It's not all that common these days that a band takes a real stand on a political message, much less forefronts it as the most prominent piece of their music. Granted, that's probably for the better, particularly given how easy it ease to ruin perfectly good music with a half-cooked ideology or to come off as preachy and holier-than-thou. Evey once in a while, though, someone does it right, and it winds up being refreshing.
Enter Junkyard Empire, the most political hip-hop group in the Twin Cities that you've probably never heard before, but you should. What's most interesting about their particular project is that they back up their music with real-life action--their shared convictions run deep enough that they've even been known to canvas together.
Their MC, Brihanu, was a middle school teacher for eight years in St. Paul and in Philadelphia (where he grew up) before joining the group, and now he's pursuing a graduate degree in Culture and Teaching at the University of Minnesota. Gimme Noise caught up with Brihanu recently at the Black Dog cafe in Lowertown to talk to him about Junkyard Empire's new full length, Acts of Humanity, which they're releasing at the 7th St. Entry this weekend. The album is a mix of new material and remixes drawn from their Rebellion Politik EP.
Brihanu: We talked about putting out another EP. The last album had a marketing plan but there were some mismatches of timing and we thought it could have been promoted better. We still think it's really good material, so we decided to put the two together and make a big album with two volumes.
Volume one, we call that "Acts of Love," that's the newer material, and Volume two is "Acts of Humanity," and that's the remixed older material. The new volume actually has a song recorded live in Cuba ["Regla"] and also a track with Alicia Steele on it ["Alright"]. "Regla" is different; it's got live instrumentation but also a track that Obsession produced. It's the only song we've ever done where it isn't completely live--usually we have a couple background samples and things like that, but not a whole track that we play over.
How did the trip to Cuba and collaboration with Obsession come about?
About three years ago Chris [Cox] started looking for place to go and he ran across this lawyer who does pro bono work. He was looking for people to do a cultural exchange and also to make a political statement, so we sent our stuff. We were actually able to go as a research expedition, so that meant we weren't just playing music but also had to disseminate things, which is where the documentary came in... Once we were okay to go with our visas, we were guests of this state-run Cuban agency that was set up to promote hip hop.