The latest installment of our Community Beats series is an interview with two pillars of the Nashville spoken word and hip-hop community, Rashad thaPoet and S-Wrap. They were inspired to team up and make an album with a levelheaded motivational message and majestically mellow soul and hip-hip accompaniment called The Other Side in the process of organizing with fellow spoken word poets to get their art form recognized in the Grammy category that’s named for it. They’ll find out how they fared when nominees are announced on November 23, and they’ll perform their collaborative new material live on November 21st at At Exit/In and on November 26 at City Winery.
Jewly Hight: You both identify your work individually as as being meaningfully linked to spoken word poetry and hip-hop. And you each have distinct voices as artists, your own senses of phrasing, storytelling and inflection as you work with with message and rhythm. So to start with, how would you each say that your performances, your performance styles, embody hip-hop and spoken word tools and techniques? What are each of your approaches to combining and bridging those forms?
Rashad thaPoet: I think, for me, a lot of my content and style is rooted in how I grew up. You know, I grew up with Gil Scott-Heron playing on Saturday mornings, the Last Poets, the Watts Prophets. And so that meter, if you will, is kind of where my roots kind of begin, and I kind of always carried that with me. And you know, you just find your own style along the way.
There’s nothing new under the sun, and so you’re always just trying to redefine how you come across as a spoken word poet Sometimes styles can kind of mesh and people can kind of sound the same. I always wanted to make sure that I kept the listener off guard. Where you think there’s going to be a rhyme here, there isn’t, and where you think there’s going to be a metaphor here, it’s imagery instead. And so for me, it’s always about kind of not really following any certain flow or pattern, but just rooting it in letting music — if it’s set to music — lead me. And then if it’s not set to music — if it’s just straight, pure spoken word — just kind of going off of whatever the energy leads me to go off of. I kind of think of it as a wild river that you really don’t know where it’s going to go, but you know that the end destination is going to be something really cool.
Even with the hip-hop side of me, I’ve always rapped, even as a kid, but I never wanted to be a rapper. I never set out on a mission to be a rapper. But as I started to do more spoken word, people would say, “Hey, you should also rap.” And so it kind of just came naturally. And for me, it was again this approach of, “I don’t want to just do what everybody else is doing.” So I would perform with bands 95 percent of the time; it was all about the energy of the drum and the feel. So that’s kind of where my style came from.
S-Wrap: Mine originated with freestyle rapping and battle rapping, which is very much energy-based. If you’re freestyling or you’re performing and people just aren’t connecting with it, then it’s just a terrible experience. From there, the focus became, “How can I continue to provide a unique experience?” The real game changer was when I got introduced to Lupe Fiasco, because he was the first person that I saw literally take words and paint images in your head. And from there, I just became obsessed with lyricism.
If I’m telling a story, if I want you to feel something, if I want to express my thoughts, I want to make sure that it conveys some sort of mental image. I just want to transport you somewhere else and give you something primarily rooted now in speaking life and positivity. When I’m performing, I want to encapsulate that also with my body movements, with my gestures, with my stage presence.
JH: You both educate and perform in a number of different kinds of settings in Nashville, which includes serving as mentors for the nonprofit Southern Word. How have you seen those kinds of educational efforts in the city also empower young, budding artists? What sort of launching pad has that kind of work, that kind of program also been for Nashville hip-hop voices?
RP: I think has been incredibly powerful. We look at some of the top hip-hop artists in town, who all have, in some way or form, some sort of poetry background or some sort of time with writing poems before becoming a hip-Hop artist. I look at like the BlackSon; I’ve been knowing him since he was 15 years old and he was one of our star pupils in Southern Word. You look at another cat, Ron Obasi, who talks about being a poet and a spoken word artist, and you can just feel it and hear it in the music.
I think it’s really powerful because it lends itself to helping people find their voices much earlier in life. Sometimes we wait until we’re in our 20s or 30s or 40s to get comfortable in our voices and in our skin. And it’s a beautiful thing to see these teenagers really coming into their own with what their thoughts are and putting them on paper and then speaking them out loud, and now having platforms to go all over the city and perform in front of the mayor and in front of this board and that board and just bring light to their stories. And when you’re able to tell your own story, there’s so much power in that; spoken word gives you the resources and the ability to to do that. And I’m just grateful to be a part of that, because they inspire me as much as we probably inspire them.
SW: Absolutely. When we’re in classrooms, we tell students the number one fear in America is public speaking. The number two fear is dying. People fear public speaking more than they fear death. And so when you couple that with trying to speak about what your personal truth is, that requires you to be vulnerable, you’re definitely not going to feel comfortable if it’s something that’s not practiced, that’s not trained, not rehearsed.
I’m 31, and when I got connected with Southern Word, it was post-college, and that’s when I also had I find an identifier, my own truths as I’m training and learning. And I was just like, “Man, if someone would have came to me when I was like 14, 15, it would be a game changer, because now I wouldn’t be afraid. When I’m at a job interview, I wouldn’t be afraid.” When you see that baton get passed to young people, you see them not just sprout. They just take off like a rocket.
JH: You’ve both done a lot of different collaborating. You’ve done stuff with saxophone players, neo-soul singers, more of those kinds of collaborations with singers and instrumentalists than necessarily with another poet or another emcee. So how did this give and take for this album actually work?
SW: This is actually really funny: There’s an initiative that was started to basically just increase the number of submissions to the Recording Academy for best spoken word album. I didn’t even know that was happening.
Rashad and me talked about collaborating for years, but it just never really fell into the cards. He just hit me up. He sent me a Zoom link and was like, “Bro, be on this call.” So I hopped on a call, learned about the initiative, and he’s like, “Yo, we need to do something together.” So keep in mind from the time of the call to the time that the album had to be released was maybe a month and a half, two months. It was very, very short.
I sent him 18 beats. He shows up the following Tuesday. He’s like, “These are the 11 that I’m rockin with.” In two and a half hours, we listened to them, came up with the concepts for every song, realized that they kind of had a flow. Then we organized them, thought about the album and were like, “What is the message?” It kind of felt like the hero’s journey of someone moving in their purpose or their passion or something that connects with entrepreneurial spirit. The following Tuesday, Rashad’s like, “Hey, I got my whole half of the album done.” So we recorded it. The next day I wrote my half of the album. We had the rough demo, and we were like, “Oh, this is so much more than just what we initially envisioned. Now let’s like really go for it.”
So we we brought in our homie, Daniel Sauls, who’s sample launcher, drummer, producer, and probably like the Rick Rubin of Nashville at this point. He came in and heard it instantly was like, “I know the musicians. I know how to arrange it.” And he just like took the production to the next level to really encapsulate the story. We got Emanuel [Etchingham] playing trumpet on a track. We got Damien Horne singing on a couple of tracks. We got Stephcynie singing on a couple of tracks, David Williford playing flute. It’s a beautiful Nashville album. And the crazy thing is everything fell in line, which never happens.
JH: I want to back up. You mentioned the broader initiative that was part of the original conversation that that got this project rolling. The Grammy nominations are going to be announced pretty soon, on November 23rd, and there is a spoken word album category. What kinds of projects have typically been recognized in that category?
RP: The category that is called “spoken word,” as in spoken word poetry, as in speaking words and taking the literal definition. What’s been happening, quite honestly for the past 30-some odd years is it’s been audio books, it’s been sermons, it’s been comedy albums. It’s been everything but the namesake spoken word poetry. The initiative was started to kind of flood the category with true spoken word albums, so that the Grammys could recognize the fact that spoken word artists are here and we are putting out albums, and hopefully that will at some point in the future, get those other [kinds of] albums out of our category, just to be quite honest. And hopefully, we can start to see spoken word poetry get a little bit more respect in in the future.
SW: To put it in perspective, in 2019, overall, there was about 120 submissions for the entire category. There was only about 30 submissions across the entire board that were actual, genuine spoken word albums. This year, I’m not sure what the number is on spoken word albums, but in the category alone there was 308 submissions. So to see the difference and feel the difference, I’m very confident that this year, we will be heard and felt and definitely make some noise where we need to.
JH: So what did the organizing and coordinating actually look like with with your artist peers to make that happen?
RP: The initiative was 100 Griots at the Grammys. And so it was the initiative to get 100 spoken word poets to submit albums, whether that was a live album that you hadn’t recorded before or creating something from scratch is what me surrounded. It was just a call to a who’s who of spoken word artist across the country, like, “Hey, get your stuff together. Go to the studio record. You only need 15 minutes worth of material to submit and make it happen.”
JH: How much of the mobilizing has been focused here in Nashville?
RP: You know, we tried to do the best we could. We spread the word to the spoken word poets here in town. I’ve been in this scene since about 2003 and seen the ebbs and flows of what it was to the height of what it was to kind of it’s tapered off. But now I see a new resurgence, a new generation of young poets and young spoken word artists who are hosting their own shows and doing stuff around the city, making noise.
I come from an era where poets performing on wax was a really big thing, like putting out an album, having CDs, the old-school thing like that was a big thing, and now it’s not as much. The norm anymore seems like people like spoken word poets are more keen to just do live shows. And so I think just trying to get people’s mindset to wrap around, like, “Create music. You can do this.”
I don’t think it was as strong as we would have wanted it to be from a Nashville standpoint. But I do think that there are plenty of artists, plenty of spoken word poets in town who are taking that next leap. And so we’re just trying to kind of be big brothers, mentors, if you will, to kind of show them the way and hopefully they’ll continue to do what they’re doing.
JH: What are you expecting when the Grammy nominations are announced and beyond that, regardless of what makes it onto the Grammy ballot this time around, where do you see your broader efforts to help boost the prominence of spoken word going?
SW: Well, I see [our album] on the ballot, yes, definitely. But with that, I see us definitely performing it. I see it on stage on the 21st at Exit/in. And then I see it on stage on the 26th at City Winery. And I’m not just dreaming those are actual gigs that we have set out right here.
But yeah, I see it transformed into a live experience. There will also be able to be morphed into different capacities, so it could be at music venues, it could be at corporate gigs, it could be just in so many different capacities. And just being able to explore that in the same way that people explore the album for the truth that they need. It does go beyond just music and just spoken word. I have friends who are entrepreneurs that are like, “I listen to this every morning to to get me going before I start my day, and I don’t do anything related to music or spoken word.” So I know that there’s definitely a market, especially coming out of 2020, coming out-ish of the pandemic; mental health is a really big thing. Through the album, I talk a lot about dealing with anxiety. I think that is very cathartic in different ways. I’m excited to be able to deliver it in as many different places, both traditional and nontraditional.
RP: My hope is that it also opens the doors for more opportunities for spoken word artists. Just because right now, the genre is kind of pigeonholed into a certain level of expectations, but in reality that it’s so much more and it provides so much more, whether it’s a cappella, whether it’s through a beat, whether it’s, you know, at a major conference or whatever, it has practical applications. And I’m encouraged on both sides of my fellow spoken word artists, to just continue to encourage them to push the bounds a bit, but then also to open the door to make people more receptive everywhere.
I mean, look, we’re in corporate America with this. As a speaker, I’m on corporate America stages performing spoken word poetry, conferences in front of 700 lawyers doing poetry. So the opportunity is endless. You know, Saran (S-Wrap) is doing workshops on on the corporate level, on the local level with city and state government. So it’s boundless where we can go with this art form. We always say art is the the vehicle for the message. People feel like they have to like take a break from the message by doing spoken word: “OK, just rid of this data. We’re going to give you guys some poetry now.” And it’s like, “No, we can do both.” We can blend the data with the poetry and let your message be heard in a much different way that is even more effective than just someone talking at you all day, right? The possibilities are endless for the genre of spoken word poetry.