I’m on Twitter, browsing and talking the usual nonsense and trying my best to coast through a hectic day. A few clicks here and there later, I found myself on Joel’s Twitter Page. I saw a Bandcamp link and it didn’t take long before I immersed myself into his latest project Songs For Charles. I was gasping for air as i allowed his storytelling ability over dope beats to consume me. I found something I didn’t even know I was looking for.
Joel is a writer, rapper, actor and more than I can describe in this sentence; he is an artist. Growing up in the Bronx allowed him to see things differently and opened up his eyes to the things around him. He was able to envision something for himself that others lacked and uses his past experiences to express himself. He is more focused on painting a picture, telling a story and educating his audience about social change rather than speaking on the typical ideas that we are used to hearing. I decided to sit down with him and s peak to him about being a creative person in this generation, his views on artistry and how we need more balance of substance in our lives. Take a glimpse into who he is below.
Me: How did you grow into becoming this creative individual, an artist?
Joel: I was the kid you know–I think about Nas a lot and i always go back to the Jaz-Z/ Nas battle and Jay-Z talking about, “if you ain’t live it, you witness it from the bedroom..” And that was me you know. I had a lot of homies who was kind of into shit that you know kids our age probably shouldn’t have been into. But i always kind of watched from my window or watching things happen that was around them. So what happen was, I got to a place–even when I got older I was always hanging out with MCs but there was a part of me that was more like Frank Ocean than Nas. There was another side of me as far as the artistry was concerned that I wanted to kind of expose myself to, but i didn’t want to lose my Bronxness, lose my hood edge. It was really difficult and i just go to a place where the more I was putting out, i kind of just wanted to be in these environments that speak to me. I was getting tired of doing these hip-hop shows performing at midnight rapping with dudes who had like 20 other dudes on stage who were fucking wack and wanting to make a name. I wanted to create art that mattered and was about social change and just about bringing people together.
Me: You said that you wanted to be more like a Frank Ocean rather than a Nas, what did you mean by that?
Joel: He was the first, eccentric weirdo that came to my head. (laughs)
Me: (laughs) I totally agree, he is very different musically, especially from a lot of the artists that are currently out right now.
Joel: Yeah, but i also put him–when I look at like a Miguel, people I feel like who are making music that feels very much true to themselves. My twitter bio used to say, “If D’angelo rapped”; you know like if D’angelo rapped, this is the music I would hope he would be making. I mean granted D’angelo used to rap back in the day but to me it’s not about creating music but creating spirit music, music I feel like speaks to the spirit of the people and the individuals listening to it.
Me: In your music, you seem to talk about social change and your experiences. What do you feel like you focus more on? How does that make you feel like you are speaking to the spirit of the people?
Joel: My goal is that through sharing my experiences, the social change will occur because what happens is, If i bleed and I show you what’s happening on the inside, you can go “Oh wow, you bleed the same way. I didn’t know you can do that. Let me expose myself too, let me show the parts of myself that beforehand I was unsure about”. Because that was me, I never had anyone who was like ‘it’s okay to be yourself’ and this is how you do it. I had no blueprint. I feel like i want my art, my music, whatever art I create, the poetry, whatever I create, I want it to be the blueprint for other people to find their voice. And that could be in anything, whether you’re a writer, journalistic writer, blogger, a stay at home mom..
Me: That is definitely something I struggled with, being okay in the skin I am and finding my voice. Do you feel other artists, especially local or upcoming artists, struggle with that now?
Joel: I think a lot of them know who they want to be but are scared to be that person because they are afraid of how people are going to see them. The neighborhood I grew up in–I grew up in the hood-hood, like this wasn’t some type of fairy-tale, people were getting merked. And for me, it was always the hesitation–it’s the little things early on. Like the hesitation to raise your hand in class because you don’t want to look like a punk. The hesitation to be a good student or just be a good son to my mom because the other things seemed more attractive, the dealing seemed more attractive or whatever the case was… There are dudes who are like “I want to be myself” but it’s frustrating because that’s not what sells, that’s not what works, people don’t want to hear that. We have created this idea that you can’t profit or benefit or generate income by being yourself, that you have to be this image, but you don’t.
Me: You touched upon earlier about having the blueprint, I feel that a lot of artists don’t have that public blueprint of someone else being themselves and being successful doing so. How do you think that affects us as artists?
Joel: It’s just the human condition to dwell on the negative rather than the positive. You can look at, honestly, some of the people that we consider the greats right now, Kendrick Lamar, Jaz-Z, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Common.
Me: I think as artists we need more artists like Kendrick and even Common.
Joel: (laughs) Yes! It’s the balance–look I don’t fuck with Mickey D’s, I stopped fucking with Mickey D’s years ago. I use this example of it, if I give you a cheeseburger from McDonald’s and you have been eating it every day for every meal, the one day Fresh Direct comes to your hood, you now have this plethora of options; healthy and tastes decent, you are going to be hesitant because this is not what you are used to. This is not what you are comfortable with, this is not what you have been given. There has to be balance. If you’re going to eat a cheeseburger on Monday, I’m not going to judge you, but make sure you get some salad in there, get some greens. You know there is no balance in radio, no balance anymore, not as much at least. It’s not to belittle the artists that I think are doing things at a different level, the Toraes, the Skyzoos, the Chance the Rappers the individuals who are still creating the hip-hop that they want to make. Even Talib Kweli, it’s not being guided by what’s happening in the mainstream.
Me: Chance the Rapper is a good example, i feel he is tapping into a different consciousness, doing his thing. He may not be as big as other artists, but his music is always expressive of who he is.
Joel: That’s the thing, my goal has always been, I don’t want there to be no sort of confusion about the man that you hear or the man you see perform and the man you have dialogue with. For me, it’s supposed to resonate. I’m silly, I’m a silly dude. That doesn’t come across in the music just because you’re not going to get everything of me, there is still a part of me that is guarded in a way, but there is a certain level of things I need to keep for me and my loved ones. It’s still about there is no separation between myself and the art. I am the art. I am the living embodiment of the art that I am creating. So like for me it’s important that the interactions are genuine because that means I’m doing something right via the music. They both work in unison, in conjunction with each other.
Me: Wait, give me a minute to gather my thoughts after what you said. (laughs)
Joel: (laughs) We are all the art Bre, all of us. There is much art in the world in general, you know like. When I look outside, when I look at this beautiful view, it’s like you see the wind blow certain ways, leaves go this way, leaves go that way. Like how does that even happen? Like how does nature–there is art in what we do, we are art. The fact that I can see you now physically, blink my eyes and open them and still see you, that’s amazing. The brain is sending receptors at a rate that is like the speed of light, that’s art man.
Me: Word man. How do you feel about the artistry and finding the balance in what art people produce?
Joel: I think to each its own, and even with that being said, I think it just requires more balance of artistry. So, for every Rick Ross I would like there to be a Kendrick Lamar. You know, providing political commentary and also sounds dope. Or a Common, a Talib, the originators, the torch bearers for this kind of art. Because I can fuck with a Rick, I can fuck with, sometimes a French Montana like very sparingly but I can do it. It’s about the idea that I want to have that but can I have something else too? Can we have both? Because the French stuff is loud and the Kendrick stuff is loud for a few seconds and then the old comes back up again.
Me: I struggle finding the balance, do you ever feel like you experience that struggle too?
Joel: Definitely, but take you for example and what you’re doing. You’re seeking the balance. We are more than just one thing. I’m sorry, I haven’t been to a strip club in a while but you know—when we talk about standing up for women’s rights or how I feel about street harassment—it is aggravating but I might go to the strip club one day. How do I combine those two because I’m human? I’m a human being. It’s easy for us—it’s just bullshit to think you’re going to be 100% anything that they support, at least for the most part. It’s okay to listen to different people, as long as you find that balance.
I think as artists we struggle to be ourselves in our work. We are looking to be the next big thing and get lost in the clouds of being who we are meant to be. Take a moment to be you in your everyday life and find that balance.