Junkyard Empire is not your run-of-the-mill hip hop. For one, the band doesn’t have a sexist bone in its body and entirely forgoes gratuitous vulgarity. In fact, these contemporary innovators are a welcome throwback to originators of the genre, showcasing caustic, conscientious social and political commentary.
“Snake In The Grass,” off their newest album, Acts of Humanity Vol. 1 & 2 (MediaRoots Music), goes, “Forget democracy, this is U.S. foreign policy/Destabilize the region then invade them economically/Ironically, State Department denies this tragic comedy/Thousands murdered, organized chaos of a coup d’état /Covert ops for multinational stocks/Building blocks so they can cop third-World cash crops/Criminals for minerals and right wing generals /Paid plentiful to manhandle like animals.”
Acts of Humanity Vol. 1 & 2 follows Reclaim Freedom, Rise of the Wretched, and Rebellion Politik — CDs that soundly established the Twin Cities ensemble as an against-the-grain outfit — steadily building a core following comprised mostly of — no surprise here — political activists. When the 2008 Republican National Convention saw the St. Paul Police Department revoke the Welfare Rights Committee’s permit to protest, Junkyard Empire didn’t need a permit to put together a group of area shows they called the Anti-RNC Tour.
So, that’s exactly what the band did.
“The idea of this little tour around the Twin Cities,” said trombonist and founder Christopher Robin Cox, “is to play shows in celebration of and solidarity with our brothers and sisters who [are] engaged in speaking truth to power during the convention.” Taking their sensibilities abroad, they had the enviable experience of traveling to Cuba as cultural guests, chronicling the experience in the documentary Rock El Imperio, screened in part at Voices Merging’s conference “From Vices To Verses: A New Era of Hip-Hop & Action” at the University of Minnesota.
During their visit to Cuba, Junkyard Empire connected with Obsession, one of the country’s leading hip hop proponents who contributed to Acts of Humanity Vol. 1 & 2 with a guest appearance in the standout cut “Regla.”
Crafting JE’s lyrics is frontman and rapper Brihanu, a firm believer in using his head as more than a hat rack. For instance, take “Wretched” from Rise of the Wretched:
“I slam poetics with the dialectic of a heretic/Eclectic styles I inherited from the docket files/And walked the highways with James Meredith/Evoke the souls of Langston and James Baldwin/Because there’s a fire in my eyes when I too sing America/But the schools ain’t preparin’ ya’ for the next era/So we sit by in a state of gentle stasis, waiting for the genocide/My genealogy lies in the ocean waves/Created by Africans who refused to be slaves/ So why we slavin’ for the status quo?”
Under his given name, Brian Lozenski, the radical thinker guides young minds, teaching at Network for the Development of Children of African Descent in St. Paul (www.ndcad.org). The stated mission there is “to strengthen the cultural connections within communities of African descent that promote, sustain, and enhance the healthy development of our children.”
Brihanu gave an interview outside the downtown Minneapolis branch of the Hennepin County Library, reflecting on his craft while sipping on a Dunn Bros. smoothie.
MSR: How’s the touring treating you?
BL: It’s okay. We’ve toured the Midwest. It could’ve been better promoted, but we learn our lessons on the road. One thing, though, we’ve been doing well is to connect with large national organizations that’re putting on events and protests.
We were in New York City [at] Union Square for the Sounds of Resistance. They were protesting the banks and the corporations that don’t pay taxes yet reap the benefits of their status. So, we’ve been doing [gigs] like that.
On those kinds of events we get a lot more exposure. We’ve got one coming up which is gonna be really big. It’s called the October 2011 Movement. It’s basically going to be a group of organizations in Washington, D.C. that plan to occupy Freedom Plaza. We’ll be there on the first day of that to help start [it] off, October 6.
This is a movement all around, kind of a rejection of the direction that the country’s been going towards, a corporate nation — a corporate-ocracy, really — where corporations and money interests determine what happens politically, what happens socially at the expense of every person, all citizens, whether they support it or not. It’s gotten to the point politically where your vote has very little meaning.
MSR: Right, we saw in both Bush elections that voting don’t mean a thing.
BR: We need to change things beyond the voting booth. The reason we’re supporting the movement is because we feel it’s such a money game that the average person who is not wealthy has very little power.
MSR: So, your thing is social change.
BR: Most of us in the band, that’s what we came out of. The music thing didn’t come first [and] then we became activists. Each in our own separate way has been active in what we do, whether it’s myself being a teacher and an educator [or] grassroots organizing. Chris Cox, he’s done a lot of work with unions. [Guitarist] Bryan Berry does some social justice work on his own, before the music came about. It just fits for us that the music follows that path.
MSR: You’re one of them rabble-rousers.
BR: I think if you’re a citizen you should be a rabble-rouser. If you’re really concerned if you see something you don’t really agree with, I don’t think you should just sit back and accept it. You need to do something to try to change the situation.
MSR: At which point and why did you decide to bring your outlook on things to hip hop, your perspectives?
BR: I grew up with hip hop. It’s, like, my culture. So, it’s never been, like, I learned this thing. So, now I’m gonna use hip hop to get it out there. That’s what I do. Whatever I know, whatever I learn comes out through hip hop. Whether it’s the music aspect or just the cultural aspect and how I exist in the world, how I see the world.
MSR: Can you say something about the culture? For instance, what it is?
BR: In the United States, it started in New York City in economically depressed areas, urban areas where people had legitimate gripes against the system, how things were working. And hip hop was an expression of that, the dissatisfaction people had. It’s also expression of what generally [performers] didn’t have, access to instruments and all those kind of things. We used what we had: records.
MSR: You’re talking about scratching.
BR: Yeah, little dirty microphones, somebody doing a beat on a table. I also think it’s [an] African way of being. To talk over [a beat]. Lyricism. A different form of the blues. Whether it’s being sad over a woman or sad because I don’t have two pennies to rub together. It’s a different way of saying it, though.
Hip hop didn’t just appear out of thin air one day. It came about through people’s experience. How people live their life and decided these are the ways I need to express what I see. When you see where hip hop has gone from there…
I’m not talking about the music industry, which is something different: That’s a corporate entity. I’m talking about when you see people in Sierra Leone who now have a hip hop worldview, and they look at things and say, “I see these conditions, where I’m at, from a different perspective. The way I want to express myself is something anti to what the established norm is.” So, they may dress a certain way, talk a certain way and behave a certain way. That’s what culture is.
And there’s all the elements, too. A lot of people take it back to MC’ing, DJ’ing, break-dancing, graffiti. Those are all parts of it. It goes even deeper than those things, too.
MSR: Junkyard Empire has worked with e.g. bailey and Sha Cage.
BR: We’ve never actually collaborated. We’ve done concerts, together. We’re part of our family; they’re part of our family. Chris and Bryan have joined up with e.g. and Sha to do the group Madiva 2013 with drummer Kahlil Brewington. Also, we went on tour with Guante and e.g., one of our Midwest tours [on which] e.g. tried out a lot of material that went on his American African album. A lot of times the band backed him up while he was performing.
MSR: How was it going on the road with him?
BR: It was great. He’s just one of the most calm, humble people that you ever want to be around.
MSR: Sometimes I have to check and make sure he’s awake.
BR: Well, I think he’s really intentional about what he does, too. He really thinks a lot of things through. You can kind of see it when you talk to him. He doesn’t just do stuff to do it. There’s always a reason. That’s why I like to work with e.g. I’ve been humbled to be able to know him. It’s always a love relationship, there. We’re able to vibe and connect with each other.
MSR: Speaking of which, you and I have interacted several times and you’re consistently low key, kind of humble yourself. But, don’t let you get behind that microphone. You’re just about blessin’ folk out. What is it, a Jekyll and Hyde personality transformation?
BR: That’s part of hip hop, too. You can’t be on the mic if you’re timid. People’ll see that a mile away. When I’m on stage, there’s always that competitive element in hip hop, right? If you see somebody who’s not doing what they should be doing, there’s that chance they might get called out. So, I need to let people know that, like, I’m not a battle MC, but I’m very tight at what I do. I gotta let ’em know.
MSR: It sounds like, on the albums, that you get swept up in the spirit. You’re not just coppin’ a bad attitude for the sake of posturing. You can hear that you feel what you’re saying.
BR: That goes back to the whole thing of being socially minded. That’s kind of what I dedicated my life to. For me to be any other way, that would be fake to me.
MSR: What’s next for Junkyard Empire?
BR: Promoting the new album. We got a West Coast tour coming up in San Diego, L.A., San Francisco and Portland. Then, we’re joining a tour that’s in progress with No Bird Sing. I appreciate their music. Then, D.C. in October.
MSR: Anything you want to add before I let you go?
BR: Just that Chris Cox deserves props. I always give him a lot of credit for Junkyard Empire. Not just the founding of the band, but the leg work that goes into keeping the band thriving has been 80 percent Chris doing it. And he does it well. I really want to give him respect. He gets overlooked sometimes, and I get a lot of attention just because I’m MC, the frontman, y’ know. But Chris is just the backbone.
Caption: Photo courtesy of Junkyard Empire