Vince Staples is bringing “the truth” to hip hop

Originally published on HUCK | Photography by Ricardo Miguel Vieira

Vince Staples’ story is one told many times in hip hop lore. Born and raised in North Long Beach, California, his background is rooted in the neighbourhood’s gangbanging culture. His father was embedded in the drug hustling scene and Staples eventually grew up to become a 2N Crips affiliate. As in many rapper’s stories, however, there’s a shift-changing moment along the way and for Staples it was the summer of 2006. He was then 13 years old.

“It was the beginning of the end of everything I thought I knew”, Staples wrote on Instagram. “Youth was stolen from my city that summer and I’m left alone to tell the story.” Friends got locked up. Others tumbled to bullets and drugs. Others sold their souls to snitchery. A couple of years later, Staples temporarily moved to Atlanta looking to make sense of streetlife’s merciless outcomes. At his return, a new chapter began, offsetting the journey to his rapping career.

Staples is now 22 years old and one thing he’d tell you about such a feat is that he outlived the red roses. Another thing he’d probably let you in to is that rap saved his life. Staples first draw attention after a series of collaborations with Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt in the latter’s Earl mixtape and debut album Doris, and  then with Larry Fisherman (Mac Miller producer identity) on Stolen Youth. The Long Beach native’s major debut was at the end of 2014 with the release Hell Can Wait on Def Jam. The 6-track EP stood out as the prologue to one of this year’s most impressive hip hop records: Summertime ’06, the tale Staples was left to chronicle alone.

Summertime ’06 was me telling the truth because I don’t see a lot of people doing that”, Staples tells me while sipping his white coffee. We’re chatting in a bright, swanky hotel in central London. It’s the eve of his debut performance in the city. “People spend their entire fortune running from themselves. They don’t want to deal with the truth of how we’re looked as individuals, as people and as a race.”

Staples’ hour-long masterpiece is a hauntingly cold and immersive storytelling set to cavernous, minimal beats mainly produced by Chicago’s No I.D. and L.A’s beat scene legend Clams Casino. His nostalgic yarns frame the challenges to overcome preconceptions and stereotypes thrown at him throughout the years. He assures me he never did drugs nor drank and that he’s an old man who doesn’t party, wrapping up his days at midnight.

“I don’t have to deal with a lot of things anymore”, he says hesitantly. “I just moved. My girlfriend is riding my car with no license going 80mph and I’m pulled over because of where I live. Do I have to deal with the cops? No. The PR deals with the cops? Yeah. So it’s not necessarily over, but I’m okay now.” As we chat, a dry pop-pop sound spills from the outside to the hotel welcoming bar room. It’s the week of Bonfire Night in England, but that sound evokes in the different memories from Staples’ upbringing.

Summertime ’06 is Staples reminiscing on his ghosts. It’s as well a broader picture of the rapper’s disfranchised surroundings. Far from glorying thecrippin’ lifestyle (you won’t find on him with any gang tattoos or hear him praising feats of street life), his music encloses the daily life of a community grounded on gangbanging, street law and judicial inequality. But the difference in Staple’s rap sheet lays out his intentions: his rap steps aside from the prevalent West Coast gangsta rap label to rather focus on hip hop culture’s role in addressing the reality of the situation in the streets of L.A.

“Real is saying the influence music’s having on drugs within kids in the community. A kid from back home just died off of a drug he knew nothing about a couple of years ago. And I know that because I’ve known him since I was a child. He did not know what Xanax was. So that, combined with some really shitty things he had to take to keep his sanity, killed him. And where did he learn that? From a rap song. That’s real.”

“Many rappers defend that’s just art”, I reply.

“And that’s fine. But lets weigh the art. It’s fine when it’s entertainment but not when it can shift and shape a culture and that’s the problem. Think about it: if we do percentages, not from all time but from a time I can probably remember, we have an entire culture where the majority of rappers were selling crack. I don’t roughly know a rapper – not a popular one – in the area I was growing up who didn’t sell fucking crack. Look at the trap movement… Now, I’m not saying that’s not true. What I’m saying is the fact that there is a majority that is selling crack in 2015. Selling cocaine in 2015.”


On a wider perspective, Staples often voices his views on the institutionalised racism that has been sweeping the US since, well, ever. Astatus quo deeply entrenched in a country that politically and culturally demonises minorities, condemning them to live inside invisible walls in segregated communities. Narrowing the current outlook to the past three years – matching the birth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement –, I ask him if he’s sensed any real changes around his area. “Oh you think it has changed since… Fuck no!”

Hip hop has long influenced global culture and rap music, in particular, has been a force of social transformation over the past 40 years. Arguably, it carried Obama to the White House and has been a major influence on the civil rights movement in recent decades. Picking up from Kendrick Lamar’s example, at a time when his soul-reviving ‘Alright’ single is chanted all over the country in black movements’ demonstrations, I ask Staples if he feels that rappers have a decisive stance in leading the change in America.

“People have an important role”, Staples points-out. “It doesn’t matter what you do. Martin Luther King wasn’t a rapper. People have an important role. There are more people than rappers. If you weigh the average you are going to have ten rappers saying something important and a hundred thousand people saying whatever the fuck is The Million Man March. It happened not too long ago and the media didn’t say anything about it. It’s their job to cover these events so why not cover one million black people walking down the street in the nation’s capitol?”


The day after we met, Vince Staples jumped onto one of Cargo London’s four stages. The place is packed, people are pumped as the North Long Beach rapper leads the crowd with the inciting “bounce, bounce” chant he drops at the very decisive moment of each track. Staples delivers an intense performance. He’s all-in, jumping and spitting bars to his lungs, especially on Summertime’s ‘Señorita’ and ‘Norf Norf’. Staples’ constantly engages with the audience. He’s an acidly ironic dude and pokes fun at the fans with blazing subjects. One that has gotten to the crowds revolved around a long-gone cycle in hip hop’s history: the Golden Era.

There’s a story behind this: prior to the concert, Staples had been involved in a blazing exchange of tweets with his followers (including historical rap figures) on the importance of ‘90s hip hop following an interview to Time Magazine. “The 90s get a lot of credit – I don’t really know why.” A quote put out of context (he was asked about ‘90s pop culture’, not ‘hip hop culture’) fuelling hatred among old school and new school hip hop fans and spilling to music website’s. In his defence, Staples pointed out the obvious: he was born in 1993. So did many of his generation’s rap cats, like Earl Sweatshirt or Tyler, The Creator.

“I don’t know if the nineties fit within the new generation”, he explains. “I don’t understand the nostalgia of an era. The interview was about pop culture in the ‘90s. If we’re speaking “pop culture-wise”, then pop culture’s biggest era to write music is Lil’ Wayne’s and Kanye’s and Eminem’s. If I walk down the street and ask a 13 year old kid who about some nineties rappers, he’ll know nothing about the majority because it didn’t penetrate pop culture. We can pretend it did, but it didn’t and that’s just the honest to god truth. Everybody knows who Eminem is, everybody knows who Snoop Dogg is for the most part and that’s not because of Doggystyle. Everyone that knows Jay-Z doesn’t know Reasonable Doubt, that’s the truth. There are people from every era that everyone knows, but if we’re talking about the best time for hip hop penetrating pop culture, it isn’t necessarily the nineties. People say, ‘I was born in 1993 and grew up on ‘90s hip hop, bla, bla’. Good for you! But I’m sure that was an awkward conversation to have at the lunch table when you were in your 4th grade talking about Cormega. That’s the problem with hip hop culture.”

I dig deeper. “What problem is that?”

“The problem with hip hop culture is that we care about all the wrong things. We deem respect for something that literally is disrespectful to women, modesty, homosexuals and our own kind. So what do you want to be respected? No one says anything about the perpetuating violence or perpetuating drug uses to kids, because that’s where they get most of the influence. The problem is you saying you’re not familiar with ‘90s hip hop and instead of the guns and the drugs? What kind of sense does that make?”

As with everything in today’s hyperconnected, slacktivist global culture, the debate sparked by Staples’ quotes soon vanished in the sea of information. Nonetheless, Staples is certainly looking to be part of a bigger change judging by Summertime ’06’s outcome. And besides his mindbending rhymes, if anything, the dispute about the Golden Era has put Staples on the music media’s radar. So by the moment his tweets are reportable, one would think he could keep an ongoing conversation about changing America. Only there’s a much bigger reality happening outside the virtual forums to be addressed.

“Life on Twitter isn’t real. It just isn’t. The other day, one of my friends got three life sentences and 75 years added on for his first offence, a non-violent crime. And how many retweets did that get? 15? 20? That’s scary to me. You don’t have to kill anybody or hurt anybody to never see the light again now.”

Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06 is out now on Def Jam.


Top Boy: Skepta’s North American takeover in Noisey’s documentary

Skepta is truthful to his art. He’s been in the grime game for more than a decade and if the Tottenham-born MC learned anything along the way that was to stick to his thing, to his creativity, no matter quids, trends or your likes. As he puts it right at the first few seconds of Noisey’s Top Boy documentary, it’s “How you change the game” that’ll make you eternal.

Joseph Junior Adenuga, 33, is an ambassador of the genre born in the streets of London at the turn of the century. Many deem him a pioneer, although names like Dizzee Rascal will pose as breakthrough figures. Nonetheless, grime’s bass-loaded beats have never lived up to its full-blown energetic echo until a Skepta’s “That’s Not Me” (curiously featuring his brother JME) hit the streaming waves and its lo-budget, lo-def video swept a MOBO award last year. Boy Better Know‘s co-founder has certainly the onus of reviving the scene and to stretch its frontiers.

Drake, Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, Wiki, they are all Skepta’s accolades and his reach at the opposite end of the Atlantic translates into sold out shows. Everywhere. The proof is on Noisey’s documentary, which follows the MC on his North American tour last Summer – from New York to Toronto with stops in Washington and Boston. “If there’s anytime in my life that I wanted this opportunity, it would’ve been now.”

Skepta’s music is engaging. People relate to it because they find a bridge between the wisdom and the enjoyment. “I’m not a conscious, deep rapper, but I’m like those as a person. So as much as I like to have the hype I always liked to put some sort of teaching in it somewhere down the line. Because you have rappers that have that conscious side, but there’s no vibe on it, it’s giving you a depressing package. I give it to you like a package to say ‘yo this shit is fucked up, this whole shit is fucked up, but just enjoy yourself man’.”

Noisey’s cut offers both back and onstage perspectives of Skepta’s tour through a world he always perceived as a “promise land”. But just as Tottenham’s MC connects dots with his music, the producers behind the documentary also draw a bond between the artist and the person.



Afri-Kokoa presents Pat Thomas & The Kwashibu Area Band + support from Octopizzo

Photographs by Ricardo Miguel Vieira

Highlife legend Pat Thomas and his fellow musicians of The Kwashibu Area Band (Kwame Yeboah pictured above) gave a stalwart, energetic presentation on October 2 at Rich Mix arts venue in Shoreditch, London. It was an exclusive live album launch presented by Afri-Kokoa ahead of the London based afro-art collective 10 years celebration.

The event’s opener was young Octopizzo, a hip hop artist from Kibera (Kenya), the largest slum in Africa, and the founder of C.B.O. and youth group Y.G.B. (Young, Gifted and Black), a platform supporting talented rappers, poets, graffiti artists, graphic artists and dancers.

An awesome evening of warm, African rhythms.

pat_thomas_london_2015_rmvieiraPat Thomasoctopizzo_london_2015_rmvieiraOctopizzo


Príncipe @ Dance Tunnel

Photographs by Ricardo Miguel Vieira

My return to sweet homeland Portugal happened last night on Hackney’s shady club Dance Tunnel. My good mate DJ Marfox brought to the city the sweaty, kuduro infused electronic sounds emerging from Portuguese slums and ghettos located on the fringes of its capital. He was followed by young guns DJ Firmeza and Nídia Minaj for a Príncipe Records’ showcase presented by Clock Strikes 13 series.

The Portuguese-born and raised producers charged the Tunnel’s tiny, packed dance floor with a mesh of kuduro, tarraxo and semba informed Lusophone African rhythms knitted with Western urban, contemporary pounding beats. Sounds sparking memories of my life back in my hometown, a crammed city a few miles out of downtown Lisboa known for housing a large community of African immigrants from the Portuguese post-colonial empire. In such place, unusual is the day when the scent of cachupa isn’t escaping from an apartment or a warm African cadence isn’t echoing from a car’s muscled sound system. I can actually pinpoint similarities between Agualva-Cacém (that’s the name of the place) and Brixton, where I’m currently based. As I’m typing these words in a local caffé, I’m soothed by the unreadable words of people from other worlds chatting at the nearby table while occasionally shaking my feet to some speakers pounding a tropical, Caribbean bass as it wheels the hill.

The Londoners gave candid reply to the percussive challenges of batida de Lisboa last night, bouncing and kicking and jumping for five straight hours as the BPM’s steadily navigated throughout the session and a small group of Angolan’s chanted “filha-da-puttaaaa”.

DJ Marfox was up first with his entangling electronic mixtures; young DJ Firmeza demonstrated sharp skills for chopping and fusing pieces and bits of tracks and build a unique and consistent and improvised set; and Nídia Minaj playfully blazed the dance floor with a ping-pong of batida and pop vocals – clearly instigating the “wooows” of the dancers.

All-in-all it was a night to remember. A chance to revisit some friendly faces and memories and to absorb Portugal’s best heritage.

Will post soon some new stills as well as an interview with DJ Firmeza on his debut solo EP A Alma do Meu Pai.


A producer’s quest to free 16 detained young Angolan activists

Originally published on OkayAfrica | Photograph by Ana Brigida/Rede Angola

On the sunny afternoon of June 20, a group of 13 young Angolan human rights activists gathered for a book club meeting at a house in Vila Alice, Luanda. The reunion, which featured books and essays converging on the subject of how to non-violently overthrow a dictatorial government, sparked a debate on the current social landscape of Angola, a country blessed with oil and diamonds yet cursed by an unbrotherly 36-year-ruling by José Eduardo dos Santos. The meeting was suddenly raided by Angola’sCriminal Investigation Services, and the activists were detained– without a warrant– on the basis of “plotting to disturb the order and safety of the country” (aka planning a coup). The activists were first led to their different homes, where their computers, cellphones and credit cards were confiscated, and soon incarcerated in different prisons. The number of detained activists, mainly artists and musicians, such as rapperLuaty Beirão aka Ikonoklasta, would soon rise to 16. As of today, they remain locked up.

That same evening, Pedro Coquenão, aka Batida, had a Skype meeting planned with one of the activists to talk about “family stuff.” It obviously didn’t go through– his friend had been arrested. The 40 year-old Angolan-born, Lisboa-raised-and-based musician and creative is also an active voice and mind for an evolved and more equal Angolan society– a facet revealed by Coquenão throughout the years as a radio host in Portugal and a DIY documentary director and a musician, first as DJ Mpula and now as Batida.

Batida has been closely following the activists’ situation and briskly taking a stance for their immediate release. He regularly posts updates on Facebook, co-organises demonstrations and even displays billboards with their faces onstage. His greatest weapon, though, is his music: a blend of traditional Angolan sounds with the urban electronic landscapes absorbed in Lisboa and Europe, emanating a vibrant and physically-appealing rhythmic kaleidoscope that summons the past and present of Angola’s rich culture.

In the conversation below, Batida speaks with us about Angola’s current social landscape and the transformative aspiration of his music productions.

batida_sol_caparica_2015_luis_macedoBatida displays posters of the 16 detained Angolan activists (©Luís Macedo)

Ricardo Miguel Vieira for Okayafrica: What’s the current situation regarding the activists detained in Angola?

Batida: It’s tense on their families and the Angolan society in general. You can’t be at ease when someone storms into your house and arrests your son or husband in an aggressive, violent manner without presenting legal arguments while you watch the whole thing unfolding. People become restless. So far the situation remains pretty much the same: a group of people is still in jail due to an alleged attempt to plot a coup-d’état during a book reading gathering. These are well-known, young, politically-independent Angolan activists and artists that have always acted publicly, never hiding their actions. They were debating “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation”, an awarded essay by Gene Sharp on non-violent meanings of overthrowing a dictatorial regime, which isn’t like a conspiracional or obscure manual. There were also a couple of other projects in discussion: creating an online television broadcast; and planning a demonstration where people would basically honk from their cars, displaying their discontentment with their onwards living standards. So the motivations for these arrests are pretty much clear for everyone except for the people that matter, which are those in charge of the country. So I don’t know when will this end, but social unrest is looming and everyone is worried about the activists’ current living conditions.

This social volatility has been very present in Angola since people took to the streets in 2011 following the Arab Spring’s global sweeping wave. What are these young Angolans fighting for?

A fairer, more equal and cohesive society. They want more investment in people, better jobs, infrastructures and education. These are pretty basic things that you hear shouting in any demonstration in the world. People feel they are under the same living standards since the Colonial War. The system spreads the word that Angola is a democracy, an evolved country with a booming economy and bubbling wealthiness. But then beer is cheaper than bottled water, the country has the world’s highest infant-mortality rate due to malnutrition, and its capital, Luanda, is the world’s most expensive city. In Angola only those aligned with the system are bound to succeed in their expectations, otherwise they won’t make it. Hence, these young activists are basically voicing the feeling that they don’t stand a chance in achieving a fair and equal life in Angola. They wish to speak without fear, hydrate their voices with tap water, go to a hospital without getting sicker. It’s not a matter of political parties or ideologies– they would plainly accept any government coming forward with these objectives.

It must be challenging for the movement to attract new voices because people on the opposite side of the system may face daily troubles within their lives… 

If you do something unaligned with the collective discourse and the one staged by the regime, then you’ll only find hurdles on your way. The Angolan society has a deep fear of assuming a position or even liking or commenting things on Facebook. Only a few engage in conversation. For instance, my recent video of my show in Lisboa where I displayed posters of each of the detainees had 70,000 views on Facebook, but only a thousand likes. Many see, few comment and the majority is silent. Those assuming an independent position are often facing the court rooms or prison threats or can’t get a job. There’s a generalised fear in every sector of the Angolan society. There’s tension, uneasiness and unhappiness with many aspects of their current living.


Batida displays posters of each of the detainees at his show in Lisboa


Then how do these activists work to bring more people to the cause?

There isn’t a way of enticing people because there’s no money involved, no cute t-shirts nor free beer. What attracts is the overall sentiment, the message the group conveys and the chance to meet likeminded people in demonstrations. Basically, a feeling that you aren’t alone. There’s a very humane sense of belonging within these youngsters. That’s the bid. The group isn’t a solid organisation, people come and go, it’s open to multiple opinions and no one’s put aside.

You said you took posters of the activists’ faces to your concerts to raise awareness. You’ve also co-organised demonstrations in Portugal in solidarity with the activists. What moves you and your art to this situation?

I’m deeply influenced by the 1960-70’s music generations from Angola and Portugal and I’m not just talking about the sounds or lyrics of that era, but the spirit of such music. Many were apolitical artists venting subversive and thought-provoking political messages. They didn’t have a political agenda; they’d just tell stories of what was happening around them. I’m drawn to that posture, to that inevitability of an artist reflecting about what surrounds him through his art. Music had a socially relevant role in the genesis of Angola’s identity and I like the artists that have the ability to transform the world around them just by being themselves. My music and my performances are a reflection of my personality and this situation is close to me, affects my friends, the country where I was born and I feel the urge of standing up and say something, do something about it. I involved myself in this fight because no one was doing it. Those taking the fight to the streets are imprisoned, so I just act to claim for attention towards them and to make a difference and for this not to be forgotten.


Do you find your music interventive and revolutionary?

I like the art that isn’t necessarily interventional. That’s the art that transforms for being free, provocative and different. Telling about what you see is a basic exercise of freedom and it’s political as it is and I love that freedom and to be honest in what I do. I prefer movement, being less literary and more sensible. I believe in the power of dancing, in physical expressions, in the sound’s vibration and having people on the dance floor. I think that transforms better than long speeches, which follow rules in order to achieve their objectives. Although I have always worked with artists of the word such as MCK or Ikonoklasta [one of the activists currently in prison]. I collaborate with them because I find common ground in their lyrics. I like speaking through music, shows, images or films that I project in my concerts.

Which of your songs better reflect Angola’s present social environment?

The best example is “Bazuka”. My first idea was to blend a percussive and rhythmic sound from the 1960-70’s with the ones I was listening back in 2007. I crossed the old and the new in a harmonious way because it made no sense to have this generational gap in the Angolan music spectrum. It was a festive sound to which I added voices from a documentary I produced with Ikonoklasta back in 2005 because I felt the need for it to have a context. It was a song that had a great impact on my fellow producers and musicians; that was itself the weapon – but it was  wasn’t in any way praising the gun. I mixed the old and new rhythms of the country with messages of Angola’s daily life so people could find a socially truthful story in it. Jumping from that track to “Alegria” and to “Pobre e Rico” clearly unveils what I try to do when producing music. Just as many elders forget the youngsters and don’t listen to them, there are also older happenings and people forgotten by both generations and there are many beautiful things made in the past that are still pretty much valid today. Thus I rescue the past through a mixture of music, dances and images and put it back into Angola’s present context and pay homage to the wholesome of the culture. Music isn’t just music; films aren’t just films; dancing isn’t just dancing. Everything’s a living experience and doesn’t have to be encapsulated in a set of rules.


What other courses of action do you have planned to expose the incarceration of the activists?

I’ll keep on doing what I’ve done since before the arrests: making music and shows and promoting Angolan artists in other countries as much as I can. I compromise myself as an artistic figure to speak about this in my shows, on social media and in interviews to the press. I’m here to come forward whenever it’s possible and to talk about this issue in front of 500 people or 20,000. It doesn’t matter: I have this compromise and I’ll stick to it.

And what can be done to help out in this situation?

First of all, sign Amnesty International’s petition for the immediate release of the activists. It’s simple and only takes 10 seconds. Then use social media to keep spreading the word and the news that you find credible, accurate and independent. From here onwards it’s in everyone’s hands to do something. I strongly believe that if a person is well-informed, then she’ll know what course of actions to take. Either personally or even artistically.

The 16 detained Angolan activists (Via Central Angola 7311)

If you could play one of your songs to José Eduardo dos Santos, which one would it be?

I would dedicate a beautiful song to him just as to anyone else. I never did a song thinking about him because I don’t hold any personal grudge against Angola’s president. I don’t have any interest in talking with him, I don’t even know him personally and he doesn’t slide his human side so I don’t know how he is. But maybe “Pobre e Rico”, because the lyrics are still up-to-date. This is not a matter of blacks and whites; it’s about rich people (‘rico’) and poor people (‘pobre’), that’s what people are talking about: there are many people with lots of money and many more with it at all. That’s the greatest wound in the Angolan society. The song also has an argument similar to the one his party stood for after the Colonial War, so it’s always good for someone to just go back in time and remember when they dreamed about projecting beautiful things for them and the others and to analyse if they did everything they could towards that dream. There are other songs that would also fit, but this one would be a good conversation starter. But I don’t feel like talking to someone who doesn’t want to talk with anybody either.

Follow Batida and Central Angola 7311 on Facebook for ongoing updates about the detained activists.