Hip Hop – Here and Now

WakeSelf-COVER01-DSC_1149Mescalero Apache and Mexican on his father’s side, Wake Self, a small-town kid from the Fort Wingate and Gallup areas, says that, growing up, the surrounding lakes, mountains and Native American reservations “had a profound impact on my outlook on life.”

Living in epic times is not for the feint of heart. Since Local Flavor began this series last November, the times have only gotten dizzyingly more confounding. “We’re on a hero’s journey—and it’s scary,” Native activist and artist Cannupa Hanska Luger said in our first installment of the series. He called this a time of “Here Be Monsters,” requiring passionate, dedicated monster-slayers stepping up to put their hearts on the line for what they believe. We can do this, Cannupa said, if we act collectively. And then, he added, “seven generations we’ll never meet could look back and tell tales of this mythical time.”

And in fact, even in the face of dauntingly overwhelming obstacles, stouthearted heroes are indeed emerging. Standing tall among these is born-and-bred New Mexican Andrew Isaac Martinez, better known as Wake Self. Now in his mid-20s, he’s been a performing hip-hop artist since he was 15; starting at 12, he began teaching himself to write poetry lyrics. “They were my own personal counseling sessions,” he says unabashedly. “I was having some depression, some growing pains.” Mescalero Apache and Mexican on his father’s side, Wake Self, a small-town kid from the Fort Wingate and Gallup areas, says that, growing up, the surrounding lakes, mountains and Native American reservations “had a profound impact on my outlook on life.” Early on, he honed his focus, mentioning without fanfare, for example, “I’m a rapper artist who’s proudly sober.” And as his DJ name makes clear, he’s committed to diverging from typical mainstream rapper obsessions—wealth, conspicuous consumption, male domination—to help us wake up from all that. The first few lines of a recent song “Fluteboxsesh,” filmed at Yellowstone with longtime DJ friend Def-i, express Wake Self’s priorities: “Ever felt so alive/Your brain stretched to wide open/no sense of ego, no swollen pride/Nothin’ is holdin’ you back/Wakin’ up outta the trap?”  

WakeSelf-DSC_1227-duoThis might seem like a risky path for a rapper to take, but apparently not—two of his newer songs have gone viral: “New Mexico,” a loving tribute to his homestate, and “Malala,” an anti-misogyny anthem from his album of the same name, which attracted over 240,000 views in just the first two weeks following its October release. The song’s title and the album’s cover photograph are in tribute to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani high school student who stood up to the Taliban, demanding education for all girls in her country. In retaliation, they shot her three times, including in the head, and she went on not only to survive but to continue speaking out, becoming the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. When you watch the music video, available on YouTube, it’s abundantly clear why within weeks “Malala” streaked across the Internet like wildfire—it’s undoubtedly our time’s most quietly powerful, fiercely loving statement of support for women and girls all over the world, by a man who loves and believes in them, and who proudly stands up for their worth—and it’s all the more profound in hip-hop format. 

The video begins with unfolding scenes of women in various urban Albuquerque neighborhoods; then the camera switches to Wake Self, sitting alone outside. “Dear rappers, I think you need to take a second to listen to yourself and the way you’re disrespectin’ our women/I’m not here to judge you, I know that you’re just trying to make it/but why is it OK for our daughters to be degraded, y’all?” The camera shifts back and forth between each of the various women, a few men, and the DJ, the same bold truths interspersing from their mouths and his own, momentum building in intensity as responsibility widens to include us, the audience, too—“How come we never look at how we got a generation corporations control with sex appeal?” Wake Self decries the fact that “Our future’s bein’ affected by children bein’ conditioned from seein’ women objectified.” We’re lowering our standards, he says, and “our economy has turned misogyny to a revenue stream/come on.” Urging us to see through the lies, he asks that we “discover how an entertainment industry taught us to dehumanize each other” as he laments that some men “would rather see a woman topless than see her in office,” and kids being “the cash target,” learning to idolize rappers and their degrading messages, and all the while, “Rappers rap about pimpin’ women/while they’re bein’ pimped by the companies they do business with.” Noting that “gender inequality’s got the masses impaired,” Wake Self ends by saying we need to start “respectin’ those raisin’ the daughters, raisin’ the sons/so they can be the ones/to finally save us from us.”

How did this rapper come to write such a gutsy message? “When something hits you so hard, you have to do something about it,” he says; you just do it. “I grew up around some really strong women in my family.” He’s never addressed women with profanity; it just feels wrong, he says. When people ask him if he’s a feminist, Wake Self says, “Of course. That’s just common sense. It’s insane to devalue our women—all life comes from women!” And to this day, he says, before he decides to do something, “I always asks myself, ‘What would my mom think?’”    

WakeSelf-DSC_1117Wake Self’s major concern has always been to use his music to build people up, “to grow awareness, to stand up for what’s right.” This, he says, goes back to what’s referred to today as “classic hip-hop.” It was an organic art form, answering a need during the late ’70s in the South Bronx, when neighborhood gang violence was starting to spread, which escalated disenfranchisement, poverty, racism, drugs and alcohol. In response, a whole new poetry sprang up, improvisational, grassroots, the kind that takes to the streets. It was alive, it brought upliftment and a sense of community, providing self-esteem where that had been beaten down. It gave people a chance to imagine an outspokenly heartfelt future based on self-reliance and freedom of artistic expression. This original “roots” hip-hop is making a comeback now, but it’s far more popular in European and South American countries than here, due in large part to our music industry. In fact, says Wake Self, hip-hop has taken over as the most popular music genre across the world. He currently tours all over these continents, giving concerts. “Hip-hop brings people together, of all generations. The power of art—not just music but paintings, murals, video—art is one of our biggest weapons for empowering and for evolution. It’s always cool, it’s always cutting edge, and people respond, young and old.” In that sense, he’s a kind of bridge between the generations. “Truth is universal,” Wake Self says. “I want to open up a discussion, and encourage a large awakening, including for younger people—stay woke!”

Because he and friends like Def-i, who he often travels and collaborates with, had no one to help them get a start, Wake Self teaches the art of making hip-hop music, including its cultural offshoots like break dancing and aerosol art, to youth all around Albuquerque, at Warehouse 508, the reservation and at colleges, some out-of-state. “We didn’t have much opportunity to learn. Nobody was doing that when we were kids,” he says. “I love rapping, performing, and I love giving back.”

Wake Self’s benchmarks are continuously moving forward. “I want to carve out a legacy that transcends me as a person. The work comes through you; you are not the work. I want this music to keep doing bigger and better things, to reinvent words and terms, redefine winning and succeeding at higher levels, not bask in the glory.” Be immensely grateful for blessings and extremely humble, he advises others. Included in the lyrics for “No Price Tags” is the line: “Homey, this ain’t luck/This is work ethic.”   

His reward is getting to spread awareness, helping to heal, create and inspire a new reality. “I want to show people alternatives to lifestyles we’re conditioned to be living. I want them to say, ‘This is what’s cool—this is what’s dope!’ Youth, elders, everybody! We can all feel and envision a new world. I’m definitely using everything as a tool—to wake people up, to provide therapy, friendship. People are going through a lot of things. They’re hurting.” He remembers “when music was my only friend. I want to help pick people up, inspire the next generation of artists.” Saying what he really feels through his music, he says, is of utmost importance. “I want people to say about me, ‘He did just as much as other artists and he said things that really mattered.’” In tribute to the roots of hip-hop, along with the tradition of the best heroes’ journeys, Wake Self not only carves out new alternatives, he inspires the best in us, too, and hopes that we’ll join him.

Story by Gail Snyder


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