Being a Person is Complicated: An Interview with Chicago Rapper and Educator Lamon Manuel
As ridiculous as it sounds, I can remember a time when (at least in Nashville, Tennessee) my friends and family affectionate-ishly poked fun at me for having loud rap music emanating from the rolled-down windows of my car as I arrived at church-functions, cookouts, weddings, etc. I actually knew people who would say things like, “I like all kinds of music besides rap and country.” That was in the early, early 2000s, when Debbie Harry was, for instance, the only white woman I knew of who had (sort of rapped) in one of her songs. These days, of course, even my 58 year old father knows who Jay Z and Kanye are.
Since 2010 I’ve lived in Chicago, a city full of emerging rappers who might also write poetry/ teach writing workshops for kids or in prisons/ ask me (a poet) to blurb their albums. Lamon Manuel is the Chicago rapper I know best, in that I’ve been to a few of his shows, eaten Cuban food with him on the day that I had to give my foster puppy back, and survived multiple social media exchanges. I say “survived” a little bit jokingly, but also in (favorable) acknowledgement of the strength and severity with which he often expresses his opinions and relays his experiences. Manuel is part of the rap collective Tomorrow Kings, and is currently working on the release of a solo album called Music To Feel Like Shit To. This interview took place over email in October 2015. – HG
Hannah Gamble: Since most of Fanzine’s readers don’t live in Chicago, can you give us a general sociological description of the Chicago rap scene? And then, as far as you’ve lived it, what is it to be a rapper in Chicago? Your tweets and Facebook posts suggest that it’s often frustrating/ demoralizing/almost financially impossible and also that you get lots of attention from girls.
Lamon Manuel: Chicago’s a great city with a really rich history, especially in the fields of music, literature and personal-political activism. For me, rap is the current front-running platform where those things meet and mix to create spaces for people to express and explore personhood. And that’s fucking awesome.
Chicago also has some really serious problems with racism, sexism, ableism, classism every other prevalent, problematic “ism” in the world. I think we like to believe our artistic spaces are safe, free of the flawed thinking and learned behaviors of these forces, but they exist aggressively everywhere. They’re pushed on us everywhere. So what we often create are spaces where some people are so focused on presumptively celebrating the fall of The Patriarchy that they’re mostly just existing in denial of it in the first place. Trying to discuss that with people on any platform is often exhausting as fuck.
As far as rap goes, I’ve had a lot of really awesome experiences thanks to it but I guess I keep some of those really close to the chest because I don’t really trust many people with that kind of information. I feel like I make honest efforts to not be, or not appear to be, negative all the time but I guess maybe I’m not trying hard enough. I have my frustrations within my experience as a rapper, but I’ve also had people come to me and tell me that what I’ve made helped or moved them in some way. I once had a couple tell me that during the birth of their first child they shared an inside joke about lyrics from one of my songs. To know that something I made resonated with someone so much that it was present in their minds during an intimate, important moment like that is incredibly flattering and humbling.
HG: You often punch yourself (hard) in the face and have women choke you (hard) while you rap. How did the idea to make these things part of your performances come to you? Can you talk about the role of fervent self-loathing in your art?
LM: As hard as it may be to believe, those ideas mostly developed organically. A couple years ago I just got hit with the very real reality that any of these shows could be my last, so I’d best do whatever I can to enjoy them and also make them memorable for every crowd. There was also a specific moment at a show that sparked some of it too.
We had a show in Chicago in 2014 with Karma Kids, some other friends from New York, and our homies Terra 5. During the Tomorrow Kings’ set, I very accidentally put my hand around the throat of a white man in the audience while rapping a line about burying my white neighbors. I was reaching across his body to put my hand on his shoulder and missed, but we kind of locked eyes and he seemed okay with it so I just went with it. I was in the audience for this part of the song and actually walked backwards toward the stage with my hand around his throat. The whole moment lasted about nine seconds, which simultaneously felt like a blink and forever. After the show when the guy came up and introduced himself, I explained the mistake and apologized, and he thanked me for the experience. We’re friends now.
When I was a teacher I had a philosophy of never asking students to give or do anything I wouldn’t also give or do. Applying that to rap, I figured I should at least try to perform with someone choking me. The original idea was to just choke myself at my next solo show. I practiced it but it just didn’t seem believable or look very interesting that way. I talked to my roommate at the time about her choking me but she was too nervous. I figured since Samantha, who directs my music videos, is already invested in working with me and I trust her, it wouldn’t be too weird to ask her to do it. But I didn’t actually ask her. When the day of the show came I just waited to see if timing would make it work out and it did. Sam got to the show late but just in time for “Emily, Panic,” the song I wanted her to choke me during. I waved her over to the stage, put her hand on my throat firmly and it just happened. There’s an unofficial Tomorrow Kings school of performance, and one thing we play around with is degree of difficulty. Rapping well isn’t easy. Rapping well while punching yourself hard in the face or being choked hard by a woman definitely ups the degree of difficulty a bit.
At different times I’ve given some thought to the idea that this is me using performance as a semi-acceptable means of self-harm. I think after the first time I punched myself on stage one of my friends in London asked about it with some concern, but she also said it sounded really hot. That probably stuck with me more than her concern.
At a show on tour in Philadelphia, I straddled a young woman in a wheelchair while rapping the part I usually get choked during. That’s definitely the farthest I’ve gone but I only did it because I knew her (not well, but well enough). At first I just got real close to her face and gently pressed my forehead against hers. It felt really intimate, like we were the only people there, and it felt okay to get closer to her, so I did. Reading her level of engagement it felt okay, but I was also on some level prepared for the possibility that she might punch me in the face, or worse. Definitely wouldn’t try doing something like that on a regular basis. Too many factors that could go very wrong.
Self-loathing is a weird term for me. It rarely occurs to me that any of what I make or what other artists I like is truly based in self-loathing. You write something, rewrite it, record it, rerecord it, mix it, listen, sit with it, do more mixing, master it, release it, promote it and perform it. That’s a lot of labor to put into something rooted in self-hatred. Who cares that much about something they really hate? Especially if it’s not paying you a shitload of money.
HG: Who are the artists and performers who you have been inspired by, and how?
LM: I feel like I’ve stolen a lot from a lot of really talented artists. Most of all from the other members of Tomorrow Kings. I took a lot from the collective confidence of being on stage with people I believe to be some of the most talented rappers, writers and performers ever. It’s a friendly competitive space. You want to keep up, you want to challenge each other. Outside of them, I’d say Atmosphere, Corrina Bain, and Rachel McKibbens are some my biggest influences.
I think Slug’s one of the most interesting personalities in rap. He’s been so many different versions of himself in his music. I admire that, a lot. Before I got really into Atmosphere, I felt a strong pressure to categorize myself and my writing in really strict ways. My poems and my raps were two completely separate things. Then I heard Overcast and felt like maybe I didn’t have to just write raps about being the best rapper and poems about my feelings. They could share space, get tangled up, work together. I felt a lot more honest and whole when I started letting them intertwine. Rachel McKibbens and Corrina Bain are just flat-out brilliant writers and performers. I spent some time in the poetry community and learned a lot about writing there. Real writing, not just writing punchlines and forcing as much multi-syllable rhyming as possible. Hearing and reading their work and what they do with language makes me want to write. I read and reread them constantly.
HG: Your Facebook posts often insightfully and harshly educate the white people in your life. I, a white person in your (internet) life, view it as a service for which I’m thankful (though it stings sometimes), but I also imagine that (as in the case of most people offering social/ cultural/ interpersonal services) you, for a variety of reasons, hate doing it. Can you talk about that? I also want to know your thoughts on white people who love rap music and hip-hop culture; is there any way that white people can respectfully participate in black art and culture? Where’s the line, as you see it, between a white artist being inspired by black culture and unjustly commodifying it?
LM: For the most part it’s a totally self-serving thing for me to express stuff like that. It’s in my head constantly and I need a variety of ways to get it out. As a Black person and artist, I feel like I occupy this weird space where my Blackness is constantly being measured and the results are almost always contradictory. I’m somehow too Black and not Black enough depending on who you ask and when you ask. It’s fucking weird. Sometimes I’m just flexing on white folks through the lens of those frustrations. Sometimes I’m down to use that to make people laugh and think, and other times I just need to show people how painful and disgusting and dehumanizing it can be to wake up knowing that there’s a very real chance that someone’s dismissive attitude toward my personhood could end my life. That reality is with me every second of the day. There’s no respite. It’s just there, occupying every thought, every move. Some days I don’t leave the house because I’m not sure I’ll make it back.
I think one of the best ways to appreciate an art when you’re a guest in it is to inform yourself on its history, its present, and the real life implications it has on the lives of the people it came from. I recently watched one of those written rap battles between two skinny, straight, white male rappers with nerdy personas, and in it one guy clowned the other for refusing to write gun lines to placate crowds that want to hear that specific type of imaginary violence. He didn’t get the fact that what’s just a line to get a crowd reaction for him is someone else’s reality. It’s different when you throw around fantasy like that with no real investment or risk in it when that shit really touches someone else’s life in tangible ways. That’s privilege. That’s wanting to be a nigga but not wanting to be a nigger and totally getting away with it.
HG: I remember that when we first started following each other on Twitter, I thought you were a woman because of how you always “favorited” my most feminist-y tweets. You have, however, described yourself as a “failed feminist.” Can you talk more about what you mean by that?
LM: That’s weird and funny and sad and kind of awesome. The idea that maybe I was a woman because of my interests (that “s” isn’t a typo) in feminism says a lot about what men are and what we represent and what’s expected of us. If we want to undo lowered expectations of our compassion then we have to do the work of learning and being more actively compassionate. I guess that’s what I mean when I use phrases like “failed feminist.” There’s no male feminist ally honor badge to unlock and prove that all my actions from that point on are definitively feminist. It’s a constant struggle to be a more informed and compassionate person so that more of my actions are informed and in step with what I often say I want for the world. I still do very un-feminist things. I still think and write and say very un-feminist things, in life and in my music. And it’s my responsibility to be aware of that and critical of that with the same dedication to growth and attention to detail that I give to the craft of writing and rapping. Progress never really happens in one direction so it’s complicated because being a person is complicated.
HG: Can you talk a bit about some of your creative partnerships [your mixtape with Analog(ue) Tape Dispenser, the Tomorrow Kings, music videos directed by or starring Samantha Wakefield]?
LM: There’s this tendency in rap for rappers to feel pressured to give off the impression that we don’t take rap seriously. One of the most common symptoms of that is calling everything a mixtape. The project with ATD is an album. It’s called Music to Feel Like Shit To. Analog(ue) Tape Dispenser produced most of it but a few others, a.m. breakups, Aoi and DOS4GW, worked on it too. Loden and Greetings from Tuskan also remixed a couple of songs. It’s five years of work that started from trying to put my life back together after a breakup with a woman I thought I would marry (then halfway through making the album it happened again with a different woman). The central narrative is that. The details are being a Black man experiencing that. Being a person of color dealing with a familial and culture history of mostly undiagnosed depression. Being a man trying to gain a greater understanding of the privileges of that experience. Being a person who feels misunderstood who also in some ways profits from being mysterious, and how to reconcile those realities. I feel like the material and the way it’s discussed is pretty interesting. I think of artists like Busdriver, billy woods, Scarface and SKECH185 (of Tomorrow Kings) as people who’ve made music about some of those experiences. I’m just trying to add what I have to say about it to the list.
Working with T.K. and working with Sam are very different experiences. I learn a lot from both. I tend to be the contrarian in the group. Not for the sake of being contrary, I just prefer to discuss differences rather than quietly let them be. When you have six people with equal ownership over something, differences are going to happen. I’m usually on the side of talking those things out and workshopping an idea, ultimately resulting in a better idea once everyone contributes to it. With Sam things are similar but they move faster because they’re only two of us. She consults Sandi Nowa (who shot the “Shit” video) a lot. So that makes three. They’re filmmakers. I’m a rapper. I need them in different ways than I need other rappers so the trust we have is different. Working with Sam is the first time in my whole life that I’ve ever really given another person creative control over something I’ve made. It’s fucking scary but liberating and absolutely worth it. It gives what you make a new value and new life when someone you respect cares enough to invest their time and creative energy into it.
HG: What kind of relationship does your family have to your music, particularly the lyrics?
LM: My mom and my teenage nephew are on the album. So, there’s that. I don’t make the kind of rap most of my family is immediately familiar with but they’re super supportive and have genuinely enjoyed it when they’ve come out to shows. My sisters were at the first show where Sam choked me, and they kind of freaked out, but in a cool way. They felt really protective of me and playfully threatened her life after the show.
None of my family has heard the album all the way through, just small parts, so it’ll be interesting to see their reactions once they have a chance to sit with it. I might get them together and play it for them soon. That way they can ask questions or whatever. But it’ll definitely be weird sitting with my mom playing a song for her that has a line in it about worshipping Stoya’s asshole. But, whatever, I wrote that shit so there’s no one else to blame.