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  • Tef Poe in the studio

    Tef Poe in the studio | Photo: Tef Poe Official

Published 23 February 2017
Saint Louis rapper and activist Tef Poe talked to teleSUR about the generational divide within the Black movement and the evolution of feminism in hip hop.

Kareem Jackson aka Tef Poe was dubbed the "Voice of Ferguson" after he dropped "War Cry" a few days after the killing of Michael Brown sparked a wave of unrest in the city. In an interview with teleSUR, the rapper shares his views about using music as a weapon for organizing and the growing integration of gender issues within the Black movement and within hip hop. 

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teleSUR: How did your rap become so involved in the Black movement and addressing issues such as police violence? Was Ferguson the real trigger?

Tef Poe: I’ve been doing music for quite some time, this is my third independent album and a couple of mixtapes, I’ve always talked about those issues. It was even said I had predicted the uprising in Ferguson because I was known for always bringing these things up.

But for me it was not about politics. If you are Black in America, life has a bit of a political existence to it because the politics really affect your ability to live, in a sense. I don’t consider myself as a political artist, just saying the truth about things, issues in our communities, like police brutality, poverty, extreme violence and crime, also as a hip hop artist you see the effects of capitalism directly affecting the Black community.


How do you feel that hip hop has evolved when it comes to speaking up about politics? Do you feel that artists avoid getting involved more than in the beginning of hip hop, with a few exceptions, like Killer Mike, openly criticizing Donald Trump?

Well there’s a bit of a Renaissance going on I feel in hip hop currently, the times are changing. I am friends with people like Killer Mike. His rap group (Run The Jewels) had their album number one in the country a few weeks ago. There was a time when we’d have thought that was impossible, given the nature of the content in their music and the type of things they represent politically.

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But I think that there is a yearning from the general public for music that’s different from what you hear on mainstream radio first of all, and also music that’s high quality again, more creative. Also for a very long time there have been political artists, but the music wasn’t always as approachable as in more mainstream music. Like Little Wayne, a drastically popular artist without really any political message, and people still like him. The task of political artists is to find a way to compete with the machine and people’s desire to listen to certain types of apolitical music, and now political artists seem to have found a way to make their music just as enjoyable as those. So now people can play Lil Wayne, and then some political rap that does not sound that far from it sound-wise, but the message is different.

Tell us more about your song "War Cry." How did you come up with the idea, and your message, especially about the generational divide within the Black movement?

I wrote that song as a direct reply to (Missouri) Governor Jay Nixon when all of the unrest was happening in my hometown, and I felt pretty powerless just as a person, and the only thing I knew how to do was how to take these frustrations out in the studio. I wrote this record on a plane ride home from Oakland and then I went to the studio to record it the same night.

It’s funny because it’s not one of my favorite records at all but it’s one of my most popular records, and I think because of the timing — people were very emotional — that record registered with people who felt in that same anger — burn down a building or something — who were feeling that energy.

A lot of my future problems came from that because that’s when politicians realized music, and my music, could reach out more people than one of their speeches or demonstrations. See Bob Marley or Tupac — even if you kill them you’ll never kill their music.

“War Cry” is a song about resistance, about fighting back, and I wanted to make sure I shouted out some of the older civil rights activists from the local community in that record, just to show that we are all up against the same thing, and as a young activist and organizer that I respect the lineage of the old guard — because resistance is about passing the struggle to the next until we all eventually get free.

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I also had a few problems with some of them, like Al Sharpton, people who work for the Democratic Party … I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about our generation. They view us to be a bit more unpredictable, a lot of people are saying that our anger is misplaced, and the difference with the civil rights movement is that they had clear objectives, like incorporating themselves into institutions. And I feel like their movement was very respectable, but at the same time, they worked to incorporate heterosexual Black men into the same system as heterosexual white men, and this was not always inclusive of women, of people from the gay community, or just people with alternative identities.

So that song was more about making an anthem, representing this cloth of the movement — we are a lot different, we use profanity, we don’t wear suits, we’ve got tatoos, there’s women, gay, trans leadership.    

What made you so sensitive to gender issues in your background, and how much do you feel that the hip hop scene has managed to include a feminist discourse since, for instance, the 1991 conversation between Ice Cube and Angela Davis?

Hip hop in the 1980s and 1990s saw MCs like MC Lyte, Roxanne Shante, Mia X, one of my favorite, from the South, Lauryn Hill, and I am cut from that same direct lineage. So whether Lauryn Hill is a man or a woman, messianically we are part of the same message. So it’s less about me highlighting their gender than me highlighting their accomplishment. I don’t necessarily highlight their gender as women because nobody takes time to point out to the fact that Tupac is a man to give Tupac his credit.

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What also put me on this path was organizing work, comrades are usually working class or poor women, it’s very rare that you see men champion these issues as much as women do. It’s almost impossible to be in the movement and not work with women, because these issues affect the most marginalized communities, and women are even more marginalized within the marginalized communities.

I got some push back from some men because of some of my lyrics, saying stuff like “I am sure God is a woman,” and they say they cannot listen to me anymore, and I look at them as men who have not spent enough time in the field yet, because there’s no way you can spend time organizing in the front line to any capacity and not interact with women as your primary comrade. Women outnumber us in the movement. And seeing them, how they were being neglected, put me on that path.

Do you feel that the first generation of feminist MCs you mentioned have been well replaced in today’s hip hop scene?

I think it’s coming back around slowly but surely. Ab Soul for instance dropped a crazy new album with a lot of feminist undertones. My latest record as well. Rapsody, a woman who did a feature on Kendrick Lamar’s last album, a local artist from Saint Louis. A masculine lesbian woman by the name of Bates, she identifies herself as a lesbian ... she does very dynamic things, she organized an only female performers festival from top to bottom called Fem Fest.

In the beginning things went slow. I did not really see men jumping to support them, but over the course of time, I am a firm believer that the consistency is your staying power — if you can be consistent with something and be true it, positive things will happen for you, and that’s what’s happening now with feminism in hip hop. It has forced people to recognize the feminine energy in the culture, and with this acknowledgment it manifests itself in different ways. Every woman artist is not going look the same. So I can see the power in an artist like Nicki Minaj in a different way that I can see the power of an artist like Young M.A., and vice versa.

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Tef Poe dropped on Feb. 14 the new independent record "Black Jullian," available on ITunes, which he described as an attempt "to find new inventive ways to get political issues to the people, to actually change people’s lives, to bring positive energies to people, and to use it as a weapon to counter-attack the neofascism we are facing now with Donald Trump."

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