Toki Wright is for the children
And anyone who likes hip-hop with a dose of goodwill
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Like many hip-hop artists, Toki Wright's interests aren't limited to music. But the Minneapolis rapper's extracurricular activities are far more ambitious than starting a T-shirt company or launching his own signature energy drink. Wright is a community-service worker for non-profits like Yo! The Movement, a writer who almost covered Rwandan hip-hop for The Source (Wright was so overcome by the experience, he found himself unable to complete his story), and a certified teacher who currently heads the nation's first accredited hip-hop diploma program at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul. His understated style of rhyming is equally high-minded and bobs with a thirst for observation. Currently supporting the Rhymesayers release A Different Mirror, Wright stops by Emo's tonight as part of The Fresh Air Tour with Brother Ali. The A.V. Club caught up with him to discuss his long-time relationship with Ali, throwing concerts for kindergarteners, and how he won over Rhymesayers by sheer force of will.
The A.V. Club: You grew up listening to soul, funk, and hip-hop. What attracted you to performing in one style over the others?
Toki Wright: What attracted me to hip-hop was being able to see people that looked just like me commanding large crowds of people. It was many artists all over the country, all over the world, and they wanted to stand up, be heard, and get people to jump around with them. I didn't always know the words, but that fascinated me. It’s that kind of power every kid wants to have. Everybody wants someone to pay attention to them.
AVC: You've toured with Brother Ali for three years. What's your relationship like with him?
TW: We started as friends before working together. I was in a group in a whole other section [of Minneapolis], and he was running around with Atmosphere and those guys. We had a discussion that it would be a good idea for me to come out with him. At the time, I was running a youth organization, and a lot of my time had been taken up taking care of these kids. I had always been working in hip-hop, organizing events for the youth, but my own performance had always taken a back seat. I wanted to go out and work with somebody I respected and got along with.
AVC: The Fresh Air Tour has a rigorous schedule: 50 shows in 60 days. How has it been so far?
TW: It's an aggressive schedule but I love it. I've always said that being on tour is like a talent show. You come out there and prove that you deserve to be there in the first 20 seconds. [Laughs.] If you can't do it, you're going to lose the whole night.
AVC: Have you ever lost the crowd early?
TW: Oh, sure. It's that constant momentum: You don't want to press the brakes or stop or make a turn when you should be going straight. I'm not perfect. Everybody has an off night, but I'd say we're winning. [Laughs.] We're definitely in the win column.
AVC: You once performed in front of a kindergarten class as part of The C.O.R.E. with Adonis Frazier. What's the story behind that?
TW: When you're starting off, you perform for everybody. You don't turn down shows if you really want to get somewhere. I don't know how it happened, but we ended up in some suburb performing in front of some kindergartners, with their parents in the back room with their arms crossed. It was the most ridiculous thing. I say to this day if we could win that crowd over, we could win anyone over.
AVC: It must be strange performing for a crowd so young that their parents are there.
TW: Oh, it was one of the scariest things ever. You don't want to say anything that will offend the parents. I've worked with teenagers for a long time, and the things that teenagers, 25-year-olds like and that 40-year-olds like are totally different. That's part of entertainment: to have something that everybody can like, so everyone can say, "Aw, he's cool!"
AVC: You took A Different Mirror directly to Rhymesayers instead of the label pursuing you. What inspired you to do that?
TW: It was always in my mind. They were definitely one of the top three [labels] that I would want to present my music. I've been working with Rhymesayers for a long time. I did their open mic for about a year and a half and had a lot of their artists play shows I've done. The office is 20 blocks from my house. It made more sense than working for a company across the country and not having that face-to-face relationship.
AVC: Why do you think more people don't do things like that?
TW: It's a backward mentality. I hear everybody talking, “Man, I'm going to get a deal!” I always expected that first I'd put the projects out by myself. Every mix-tape I've done, I've put it out. I used whatever means to make it available to people. It got to a point where it made sense in my incremental growth that I would go with somebody that can get your music to different audiences. Why not go with people that you trust?
AVC: What was Rhymesayers' reaction?
TW: Everybody comes in and says, “Hey, I got a record.” Their answer is always the same: "Cool. When you're done, bring it in." [Laughs.] Some people do, some people don't. For some people, it works. For most, it doesn't. I came in and had six songs more than what's on the album now. They liked it and asked, “What can we do to make this flow better?” We didn't do any rerecording. I ended up making nine songs in the week after I got a deal. We ended up not using any of them and worked with what we had. This also means that I'm nine songs already into the next project.
AVC: Do you ever foresee dropping hip-hop entirely for community work?
TW: There are opportunities to exist in both worlds. The more successful you become at one, the easier it is for you to work in the other. If 50 Cent tomorrow said, “Gun violence is wrong, I denounce it, I'm giving $2 million to this project,” that could do a lot of good. Just the same, having a strong community working with hip-hop could do a lot of good as well. I've stepped into the academic world, so I'm able to walk the line of an academic and an artist at the same time. There are spaces out there to do both to the fullest of your capabilities.