Listening to be B. Dolan's music is as much about ingesting a modern history lesson as it is entertainment. An East Coast rapper who works within the same social justice realms as the acts that have inspired him — like Public Enemy and Bob Marley — the artist has been working tirelessly to shed light on issues facing oppressed groups across the country. His song "Film The Police" led to the hashtag #FilmThePolice, and along with Sage Francis, B. Dolan founded knowmore.org, a grassroots website created to give consumers necessary information on corporate companies — from their human rights records to ecological and socio-economic impacts of material production.
After meeting Wheelchair Sports Camp's Kalyn Heffernan a few years ago at SXSW, B. Dolan has linked up with the Denver hip-hop group and fellow locals Rubedo (who will also act as the rapper's backing band) for a tour that kicks off this Thursday, February 26 at the Walnut Room. In advance of the show and tour, B. Dolan talked with Westword about hip-hop as activism and how he got into making art that matters.
Bree Davies: Was there a singular experience or moment in your life that made you realize that you wanted to make art that was activist-oriented?
B. Dolan: I guess just growing up where I did [Providence, Rhode Island] and being exposed to rap at a young age is what made we want to make the kind of art that I do; I can point to a specific moment that made me not just want to make art: I was living in New York on September 11th and when all that shit went down. I know that was the moment when I thought, it's not enough that I just get on stage and say shit. Making political art is something that I've struggled with my entire life. From times when I thought it was a totally useless endeavor — like after 9/11, I just kind of threw myself into social justice work because I was convinced that all the political art I had made was useless in the face of massive global events, and I felt like I needed to actually be engaged by putting in man hours, to later making songs like "Film The Police" and "Which Side Are You On" — it's been a really long evolution.
That's a struggle I feel like a lot of artists face — the feeling of "does what I'm doing even matter?" in the global scheme of things. Is there something that keeps you going or keeps you from giving up?
I haven't been afraid of the idea that it might be totally worthless — there are times when I allowed myself to really believe that if Chuck D. couldn't write the song that started the revolution, if Bob Marley couldn't, what are the chances that I'm going to? I can't put all my eggs in that basket and feel like I have done my job — so I need to do something else.
Once I had actually become engaged with the activist community and done social justice work, I realized oh, music does have a role. In many ways music has had a huge role. Like, if you look at what happened in South Africa and the ending of Apartheid — there were certain songs that, when those activists locked arms and faced down police that were coming to attack them, they all knew this song that they would sing. In that moment, that song was an incredibly important physical, practical thing. My own research and thinking about it kinda led me to understand that it does have an importance.
This is how I came around to not just wanting to make "soapbox music," where it's like you just kind of rattle off a bunch of bumper stickers that people can feel good agreeing with. For a long time I was like, "I don't want to do anything like that" — I only want to make a political song if it's immediately practical and actionable. That's what "Film the Police" came out of. That song is a tool.
I was really inspired by this New York rapper, Papoose — he had this mixtape series called Law Library where like every track he would break down a different aspect of the law. Things like what it means to have a warrant and what your rights are when you have a warrant and what you can and can't do and the fact that your parole officer needs to execute the warrants. The idea that hip-hop could be used in a super practical way — the idea that it can entertain people and give them concrete tips is how songs like "Film the Police" came about. It feels like the work I've most contributed to actual people on the ground — I see people using that hashtag that have never heard the song.
Not to say that you were ahead of the curve by any means because police brutality is an ongoing issue, but even though "Film the Police" came out in 2012, #FilmThePolice is relevant now more than ever.
I owe that to an activist friend, Mallory Hanora, who does work with #BlackLivesMatter and was just arrested on the freeway blocking I-95 North (in Boston.) Back at the time (when "Film The Police" was released) she was involved with Copwatch and we were talking about the Oscar Grant situation, she was like, you should re-make "Fuck the Police" and call it "Film The Police."
It's simple but so powerful of a song because it's one of those things that we might, as civilians, not know we are allowed to do — film the police.
I'm sure there will be lots of challenges to it and there have been — individual states keep trying to make it illegal. I know Illinois was trying to challenge it under some privacy bullshit, but as long as people keep fighting, it is legal.
Through your music, you talk about and advocate for a lot of identities that you yourself aren't — you speak on feminism, you talk about issues facing communities of color and you speak about police brutality and homophobia and transphobia. I think that sometimes, from a certain standpoint, people feel like they can't get involved with a movement because they aren't a part of those groups or think they are not directly affected by the issues.
How did you decide that you could speak about these things that are not directly related to your own experience?
I started listening to hip hop in isolation, just as like a weird kid that was obsessed with hip hop. Then I moved to New York when I was eighteen because that's where all of my favorite rappers came from. Eventually I stumbled into this DIY world and when I went back to Providence, I met Sage Francis and he signed me to his label and kind of brought me out into the indie hip hop world. When I encountered the indie hip hop world, it wasn't my shit — it wasn't what I came up on is what you would call "commercial rap." Really, what I still listen to is commercial rap.
I was surprised that A) there was an audience for me and B) that that audience was mostly white. [Laughs.] I kind of came in on the tail end of the Def Jux/Anticon thing — I mean even if you go to a KRS One show, the audience is mostly white these days. In my early days I was like, okay, this is the audience that is here to see me make the kind of rap I'm making, I guess.
So I thought, what do I want to talk to these kids about? Let's talk about our whiteness — I mean, let's not not talk about our whiteness. We're a bunch of white dudes in here, so we should address some things. I don't think it is the job of people of color or trans people or women to explain themselves to men and therefore, if I'm a man in a room full of men, what better thing could I be talking about? I'm not trying to speak for people; I'm trying to speak to people who are like me about ourselves and our relationship to the world around us.
As a straight white dude who has done that work myself, when I look at other straight, white dudes acting wrong, I feel like it's on me — I know that it's not on anybody else. Who else is it going to be on? Especially because they are at my show — they are my fans. My music has brought them into this room with me and now here we are — They come up to me and say, "Oh man. My favorite rappers are... " and they name five white dudes and it's just like, wow. Holy shit. I'm responsible to these guys.
Say someone listens to you and wants to become active in social justice — what do you feel is the first step to becoming active?
The first step is really thinking about what you enjoy and what you're good at. My personal experience is that figuring out where you fit in as an activist is as much a personal journey as anything. For me, it has been as much of a personal journey as figuring out what kind of artist I am and how that works. At first, I was involved with youth arts type stuff because it was what I was naturally good at. I suddenly realized, that world is a lot of non-profits and I am terrible with that shit. I don't want to be at a cocktail party, I don't want to schmooze some rich motherfucker, I don't want to write a grant. I don't want to do any of that shit.
So I burned out and got real depressed and then I dusted off and did something else and we created the knowmore.org website. Then that was two years of heavy journalism and coordinating people and that is still on-going. Then at a certain point I realized, I'm a better rapper than a lot of people — I could just be a rapper and bring Knowmore.org with me and make songs like "#FilmThe Police."
For me, it took burning out and feeling terrible — the place to start is to think about what your natural skills are. Are you extroverted or introverted? Can you write a grant or talk someone's ear off or can you do data entry? Whatever you want to do, there is some organization that needs people to do it, for sure. Everyone is in crisis everywhere — from the environment to women's rights. Everyone needs help and volunteers. Get in where you fit in is the name of the game.
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies