Calling the Detroit-based emcee and activist Invincible a driven young woman would be about as accurate as calling the CEO of BP a moderately wealthy businessman.
In a medium founded in lyrical cutting contests the underground icon has set her sights on becoming “the best rapper, period / not just the best with breasts and a period.” What separates Invincible from her peers (besides the fact that she’s likely the sharpest freestyle battle rapper the D. has seen since pre-peroxide Eminem) is that she’s also a community organizer with a list of projects so long and diverse it would leave the average independent artist dizzy.
In the past couple of years alone the artist whose real name is Ilana Weaver dropped her long-anticipated album Shapeshifters, put the final touches on two docu-music videos (People Not Places and Locusts, which put the Israeli government and recession-plagued Detroit under the microscope, respectively), helped organize the Detroit Summer Live Arts Media Project (LAMP) and rocked the mike at the opening ceremony of the US Social Forum. Among hip-hop’s cognoscenti who have kept an unblinking eye on the D. since the passing of producer J-Dilla in 2006, there is little doubt that thanks to her unique mix of multimedia muscle and socially-conscious hip-hop hustle Invincible has emerged as a powerful new voice.
Recently, Invincible made it up to Montreal to headline the Artists Against Apartheid XIV showcase on October 23. When I caught up with her a week later the artist who spent the first seven years of her life in “Israeli-occupied Palestine” spoke about her idiosyncratic approach to her latest album and the parallels she sees between Palestine and Detroit. She also had a few tips for President Obama, whom, although it seems like a hazy memory amidst the fading images of an epic oil spill and the frequent news of deadly drone attacks, was also a community organizer once upon a time.
Art Threat: I’ve had your track Shape Shifters on repeat for a while now. Can you elaborate a little bit on the concept?
Invincible: Shape Shifters was inspired by reading Octavia Butler’s The Parables series and Wild Seed. It was my first attempt at writing a hip-hop science fiction song. Hip-hop is based in sampling, and when writing the song I imagined creating a time capsule of music and movements from today — that could be sampled in the future, and uncovered in some post-apocalyptic rubble. I’m excited to see how the lessons of music and movements now can be sampled into brand new unimaginable evolutions of our current approaches to self and world transformation.
You spent up to five years working on your docu-music videos Locusts and People not Places. What’s simmering on the back burner these days?
My new concoction is a full-length album, multimedia installation, and curriculum project in the works with Detroit producer Waajeed. It is focused on complex science and social movements, learning from the ways they intersect and overlap. I hated science class growing up and now somehow all I think about is the ways science can be reclaimed by marginalized communities. A few years ago I was inspired by Grace Lee Boggs, the long time Detroit activist and philosopher to think about the ways our movements are being dictated by old science paradigms. People think change happens incrementally on a large scale, which is in a sense a Newtonian approach, rather than holistically on a small scale, which is the way complex science works. Waajeed and I recently released a single for the song Emergence along with Detroit Summer which is an appetizer for the full-length project.
You’ve often been described as an MC’s MC. My former roommate raps and he played your tracks constantly. Do you ever worry that your dense verses packed with multi-syllabic rhymes could potentially make your messages less accessible?
As dense as my verses are I work to create choruses and bridges that break up the listening experience and make it more digestible. That aside, I strive to write in ways that aren’t just catchy, but are interesting and innovative enough that people will listen more than once and hear something new every time. Much of my flow is influenced by jazz musicians as well. Not to compare meticulous lyricists to Coltrane or Blakey, but jazz fans don’t necessarily memorize their riffs, more so than they listen to appreciate the artistic craftsmanship and emotionality.
You’ve said that in the current postindustrial economic climate, Detroit residents have become artists out of necessity. What do you mean?
Detroit has one of the greatest artist legacies in the world, as well as one of the most revolutionary movement histories in the country. We have so many challenges here that have been ongoing for decades and are just now hitting other cities in a similar magnitude. Detroiters have been finding opportunities in crisis for ages and therefore are creative problem solvers, which is to me what real artistry is all about.
When artists make art for art’s sake, or to tell their personal story, that is already important. But it is even more powerful when combined with creating change in their lives and the lives of their communities. Recently there has been a flood of artists coming into Detroit to live or to make art or films about the city, and calling things like fixing up a building or handing out food in the community art. They are correct that these are acts of art worthy of validation and praise, but it is unfortunate that while they get praise and recognition, the work that local residents have been engaging in for years has rarely gotten that type of attention. Those Detroiter-led ongoing projects need to be given more light in media and museums, not to mention supported on a larger scale.
Do you recognize this ‘artist out of necessity mindset’ among the Palestinians you’ve met as well?
Definitely. I think all people who are given little to no resources become resourceful out of necessity. The Palestinian hip-hop movement represents that to the fullest. These artists are building studios in refugee camps where brownouts and military raids are so frequent they have to factor that into their recording sessions. But they still make some powerful music that represents their story like no news outlet ever could. Additionally, people who wouldn’t consider themselves artists per se are creating alternative ways to feed and educate themselves even when they are under military curfew for weeks at a time. That’s creativity and steadfastness out of necessity.
You’ve used your music videos to amplify Palestinian voices of resistance rather than simply put forward your own critique of the situation. How did you arrive at this approach?
The way I first unlearned the Zionist views I was raised to believe was when I spoke to a Palestinian friend of mine during 6th grade, at basketball practice. We started talking about “back home” and the little we remembered and knew about the land. We had both left so young. She told me how her uncle was imprisoned by the Israeli military for simply attending a non-violent protest, and was then tortured for months.
After that I felt betrayed by the pro-Israel propaganda I had been spoon fed from such a young age. I sought out more and more stories and perspectives written by Palestinians. People who are most impacted by the oppressive forces of a situation are the greatest experts on that topic, and in this case Palestinians are the most impacted by the Zionist colonial and occupation project. Although, I also add my own perspective to the songs I write about Palestine — for example, when I speak about my mom in People Not Places.
I strive to also include and centre Palestinian and other marginalized voices on the issue to express the heart of the matter most accurately. Many people think that mostly listening to Palestinians speak about the topic is a form of bias, but they would never say the same thing about the majority pro-Israel Zionist perspectives that are prevalent in most mainstream media depictions of the situation. Those are considered “objective”.
Case in point: the New York Times Middle East Reporter (Ethan Bronner, the Jerusalem bureau chief of The Times) who’s son left the US to join the Israeli Defense Forces, and yet the reporter was allowed to continue running that section in one of the most influential news sources in the world.
As seen in your video for “The Emperor’s Clothes” you’re a very vocal supporter of the BDS movement. When and how did you come to the conclusion that BDS should be used to combat the Israeli state?
The BDS call was put out by Palestinian Civil Society as a nearly consensus strategy for how to address Israeli Apartheid in an effective way. It was inspired by the South African anti Apartheid boycott movement, and is supported by people who were heavily active in it. Of course it is not the only way to combat the injustices happening there, but I think it is one that can most be connected to local context wherever it takes place.
For instance, if in Arizona they are already doing a boycott of anti-immigrant Apartheid there, they can connect that struggle to the fact that the wall on the US-Mexico border is being built by an Israeli company Elbit systems, which is also building the wall in Palestine. Therefore it is not just about fighting injustice “over there” but connects it to injustices “over here” in our own communities. BDS can also be connected to supporting local economies that are in alignment with anti-apartheid values.
How would you respond to those who say that BDS across-the-board sanctions demonize Israeli society?
There are people living inside Israel’s borders that are signed on to the boycott and although it is a small group to start (it is very difficult to speak out without fear of isolation and attack) it is quickly growing. From history we have learned that settler colonial societies don’t give up power through persuasion, but only through pressure, and particularly economic pressure. The people and artists inside Israel occupied Palestine who want these injustices to end are also supporting the boycott because they know that otherwise Israel will continue to do business as usual.
As an artist yourself — albeit a very independent one — are you not at all concerned about the negative impact BDS could have on Israeli artists?
Artists are not boycottable simply for living in Israel occupied Palestine. They are boycottable only when they take funds from the Israeli government, and although that is challenging it is not impossible, especially considering the thousands of Palestinian artists living in West Bank and Gaza who are not eligible for these funds but continue to make art to speak their truths. Israel has a deliberate mission to use culture as a way to re-brand its image as a benign liberal state which supports arts, as opposed to its true character as an oppressive military regime which has displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, not to mention their recent offer to pay other countries to accept new African immigrants they want to displace, because they “threaten the Jewish character of the state”.
You have a shot of the one of the founders of Detroit Summer the veteran activist Grace Lee Boggs in one of your videos. Has she been a major influence on you and the work you’ve chosen to do in Detroit?
Grace Lee Boggs is a 95 Chinese American activist, writer, and philosopher who has been in Detroit for over 50 years. She and her late husband Jimmy Boggs along with a number of other activists in the city founded Detroit Summer in 1992. I’ve been involved with Detroit Summer since 2000 and it has definitely shaped who I am, how I understand the world, and how I approach making change. One of the greatest lessons I take from Grace and Jimmy is that revolution is not a one-time event, it is an ongoing work in process that is rooted in community, self-reliance and alternatives. Detroit Summer started out growing gardens on empty lots with youth and elders, and now Detroit has the largest urban agriculture movement in the country. The main program now is called LAMP (live arts media project) and is focused on youth created media, popular education workshops, music, and art as an integrated process for youth-led activism and self advocacy campaigns on the issues they feel are most important to them and their community.
If you could take President Obama on a tour of Detroit where would you take him?
I would take Obama (or more importantly Detroit youth) on Detroit Summer’s LAMP youth-led a multimedia mural tour called “Another Detroit is Happening”, which interactively shares the work they did this past summer. In June the LAMP youth interviewed a dozen grassroots community led projects around Detroit and used the photos and concepts from the interviews to inspire mural designs. They then took those mural designs and created giant silkscreens, which they used to print posters of their designs. Then they partnered with four community groups around the city and wheat pasted the collaged posters into murals on each project’s wall. The interview audio was collaged according to the theme of each mural print and then a phone number [1-888-317-8418] was added to allow people to hear the stories, which inspired the design. During the tour people get to meet the various groups involved with the mural process, as well as hear their voices and dialogue about the ideas, and then see the youth perform songs and poems they recorded inspired by the murals as well. For more info go to DetroitSummer.org.