Ian Kamau

19 Jan

Being that your girls are both from Toronto, it’s fitting that the Project’s first entry would be on Ian Kamau – a talented emcee, poet, community organizing graphic designer from our hood who’s been doing the damn thing for years. The T Dot is a city residents call the Screw-face Capital; it’s a place where local love is hard to come by and hometown heroes don’t exist. Despite the difficulties Kamau has gone from local clubs to touring internationally, sharing stages with respected artists like The Roots, Cody Chesnutt, Ben Harper and Saul Williams. His work is a cook up of the blues, soulful hip hop and spoken word. His stage presence and lyrical aptitude are astounding. As an independent artist, he has released a solo EP, a compilation LP (alongside Natural, Equinox199 and Change) called The Pangea Project and he is the only guest to have been featured on all of k-os’ albums, including the double platinum Joyful Rebellion.

At the onset of 2009, Kamau unveiled his “Majority Report” though various online communities and expects to release a couple of other projects later this year. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Kamau on behalf of Movimiento, Cuba’s national hip hop magazine. Check out “Majority Report” and chunks of the interview below.


Project Bassline: It’s been awhile, when can we expect the album?

Kamau: I’d like to put the full album out in September, that’s my goal. But I want to release a shorter disc before that in May or June, just on the internet.

The Project: Tell me about the community work you’ve been doing.

K: There’s different stuff. There’s the Emerge program, a young leaders program. We did the international exchanges with that program. It’s basically a program for people that do work in the community on a grassroots level. The idea is that we supported them in doing that and also took them on international exchanges. And we met people from Kenya who did similar work and then brought them to Toronto.

iankamau1Then there are all the different hip hop programs…hip hop programs for kids who are into music…just a way to get them involved in creating their own music and writing their own stuff and understanding how to create songs. I did about five or six of those programs over the last two years. And then there’s this NIA thing, which is a Black arts center that we’re trying to develop in Toronto.

The Project: Tell me about your trips to Cuba. How did you end up there the first time?

K: [Cuban rap duo] Obsesión was in Toronto, I can’t remember what the year was, but someone had brought them. They showed the documentary La Fabri_k and did a performance. Afterwards I went up to Alexey [one half of Obsesión] and gave him some music. He took the stuff, he looked at me, and then pointed in my face and was like, “Kamau, you’re Kamau?” [Laughing] I think he had heard something, probably on one of the k-os albums, and it was cool. We talked for a bit and he introduced me to Magia [the other half of Obsesión].

Alexey sent me an email a little while later saying, “We’re doing this hip hop symposium, it’s the first one, and we’d like to know if you want to come down.” I just decided that I was going, and I went.

The Project: What were your impressions, going down to Cuba and meeting the community and the artists?

K: It’s a Cuban hip hop symposium which means there are hip hop artists from all over Cuba, a lot of whom were cool and some of whom had issues with each other, but it was still a community of people that came together around their love of hip hop.

I had become very disenfranchised with hip hop music in Toronto and North America in general because of the direction that it had been going. But going to Cuba was the first of a couple of international experiences that I had – Havana, Rio, Sao Paolo, Nairobi, Johannesburg – where I had an experience in hip hop that was similar to when I first started doing hip hop. It was just about the fact that I loved to do it and that it enabled me to communicate with people, it was the beginning of a conversation in a lot of ways.

And I thought the symposium itself was good because it wasn’t just about music. You came and you watched people perform but at the same time there were people painting, or people writing, and there were people in the rooms above doing workshops on hip hop and community development, and hip hop and gender issues, break dancing workshops, discussions on hip hop and education. There were just so many other things that were going on that you could be involved in. I was only there for five days and met all of these people. I had done a show and been to people’s houses. I had met people’s parents, girlfriends, sisters, brothers…it reminded me of my family in Trinidad. But I have family in Trinidad, I don’t have biological family in Cuba, but I have this other kind of family in Cuba because of the connection we made through music.sungallery

The Project: Talk to me a bit about the other international experiences you’ve had.

K: Nairobi is probably the most major one because I just knew I wanted to go to Africa. I woke up one morning and was like, “I think this is my year to go to Africa.” I had always understood the importance of it; the void between those of us who have grown up in the Caribbean or North America or people that have a history of slavery, and the reconnection in some way to Africa. And a lot of times that’s done in a very surface way, you wear the clothes or you say a couple of words but there’s no specificity to it, you haven’t had a specific experience necessarily. And I just felt like I needed to make it happen.

I went and stayed in a house with a guy who is now a good friend of mine, it’s the same house that I stay in every time I go to Nairobi, I’ve been three times now. By the third week of being there I just refused to leave and I had friends in other places, Ghana and South Africa. I changed my ticket and doubled my time in Africa. It was great because it was a similar experience to what I had had in Cuba with people just being like “Welcome.”

And then there was Sao Paolo. Same thing, met a bunch of people, recorded songs. All those international experiences re-inspired me to do music again, because I just hadn’t done it in any serious way in so long. I had almost forgotten why I started doing hip hop in the first place. It was just about me communicating things to people and then meeting people who thought the same things, or having conversations with those people around those things. It was a communication and community tool, as opposed to a music industry thing. I mean, that’s cool, but that’s not why I started.

The Project: What is hip hop’s potential for social change?

K: It gets people to connect with each other. It gets people to share their ideas and if those people are then organized, it means they have the ability to influence people to change things. You have a group of people who will gather around something because they share something that they mutually love. You can just share that thing that you love, and that’s great, but then you can make things happen because you’ve organized a group of people. If you have a group of people that all decide they want to do something, you can create a movement. You can tell people in power to change things because you have a majority. You have a lot more power to make something happen because you have consensus with a large group of people, it’s not just a singular voice. And that applies to anything. In certain cases, to crime, poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia… But it’s essentially worthless if you don’t organize around it. So my thing now is, yeah, I want to make music again, but I want to make sure that my music is directly connected to some of the other work I’ve been doing in the community. Or just doing things that will change people’s minds, that will be able to support people. You know, as opposed to just saying, “The world is so messed up,” because I say that all the time. Like, “The world’s messed up, but these are some of the ways you can change it and these are some of the things I’m doing to try to change what I have access to.”

The Project: How can people contact you?








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