WORDZ the Poet Emcee | photo courtesy of the artist
Walking the walk with WORDZ the Poet Emcee
Rap and hip-hop have been revolutionary from the onset. It has pushed boundaries from the second generation Jamaican-born DJ’s and Black gang members pulling together speaker systems for soundclashes in Bronx neighborhoods, to artists like Public Enemy, NWA and Native Tongues transforming the accepted vocabulary and lyricism of the music from toasting at a party to political and social missives, then to the current obsession with cyber-gnosis and retro-regressive 808s, lean trap beats in the post-internet age.
But for a movement predicated on being constantly at the forefront of innovation and stylistic newness, the long history of the genre has been overshadowed by an approach to gender and sexuality that is perfectly suited for the male gaze and decidedly less progresssive. Not to delve too into it blindly — discussing rap’s misogyny and homophobia requires nuance, depth and an understanding of how marginalization works that most of the genre’s critics are either unaware of or ignore. But LGBT presence in hip-hop started out marginally, and now, with the efforts of sister movements like vogue, bounce, and club scenes that rap shared auditory space with, has now fortified itself as a staple, immovable part of the scene. And sure, LGBT influence has always been there– but it took efforts from documentaries like 2001’s Pick up the Mic that highlighted global community of queer people creating rap and hip-hop, to Philly’s own Sgt Sass or New York’s Mykki Blanco and Lief and their explosion during the 00’s party rap ressurgence, to the current swath of queer rappers vying for the spotlight. Because of these brave inroads, rappers like Kevin Abstract of the collective BROCKHAMPTON and Tyler the Creator can experience a more normalized presence in rap.
One of Philly hip-hop’s recurring figures is trans rapper WORDZ the Poet Emcee. In 2020, I’ve started so many articles about music and the arts by lamenting the state of things, with COVID, rising police brutality, and government administrations nationally and locally that don’t seem to care about the people, and that the arts community, while it’s suffering, needs voices that speak to this current moment in assured yet malleable ways; WORDZ, aka Christian Lovehall, embodies that. From his work as an activist within the trans and queer communities, to his social media presence that seeks to highlight and illuminate those often missed, WORDZ is a rapper that puts his actions where his lyrics are — front and center: loud, joyous, and celebratory.
His music is steeped in an ever-evolving boom-bap tradition with a few experimental flourishes. Songs like “Philly Jawn” highlight a Missy-ian knack for sing-songy wordplay and future beats, while on albums like UNAPOLOGETIC, he flexes considerable skill over drum-heavy, hypnotic thump, particularly on songs like “Do That” where he rhymes about the state of rap, and thusly the Black and queer communities and how they’re appropriated and exploited: “They want our hips, lips and asses / they takin’ classes to over the masses / they want our walk and our talk and our habits / they look and gawk and they hawk all the classics”.
To say that WORDZ is an artist built for our present time is an understatement. It was our pleasure to sit with him and discuss his origins, the state of hip-hop, and finding space for queer people of color to feel empowered in a world that seeks to destroy them.
The Key: So, hi! I wanted to get into your early career. What was it like, the first time you took the stage as Wordz the Poet Emcee, and do you remember who you played with, what kind of crowd it was? What started you rapping?
WORDZ: I first began rapping in the mid-90s. I was 15 and went by Chris Gutter. I actually have Gutter tatted largely on my arm and it was my first tat. I was a different kind of artist then. I cursed a lot and was harder than most guy rappers I knew. At the time, I felt like I had to be gangsta in order to gain respect in the game, as an emcee who was perceived to be a woman. Being so-called soft wasn’t an option. Rapping was my way of being heard, as I was a very shy kid. I saw how people paid attention to emcees when they had the mic in their hand. I wanted that same respect and I wanted people to listen to what I had to say. Being shy kinda worked out for me, though, because I would often shock audience members who personally knew me to be quiet and reserved. They came to realize I was actually a beast. The mic helped me amplify my voice and turn my pain into something beautiful and golden. Rapping was therapy for a kid from the hood like myself.
I soon became mentored by a North Philly rap group I met online called Beautiful Black Children, aka BBC. They were hood but they were political and conscious as fuck. They helped me realize my potential, find my authentic voice as an artist and exposed me to a lot of performance opportunities. I soon became Spoken Wordz. I chose that name to describe the poetic tone and nature of my music. Although I was young at the time, I was often able to sneak into adult open mics and perform in front of adult audiences. Me and BBC used to perform a lot at this club on 69th Street in Upper Darby, at an open mic hosted by Hilltop Entertainment. It was definitely a movement that shaped me as an artist. I’d also perform at a lot of Stop the Violence rallies and Community Block Parties and Street Festivals, such as Unity Day and Marcus Garvey Day. I didn’t really become WORDZ The Poet Emcee until I started my transition as a Trans man.
TK: How much has hip-hop changed since you first started rapping as WORDZ the Poet Emcee? I’m not sure how long you’ve been spittin’, but it seems like in the last ten years trap has taken over and the energy has shifted so far from the soulful, boom-bap sounds that you produce.
W: Well to be honest, I don’t think much of the rap music out today is actually hip-hop. All rap music is nothip-hop in my opinion. To me it’s more “hip-pop”. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Hip-hop artists exist, but they are not necessarily the artists that we see in XXL Magazine. The “trap” today is not really trap music in my opinion, either. When I think of trap music, I think of the early music of artists like Gucci Mane, Lil’ Wayne, Jay Z, Three 6 Mafia and T.I. It was a southern thing and included artists who literally sold drugs to survive, witnessed violence in their hoods that influenced and shaped them in different ways and rapped about their genuine and authentic experiences. In my opinion, trap is now an aesthetic, a look and literally a “sound”. This new “trap” has little to do with real life experiences, but more so facades and personas. Because of the popularity of hip-pop, I believe authentic hip-hop is now more underground and less mainstream than it has ever been. It’s something that people have to look for and seek out themselves, but the rap music that is most popular, manufactured and consumed nowadays is neither authentic hip-hop nor trap (to me).
TK: You’re also quite prolific with regard to political rap and a particular skill you have is that you speak to a lot of issues that have either disappeared from the global discourse or that haven’t been talked about enough. Why are these issues important to you?
W: My journey as a hip-hop artist has always been spiritual for me. I talk about the things that I’m moved to talk about. I’m guided by my ancestors and by the universe. And I’m guided by my heart. Creating music has never been solely a technical thing, a hobby or a skill I possess. It’s attached to my purpose and I’ve always been very aware of my purpose. A part of my purpose is to uplift and empower my people, create positive and transformative change in the world and speak truth that frees the oppressed. I talk about certain issues in my music because they are issues that ultimately hinder our collective liberation. And in walking and living in my purpose, my music is an expression of that.
TK: A specific song regarding that last question, “Free Mumia”. There doesn’t seem to be the same kind of groundswell for freeing political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal, so your rap about him was pretty powerful to me, especially as someone who became politically active by getting involved with his case. Can you discuss the Mumia case a bit and how it relates to your music and how that case has influenced your activism?
W: Shout out to Mike Africa, Jr. for putting out the initial call for local artists to create a song for Mumia. I had to answer with “Free Mumia.” Being from Philly, I’ve been hearing about Mumia since I was a kid. I remember being maybe 6 or 7 years old and walking by City Hall with my parents and seeing a rally for Mumia for the first time. I saw beautiful Black people. Black people with locs and tightened fists. I remember seeing a huge red, black and green flag, held high, blowing in the wind. I didn’t truly understand at the time what was going on, but there was something powerful about it. I could feel the energy, the strength, the fight. And I knew I wanted to be a part of whatever that was. As a teenager, I understood that a Black man was framed for killing a white cop and [Mumia’s case] was something that caused a lot of racial tension in Philly, especially in South Philly where I grew up. Kids in school would sometimes talk about it, and many kids would repeat what their parents would say about the case. Admittedly, I often used that to gauge who was racist in my school, as it was an easy identifier. But knowing about the case at such a young age caused me to also know about racism and police brutality at a young age, and those topics have always been present in a lot of my music.
TK: It seems that artists are looked at in the way that activists once were in the Black community. In general, do you find that music and activism are a good pairing — why or why not? Is there a certain responsibility that artists have to communicate radical and progressive ideas?
W: I do think that music and activism are a good pairing, but I personally think the only responsibility artists truly have is to create art. Art can be inspired by many things and can communicate many more things. I think celebrities are a lot of times expected to utilize their platforms to communicate radical and progressive ideas, but I think that expectation is a bit naive, when many people simply get into certain industries, whether it’s music, film or fashion, primarily to make money, not to create change or to be so-called role models.
TK: As well, this kind of scrutiny — like say the lyrics of rappers like Noname, J. Cole or Azealia Banks — are often treated with a much higher margin of error than say, whatever it is that Bon Iver or Billie Eilish are singing about. Why do you think this lyrical scrutiny and narrative about being “proper role models” is used almost exclusively for Black or hip-hop artists? Do you personally feel pressure to be “on” all the time, as an activist in your music — why or why not?
W: I think hip-hop has always been criminalized, despite its global popularity. Ultimately, hip-hop is seen as vulgar and violent. So I think the seemingly exclusive call for rappers to be role models is rooted in that criminalization and is ultimately anti-Black.
I also think people realize how attractive hip-hop is to youth, and want youth to be exposed to positive messages, so rappers are sometimes held to different standards. The same is not often asked or expected from R&B, country, rock or soul singers. I do personally feel pressure to be on all the time as a so-called activist in my music because I know people view me solely as a “conscious hip-hop” artist, however I don’t allow that pressure to dictate the music I create. Throughout my albums there are songs about love, sex, weed and parties, because my music is an expression of self, not of an expression of expectations people place on me based on a box they want me to fit neatly in.
TK: You’re also an artist who creates political music, true, but you are also very active in both the LGBT community and the Black community and where those two communities intersect, like, you’re in the streets. One of your projects is The Free Ky Project, can you discuss that a bit? What other projects are you working on?
W: The Free Ky Project is a photo awareness campaign I created in 2015 to spread awareness about the story of Ky Peterson and the experiences of trans men of color who are survivors of sexual assault. Ky Peterson is a trans man who was incarcerated in Georgia and sentenced to 20 years, for defending himself against trans-phobic sexual violence. As a survivor myself, who is also a Black trans man and advocate, I thought it was important for community to show support for Ky and uplift the experiences of TMOC that are often ignored and untold. Over 300 people have participated in the project since then, with many of the photos sent to Ky via his partner. Fortunately, Ky was released recently and is home, enjoying spending time with his family.
Recently, I have launched a new business called FrootFly, with my partner. It is a tropical fruit distribution resource based in New York and Philly, essentially for the hood. Far too often many of us lack access to fresh produce in our neighborhoods, affecting our diets, our nutrition and overall health and wellness. We wanted to change that. We also wanted to specialize in tropical fruit full of medicinal properties that many of us within the diaspora living in the U.S. rarely experience, to build lost ancestral and cultural connections. FrootFly also has a fruit share program, where people can sponsor fruit boxes that will go to marginalized individuals, including Black trans people, undocumented individuals, people living with immune deficiencies and disabilities, youth and elders. More about our products, mission and goals can be found at www.frootfly.org
TK: With the Trans Masculine Advocacy Network, what are the goals of that group? And sub-question — during a recent stream, a member of TMAN mentioned that the case of Tony McDade was being under-reported because trans men of color “aren’t real to the media.” Do you find that to be true? What are some ways we can advocate more strongly for trans people of color going forward, especially within the music and arts communities?
W: TMAN was founded in 2006 and is a grassroots organization, advocacy group and brotherhood based in Philly, dedicated to uplift and empowering people of color along the trans masculine spectrum. I’ve been the facilitator of the group since 2016. TMAN hosts regular support groups, workshops, trainings, public roundtable discussions, and other activities that promote brotherhood and community. TMAN also links local TMOC to numerous resources such as mentorships, affirming medical and behavioral health providers, employment opportunities, safer housing, HRT injection supplies, transportation assistance, transition supplies such as binders, and more.
Trans men, especially trans men of color, aren’t real to the world in general, so the media often reflects that. The voices, stories and experiences of trans men of color are still very much an enigma, but that is why groups like TMAN are so important. We actively seek out ways to dismantle myths, assumptions and misconceptions about our experiences and ways to share truth as well as connect, grow and build with community.
I think realizing that there are ALL types of trans artists is key to advocating more strongly for trans people of color within the music and arts communities. We are literally everywhere. We are actors, dancers, singers, rappers, poets, painter, producers, musicians and more. And we should be taken seriously when we pursue our crafts. We should be celebrated more than the cis-gender artists centered and idolized, who at the end of the day, always show us eventually that they don’t give a f*** about LGBTQ anything. If they do, oftentimes it’s in the form of exploitation.
To create art takes time, energy and money. When you’re a part of marginalized groups, money usually doesn’t come easy, so it’s important to buy albums, artwork, and other products from trans artists of color.Pay more than what the artist is asking if you can. That’s the support that is most impactful, when you’re doing what you love, but also doing it to survive and make ends meet.
TK: One of my favorite songs of yours is “Tired.” It’s a beautiful song with inspirational lyrics and experimental production ideas. What was the initial impetus for that song? Can you walk me through the creative process for it?
W: I wrote that song during a time when I was struggling a lot with depression. And as I said before, my music is my therapy. So I literally was tired and wrote a song about what I was feeling. Being an activist or advocate, you’re never really allowed to say that you’re tired. People expect you to lead and be on go all the time. But I was tired and allowed myself to be just that. I was tired of burying friends of mine. I was tired of being hungry and wondering where I was going to get my next meal. I was tired of constantly seeing Black death in the headlines. I was tired of the gentrification that I was witnessing in my hood, South Philly. And I wanted to express the vulnerable state I was in and be honest about the anguish and stress I was experiencing at that time, because it’s real and I knew there were people who could relate. In the video, I was walking in the rain. It fit with the mood very well.
TK: Speaking of “Tired” and being a bit burnt out, you hinted on Instagram that your next album might be your last! Say it ain’t so! What has you contemplating hanging up the mic? What do you hope to accomplish with music going forward?
W: Whoa! I never said I was hanging up the mic [laughs], but it’s good to know you follow me and read my content! The project I’m working on will probably be my last album, but I won’t stop making music any time soon. At the end of the day, albums cost money to make and release. And until I gain a bit more support, it’s just not cost effective for me anymore. Times have changed. People seemingly forget that music artists pay for studio time, beats, graphic design, promo, etc…they just want albums. But I will release singles and will collab with other artists on various projects.
TK: A question I ask a lot of recent interviewees is about the state of music in general, post-COVID and post BLM / anti-police brutality protests and the subsequent conversations we are having. What do you think music and art will look and sound like going forward? Will artists be able to make an impact, and if so how?
W: Things are definitely going to continue to shift towards digital / virtual platforms and spaces. I do see concerts and performative spaces being more intimate as in less people, due to social distancing, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in my opinion, but it does affect profit for artists.
If people are ready for impactful music and art movements, then artists who are activists and freedom fighters will be able to make an impact. If people want to continue to uplift artists who are not in it to create a positive impact on the world…then that impact will continue to be lacking.