The Reverb Interview: DJ Cavem.MoetavationBy Sam DeLeo | November 2nd, 2010 | 6 comments
Hip hop is waiting. Not necessarily commercial hip hop, which waits, by and large, for returns on investments. But in the outlying roots and branches, in those places where the socially-conscious movements of hip hop are born, there seems a readiness to cut a new trail.
Ever since the release of “The Message” in 1982 by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, a number of artists have spearheaded conscious movements in hip hop, from Public Enemy and KRS-One to Tupac, Dead Prez, the Coup and Immortal Technique, to mention a few. But as the commercial market hunts for music with revenue potential, the challenges mount for those interested in sustaining a more autonomous, community-oriented brand of hip hop.
We recently sat down with DJ Cavem.Moetavation — educator, MC, DJ, producer, filmmaker and activist, to name a few of the hats he wears — and discussed the direction he is trying to move in hip hop and how he sees that direction fitting into the history of the form.
Five Points-born and bred, he’s an internationally known artist who has performed in Africa, Europe and throughout the U.S. At 24, he just dropped his sixth and latest album this summer, “The Teacher’s Lounge.” And yet, the flourish of ideas he has makes one feel he’s just getting started.
Q. You believe in creating and promoting “green hip hop.” Can you explain what you mean by that term?
A. I believe in promoting food justice to the community, because it is needed where I come from. I am from a community that is a food desert, where there is no non-processed, healthy food for five miles or more. Green hip hop for me does not only mean talking about gardens and solar panels; it’s about giving my audience something sustainable. I am an organic gardener, new father, educator and a strong youth advocate, so my focus is giving our youth something they can consume and digest mentally, to grow and be better than us. My slogan, “Going Green, Living Bling,” is my mission, redefining the image of wealth in hip hop culture for our youth, trying to make it cool to be healthy, to be aware, to be conscious of ourselves and the world around us. This is why I titled my latest album, “The Teacher’s Lounge.”
Your mom, Ashara Ekundayo, is a well-known Denver activist and environmentalist, as well as a founder of Cafe Nuba, the poetry and music collective. Kids used to reject what their parents were into, how did you adopt her values into your life?
I have followed in my mother’s footsteps when it comes to being a free spirit and entrepreneur. I also must thank her for my early trips to Africa, which gave me a new perspective on life and who I am. My mother introduced me to homeopathic medicine and vegetarian food options at a young age. Before I knew how to express myself, I was able to witness great revolutionary poetry and improve upon my own craft through Café Nuba. Because of this venue I was able to meet world-renowned poets like Oscar Brown Jr., Amiri Baraka and Sunny Patterson, and enjoy great local poetry talent. In my journey to manhood I have found many great teachers from my community — Brother Jeff, the late Opalanga, Sirat Saleem, Sean Jones, Catherine O’Neill Thorn and Jill Dryer (who taught me how to work with the earth), just to name a few.
How do you take struggle and rebellion in your music — or your life, for that matter — and make it work for you instead of against you, so that it can create positive results?
As I mentioned before, I have visited the ‘Motherland’ (Africa), specifically Goree Island off the coast of Senegal. While there I had the opportunity to stand in the “Door of No Return” (a main exit portal for the African slave trade). At the time, I was involved in the other side of my ‘hood, Five Points, being rebellious, searching for my talents, not applying my knowledge. After standing there, looking out at the Atlantic, I experienced my ‘Sankofa’ (loosely, a Ghanian word that signifies remembering, reconciling and learning from one’s past in order to move forward). I thought about the people who came before me — my ancestors who were taken from that land and my ancestors who came before me here in the United States —the struggles and the fights they went through to have the things I was taking for granted.
Being from the Five Points, I began to recognize its history, the great music, the black businesses and communities that once thrived there. It made me want to remind the people in my neighborhood of this history, the history that goes back through that doorway, to the other side, before we were slaves. I cultivated my rebellious attitude and anger for the current situation of my community into motivation to educate others, to grow organic food in my front yard, and become the change I wanted to see.
Like almost everyone in hip hop, I know you have been influenced a lot by KRS-One. Can you talk a little bit about both what he means to you, and what you think he’s getting at with a single like “ROBOT” from the “Survival Skills” album last year with Buckshot?
I think what he’s getting at is there is a separation between the pioneers of hip hop and upcoming artists. I think this reflects the separation between youth and elders in society. Young people don’t know about Roger Trotten (the original auto-tune artist) and Afrika Bambaataa because the elders don’t expose them, the same way some younger generations don’t know what real food looks like out of the earth. Traditions and culture keep getting lost because we don’t speak on them. ‘KRS’ stands for Knowledge Reigns Supreme, which is the truth. I believe your name should be a representation of what you stand for: C.A.V.E.M. is Communicating Awareness Victoriously Educating the Masses.
Can you talk more about the thinking behind naming your last album? (“Teacher’s Lounge”)
I teach kids in educational workshops around Denver, and other places, too. I just did a workshop in Vallejo, CA, where they’re struggling with gangs right now. I think it helps if kids can identify with what they’re taught. When they hear a song like “Wheat Grass” from the album, they identify, they say, ‘He’s talking about working with us.’ That’s how they embrace it. I teach them about ‘Going Green, Living Bling,’ about learning what’s sustainable in their world, but I also try to reflect compassion to youth. I worked to get some of my favorite hip hop pioneers to collaborate with me, to engage the youth, such as KRS-One, Dead Prez and Doodlebug from Digable Planets, to present the true meaning of ‘H.I.P. H.O.P.’ — Higher Inner Peace Helping Other People.
Who are you listening to now?
I‘ve always been hugely influenced by the older artists like James Brown, Fela Kuti, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Roy Ayers, etc. I grew up on the foundation of hip hop, like the Universal Zulu Nation, whose elements stem from funk, soul and jazz. Lately, I’ve been bumpin’ locally grown sound from right here in the ‘CO’ — the Reminders, Mike Wird’s Afronaut Funk, Spellbinder, Ebony Lion and Future Jazz Project, a lot of talented people from Colorado, too many to name. I’ve also been playing some live poetry, like SLAM NUBA!, and trying to keep things funky and fresh with some bossa nova, some Ethiopian jazz, Dead Prez’s new mixtape with DJ Drama, some deep house and Les Nubians’ new EP (“Nu Revolution”), which is super nice.
Will hip hop ever be dangerous again in a mainstream arena — not in a gangsta sense, which has been played out — but in a way that an art form is vital and challenging?
It is up to the community, the people have to recognize that they control what is available for their consumption, just like this ‘green’ environmental movement. Going against the grain never starts out mainstream. If we teach the youth to demand better for themselves, to consume consciously, positively and healthily, then maybe. I’ll do my part. You do yours.
Denver-based writer Sam DeLeo is a published poet, has seen two of his plays produced and is currently finishing his second novel.