Joey Bada$$ On His Life, His America And His Calling | Oyster #114
“I’m a multifaceted gem and you’re only really accustomed to seeing one side. You know what I mean? The shiny diamond.”
Encountering a person who knows and accepts themselves, flaws and all, is overwhelming in the best way possible. For one, it reaffirms the thought that secure and well-rounded people are not a myth, but secondly, it begs you to shine a light on yourself. Who are you? What do you like? What is your purpose? What’s your impact?
By the age of 22, Joey Bada$$ had released two studio albums and two mixtapes, produced a clothing line, started his own record label Pro Era, secured a recurring character role in the hit series Mr. Robot, and had been touted as one the brightest emerging hip-hop stars.
At the age of 23, he visited Australia to tour his second studio album All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, and not only blessed his fans, friends and followers with an unforgettable experience but challenged them to take a look at the world from his lens. The themes of the record are an unequivocally raw portrayal of the Brooklyn native’s life as a black man in Trump’s America. However, there is no tired narrative, or overtly sensationalised recount in sight, it’s simply a sonic retelling of one man’s day-to-day.
Of course, given the sociopolitical climate in America, many musicians have chosen to share their opinions through punchy lyrics or stand-alone tracks, like YG’s explosive ‘FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)’, Anderson Paak’s funk-infused ‘Come Down’, The Game’s ‘El Chapo’ and more recently Eminem’s nuclear four and a half minute cypher for the 2017 BET Awards.
With this in mind, I wanted to understand if there was a lightbulb moment that compelled Bada$$ to dedicate a whole album to this topic, or whether it was always his intention. “Being a young black man, I’ve always been aware of the things that have been going on around me, and of my country, but there was definitely a turning point. It happened around 2015 going into 2016 where I got this sense of responsibility to bring awareness about what was going on in America. The way Western civilisation is set up, a lot of things can go unnoticed. I came to the stage in my life where I said, ‘Yo, I have a voice and I seriously have the power to shed light on these situations and speak for people who can’t.’”
Following this, we discussed and challenged the fear of letting forward momentum get chewed up and spat out by cheap headlines that satiate instant gratification but not lasting change. Even before the album was out, Bada$$ knew that it would be a conduit for change far greater than himself.
“Killings were happening every day, one after the other and it just started feeling way too close to home. I was like, ‘This could be my cousin. This could be me. These could be my brothers. This could be my Dad. It could be my uncle.’”
“[This project] is part of my purpose here on this earth, to continue to speak the truth and shed light. On a spiritual level, I felt that I was summoned. I was called. Because, you know, it’s all good to just be making music and enjoying the luxuries of life but it’s very important to be using my power and influence for greater good and not just for myself. There’s a lot of individualistic ideologies going on in America, so I’m just trying to spread light to the collective way of thinking. I believe if one group of voices ain’t good, we all ain’t good.”
Despite his ease and willingness to discuss the topic and have it be the sole subject matter of his new album, Bada$$ laments being referred to as a ‘political rapper’, because of the negative connotations associated with such. “The only pressure I really feel, is my words being misconstrued or immediately twisted.”
Rightfully so, as seen when his song ‘Rockabye Baby’, featuring Schoolboy Q, became one of the most discussed tracks of the album due to the lyric “Fuck Donald Trump” which was reported on out of context. The media shitstorm that ensued minimised a powerful reflection on drug abuse, gang affiliation and wage inequality into “Trump bashing for clickbait”.
“My album and that track in particular just became an anti-Trump thing and it wasn’t my intention at all. Negative feelings toward Trump is not new, you know what I’m saying? ‘Rockabye Baby’ IS much deeper than that, but it’s okay, I’m accustomed to the media now and I know that people just don’t want to trust your words. They’re just going to mold it to fit their own agenda. As long as there are real people out there who are hearing the messages, those are the people that I made it for anyway. I couldn’t really give a fuck about what a critic has to say about my album because I know that the real impact of this work hasn’t even hit yet. Ten years from now, people are going to say, ‘Wow. That’s what 2017 was like? That’s what this era in time was like?’ It’s just like Nina Simone said, ‘The musician’s responsibility is to capture the times.'”
It begs the question, are we even able to appreciate this album in its full capacity yet? Reflecting on your present is far less powerful than reflecting on your past, which is why Bada$$ isn’t phased by how this project is being consumed. And on a more poignant point, he stresses that although the content of this album is evergreen, these songs couldn’t have been written earlier or later.
“It was made at the exact time it was supposed to happen. Of course, I’ve made songs before where I was spreading knowledge but this specific body of work, the musicality, the lyricism, the layers, the structure, that was all new to me. I feel that with this album I learned how to really create music. Anything I was doing prior to this was me just rapping over instrumentals that I’d like. All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ was me collaborating with different musicians, getting the right people in the same room and allowing them to play freely with ideas, sounds … really handcrafting it. Everything was made from scratch with real instruments. I definitely don’t think it could’ve have been made at an earlier time. It was made exactly when it was supposed to be.”
We chatted about tour life on this side of the equator, and I was intrigued to find out how Bada$$ felt about his Australian fan bases’ response to the record when quite a significant number of them would see the black American experience as a narrative made for rap music.
“I couldn’t say there are not times when I look into what my demographic of listeners are and contemplate the fact that they don’t look like me, or come from where I come from, but I can still see it resonating with them. At the shows, I hear them singing with their heart and soul. Audiences like these are a big part of the solution to everything I’m talking about, so I’m grateful that it’s fallen on these ears. They don’t really understand the struggle, but it’s really them who needs to understand for things to change.”
It dawned on me that the emotional labour required to write, record, produce, market and tour All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ would be crippling for the strongest of people. Unlike the majority of us, he just can’t switch off and escape because even when he’s a world away from his reality, it’s conversations like these that mentally drag him back. How is a young adult free to just be when the world is pulling at them from every angle to be the spokesperson of blackness?
“It’s interesting that you say that, because creating this album became an escape from myself because I got to speak for so many different people. Sometimes I don’t want to talk about it, let alone hear it, but the escape comes back when I hit that stage. I will always love this project because it’s the real manifestation of all that energy that I put into it. When I perform these songs, it’s just high-frequency sound and vibration.”
It was in this moment I realised I was doing Bada$$ a disservice by referring to him as just a rapper, model, actor and label head. This wasn’t a man who limited himself to the literal, so why should I? We had spent moments chatting about the tangible and obvious elements of his reality, instead of deep-diving into his spiritual mind — the most accurate reflection of Jo-Vaughn Virginie Scott. Raised non-denominational, Bada$$ thanks his mother’s guidance for his tolerance as an adult.
“I always say that [being non-denominational] was the best thing she could’ve told me as a child because it really gave me the gateway to just have an open mind as it were. We believe in God but we’re not going to marginalise ourselves. I feel that that’s really when my spiritual journey started and from there it just became an individual relationship with God. To me it wasn’t about having to go to church anymore, it wasn’t about having to be religious or identify with a certain religious group and as I got older I always kept that close.
High school is when the journey started opening up even more because I met my older brother Capital Steez. Rest in peace. He gave me the tools I needed to understand everything that I was doing, feeling and thinking already. He gave it meaning and showed me I was an Indigo Child, and as simple as it was to give these things titles, I was really able to understand myself at even a deeper level.” Joey Bada$$ speaks like a man who knows that nothing matters yet everything matters. A walking paradox in the best way because he articulates in one breath that he believes he has complete power over his existence but understands he is only one small person in contrast to the rest of the world.
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to contradict myself, but it’s how I feel. I’m caught up in my ego all the time but then I remember we’re such little people in this whole big universe. Imagine if you were to pan out a million feet away. You wouldn’t even see us. That reminds me that we’re all one, coexisting in this place for the greater good.”
And with that realisation, it dawned on me that I expected his charm to wash away into a sea of apathy because any self-aware creative knows that managing your ego can be extremely crippling. How does he manage not to buckle under the pressure?
“That’s a good question honestly and I guess it’s just balance. All I know is that my purpose is to deliver the good word. I’m a man of the world at this point and I have the unique opportunity and ability to go to all these crevices of the earth and bring back knowledge to my people.
I can know I’m just this little person in this big universe, but still, think I’m a big deal. Sometimes I have the energy to deal with the hard conversations and other times I’m just really exhausted. Sometimes it’s time to act and at times, I just sleep. Other times I’m watching Westworld or Stranger Things to exercise my mind, and then I’m on stage delivering my truth.”
And sometimes a man in touch with such spiritual grandeur can push aside aspirations of nirvana, to live out a worldly childhood dream of being an actor. It’s not unusual for a musician to nab a small cameo, but Bada$$’ huge role in Mr. Robot is a testament to his skill. When asked if he was going to commit to acting at the expense of his music career, he was quick to diffuse the inference.
“Honestly I’m the type of person that puts my all into anything I want to do, but unfortunately the way my twenty-four hours are set up, it’s very hard for me to evenly balance these things. That’s just me, I’m passionate. I want to be great, man. I just don’t do things, to just to do it, I do it to be very good. I’m at the point now where I know that music is my number one thing, my bread-and-butter. It’s my focus and everything else besides it, is a derivative from it. If I allow my music to suffer, everything else will as well.”
And just like that, my time with the charming, well-learned, self-aware rapper was up and I was left feeling indebted to his story. As though it was my duty to ensure he was portrayed in the most accurate way possible, so perhaps those who go on to read this can discern what it was like to be in the presence of someone who has seemingly understood the essence of purpose. I didn’t want my perception of him to deviate from his truth and so I simply asked him what he’d like you to know.
He said, “Behind every person and that one thing that you know them for, is a whole lifetime of ideas, morals, ethics, likes and dislikes that define them. With that in mind, I want people to know that I’m a multi-faceted gem and you’re only really accustomed to seeing one side. You know what I mean? The shiny diamond.”
words Lillian Ahenkan photography Max Doyle, polaroid and video Ribal Hasn, creative direction and fashion Gadir Rajab, grooming Colette Miller, photography assistant Ilona Savchenko, production Chris Hemmings. Shot at Rokeby Studios, Melbourne.