August 21, 2008

Interview: Afro DZ ak

This interview took place over email while Canyon Cody was in Spain working on his Fulbright project and Afro DZ ak was in Boston finishing his album Elevation.


Canyon Cody: What did your parents listen to when you were growing up?

Afro DZ ak: My mom played violin when she was younger. She listened primarily to classical music - I remember being a little embarrassed when she dropped me off at school and the other kids could hear classical music blasting on the radio. But now I'm so grateful for being surrounded by classical music when I was young, because it gave me a much greater understanding and appreciation for all styles of music as I got older. My mom also had an old record collection-- The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, etc. Through my dad and his side of the family, I was also introduced to music that reflected my own African roots - both traditional and modern Congolese music. I think the first tapes that I bought included Cooleyhighharmony (Boyz II Men), The Chronic (Dr. Dre) and Greatest Misses (Public Enemy).

Canyon Cody: When did you start playing trumpet?

Afro DZ ak: I first started with piano lessons when I was 8. I think a lot of musical ability came from my mom's brother -- he's a piano and flute teacher. My interest in the trumpet actually came from two sources-- first, I went to a summer camp at a local community college where we got to try out all different types of instruments. When I got to the trumpet, that was the one that really stood out for me. But the main reason I started playing the trumpet was... a girl. Yeah, in 4th grade I had a crush on this girl who played the trumpet. I was real shy back in the day, and I used to think about how if I learned to play the trumpet, I could sit next to her in band class and win her over. So I started playing trumpet in 5th grade. Since she was one of the best players, I had to practice hard if I wanted to move up in the ranks of all the trumpet players and sit next to her. So that was some good motivation. I took private lessons and practiced every day, and by the time 6th grade rolled around I was first chair and she was second! Though the crush wore off, we ended up becoming good friends, and years later I told her about how she helped inspire me to play the trumpet and we were able to laugh about it.

Canyon Cody: Did you learn trumpet on your own or did you have a mentor?

Afro DZ ak: My trumpet teacher's name was Joe Scannella. He was really into dixieland music, so I played a lot of that. More importantly, as a great trumpet player himself, he taught me all kinds of indispensable tips on playing the trumpet that helped me become the player I am today. But it wasn't until high school that I really started to develop a greater understanding and appreciation for music, especially jazz, thanks to my high school music teacher Eric Haltmeier. He got me into Miles, Trane, etc; and the rest is history. I played in a jazz improv group in high school called Microcosm that was led by Mr. Haltmeier, and that was the catalyst for me becoming a specialist at improvisation, versatility, and bringing creativity and feeling into my music.

Canyon Cody: What are some of your favorite hip-hop songs that feature trumpets (either live or sampled)?

Afro DZ ak: It's funny, there's actually more hip-hop tracks with saxophone lines that I really dig than there are with trumpets. Some people can't tell the difference betweent sax and trumpet, but I know instantaneously. Some of my favorite sax samples are Pete Rock & CL Smooth's "T.R.O.Y.", Queen Latifah's "UNITY" and Pharcyde's "Passin' Me By".

In terms of trumpet lines, I love how US3 flipped Freddie Hubbard's trumpet solo from Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island". I also like that real simple trumpet line on Digable Planets' "Cool Like Dat". Lords of the Underground's "Funky Child" has some dope trumpet samples on it too. I'm good friends with a couple of live hip-hop bands that feature trumpets: Audible Mainframe (from Boston, currently in LA) and Lifted (from Boston, now in NYC). Talib Kweli did this track called "Y'all Stay Up" featuring the Youngblood Brass Band, with live trumpets, tubas, trombones... that track is on point.

Canyon Cody: When did you begin to develop as a lyricist? Were you first a (written) poet or did it come from freestlying with other MCs?

Afro DZ ak: Back in the day when I was a kid, I was always more into creative assignments than essays at school, but I never really wrote my own poetry for fun, it was more just for school. I definitely developed as a musician earlier than I developed as a writer. It wasn't until college that I really started to write my own material, and I actually started writing rhymes before I started on the poetry tip. The first rap I recorded was called "Take the A Train". I think I wrote it while I was home from college sometime before my sophomore year at Tufts. It was a collaboration with my brother Nick (aka Mooks). Originally we went by the name "Afro DZ ak" collectively, but then I took over sole possession of it since he didn't have a 'fro. We recorded it at my brother's friend's house in Jersey, and he had Fruity Loops so I made this real bootleg beat and we dropped the track to it. Back at Tufts, I recorded a couple tracks with Stickemz (aka B Reese) and EZV (aka DJ Health) and freestyled at a parties, but never rocked any real shows until my senior year, which is also when I started with spoken word poetry.

Canyon Cody: From your music, it seems like you believe that music can promote positive change. Have there been songs, or musicians, in your life that have influenced you to be a better person, or work for a better community?

Afro DZ ak: As far as musicians/artists that inspire me, the first person that comes to mind is Omekongo Dibinga. I first met him because he was a TA in a course I took at Tufts called African Politics. We immediately connected, in part because we're both Congolese born in the US. Omekongo was one of the first spoken word poets who really made poetry come alive for me - his poems touched on poignant issues about Congo and Africa in general, about racism, sexism, commercialism, about setting a positive example for young people. Probably more than anyone else, he inspired me to write and perform and develop my own poetry. One thing that stands out to me about Omekongo is that he challenges himself to address issues beyond just those that most obviously affect him. For example, he is one of few Black heterosexual male poets I have seen openly speak out against heterosexism / homophobia in his poetry. He also has traveled the world extensively which I think is crucial for someone to really broaden their own frame of mind, and he works tirelessly with young people (in DC these days) to educate and promote positive messages.

I don't know if there have been songs that have influenced me to become a better person, but there are definitely songs that renew my energy and desire to make change, songs that I just put on repeat sometimes because they sustain me in my quest to make a positive difference. Some songs like that would include Blackstar's "Knowledge of Self (Determination)", J-Live's "Brooklyn Public" (a track about being an inner-city school teacher), Arrested Development's "Mr. Wendal", and Pharoahe Monch ft. Talib Kweli & Common "The Truth". I feel like one of the keys to being an MC is listening, just listening to music all the time, listening to other peoples' constructive criticism, listening to your own heart and staying true to that.


Canyon Cody: Tell me about your work in the Big Brothers program.

Afro DZ ak: I got started with Big Brothers when I was a freshman at Tufts through a community service organization called the Leonard Carmichael Society (LCS). I got matched up with Tevin on St. Patrick's Day in 2000, when he was 8 years old. So we've been matched together for over 8 years now, half of his life. He's changed a lot over time, and he has a lot of negative influences around him, so even though his mom does everything she can to provide for him, I know things aren't easy for Tevin. We have our ups and downs, but over the years we've shared so much together: going to Celtics games, Sox games, museums, the beach, recording music, playing sports, going sledding, just hanging out.

I really consider Tevin a part of my family, I think one of the reasons I first decided to be a Big Brother is because I missed my biological brother Nick when I went off to college. While my relationship with Tevin is completely different from my relationship with Nick (who is now 24), Tevin really is like another brother to me. Tevin and Nick have met each other a few times also and get along real well. Most matches through Big Brothers/Big Sisters last only a year or two, but Tevin and I have developed a bond that goes beyond the requirements of the Big Brothers program and represents a real friendship. He knows that I will always have his back.

Canyon Cody: How did you get connected with The Eclectic Collective and how did you decide to part ways?

Afro DZ ak: I first connected with The Eclectic Collective at concert at Harper's Ferry in Allston, and the promoter (Onslaught, aka Lionel Brown) booked me as the opening act for the show. In addition to The Eclectic Collective, there was another live hip-hop act called Audible Mainframe who performed as well. The whole show was real dope, and it got me excited about live band hip hop/soul in Boston. Especially this one song by EC, "Souls on Ice", which literally made me want to grab my trumpet and jump on stage and start playing while they were performing. At the time, I had recently started playing with a Worcester-based band, Soul Movement, we got booked for another show with the EC. After that show, they asked me if I wanted to join the band, because they were looking to add a horn player to their sound and they were diggin the trumpet that I had played during my solo set and the Soul Movement set.

As far as my leaving the band, that was one of the hardest decisions I've made, but one that in retrospect I'm happy with. In a way, EC was a victim of their own success. Things got to the stage where everyone was quitting their day jobs to tour with the band full time, and I felt like I had too much to give up to do that. I love my job with ACCESS, working with high school students, and both for my own sake and the sake of the students I work with, I wasn't willing to give that up. Also, musically the band was steering more and more away from hip hop & soul and becoming more and more rock, and while the music was still good, it wasn't really me. I wasn't down with putting all my eggs in one basket, especially when I felt like I had so much to offer in my day job. And since I have left the band, I have been able to do so many things, including playing all over Gnotes' and Elemental Zazen's albums, joining the Gnawledge family, and recording my solo album, which I never would have been able to do otherwise.

Canyon Cody: You must really love you day job -- tell me about your what you do.

Afro DZ ak: I am a Financial Aid Advisor for ACCESS (www.accessboston.org). I work one-on-one throughout the school year with High School Seniors in the Boston Public Schools to help them get financial aid for college. Filling out the FAFSA, applying for scholarships, taking out loans, etc; etc; I also do presentations, parent nights, etc; about financial aid. I work in collaboration with teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators in the schools to meet with students during the school day and make sure they get all the financial aid they deserve so that money doesn't prove to be a barrier preventing them from achieving their college dreams.

The strong majority of BPS students receive free/reduced lunch and many are the first in their families to go to college. The vast majority are students of color. The schools I work at are Brighton High School, Greater Egleston Community High School, and Boston Adult Technical Academy. In the process of assisting students with the financial aid process, I also serve as a mentor to countless students, helping them navigate the often overwhelming process of getting through their crucial senior year in high school while putting all the necessary pieces of the puzzle together to go on to college.

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