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Cavem Moetavation knows what it's like to be hungry. Back when he was a boy still known as Michael Walker III, he endured tough times — and he remembers his dad trying to ease the strain of the situation by making him laugh.
"I pull this one on my kids all the time," he says now, reflecting. "My daughters are like, 'Daddy, I'm hungry.' I'm like, 'Nice to meet you. I'm Itef.' My dad used to do that. We'd be standing at the bus stop, and he would try to make us laugh about it. But, like, you know what I'm saying, that ain't funny, man. Growing up, you forgot who you are as a young person, not really having access. I remember the first case I ever got; I stole some shoes from Mervyns, man. Stole some shoes, because I had holes in my shoes. Being from the east side, living with that poverty, that's real, man."
And that's precisely why he's so consumed these days with interacting with members of his community, teaching them how to fend for themselves by growing their own food in their own gardens in the inner city — cultivating roses from concrete, as Tupac once so eloquently put it.
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The name of Tupac's iconic poem is also an apt metaphor for Cavem. A multifaceted renaissance man, he splits his time between being a husband and father to two darling little girls (Selasia and Lybia); working as an MC, DJ and producer; teaching, gardening and otherwise engaging in activism; and producing the Brown Suga Youth Festival, which he founded. In essence, he embodies the spirit of "The Rose That Grew From Concrete": In spite of your rugged surroundings, you can bloom and defy the odds.
Cavem certainly had the odds stacked against him at certain points in his life, despite coming from very strong roots. The grandson of a sharecropper, he is the son of a photographer/musician father who emphasized practical skills: "He was forced to do landscaping jobs, but didn't know it would turn me into a farmer. A lot of these jobs that he had to do, like painting — I learned how to paint. He had to play organ at church; I learned how to play keys." But he's also the son of well-regarded poet and community activist Ashara Ekundayo, a mother who instilled in him strong values that he holds to this day.
Thanks to their influence and the fact that he grew up surrounded by other great pillars of the community, including Brother Jeff, the late Opalanga Pugh and Sirat Al Salim, even though he got tangled up in weeds along the way, Cavem was eventually able to bloom into the man he is today.
You'd never suspect that he was once a troubled young man who grew up in the shadow of gangs and had been bounced from school to school after being repeatedly expelled, or that at one point he ran away from home and lived with a Mexican family in the neighborhood for several years. To get to the point where he is today, Cavem underwent a complete transformation, a journey that led him through almost as many musical styles as the nicknames he's had.
Before adapting the designation Ietef Vita, which he goes by when he's not on stage, he had a slew of other pseudonyms, including Crazy Mike, Ebonic and Rasta E. That last one came just as his self-proclaimed punk phase, when he dyed his hair, took to skateboarding and rocked out to Bad Brains, was ending. That era led to an excursion into reggae and an embrace of certain Rastafarian tenets, building on concepts he'd been exposed to on trips to Africa with his mother.
Through a litany of mentors he's quick to acknowledge and the pivotal time he spent at the Spot, a place where he immersed himself in hip-hop culture and learned how to make beats and produce and record music, Cavem's vision began to take shape.
If you've ever met Cavem, or even if you just follow him on Facebook, you know that he is a man with vision: singular vision, some might say. He's so passionate and driven by his convictions, in fact, that he's just as well known for his evangelistic proclivities as for his music. But to him, the two aren't mutually exclusive: The music is the message and the message is the music. "We're really just trying to decide how we need to be more involved in young people's lives," he notes, "and music is the number-one way."
Even so, the ideas he's pushing aren't the most easily digestible concepts. Environmental awareness, sustainability, integrating organic remedies into your lifestyle — that's heady stuff for a kid. Cavem knows this, which is exactly why he wraps it up with fresh beats — or "beets," as he puts it — and smooth flow.
But more important, he says, is the swag. "I talk to 'em about hustling," he says. "You know, everybody understands the point when we talk about 'going green.' You want to talk about money? You want to talk about green jobs? A lot of the young people today, we asked them, 'So what is composting?' They were like, 'Oh, yeah, I compost at home.' I was like, 'All right. Really? Do you know that that's money right there? How many of y'all bought bagged soil?'
"We started thinking about how we flip what we brought into our community, and a lot of times it takes beets — fresh juiced beets, you know? They need to have that vitality in their hand that they can taste and listen to at the same time. So when I do these workshops, we're always packed and over capacity because of the fact that they know we're bringing something that they won't be able to get the rest of the week."
Indeed: Cavem's brand of hip-hop is unique. While the MC grew up influenced by the Native Tongues era of consciousness, those cats were sleeping when compared to the strength of the messages he conveys. In theory, the heavy-handed nature of his approach would seem ill-fated, but in the capable hands of this OG — Organic Gardener, as opposed to what you might think that stands for; the MC is a bastion of double entendres (beets vs. beats, Gs up/hoes down) — it all works, largely due to the charisma and the unmistakable earnestness of Cavem himself.
"What I'm talking about is realistic," he notes. "I actually do garden. That's what The Produce Section itself is talking about — 'You see me in the produce section, with the collard greens and the roots, beans and greens.' Literally, I'm going to be deejaying at a farmers' market this Saturday. That's kind of like what we're promoting on this album: environmental awareness, sustainability, availability, that you can provide healthy food, that your food can be your medicine. You don't have to submit to corporate medicine."
And you also don't have to do what everybody else is doing to gain recognition. Cavem has been internationally embraced and recognized for his musical efforts, by both fellow activists and educators, as well as an array of artists from Sticman of Dead Prez to Speech from Arrested Development. And that acclaim is likely to continue with the release of his new album, The Produce Section — The Harvest, his sixth and best yet.
Cavem's environmental activism has also been recognized. The rapper just received word that "Going Green, Living Bling: Redefining the Image of Wealth," the workshop he's been conducting in Denver Public Schools for the past few years with his wife, Neambe, was nominated for a Green for All Fellowship award.
Staying hungry, it seems, is the key to staying motivated.