for auxiliary education in public schools, and of course, revolution in the Emerald City.

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Jerrell Davis during a performance at the Royal Room in Columbia City. (photo: Hannah Letinich)

Emerald: How did you originally get into rhyming and using it as a vehicle for social justice as opposed to a mechanism to simply make money? Locally, your fans compare you favorably to the likes of a Childish Gambino or Kendrick Lamar. 

Jerrell: I’m a student of wisdom. I acknowledge and learn from those who came before me. Growing up my musical influences were 2Pac and Bob Marley. They weren’t just two musical influences but they also embodied what they spoke about. Historically, we talk about the African Diaspora, and we’ve always used music as a revolutionary tool.

For example, if you go back to Trinidad that’s where calypso music came out of. There was a time in Black American history that they made music illegal – like us playing our drums and instruments- and calypso music came out of a vibration that we’ve got to make sound though, we’ve got to make these vibrations.  They drilled holes in empty steel oil vats and started beating them things!  You know something revolutionary was created out of that.

 

EM: Speaking of, you have a song entitled Revolutionary on your album. My interpretation of it was that the act of revolution should be exercised every single day. Is that assessment on point?

Jerrell: Yah, I think the use of the word “revolution” has become mainstream. The fact that we are talking freely about it is evidence of that. So, when I talk about revolution I’m being very purposeful. That’s why when we talk about Black liberation, we speak of it as a movement. I’m not into reform because reform may change the structure, but the impact and the outcome doesn’t shift. We’re saying how do we completely shift the structure so that it produces different outcomes?  When you define an institution, you grade it on its outcomes.

For instance, if 2 million of us are still behind bars being profited on – and that’s more than the number of people were enslaved in 1862- then how can you say we are progressing?  I would say that being a revolutionary is a spiritual practice. Freedom rings in the minds of those who are captive and you’ve got to liberate your mind in order to see things differently.

 

EM: How is that manifested in the day to day?

Jerrell: I’m a member of the Seattle People’s Party and one of the tenants we stand on is: How do we change the material conditions of our people, not just things on the surface to offer a better visual of their suffering. 

 

EM: So going beyond the cosmetic and focusing on the substantive?

Jerrell:  Right, I mean you look at Seattle and you ask the question: How has the Black community improved in the last 30 years?  You can’t say it has because we are still at the bottom of every major category. So yes, we may have Black councilmembers on the city and county councils but the order hasn’t shifted.

 

EM: So Black faces in high places, so to speak, don’t necessarily guarantee collective prosperity?

Jerrell: NOPE! They don’t. That’s why when I say revolution is a spiritual practice that encompasses the economic, the physical, the mental liberation of our community. Aaron Dixon taught me that revolution is when we need to gain control of the systems and institutions that are meant to imprison us. That means housing, education, economics, the job sector, and transportation. Even linguistically we are controlled. I have a line in one of my songs that says “my Afrikan tongue in anguish, cuz we must speak English.”

 

EM: Your music also talks about the distinction between religion and Spirituality? And also communitarianism vs federalism.

Jerrell: My perspective of Christianity comes post 1100AD, which technically could be considered hella recent because “religions” have been practiced since humxnity began. We say religions are about worship but how do you define worship? If you look at our culture, even though people claim In God We Trust, is it actually the dollar that’s trusted- not the God that’s inscribed on it?

We’ve been industrialized so much that our connectivity to nature, our connectivity to ourselves is being distorted and perverted. I’m saying we’re constantly seeking things outside of ourselves and we don’t know ourselves. That very fact is reflected in our government.  The fact that we could have a 10,000-mile radius controlled by the same governing body… there’s something wrong with that. What if we as a community controlled Rainier Beach? What if we had our autonomy?

 

EM: Your music is also unapologetically anti-capitalistic. I know that flies in the face of people who say Black capitalism is going to save us and we need to get ours. Can you talk about your position a little bit more?

Jerrell:  I want everything I say to embody who I am as a person. I’m by no means perfect.  I’ve got my own internalized patriarchy, my own internalized racism, my own internalized sexism that manifests itself, and I need to deal with that and work on that.  Why are we supposed to get snaps for being a better humxn? That’s what we are supposed to be doing. 

There’s a lot of things plaguing our society. Which is why I am an anti-imperialist, an anti-capitalist, an anti-patriarch, an anti-racist, and anti-xenophobic.  Our relationship to capitalism is obviously complex, though. The other day I wore a sweater that said Black Dollars Matter and one of the students at Rainier Beach HS was like: Mr. Jerrell, what does that mean? And I was like, I’m glad you asked me that.

My response was:  You look at how the white community spends its money. It goes right back into the white community. Looking at folks of color, you see Koreans spend their money in Korean businesses. Vietnamese folks spend their money in their own businesses, and a shout out to the East Africans who support each other’s businesses.

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Photo by Hannah Letinich

EM: I’m thinking of that Dave Chappelle sketch, where they finally give us our reparations and the news broadcaster says, man all these Black people can’t wait to give us this money back (laughter).

Jerrell: Right, but all that being said, it’s not just us when it comes to capitalism. Think of how fetishized America of all the white folks that won the Lottery. And they are giving it back to the masters of capital. We have this idea that white people are just so much better with money than us and that’s nonsense.

 

EM: There’s a line on Jay-Z’s last album where he opines that Black folks need to become as financially literate as other races. Folks obviously took exception to that. What’s missing from the narrative around the Black community and its financial destiny?

Jerrell: Like I was saying at the root of it all is this spirit of capitalism that claims we live in a meritocracy. When you create a competitive environment in the United States of America you feed that mentality of “I’ve got to get whatever I can.” And that’s what you hear all of these rappers saying: I’ve got to get that money. I’ve got to get that dollar. You know what I’m saying?

That’s why it’s funny it took Jay Z how many albums it took to arrive where he’s currently at. Throughout his career, he has dropped nuggets of how to get what he’s got, and he finally dedicated an album to that- but very few mainstream rappers do that because they are obviously the mainstream and you know it’s controlled.  But again, it goes back to the root of capitalism. The elements of capitalism are competition and individuality (and materialism).

White folks who had money invested it, creating generational wealth. But you can’t disassociate the access and privilege that even comes with having that mentality. When you’re coming from a neighborhood where not everybody has that access then wealth becomes relative. That’s why you can have a hood-rich mentality where it’s okay to drive a car with rims but live at your mom’s house. The question is, are you giving your mom rent?  We demonize our own folks for doing things like that and white folks do the same thing! The point is we are all wrong.  We need that liberation of mind from the capitalistic mentality.

 

EM: So, what does the right mentality look like?

Jerrell: Bro if we had the right mentality we would be like help me eat this, help me spend this, help us maintain this. That’s the mentality in music. That’s the mentality in artistry. That’s the mentality I have in organizing and I try to embody it continually and to hold it accountably to me.  It’s not about me. It’s about passing this platform and multiplying.

 

EM: Speaking of multiplying, it seems like you’ve been doing that with several organizations you’ve helped found from scratch?

Jerrell: Yes, I’ve started from zero with WA- BLOC, started from zero with the Seattle People’s Party. The thing is it’s not about money, it’s about access. And it’s about how you utilize what you do have and that may not be money. In the 5 elements of hip-hop: DJing, Graffiti, MCing, B-boying/ B-Girling and that 5th element that people leave out is knowledge/wisdom. Anybody who has ever been to one of my shows knows that I try to incorporate all of that. There are dancers at my shows. There are artists at my shows. In fact, shout out to muralist Henry Luke who painted my album artwork.  So to me, when the music is devoid of knowledge and wisdom, it’s no longer hip-hop. If it claims to be then it’s hip-hop with a peg leg. I think for me I’m very intertwined and in a community that will hold me accountable so if I ever was popping off some nonsense the young people I work with would be like Mr. Jerrell…

 

EM: So the community makes sure you’re as authentic in your music and on stage as you are in the real world?

Jerrell: Absolutely, otherwise they’d be like: Bro you just did the corner greeter thing on MLK and Henderson where I saw you give out juice.  I saw you picking up litter!

So, I honestly must be true to who I am. I’m very comfortable with who I am and so I’m not trying to perpetuate a false image. When you front, you’ve got to keep it up and I’m not prepared to keep up a façade. I’d rather keep up who I really am.

No matter how popular my music gets, I’ve got to remember that it’s really not about me. Honestly, I use music as art, but I really see music as a tool toward revolution – a way to change the material conditions of our people.  

 

EM: I’m paraphrasing someone, but you can’t have revolution without artists, right?

Jerrell:  American culture demonizes and marginalizes the artist’s life. The institution of supremacy and oppression will show you what’s important by who they choose to chop off.  In every revolution on earth, it is the musicians and artists who are the people who shape and transform culture.

 

EM: Speaking about Seattle, you say: If you make it here you can make it anywhere. Can you explain that?

Jerrell: When I say that I’m talking about people that hold their cultural line, like the young people at Rainier Beach high school, or the young people at Franklin (shout out to them being National Mock Trial winners), or the young folk at Aki Kurose MS.

Seattle is a place, where the neo-liberals bite you with a smile. To quote Malcolm X, they’re either going to bite with a grin or with a growl. Some folks are okay getting bit by a grin but I can’t accept that because I’m still getting bit.

 

EM: With Seattle losing so many Black faces, what impact do you think that will have on the future of the city’s hip-hop scene?

Jerrell: It goes back to us linking arms as a community. I had doors opened for me, that’s why I was able to record Nu Growth with Gabriel Teodros.  I’ve known Nikkita Oliver since I was 12. I’ve had my beloved sister Kaila’s support for my entire life. People like them have given me a platform and taught me a great deal. I just try to continue that legacy.

And to be honest that’s what I’m talking about with this whole Home Grown Tour. I’m trying to elevate the fact that there are HELLA philthy young artists in town -and we’ve mentioned a lot of dudes but in my opinion, the best MCs in Seattle are womxn. Gifted Gab and KO Nikkita are ten times better than Macklemore. Shakiah and Momma Nikki are better than all these guys. Do Normaal and Guayaba are killing these guys, word to young Lio! Madlines is snapping on the scene and she’s in Oakland right now. The future of Seattle Hip Hop is going wherever we take it and will be whatever it is we do.

 

EM: And what’s that?

Jerrell: I was sitting right here in 2015 and this random lady said to me: Bloom where you are planted. I remember being mad. I hadn’t even been back from Guatemala for a year and I was trying to go back. I was saying my next move was going to be L.A. or Oakland. But she said: Bloom where you are planted. She frustrated me. From that I came up with the idea for “Nu Growth” and a local “HomeGrown Tour.” It all comes full circle.  When you breathe you’ve got seeds. I’m a spiritual educating gardener. Parents have entrusted me with young folks that I love and I will give my heart and my life to them. I’ll die in order for them to shine.  I want to see them bloom and I’ll put that on my life seven days a week.

Rell Be Free Music: Spotify, Itunes, Soundcloud


Featured image by Hannah Letinich

 

 

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