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‘It’s About Sharing’

Interview by Messiah Rhodes Apr 4, 2014

The Peace Poets are educators who take their work into the classroom, to the streets and on stage around the world. The group is a five-member, 10-year-old hip-hop collective based in the South Bronx, and their rhymes grapple with some of the most urgent political issues of our time: institutionalized racism, police brutality, immigrant rights, war and more. 

I recently shot the music video for their new single, “Water Got No Enemy,” off their soon-to-be-released album State of the Art. We filmed in front of the Bronx’s 47th Precinct — the home base of the NYPD officer who, in 2012, fatally shot unarmed black teenager Ramarley Graham — and featured Frank Graham, Ramarley’s father. In the video opening, he says, “We are demanding justice.” Richard Haste, the officer who shot Graham, still hasn’t been held accountable for the killing.

I sat down with the Peace Poets — artists Enmanuel “The Last Emcee” Candelario, Frantz “Ram3” Jerome, Frank “Frankie 4” Antonio López, Luke “Despierto” Nephew and Abraham “A-B-E” Velazquez — to dig deeper into their South Bronx origins, their musical and educational work and their upcoming album, State of the Art.

Messiah Rhodes: Where do you see yourselves in the world of hip-hop?

Frankie 4: We keep the historical power of hip-hop to unify very close not only to our performance and musical work, but also our work using hip-hop for education. We’re using hip-hop and creative writing as tools of empowerment, to give folks a platform to speak up about what’s going on in their community. Let it be about social justice or what’s going on in your hood, your personal story or you just making a name for yourself, proclaiming to the world your identity and your experience. I think that reflects our music, a lot of which is definitely political, but it’s also about the personal and that being political itself. 

MR: What are the social and political issues that are most important to you?

Despierto: The marginalization of young people. We are working against institutional racism by engaging with youth, and that is very connected with fighting police brutality. The other issues that have been important to us over the past 10 years are incarceration, solitary confinement, war in general and immigrant rights. What we do is about connecting with people. When it comes to war, we’ve worked in Palestine, Liberia, Colombia and Mexico — I would consider that a war zone too — and with people affected by armed conflict in other places. 

What I always try to remember is how real the conflict is here. How real the war is here. It’s all about framing: if we just consider war as dropping bombs, we decrease the significance of the conflict that is happening right here, in this community in the Bronx. 

MR: What kinds of issues are you seeing in your work with young people, and how are you combating them?

Frankie 4: A lot of what comes out while working with young people is around self-image and identity issues. Young people are told, and we are all told, not to love ourselves, that we are not enough. When we share a space with the young people, it’s a lot about sharing and communal participation, which is where we get to see ourselves in a valuable light. There’s not a lot of spaces for that, in this society that tells you that what makes you valuable is this item, this car, these clothes. So those spaces where all you have is your word and your story, your experience, that inherently comes out with self-love.

MR: And what’s most valuable about this work to you as a group?

Frankie 4: In light of what is valued in this society, especially mainstream hip-hop, we have different values. We consider ourselves extremely wealthy, in spirit, in community — people got our backs all over the world. That in itself is a gift and it’s something you can’t put a price tag on. At the same time, working toward being sustainable and being able to do the work we love and our spirits are called to do. In a way, to provide for ourselves and the ones we love.

MR: You’ll soon be releasing your new album, State of the Art. What’s the direction you are going with it?

The Last Emcee: In this world if you’re not on the billboards, you don’t exist as a musician. We have been making music for a long time. One of the illusions or misconceptions we had before was if we just make a good product it will go to the top, it will receive affirmation and credibility. Now when we are making this album, we are really thinking about how to be not only artists but also ambassadors, advocates of our own art. Any great artist is someone who has empathy and taps into people’s shared experiences. That’s why “Water Got No Enemy” is about the criminalization of young people of color: specifically about Ramarley Graham, but also about any young person who has been murdered or stopped and frisked by the cops. We see something that connects to a lot of people there.

MR: How did the Peace Poets form?

The Last Emcee: The Peace Poets formed in a few different places. Frank, myself and Abe went to high school together. Frank meet Franz at the Ghetto Film School, where he introduced us and we formed a group called the Cypher Matrix. From there we joined a youth organization called the Brotherhood/SisterSol and started a collective called the Lyrical Circle. We spent many of those years getting politicized; before then we were just rapping nonsense. We eventually went off to college, and there I met Luke. He came to a session at Lyrical Circle and then stayed and became one of us. By 2007 or 2008, the group had changed, so we had a meeting and changed the name to the Peace Poets. 

MR: Would you consider yourself working-class artists?

A-B-E: We are super working-class. 

The Last Emcee: Emphasis on the working, little emphasis on the class. 

Ram3: The blue collar is the cape.

A-B-E: If I can lyrically break it down, from a single on the album called “No More Mondays”: “Five part-time jobs at the same time, I make 9 to 5 look like part time.”  We are doing work that is urgent and necessary, and we do it because our spirits are called to it. We are not doing it for money or for compensation. Some of us in the group don’t have a salary considered minimum wage, we’re just surviving. Those are choices we make. What the Peace Poets have been doing is going out to Haiti, out to Palestine, out to where no one wants to go, to help out — that’s where we need to be and what we need to do. The money is not the focus.

MR: How do you share the labor of being in a collective together?

A-B-E: We do a little bit of everything. I guess that’s what’s special about our crew. I’m an artist, rapper, beatboxer and also educator. We’re artists but we also work for the group juggling web design, promotion, PR, marketing, getting gigs, conferences, protests. We combine all of our individual input as educators, organizers and emcees to make it happen. 

MR: What’s next for the Peace Poets?

Frankie 4: Through the community organization Brotherhood/SisterSol, we are doing a youth community journalism exchange program where two folks from New York go to Brazil for 10 days and work with different youth and media organizations within the Rio de Janeiro area. Then in August two young people from Brazil will come to New York. Looking forward to that.

For more about the Peace Poets, see their website here.