“I think all rap should fight white supremacy,” Denver rapper Chris Steele says. “But it’s really white rappers’ job. Otherwise you're just an Elvis of rap, you know, if you just ignore all that and use that art. It’s an art and a culture that came from black people, and people of color from the Bronx, and people who migrated from Jamaica, like Kool Herc, who started hip-hop.”
Steele, who performs under the moniker Time, drops his latest solo effort, These Songs Kill Fascists, on March 27. It’s the latest entry in a lengthy discography and includes production by longtime collaborator AwareNess, with whom Steele performs in the hip-hop duo Calm (stylized as Calm.). Five other producers contribute to the production, Denver jazz trumpeter Ron Miles makes an appearance, and Giuseppe, Mick Jenkins and Psalm One provide guest vocals.
In spite of the large roster of beatmakers present, the twelve tracks manage to maintain a cohesive vibe, even if the beats vary sonically, from the Jazzmatazz-invoking “I Wrote This to Start a Fire” to the decisively trappish “Seeds."
“My friend was like, ‘Damn, this sounds...it sounds heavy. It’s kind of like a triumphant bummer — like, it’s really positive, but sad,’” Steele says. “I wanted this to be kind of like an introduction to anarchism.”
A former Regis University instructor, Steele hosts Time Talks, a podcast about critical and radical theory that has counted famed linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky among its guests. On These Songs Kill Fascists — a nod to the slogan emblazoned across folk-hero Woody Guthrie’s guitar — Steele drops socially conscious lyrics that are often hyper-local and dense in a way that invites repeat listens.
“There’s so much rap that I’ll listen to that contains, like, terabytes of information,” he says. “It’s like a deep dive, every rap album, most of them. I wanted to convey all those things at once.”
Steele touches on the genocide of indigenous people in Colorado and Denver’s troubled history of racism and gentrification, as well as its homeless ban. It was important for him to cover those topics because he's from north Denver, in the area now known as Highland.
“I talked about gentrification and, deeper than that, I’m on Cheyenne and Arapaho and Ute land," he says. "We're on indigenous land. It’s something I wanted to acknowledge as a white rapper and as someone who comes from a settler-type background.”
He also raps on “Spiritual Son” about his relationship with Lonnie “Pops” Lynn — rapper Common’s father, and a former Denver Nugget whom Steele counts as a mentor.
“We would hang out with him all the time at Sloan's Lake,” Steele says. “He would tell us stories about growing up in South Side Chicago, and he told stories about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Fred Hampton and radical politics and how evil racism was. He was like a grandpa I never really had on my mom’s side.”
While often local in content, the album makes itself at home in the political dumpster fire that is Planet Earth 2020. The opening track, “I Wrote This to Start a Fire,” references Heather Heyer, murdered by a neo-Nazi during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The anti-fascist screed goes on to name-check everyone from civil-rights activist Ida B. Wells to abolitionist John Brown to English punk band X-Ray Spex. The track sets the tone for the eleven songs that follow and covers everything from anti-Muslim discrimination to environmental degradation to how technology can be alienating.
“This album is more pinpointed,” he says. “I usually go all kinds of other ways but circle back to talking about the issues. But this one was more pinpointed, like a liberatory viewpoint, a diagnosis of the time, but also like a prayer for the future.”
He takes shots at the current occupant of the White House but shows plenty of disdain for the failures of the Obama administration, including its kill lists, drone strikes, prosecution of journalists and how it had the highest deportation rates of any administration.
“Zooming in on the last two presidencies, Obama built this magnificent structure for some neo-proto-fascist type person to walk into,” he says. "He had kids in cages, too, and Trump came in and just exploded that."
The album also tackles what Steele calls the “internal fascist” and offers himself — a white heterosexual male — as an example of someone who struggles to overcome it.
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“I have patriarchy, and I grew up in a neighborhood that was highly patriarchal and was disrespectful toward women,” he says. “I grew up in a culture that was very homophobic, and all of these are things I’ve always combated. It’s asking people to be introspective, but also to go out and do what they can.” The hook on the single “Seeds” — “They tried to bury us/They didn’t know we were seeds” — borrows a slogan made popular by immigration activists. Steele is donating the proceeds from the song to Sanctuary4All Colorado, an organization that raises money for families of people who have been deported. Immigrant-rights activist Jeanette Vizguerra, who is currently taking sanctuary inside a Denver church to fight deportation, leads the group.
Steele says he met Vizguerra through the Romero Theater Troupe, which performed a piece about her, and the two have kept in touch.
“We just wanted to use our art in some way to help her out,” he says. “She has a huge legal balance, and then she helps out so many other people. ... I think that’s what hip-hop started as, you know, something to help your community. And this was the right thing to do. She’s separated from her kids; it’s so messed up. I feel like it’s not even nearly enough.”
These Songs Kill Fascists drops on bandcamp.com on March 27.