In December 2014, following the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and countless other unarmed black men at the hands of police, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson called for a new wave of protest music. “I think [the lack of protest music] is just due to fear of being blackballed and not making a living,” The Roots’ bandleader said at the time. Over the last two years, a host of indie and mainstream artists heeded the call; Detroit rapper Mic Write stepped up to the plate long ago. As a soloist and member of the rap group Cold Men Young, he’s won poetry slam awards and literary fellowships for his rhymes, which capture the humanity of Detroit, one of the country’s most misunderstood—and rapidly changing—cities.
His latest album, O.N.U.S. Chain, is his best work yet, a stirring EP that tackles police brutality, racial injustice, and the transformation of his hometown. Sad, desperate, joyful and proud, the record and its accompanying short film cycle through a wide range of emotions, from elation to frustration to anger. We talked with him about public misconceptions about Detroit, how his students taught him a lesson about police brutality, and how a teacher falsely accused him of committing a writer’s worst offense.
In recent years, more and more artists have become socially conscious and politically-minded. I feel like that’s always been a part of your repertoire. Where does that way of thinking come from?
When I started recording stuff by myself, I had to find what I wanted my voice to be. I didn’t know what I wanted to talk about. I started looking at what was happening in Detroit, what was happening in the city. That’s when I started to say to myself, ‘This is what I want to talk about.’ I want to talk about how it feels to see the city change, how it feels to be black in this society—not only in Detroit, but in a nation that feels more and more like it doesn’t want us here. We’re going to be here anyway, fuck that. So how do I communicate that?
I’ve never been a huge fan of soapbox-y rap. I love early Lupe, that was the god, but then it got to be, ‘I’m higher thought than all of y’all, you all are peons.’ That’s not acceptable. To me, it was less a decision of, ‘I want to be sociopolitical,’ and more, ‘That’s what was urgent to me.’ My neighborhood was being gentrified; I learned what that word meant. I learned what that means for people like me, and for long-time residents of that neighborhood. That kind of led into everything else. That’s what I want to do, but I want to do it in a way that makes people feel like they have to move first, get pumped, and then come back to it for a second or third listen and say, ‘Oh, he’s talking about something.’
Detroit has a lot of incredible rappers, but the most revered and popular ones don’t seem to speak about social issues in their music. What made you feel comfortable enough to believe people would be receptive to those themes?
Detroit rappers tend to blow up because of narratives. Rappers like Danny Brown and Black Milk—a lot of that is narrative. They say, ‘This is me at this age, and at this place, and how I had to navigate that, and how complex that was.’ A lot of it is, ‘Here’s the past of that happening, and I’m putting it in the music.’ A lot of the stuff I wrote then and am writing now is more immediate. I guess that’s why I felt comfortable. Detroit is the city of Motown; Marvin Gaye was thinking that shit. They were like, ‘Make another lovemaking record.’ He was like, ‘Nah, this is happening, and I’ve got to talk about it.’ I’m more audacious about discussing these things, hopefully in a way that makes people activate. Or at the very least, in a way that makes me activate, so I listen to it and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I remember where I was.’
Every city and region has its own environment that informs the music it produces, but many people don’t know much about day-to-day life in Detroit. What do you think the city contributes to you musically?
I think Detroit is still slept on stylistically—regarding the whole tapestry of what hip-hop is. So now more than ever, a lot of experimentation is happening. People experiment with their voices and their sound, with what they want to say. You don’t have to sound like something else and buy into it. Some of the stuff that’s booming now, it sounds awesome, but it all has a similar sound. Chicago has that kind of soulful, uplifting feel, although it’s dealing with a lot of complex shit. Atlanta has a sound that’s linear through a lot of their music. But Detroit is wide open—the most wide open that I’ve seen it.
There’s a certain energy in Detroit that’s very DIY, very gritty. I think that’s informed some of the anger behind what I write, and being more aggressive with it. Detroit is full of people who are really fucking good at what they do, whether it’s spitting lyrics or writing. Steel sharpens steel. So they have to be more conscious of, ‘I have to be exactly how I want to be, and as sharp as possible.’ It has to have a certain kind of quality, because if not, we’re not rocking with it—at least, your peers aren’t. And your peers here are really great incubators to move your shit outward to get more people behind it.
From your travels, what is the perception of Detroit from people who don’t live there? And how does that perception impact how you feel you should represent the city?
That perception is huge. Before the boom, it was always, ‘Oh shit, you’re from Detroit? How bad is it there?’ Everybody had heard a story that was completely asinine, and obviously untrue, but they had to ask if it was true. Even when going to poetry slams, where people are supposed to be informed, people would ask, ‘Is it as bad as it’s being reported there? Have you been shot at? Is it really a ghost town?’ It’s funny in a sense, because it’s so fucking ridiculous. But it’s also infuriating.
A lot of that informed what I was writing at the time, and what I was aiming to write. That’s where “H.O.M.E.S.” came from, somewhat. It was a combination of going out and hearing all these stories about what Detroit was, and me wanting to talk about what it really is. Right around the time of the boom, people started using words like “resurrected” and “revived.” ‘Oh, this restaurant is here, so it’s probably a lot safer now, right?’ Now, people can’t wait to come—they want to move in and stay. Where before, it was, ‘How safe is it? Where should I go?’ It’s infuriating when you’ve been there, and you’ve been around people who are doing really good work, and it gets negated because people don’t know.
It’s more important than ever to be like, ‘This is the soul of what Detroit is.’ It’ll be real easy to get here and be like, ‘Oh man, all this new stuff is here. This is what Detroit is.’ It’s anger, it’s frustration, and it’s motivation. It’s not all very perfect, but that’s the dope part of it. That’s what Detroit is—it’s the grind, the chip-tooth type shit.
You’ve had music and poetry in places that many wouldn’t associate with hip-hop, or with people of color. How do you navigate these white, safe spaces, without compromising your message and integrity?
As I’ve grown with it, part of it is being very particular and curious about where I send work. The places I’ve been rewarded by have been open to my type of honesty—being able to say things in a way where I don’t have to cap it or keep it safe. They prefer the honesty. Kresge Arts In Detroit has been really supportive.
I think there’s a side in which those spaces think it’s trendy to have this kind of discourse. I did a panel at the MOCAD, and the MOCAD is not the most encompassing place in Detroit. They opened themselves up to me, and were like, ‘We like what you do.’ It’s trendy to start talking about, ‘What is the future of Detroit, what’s happening to Detroit, how do we mend these bridges between race and class?’ On one hand, it’s trendy to do that. But on another, there’s an undercurrent of people in influential places who want to have those conversations. I think timing had a lot to do with that, because I came in at the right time, where everything lined up with what I wanted to talk about.
What does O.N.U.S. Chain mean?
O.N.U.S. is One Nation Under Squad. It came from the “Pledge of Allegiance” joint. It started as a catchy chorus of a song, but as the O.N.U.S. idea started getting built out, the question was, ‘What do this really mean? What does it stand for? What does making a nation of your own look like?’ The thing I think is cool about O.N.U.S. Chain is that it’s really a work in progress. I’m learning that as I’ve been going.
I think part of it is being able to be honest with yourself, to start to understand what you demand for yourself. We use words like ‘love,’ ‘respect,’ and ‘loyalty,’ but what does that really mean to you and your circle of friends? When you look at the country you live in and realize they don’t give a fuck about you, you’re at a crossroads. What are you going to do about that? I would rather become my own nation. Me and my people start to build our own situation so we can make the changes we want to make. That’s what O.N.U.S. Chain is. If you get enough people thinking the same way, I don’t see how that’s not a nation. You have your own belief system, you have your own constitution of what that means. If you’re all moving on the same accord and wavelength, ain’t no telling what you can accomplish.
On “Wait/Weight,” you said a teacher labeled you as a plagiarist?
I think it was 10th grade, my history teacher at the time—who I think is still teaching there, so I’ll leave his name out of it—he called me to his classroom at my lunchtime. He had my paper in front of him. He kind of fronted on me earlier, like, ‘Yeah, this is an amazing paper. This is incredible work I didn’t know you were capable of.’ Which was bullshit, by the way. He started asking me questions about my motivation behind specific lines of the paper, what was I thinking, and what prompted me to write them. I answered questions and it was all cool.
The following day, I got called to the office. ‘Mr. So-and-So has accused you of plagiarizing this paper.’ I had cited sources on all my shit, but most of it was me writing it. The principal asked me questions behind it, my motivation, my word choices. The history teacher was asking me definitions of words and shit—just real disrespectful, like I didn’t know what I was talking about. But I nailed it, light work. The principal ended up reaming out the history teacher—falling short of being like, ‘You’re prejudiced,’ but being like, ‘I don’t need you to bring anything else like this to my office unless you have super-substantial proof.’ I guess he’s had these run-ins with other students in the past.
The next day, the teacher had to apologize to me. I didn’t see it as racism at the time, but when I brought it back to my parents, they broke it down to me. It took me time to really see how deep that ran, especially at a predominantly white Catholic school. I’ve been writing essays for the better part of my life. All my writing started in writing church programs. I was the Black History Month go-to guy. My aunt was an English fanatic, and my mom was a big reader. It made me upset underneath, because it was disrespectful not just to me, but to my family. That was an interesting experience, but it wasn’t the last time that would happen. It happened a couple more times in college. Not as heavy, not as direct.
On “H.U.D.S.,” you said you have students, and you’re struggling to figure out what to tell them about police brutality and systemic racism. Where do you have students, and what did you end up telling them?
I teach workshops in schools through Inside Out, especially while I was writing that song. When I wrote that verse, I was at Communication & Media Arts with high school kids. Just the idea of trying to get them to write poetry and express how you feel. When I was doing that, I was losing faith in it. It felt like for all the writing, for all the stuff we were doing, people were still getting killed every day. Every week, it was another name. I struggled with telling my high school students, who are a lot more aware than people give them credit for, what’s really effective. I’d say, ‘Write your feelings out, how you can effect change,’ when they’re looking on TV like, ‘Why did they shoot him?’
A lot of what’s in the song is what I ended up telling them in person. We navigated that together. One of my students said, ‘I feel like they’re jealous because they want to be us.’ We started exploring that a little bit. Do you think it’s jealousy? ‘Yeah, we think they kill us because they’re afraid they can’t be us.’ That’s the road we started going down.
Talking to ninth- and 10th-graders, we can go through the socioeconomic reasons why police felt this white supremacist idea of coming in, shooting first and asking questions later. But I thought it was interesting that their take on it was, ‘They’re scared because they want to be us and they can’t.’ That shit was so raw to me. I had to take a minute on it. I can’t deny that to be the case, at least part of the case. I think you have to look at yourself and your self-value.
A lot of people are dealing with self-worth, like, ‘What’s the point of going to high school if cops are going to pull me over and shoot me?’ Not allowing these outer forces to dictate one’s value, and understand that everything you do, every success that you have in the public school system and in the city against law enforcement, is shit you weren’t expected to have. You’re not supposed to win this game, but you’re winning it by coming in here every day. You’re winning it by getting certain grades, and you’re winning it by deciding what you want your future to be. I let it rock on that theme because that feels way more powerful.
—William E. Ketchum III