This interview originally appeared in Popmatters.
Ever since his days growing up in Rhode Island during the birth of hip-hop in the early ‘80s, Mr. J. Medeiros remembers blasting the classic beats of Run DMC, Kurtis Blow, and Grandmaster Flash from his Fisher Price radio. Next came his complete submersion into hip-hop culture as a b-boy and graffiti artist. Then the producer/emcee reached beyond the beats to change the lives around him through volunteering for humanitarian organizations AmeriCorps and Habitat for Humanity. He says this work is really just an extension of his music, which is fueled by the desire to ask the tough questions of humanity and to see the world through eyes other than his own.
When Mr J. got involved in graffiti crews in Colorado Springs, CO and eventually wrote his first rap nine years ago when he became a member of the hip-hop collective the Procussions. He has since toured the world, recorded two Procussions albums, begun his own record company HyDef Laboratories, and over the past three years has been producing and recording his solo debut album Of Gods and Girls, an album released this summer that at the very least responds to the current controversy of the misogyny in hip-hop lyrics, but even goes beyond by asking deeper questions of love, gender roles, and the depravity and redemption of the human spirit. At the core of the album is the song “Constance”, a story that vividly tells the story of a 14-year-old Philippino girl who is sold into world of child pornography and human trafficking. Of the serendipitous making of the “Constance” video, Mr J. says, “A guy who I hardly knew from Chicago had heard the song and without me knowing made the video for free and gave it to me. And now the video is going to be run on VH1.”
After discussing how his love for hip-hop began, he dove into the taboo issue of Internet porn and human trafficking and why the majority of the users are male and what that says about the current state of the world. Mr. J candidly answered questions about the vulnerability he shows on the album and how showing his humanity impacts the state of the independent artist and how different the music industry would be if fans really knew how powerful they are.
After several rings, from his home in L.A., Mr J. answered the phone.
You sound a little out of breath? Everything okay?
I think I just ran about two miles in five minutes. I was expecting the call and I heard the phone ringing and then sprinted to catch it.
Let me know when you’re ready.
That’s cool. Go ahead, fire away.
Back when you first started making music with the Procussions what made you want to move the group from Colorado Springs to LA?
I’m a very DIY kind of guy and when we were in Colorado Springs I started my own record company, hip-hop radio station, and local scene since there wasn’t any hip-hop scene in the area. The Procussions moved to LA because there wasn’t anywhere else to go in Colorado Springs so I did what we’ve always done and moved to L.A. and started from the ground up again. I’ve always had to push because I know that there’s no free handouts.
In Rhode Island, you grew up saturated in hip-hop culture then you started to get involved with the community outreach programs and then went back to the music. What brought you back to the music full-time?
Before I used to work with people with disabilities, and community outreach programs. When I started Procussions I quit most of my community outreach because I was already engaged to AmeriCorps, a domesticated Peace Corp, which I did for a year. I wrote rap lyrics during that time as I fulfilled my time agreement with them, so I’ve always seen the music as community outreach, too. I think it all works together, and I don’t want to sound like a self-made martyr. But I’ve always seen that whatever you’re doing, a carpenter, a shoe polisher, it really all boils down to, are you using what you’re doing to make the world a better place, are you helping to make humanity better, always thinking that we’re here together and need to work together?’
So have you ever really seen a separation between the two, music and social/community activism? Did one come first for you?
Yes, absolutely. I think they have two different roles. After being on tour with A Tribe Called Quest, I’ve seen and understand the amount of influence great people can have. Our second show with the Procussions that we did was with Run DMC. We’ve traveled internationally and then to Japan and around the world and I know what it feels like to be on that side of the spectrum that isn’t necessarily human but you become some kind of star to people and get put up on a pedestal and automatically they like you, showing you respect and looking up to. And when you realize something like that without getting caught up in it, there’s an influence that you have to do music that is extremely personal to people and to be on stage, especially in American culture where we make the stage the place for fame where the fans are looking up and the artist is looking down. The same thing happens in churches where you get the same guy reading the same Bible everyone else is reading and all of a sudden he’s got more authority that everyone else. And I think it’s just our idealism of making someone a superhero. That kind of situation is sad, but on the other hand you have the power to create some type of awareness or change and have the chance to make sure you not the one that’s being focused on, but each of these issues and that you’re just a presenter of the issues. So on a grander scale it’s good to be a musician but I don’t know what’s better, micro or macro, when we’re talking about talking to one person and spending all your time with that one person, especially people with physical disabilities or have a client for seven weeks and it’s only that one person and doing a great deal, become a great friend and you’re both benefiting from the one-on-one interaction. But as a musician you sacrifice the one-on-one, I can sit and talk to just one person at a show. I have to detach myself from the desire to connect with just one person. I count on the music to do that.
Is that lack of connection an asset or a hindrance to the message you have in your music?
At this point I have to say it’s an asset. I can say it’s not a complete hindrance but at times it is but that’s just part of human nature. There’s always a chance that you’re going to become someone’s idol or enemy even if you’re simply approached to be a friend. But now it’s become an asset. For example, when I was with AmeriCorps and I was going door-to-door to help build teams to do this community outreach program to help adults who couldn’t read and nobody wanted to get involved, I remember being on the radio, at the local high schools, but I had no power. Now, even though Mr J. and the Procussions aren’t the most popular group in the world, people are listening. The video “Constance” has over 200,000 hits on You Tube. We also started our non-profit iamconstance.org where people are able to leave their stories anonymously about human trafficking, child pornography, misogyny, rape, and abuse. So I definitely think being a musician is an asset because I’m doing something personable. When people put their headphones on, musicians get to form one of the most personal relationship of any art form you can have because the musician isn’t even there and the fan is alone in their room or in their car and the music is in the iPod and computer and if their arguing with their parents or spouse, you’re there in their ear and the fan is developing these thoughts and ideas with the music you’re putting in their ear. So I guess it is an asset and also a responsibility.
Music does have the ability to have that rare intimacy. So since you are aware of that connection, can you explain how you created the album? For example, what you were just saying about the role of music being very personable, the album with the various voicemail messages from your grandma, the calling your overdrawn bank account and including questions from friends who are waiting for the album to drop makes the listen very personal, whereas the use of voicemail messages as skits on hip-hop albums can be cliché, the way you used it gave more meaning to the music.
I wrote and produced the album within three weeks in between touring for 200 days a year with the Procussions and off days I was visiting family and doing other shows. So I had this short time to work on the album and originally I produced all the tracks but I had never had my production out before so I had Stro the 89th Key who produced the Procussions help out with some—once I was ready to share what I’d produced since I didn’t let anyone hear the tracks—and I just kept the tracks that I felt more positive about.
I kept “Keep Pace”, “Call You”, and “Constance” and then sent the others in with just my vocal tracks to a bunch of friends and asked them to see what they could do with them, since even though I have already produced I wasn’t really that pleased with the production and wanted to see what they could come up with, guys like Ohmega Watts, Ubiquity, Joey Beats, and Illmind. The collaboration that I enjoyed the most was with 20Syl who’s from a group in France called Hocus Pocus. I met them during a tour in France became friends and I love Paris and the French take on hip-hop so it was great to have them on the album.
I did read some early reviews on the album and one guy from the UK said that no one listens to the Roots anymore so why would they listen to Mr J., and then he said the voicemails were clich´ but the truth from my perspective wasn’t [laughs]. I don’t know how else to get these people into the studio. It was the only way to record someone since my grandma is 76 years old and lives in Rhode Island and I wanted this album to be a community thing, all inclusive, prefacing a song like “Keep Pace” with the messages I wanted to show people, my family. I also wanted to expose a side of recording music. I can’t tell anyone else’s business, but I’ve been making music for nine years with guys like Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Rhymefest, and Xibit. And when you come on this side of the spectrum you see that it’s all real people dealing with real problems. I wanted people to hear that my bank account was overdrawn $258.00 and that was the least it’s ever been. Being in the Procussions I’ve claimed bankruptcy. I’ve been homeless for a year, living on people’s couches trying to get the music out. I put those voicemail messages in there because I wanted to be someone that a fan wants to hear from and not be put on a pedestal. And maybe if we can make a really good balance between presenting ideas and present the truth about the presenter, then maybe it makes it more human.
Hearing your grandma’s message and her concern made recalled the way in which Chicago rapper Common uses his dad to close his albums. Putting a grandmother’s voice and touch on the album adds a lot of depth to the theme of Of Gods and Girls. Again, something you don’t hear too much on many hip-hop albums. Artists like Tupac and Kayne West come to mind when I think of rappers who have made their music deeper when they include their moms and express the influence in their lives.
Yeah! I actually had the pleasure of meeting Common’s dad in Denver because he used to play for the Nuggets. The Procussions did shows with Common and had lunch with his dad. He’s an amazing person. Maybe that’s what inspired me show to people that bringing your family into your art definitely makes you human.
So how’s the response been to the subject of human trafficking?
You know it’s crazy to see people freeze up. I did this live reality-type internet radio show that I knew nothing about but I found out afterwards that it was an adult station that filmed porn and right in the middle of all the sex programming they have this hip-hop show and they started asking me about my music and they didn’t know anything about me. My appearance was just set up by the promotions department. And hear I am talking about “Constance” and as soon as I said “pornography”, “child porn”, “misogyny”, “human trafficking”, the whole place went silent, I thought the power got cut or something. They didn’t know what to say and worried that they were going to get kicked off the site. During the commercial they were laughing at the situation but on camera they were nervous. I still went in and played “Constance”. I guess this reality TV stuff is a good thing sometimes.
With the title being Of Gods and Girls, it seems like you’re taking the current dialogue on women in hip-hop lyrics down a different route?
I’ve never used my music to jump on the bandwagon or cash in on what’s hip at the moment. I wrote a lot of the songs on Of Gods and Girls three years ago and the work I did with the Procussions nine years ago was always about talking about how our culture views women. To hit the media with a message saying it’s hip-hop, a black or white issue, or urban is not my perspective. I think it comes down to the identity of man in the broad sense of humanity as a whole. I don’t necessarily come from a perspective to write for women but to write for “man” to redefine man by writing about women. As I a write about women I’m saying something about myself and redefining what it means to be masculine. Even the title Of Gods and Girls and the idea is that there is no way we can get around it; that society is run and controlled by man and has always been as far as we know it. It’s women who were wearing veils due to religious practices and it’s women who are being put into prostitution and being raped in this human trafficking, even the male victims are being treated as women in this monster of human trafficking. It’s bigger than hip-hop or Oprah. It all comes down to the idea of man’s idea in history of what it means to be a man and to have control and to use that control to mercilessly exploit women, making them into products.
With “Constance” I wanted to show that this issue of masculinity is much bigger than hip-hop. People that contact me on iamconstance or MySpace don’t just listen to hip-hop. They’re contacting me because they’re a fan to the issue. We created iamconstace.org because I’ve had 40-year-old women, 14-year-old girls, and homosexual males who have all experienced the horror of human trafficking at some level and they’re sharing in the desire to speak out against it by telling their story. I couldn’t keep all their stories to myself. I had to share them so others could know and speak out.
How has all this changed you and your perspective on expressing the relationship between men and women in your music or music in general?
Being a man growing up, I’ve hadmy share of delving in the world’s definition of being a man. I’ve definitely seen pornography and I saw my first porno at age ten. I used to hide all my porno and that kind of stuff. The first thing that happened was that I read this book by accident. It was about this girl who was being raped by her father who was a pastor at a church. That really shook my world. That made me really look into the issue itself. It’s one thing to say, “Yeah, I’ve seen pornography,” but to really look at the statistics and realize that this is an epidemic and that people are really being hurt here. I don’t want to make this about pornography more than what it’s really about, which is abuse, molestation, misogyny. I also think about how these things filter into hip-hop and how I can’t share the music I love with my mother. Groups like 2 Live Crew and N.W.A that I grew up listening to and now at 29 thinking how I listened to that with my younger sister—who’s a year younger than me—I would have a hard time playing that in front of her or my grandmother. So I guess it just comes down to the fact that I’ve grown up and that when you look into humanity and try to make a change you realize the sanctity of the spirit and what it means to be loving a lot of things start falling off, like some of the hip-hop you used to enjoy.
You use some key Bible images of women in the song “Constance”, the woman at the well, Mary Magdalene. Why did you choose those images?
I came from a Catholic family but I’m not Catholic, and growing up in Colorado Springs I started to become aware that I was surrounded by some of the nation’s biggest megachurches. Seeing those churches, I also realized that that wasn’t me. I very much believe in Jesus, but I don’t want my faith to be an agenda. My faith is very personal. And yes it changes the way I view things but I don’t want to pressure anyone with it or come at them with an agenda. I don’t want it to be fake; I just want to be a real person. I don’t want to be perfect. I tried to be that and it’s really impossible and hard to do. When I was on the episode of Miami Ink, I had “forgive us” tattooed on my back. That pretty much summed it up. It all comes down to forgiveness and being humble and understanding your place in this world and realizing that at any moment you can be a person who can destroy someone or truly help someone. I don’t want to get wrapped up in a religious battle, but no matter what religion we’re talking about, there’s things that are not right and need to be changed, and that’s what I want to focus on.
You mentioned that studies show that the majority of the participators and consumers who partake in the human trafficking are male. Why do you think that is?
Yes, for the topic of human trafficking—which “Constance” is about—the percentage is about 80 percent male and for child pornography it’s 90 percent men are the main ones who are consuming it. I recently read this book called Female Chauvinistic Pigs that was about how the world is changing and in the last ten years feminists have split and that there is new feminist view that pornography is being viewed or exercised as a display of true feminism and allows the woman do whatever she wants sexually. So there are two fronts facing each other making the world an even crazier place where the morality and values are really changing and being switch around from when feminism first began. But even though we might see more women get involved because more women are actually hosting the porn sites, right now the men are the target audience for the child pornography because unfortunately they’re the ones who are hungry for this type of exploitation. It’s just like anything else where we praise the gun runners, drug runners. So how many artists I grew up listening to who at the end of the day I realized that they were proud of pushing crack and heroin to their own people.
As a male and knowing that a sort of rite passage of sexuality of growing up male involves engaging in pornography at some point, what kind of emotions do you think are driving males to engage in the porn and human trafficking?
I think it’s a matter of being numb. Everything works together. It’s not just pornography. It’s community, it’s humanity, it’s being able to reach out and have a strong base of people that care about you and are trying to build you as a person. Our lives are crowded with a lot of things, material or trying to be famous, or the strongest or the thuggest. All these things stem from the fact that everyone needs attention and love. Unfortunately it comes across as very corny on a mass scale, but if we really look at the challenges we face and the people who have been able to overcome them—say Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Gandhi—at the heart of these matters where people are trying to change society for the better, the need for love and how that relates to other people is always at the front.
When a man engages in pornography, I’m sure that if he was in a relationship where he felt loved or could fully express himself in, or was involved in a community that cared about him, maybe he wouldn’t have so much time to watch so much pornography. So often we want a quick fix of sexuality or friendship or anything that we don’t want to put our all into, and because of that kind of scenario you create this person who feels locked up and alone, afraid, angry. And because of that he sits down at his screen and tries to create his own community of fantasy.
So in engaging in Internet porn and human trafficking, males are trying to find what they can’t get in their community vicariously in the porn?
I think not being accepted is a factor but I also think that most males have a fear of being vulnerable. There are married men, pastors, priests who are involved in this, so there must be some kind of feeling that they don’t have the freedom to express themselves. But beyond that fear there is the numbness I mentioned earlier because behind that screen there is a real person and a real act is taking place.
Something I talk about at my shows is that for 100 years slavery existed in the United States. We’re talking about Christians supporting it, running and owning slaves, many of the leaders we look up to. So for a long time there was something psychologically that made it okay for them to continue to treat people as less then themselves. A lot of people look at the past and say, “I would have been on the freedom fighter side and stood against the slavery.” Well the truth is that, no, a lot of people did, so what’s going to happen 100 years from now when we look back. And now we live in a time that’s more documented than ever especially with music. When men and women are seen as equals, how many men are going to be completely embarrassed at what we allowed to happen and we didn’t do anything to stop it and it goes down as a dark moment in history? I don’t want to be a part of that. This may sound mature and too contemporary, but we have a lot of hip-hop music that is telling young black Americans that they have two options; selling crack and rapping. A lot of rappers say it’s just entertainment, but we constantly see these fantasies lived out each day. I see it in my neighborhood here in East LA and I saw in back in Colorado Springs where a friend was shot in the head and left behind a Home Depot.
So what do you think moves the listener into action or to change their habits or behaviors?
It’s something that clicks in their consciousness. You walk outside and you can see that all the media are in agreement that you’re not anything until you buy their product. And when you go to bed at night and put all the messages together you realize you don’t have what you think you need and you wake up the next morning trying to get what those messages tell you that you need. My hope is that someone will grab onto my message, it’ll flip on the switch. I never noticed so many mohawks until I had my own mohawk and I stated see them everywhere. That’s what I’m trying to do is to help people view things differently and see similarities or prick the memory on a certain issue and they’ll remember how and what they thought at another time. The level of awareness and amount of change is up to others but my job is to make the awareness available.
Who or what is inspiring you right now?
I’ve always wanted to work with Bjork. Her dedication to her own art and how she does what she wants and is comfortable with her and her own art and has continued to do it for so long. Chuck D and Public Enemy and N.W.A—even if it got taken down a negative route, it made people pay attention. Guys like Nas are very good at representing something bigge,r but definitely make you understand that they’re on the same path just like the rest of us. Kayne West might come across as a hypocrite but most of us become hypocrites when we try to reach for something beyond our reach.
I’ll always remember one night our tour with the Procussions when this guy comes up to me, and gives me this huge bear hug. I’m all sweaty. I don’t know who this guy is and he starts telling me how much he loves what were doing and he takes off his glasses and it’s Ali Asheed Mohameed from A Tribe Called Quest. He tells me he’d been watching our careers and wants to get us on tour with them. Everyone else—not the artists but the sponsors—didn’t want us on the tour because we didn’t have that big of a draw but Mohameed threatened to get off the tour so we could be on it. That’s how much he loves and supports music he believes in. I will always remember that as real artistry, someone who was willing to put it all on the line for a group who could do nothing for him. It was an amazing gesture.
As an independent and DIY artist, do you have any thoughts on where the music industry is headed?
We’re in a real crazy area right now. Nobody knows what to do and everybody is looking around like deer in the headlights. And if people really do want to see independent hip-hop survive they need to continue to support it. Wax is dying or dead, the CD is going to die soon along with TV, but one thing that will always remain the same is that people will always want music. Just listening to it is not enough if fans want to see music like “Constance” or music they love continued to be made. They must support it by coming to a show or buy the music. That money directly funds the project. I don’t have a Mercedes sitting outside; I have a ‘92 Jetta with expired plates sitting outside because it doesn’t work, so I do what I do because I love it. Fans have to support independent artists and their music if it’s going to continue.
I look at my younger brother who plays in a hardcore rock band in Colorado. He sold out a 150-person venue that we weren’t able to as the Procussions, and I think that says a lot about his community. In Minneapolis the Procussions old CDs, T-shirts, they were able to sell everything because the rock and hip-hop fans were supporting it, buying two CDs, giving one to their friend.
I don’t know if the independent hip-hop fans will not burn a CD from their favorite artists. Hip-hop at its roots, especially with the graffiti art, goes against the grain, and I’m not so sure if hip-hop fans will be the ones to change things because hop-hip created the persona of the street thug, and I asked myself if those types of fans are the type of people who are going to buy a record and not just burn it … I don’t know?
From an artist standpoint, you have to be really strict to only work with supporters because that’s how you build the movement. I was contacted by Good Morning America and Oprah who both wanted to do story on “Constance” but when they saw how many albums the Procussions sold and where I was at personally and with SoundScan and how many records we’d sold and even though they loved the issue, they turned us down because we didn’t have enough records sold. So in the end the ones who could’ve really changed hip-hop’s public persona didn’t give independent hip-hop a chance because of sales. Radio’s the same way. So much rides on the support of the people, the fans. They really don’t understand how much power they have.
You can find more information on human trafficking at HumanTrafficking.Org.