Q&A with Rapper Toki Wright
Toki Wright isn’t your average rapper. And that’s a good thing.
By Bailey Berg
Toki Wright has quite the résumé. The Twin Cities-based rapper has recorded with Atmosphere, opened for Brother Ali and was a coach on MTV’s “Made.” With roles that run the gamut from wordsmith and rap professor to community organizer and humanitarian, he’s got a lot on his plate. Think Mag sat down with Wright during the sound-check for the first show of his latest tour, “Pangaea,” to discuss spoken word, originality and his impressive head of hair.
TM: Do you want to start by talking about your current collaboration with Big Cats?
TW: The whole idea behind “Pangaea” is that, back millions of years ago there was one super continent — one large landmass that was separated by volcanic eruptions, platonic shifts and comets. Over a period of time, all of the continents separated. In a sense, people are like that. People come from one central point in history, and over time people naturally spread out throughout the world. We tend to think we’re a lot more different than we actually are, so we’re trying to say that we should recognize that we all come from a central place, and we have more in common than we have different. We shouldn’t necessarily forget our differences — we should address them. Our ultimate goal is to connect with one another.
TM: How did you get started rapping?
TW: (I) started rapping around the age of 15. I had been writing first. I was a literary nerd. I got interested in hip-hop culture by seeing what my older brothers were listening to at the time. It fascinated me that people could speak in public spaces and be uncensored. I wanted to say what I wanted to say without it being filtered. Especially as a young person, you’re under a lot of scrutiny to fit in, do right and live by certain standards, be it your teachers, your parents or even your peers. I like that ability to be whoever I want to be.
TM: How would you describe your musical style?
TW: I’ve drawn influences from hip-hop, spoken word, reggae, dance-hall, afro-beat, folk, rock and roll. There are different elements of all those genres that are interesting to me, and I pull the parts that make sense. I love dance-hall’s ability to grasp people and be upbeat, and I love reggae’s social consciousness, where you can say something that is very socially or politically heavy, but in a way that allows people to dance and enjoy themselves. The tough part is being able to say a tough message to a crowd and not loose them.
TM: You have an impressive list of organizations you’ve done volunteer work with. What was YO! The Movement?
TW: It was an organization that I was the executive director of. We were focused on young people in the Twin Cities. We tried to provide them opportunities that made sense to them. So, if they wanted to lower the voting age for local elections that was one of our drives. If they wanted to throw a party, they’d have to come up with a plan, budget, mission statement and do their own marketing. Through that organization, we were able to put together seven Twin Cities Celebrations of Hip-Hop. We brought together about 5,500 young people from across the country to work on community-based projects.
TM: Can you tell me more about working with the H.E.A.L.S. organization?
TW: It’s an organization in northern Uganda where we worked with former child soldiers. (We) started an after-school program for people interested in health education, arts and literacy, would come together after school and get an education. The big thing they were interested in was hip-hop. I went and worked with them and created a new program with a few other people from up there. It’s been going strong since 2007.
TM: Where else have your efforts taken you?
TW: The U.S. State Department brought me to Sierra Leone as a musical ambassador in May, and I worked with young artists and did a bunch of performances.
TM: How do you stay so down-to-earth?
TW: I hope I’m down to earth. I guess being in public you are met with criticism, scrutiny and praise all at the same time. You can’t let too much of it go to your head because it’s as addictive as any drug. I don’t want to be an addict to anything. I want to look back at what I’ve done and feel I made a contribution. I have to do constant self-checks. Praising yourself as a humble person is just as bad as praising yourself as anything else.
TM: What’s next for you? What are you working on?
TW: We’re on a tour right now. We’ve got about 15 shows, and then we’re playing a festival in Shakopee, Minn. Then we’re touring some more this summer and fall. Also putting out an album this fall.
TM: I have to ask, how long did it take to grow your dreads?
TW: (Laughs) I’d say about 14 years. It’s quite the process.
TM: What’s one thing you’d like to tell a large group of people?
TW: I hope everyone in their community can develop that scene and not look to outsiders to do that for them. Stick to it. Stay true to yourself.
Photo courtesy of Caitlin Abrams
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