Interview: Local Hip-Hop Artist Gotta Be Karim

Local hip-hop artist Gotta Be Karim will be at the Gramophone tonight, hosting a hip-hop showcase that will also feature Black Spade, Vandalyzm, Family Affair, Rockwell Knuckles and others. (Info here.) Kristy Wendt chatted with Karim after a show a few weeks ago, where he provided us with some profound insights into his background.

Kristy Wendt: While many local hip-hop artists, even the ones that gravitated to superstardom, come from broken families and violent neighborhoods, you describe your musical influences to be based upon what “[your] mother and father played while getting the kids ready for school,” something that’s maybe atypical in its grounding and sanity. How do you think that background affects your music? Do you ever feel like it alienates you from connecting to the “streets” within hip-hop culture? Gotta Be Karim: I feel like "hood" is a mentality that keeps rappers in the mind frame that you can’t come from a successful household and possibly know what it’s like to struggle. In life, we go through a lot of individual struggles that build character; that’s the sort of thing that defines my music. I don’t come from a rich or poor home, but a hustling home. I grew up traveling to events like the Million Man March as a child with ten thousand apples for sale in the back of a U-Haul; that’s the type of hustle I come from. So do I feel like I have a problem connecting to the streets? No, because everybody in the community is a hustler. I want to represent a man that’s about his money, and that’s what my family represents as well. And that’s what real street dudes respect. And just because I didn’t grow up in the grimiest neighborhood does not mean I’m a punk; if anything I’m tougher because I had a father to show me how life works at a young age -- who taught me how to hustle.

Can you explain a quote on your site: “The greatest weapon we have in the struggle is our mind. My weapon is my music.” As a race of people, we need to realize what we’re up against and a part of, meaning that you don’t always have to pick up a gun to solve your problems, nor is all money good money. So we should be disciplined as a people to realize the greater scheme of things with this (hip-hop) music culture we help to create. You don’t have to sign a deal to a label just for the money. We can organize it under our independent umbrella and have complete creative control over our music directions. We are our generation’s leaders and whatever we say in our music, the children listen to. If selling drugs is cool in lyrics, if shooting people is cool in lyrics, then that’s the future of my race. So the message is to think.

You started doing poetry slams as early as fifteen and you come from a literary background. How have you incorporated those experiences into your music? Poetry was incorporated in my music experience in a few ways. It helped me to develop a fanbase, get over my performance anxiety, and develop a unique stage presence. I also studied writing techniques in a more vast way.

You’re a practicing Muslim. Does that culture translate into your music/lyrics? How? My religion definitely translates in my music. I was raised Orthodox Muslim, so that’s a main part of my life; it comes out in just about every aspect of my writing, from my beliefs about subjects that I speak on to the way that I think in general. I’m essentially more disciplined and determined to personify my dreams by any means necessary.

On your site, you describe one of your passions to be “encouraging the study of African-American history and heritage among children.” What would you most like African American children to know about their history? I most want my people to understand that they created their history. I want them to read often and learn their potential. I want them to learn about their leaders, the countries that were colonized and how they were colonized, and to what extent the influence of those different people expanded. Learn about the Muslims, the Moors, Jewish people, and Christianity; learn everything. I hate to say it, but nowadays it’s true: "If you wanna hide something from a nigga, put it in a book."