Baltimore MC and organizer has been at it since 2004, and he's only getting stronger
Photo by Linda Wake-Garza
Son of Nun, aka S.O.N., is Kevin James from Baltimore, Maryland. He is a rapper, musician, visual artist, organizer, and he speaks through urgency. Since releasing his first album Blood and Fire 13 years ago in 2004, he’s become a growing force of using the potential of music and performance to speak truth to power, performing alongside artists like Dead Prez, Immortal Technique, and The Coup. He’s now releasing work with Firebrand Records, the label co-founded by Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello. S.O.N.’s production and flow are deeply rooted in old school hip hop, and he carries a heavy sense of history. But he ignites that music and knowledge of the past with sounds, samples, ideas from the music and movements of today. And, most importantly, it’s all always aimed precisely at dismantling power structures in the present.
On “It’s Like That” – his latest single released last June on Firebrand – S.O.N. asks, “You know why black people are so mad? Because all of you all ain’t.” Throughout his decade-plus of work, James makes clear where his anger stems from and what we need to do to fight, and he’s long known music can be a tool for to make that change. “I grew up with hip hop. I remember getting a walk-man for my birthday and falling asleep to RUN DMC and Salt ‘n’ Pepa,” he says. “I can also remember in the mid-90’s when everything started sounding the same and getting bored with it. That’s what happens when you deregulate media ownership and let a few huge companies decide what your music is supposed to sound like. It seemed like the more politically aware I was becoming the less conscious mainstream hip hop was becoming. That’s when I found Hendrix, Marley, Burning Spear etc.”
James released a video last year that was part of a longer visual mixtape by Jared Ball and Bashi Rose entitled “George Jackson; Releasing the Dragon.” In James’ segment we see clips of George Jackson – the revolutionary leader who was shot down by cops at 29 years old – along with clips of other Black Panthers, exploding klansmen, and images of James rapping against colorfully drawn lines and fractals. The song is a personal narrative about being a young Man of Color in the United States nestled within a larger narrative about the historical struggle for freedom: “We about that life / defending mine and yours / since we reached these shores.” The video style is explicit meets artistic, like Rage Against the Machine’s direct messaging colliding with the finesse and surrealism of Shabazz Palaces’ video work. S.O.N. succeeds in executing a message and vision much more interesting than sometimes hyper-literal activist or protest music.
Perhaps part of why James’ music is so solid in speaking on power, freedom, racism, and community is because it’s so honestly coming from inside of him. Everything he makes is as if he is letting us put a mirror to his thoughts and experiences. Yet, he never fails to connect it all to the broader battles. “It’s easy to get so caught up in your own fight that you don’t see others struggling for the same thing you are at the end of the day to be treated like a human being,” he notes. “I can’t think of a good reason to only focus on one struggle when the powers that be don’t, there’s no such thing as a single-issue presidential administration. They’ve got a little something for everyone so we might as well work together as leaders of our own struggles if we’re going to make any substantive change. I think highlighting various struggles makes resistance to the status quo more compelling.”
James’ last full album was 2008’s The Art of Struggle, and stand-out track “Pastures of Plenty” perfectly demonstrates how he views the intersection of our battles. He begins by speaking on migrants fights in the fields (“Cash for crops / from tobacco to hops / from the fields of Carolina / to the Northwest docks”) and the cities (“On the edge of the city /you can see us and then / we come with the dust and we’re gone with the wind”) and connects it all back to economic structures from slavery to trade agreements (“We’re refugees of NAFTA’s economic sabotage”) before ending on a chant of “Si se puede.”
“I joined the Black Student Union and wrote a few pieces for its more political literary magazine, Voices. Eventually I joined Campaign to End the Death Penalty and helped put on Live From Death Row events where death row exonerees and men fighting impending execution dates would share their experiences,” James says about his organizing work. Political artists sometimes find it difficult to always be accountable to the fights and struggles they speak about, but James has always maintained direct involvement. He sees his music as necessarily connected to his on the ground organizing, and so is continuously working around issues including Black Lives Matter, Free Palestine, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “I also taught high school history in Baltimore for a few years, transitioned to IT work, then became a paramedic for a time, all while continuing to write and perform spoken word and hip hop. My organizing is inseparable from my life and I reflect that in my art. I’ve rocked a lot of benefits for various causes and organizations over the years. It’s a lot, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he explains.
“My organizing is inseparable from my life and I reflect that in my art. I’ve rocked a lot of benefits for various causes and organizations over the years. It’s a lot, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
On “Katrina Wasn’t the First Time” James provides a sort of prayer for his community, with the refrain of Zora Neale Hurston’s phrase “And their eyes were all watching God” placed between verses connecting the brutal realities he sees all around him to Hurricane Katrina and the many man-made disasters constructed against the black community before it. Words, histories, and ideas like James’ are complex and make may people very uncomfortable. This discomfort might get masked in confusion or hurt feelings or thinking there is another, better way forward. The test becomes whether we are really thinking about something bigger than ourselves, about justice and inclusion and not just our internal anxiety about having to accept the ways in which we all need to change.
The city of Baltimore is central to S.ON.’s politics and music. It’s where he’s lived for years and where he organizes and creates. The city’s injustices take center stage in much of his work. In an AlterNet interview in response to Freddie Gray’s murder, subsequent protests, and the acquittal of the police who murdered him, James said, “I have no faith in this nation’s legal system, how can I when it’s legal to deny people justice? If we can figure out how to put a robot on mars, then we can figure out how to hold police accountable. It’s only complicated if you’re complicit…Freddie Gray lived in an economically sabotaged neighborhood and had recently won a lead exposure settlement before being murdered by police. His life was stunted by the legacy of redlining and racially disparate housing code enforcement, and then it was cut short by the racist drug war.”
S.O.N. brings his critique of police power and White Supremacy to tracks like “Fire Next Time.” Like many S.O.N. works, “Fire Next Time,” gives us a history lesson before commenting on our current situation, tracing modern injustice back to slavery throughout the Americas (“I came through fields of cane to claim you…Black guerillas who made the British militias pay dues) straight through to poverty and police murders of black people in 2017 (“they get money for war but my community fails,”) before ending with a sample of Gil Scott Heron reading his poem Enough: “Because ever once in a while / A brother gets shot somewhere for no reason / A brother gets shot somewhere for no reason / And you wonder just exactly what in the hell is enough.”
The Art of the Struggle, like so much of S.O.N.’s work, is a soundtrack for creating the broad, intersectional movement we need to build to fight complicity in the coming Trump years and beyond. As he puts it, “More than one group of people are being denied access to the opportunities their humanity should afford them. All the best heroes and heroines like Angela Davis & Paul Robeson stood in solidarity with other oppressed peoples when it counted. I’m just one more person following their lead. I think highlighting various struggles makes resistance to the status quo more compelling. Given the number of setbacks we face it’s helpful to know a lot more people are fighting on different fronts. There are so many stories to tell, so many lessons to learn, so many dreams deferred, and so many people who’ve had enough and are standing up and fighting back.”
James’ message and his music show us that no single President, no single person is ever responsible for shifts in power. We need innumerable people fighting a broad spectrum of fights. In James’ own words, “As long as we’re concretely moving toward the same objective, the movement is big enough to accommodate more than one approach.” Son of Nun is one of the many people we’re going to need to look toward in the coming years.