Acción Latina hosted the 38th Annual Encuentro del Canto Popular on Dec. 8, 2019, celebrating the intersection between Black & Afro-Latinx musical traditions with a special performance by oldies-inspired hip-hop duo Choosey & Exile. For this interview writer sweeney kovar sat down with Afro-Mexicano MC to discuss Encuentro, identity, collaborating with the world-renowned DJ/producer DJ Exile, and their 2019 album, “Black Beans.“
Your December 2019 performance for Acción Latina was your first headlining show. What did it mean to you to have your first performance as a headliner in a place like The Mission in SF?
It’s hard to sum it up. It’s a mix of great emotions. Like you said, it was my first headlining show since we usually rock as a squad. It was a special moment. I was received really well off top. During the show was love, after the show was love, it was the perfect experience.
It felt good and it felt right. I even told Ex (DJ Exile): “I know we’re going to rock the normal spots we usually rock but my focus is to reach the people and be in the barrios, be in the hood.” These are the shows where I give my all, not that I don’t give my all at the other shows but I want to make sure I make these shows special. It felt like the universe was responding to my heart’s desire to rock in the places with rich history, the history of my people. It felt full circle. That is where the heart of my content comes from. So being in such a special place rocking, it felt like I was rocking in the hood in San Diego or in East LA. It felt like I was supposed to be there.
The album, “Black Beans,” is centered around your identity as a Black and Mexican man. Despite the many similarities and shared interests, there still exists tensions and divisions between our communities. What was your experience between Black and Brown communities growing up in San Diego?
There’s so many ways to answer that. I was always aware there was tension between Black and Brown folks. It wasn’t that I was unaware but my reality was different. We grew up in low-income apartments with Black folk, Mexican folk, a little bit of Puerto Ricans and some Asians. If you’re living there, there’s no real class amongst us. We all have the same shit in our apartments. That gave me an ability to communicate between different people without the division of class. We were all broke and without saying it like that, we understood each other.
When we moved out of the complex into Chula Vista, it was a little different. It was a better living situation but now I’m in middle school and I see that stigma outside, but I never let it affect me because I went home to a Mexican dad and a Black mom who were both present. I knew who I was and I didn’t let the outside things change that, even if I was hanging more with Mexican homies one year or Black homies another year. Deep down, I think a lot of those divisions and tensions trickle down from the powers-that-be. There is a definite agenda that doesn’t want us to unite. It’s clear as day. We’d have too much power. That motivates me to put the frequency of love out there.
I think it trickles down from the prison system too. The dudes that were coming home from prison were “cool,” or the “tough guys” we all looked up to. In prison, it’s segregated intentionally. When someone is institutionalized, they adopt the mentality of the prison as nature. If they’re the cool guys and they come home and influence their neighborhood and you multiply that, it’s shaping the psyche of the hood. But I think we’re zooming out of that. I think the youth aren’t looking at these people like they’re the cool ones because they’ve been to prison.
So you see a generational shift between your generation and the youth of today?
I see the generational shift and I’m so excited by it. It’s easy to look at the state of the world and be jaded but I’m so happy. I’m seeing past my lifetime. The youth are so powerful right now. They’re so in tune. They want information. They voluntarily seek information during their leisure time. I don’t remember doing that. I wasn’t into books as a kid. I read to get a grade, but these kids are different. I think the future is in good hands.
That reminds me of the optimistic tone of the album. In other interviews you’ve spoken about choosing a voice of hope for this project instead of anger. Why was that important for you?
I love talking about this. I’m a fan of music first and foremost. I love getting really into artists and watching their interviews. I remember hearing someone break down how anger is the first reaction and it’s the easiest and most accessible emotion when something goes wrong or not according to plan. We’re not necessarily rational when we’re angry. I started analyzing myself, yes, all these injustices in society make me angry. Just turn on the TV for five minutes, we know what it is. I’m angry, you’re angry, we’re all angry. But I’m a solutions-based person. I had to look at myself, I was writing a song as a response to all these things that made me angry but that’s such an easy emotion to tap into. I started to look into the emotion I should tap into and that’s love. If I’m speaking for my people, we’re full of love! Watch us over time, we do things out of love. That’s the frequency I wanted to put into the universe despite the mass incarceration we deal with, the privately-owned prisons that cage us, the immigration system we have, this modern-day slavery. In the face of all that, still I rise. That’s what I wanted to put into the universe. It’s as simple as that.
What you’re saying also reminds me of how expression can be healing. Was the creation of this album healing for you in any way?
It was 100 percent a healing process and like you say, something you’re not even really aware of the healing as the process is underway. It’s still healing, it’s still an ongoing process even though it’s been out for more than half a year. In the creation of the album, it felt like I was being torn down in so many ways but I still had that hope inside of me saying, “Keep pushing.” That hope inside me really got put to the test in the writing of this album. We sacrifice for art, bro. All I knew before this was working a full-time job and I gave that up for music. A lot of normal everyday things weren’t there, so I was balancing that with so many other personal things.
I was going through a really hard separation from someone I was with for mad years. It was a peaceful breakup but it was still hard. It’s hard because the very thing I’m creating is ruining this relationship, but I’m still focused. In the midst of all this, I realized I had a serious eye condition that the U.S. doesn’t even provide funding or support for. I was moving back to San Diego from LA and family stuff was going on; it was a lot. I didn’t let it break me. I fought through it all and started tapping into levels of my spirituality that I didn’t even know existed. I got into meditation tough, to the point where I do it daily now, and pulled myself out of some hard times. I don’t know if people can tell but in the tone of the album I’m so certain of who I am. I developed that peace through all that adversity. The album is me, really the epitome of me. That all came from going through those trails and tapping into my spirituality.
The design and presentation of the album, and everything that comes along with it from videos to flyers and merch, seems really intentional and thought out.
I’m glad you noticed! That’s the biggest compliment to me. I spent countless hours focusing on the presentation, the packaging. Does it sound like it looks? Does it feel how it sounds? I’m so meticulous with that. Everyone who knows me can tell you that the name is not Choosey for no reason. It has to be a certain way or it won’t sit right with me. It’s not fair to anybody if I don’t fully convey what I really see. The vision is God-given. If I can see it and I don’t execute it fully, I feel like I did a disservice to that gift that comes from my Creator. I’m obsessed with that. If I sit with an idea for an amount of time and I still feel passionately about it, I fight for that idea.
How would Exile support and challenge you as a creative partner?
This was a learning experience for both of us and I’m so grateful that we both have the gift of vision in different, yet similar ways. He’d have an idea and I’d have an idea, so it was a lot of friendly arguments and back-and-forths. He had to sell me on ideas and I’d have to sell him on some. Exile loves my graphic work and my handstyles, but sometimes he’d push for a rawness where I also wanted it raw but slightly clean at the same time, so it was just little things like that. We have great chemistry and always stuck to our original plan for the project. He wanted it as raw as can be but I wanted to see how to marry the old-school, retro feel of the project with the digital age we live in now. We’d compromise and I think we’re both really proud of the end result, even though we had a hundred arguments.
What’s your long-term vision as an artist?
The cool thing about this whole journey is that it changes all the time. That’s my confirmation of success. I don’t measure it in material achievements. As long as my mission is changing and broadening and growing, I feel that is my form of success. I don’t ever want my music to lose integrity. That’s a big goal, maintaining that direct connection with self and keeping that line pure. That may sound ambiguous but I know what that means to me.
You’ve mentioned your faith many times in our conversation and it’s also present in your music. Where does your faith come from?
The highest forms of faith I’ve seen have been shown to me through my family. We believe in a higher power. Ever since I could put sentences together I’ve been praying everyday. I wake up and I pray. There hasn’t been a morning where I open my eyes and I don’t give thanks. I believe none of this is an accident and someone is holding me down with a path laid out for me.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
The record was done 100 percent independently. I have to keep reminding foos, this is independent! They say we’re at a place where music isn’t selling but we sold out the vinyl. People will say we’re slept on, but I just say we’re reaching the right people. I label it as a success and everyone involved sees it as success. I’m good with that.
Choosey and Exile’s “Black Beans” (Fat Beats Records, 2019) is available now at Bandcamp.com and all on major streaming services.
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