Rapper David Banner visited Harvard last weekend to speak at a conference entitled, "LA Riots: Twenty Year Later," a reflection on social justice and inequality in America in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots in 1992. Flyby sat down to talk with the successful rapper, producer, and social activist, who has worked to raise awareness about the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
1. Flyby: What do you feel is the most pressing or important problem in our society now, and do you feel as though your experience as an artist has aided or complicated your involvement in these issues?
David Banner: Oh, it has definitely aided…because as much as we would like to think people are interested because of the movement, sometimes it's because of who we are, and that's fine with me because hopefully I can put them in a situation or around something that will maybe spark some level of involvement. In order to feed people, you have to get them to the table first. And hopefully my being a rapper can help bring certain people to the table so we can all sit down to eat. If you really look at it from Sean Bell to Oscar Grant to Trayvon Martin, these are things that have been happening to people in the United States since, you know, Africans were brought over here on boats. This is nothing new. And the sad part is America has the feeling that racism doesn't exist anymore. In Boston today there were racial slurs coming from all the Bruins fans. That in itself shows that we have a long way to go.
2. Flyby: What is a celebrity's role or responsibility—if any—for being a vehicle for social change?
DB: Well, what I will say, and what I can only say is what my responsibility is. And my responsibility is not from an artist's perspective but from a man's. As a man, it is my responsibility [to promote social change], because hip hop has given so much to me...but you can't ask every artist to do something because they aren't built like that. A lot of them don't have the expertise about the situation, and if they don't feel it in their hearts, I don't feel like they should speak.
3. Flyby: You have said that "hip hop is sick because America is sick." How do we find a cure for this?
DB: Well, one of the problems in America is that we don't admit that the symptoms exist, so we never actually get to the disease. Racism, racial profiling, and all of the things that go on in our community are things we think are not true or don't happen, and that's a lie. I think racism and discrimination are plowing through the underbelly of America. We won't admit that they exist. First of all, we have to get what it is, acknowledge it, talk about it, and find steps to make sure that it doesn't happen again. We need to admit there is a problem.
4. Flyby: You recently launched a new program called 2M1, which you have described as "a grassroots attempt to assert our collective independence by taking control of our movies, our music and our creative content," and your new mixtape will drop on May 22. How was this project inspired by current rap music consumption and the way young adults are relating to hip hop artists today?
DB: The point of 2M1 is first of all to continue [putting out material] and get a group of [two million] people to donate at least one dollar. And with that, they are going to get "Sex, Drugs, and Videogames," which is a new album with Lil' Wayne, Chris Brown, Snoop Dogg, 2 Chainz. imagine having access to two million people's emails. This is now a think tank of people that can always come together and say, "Hey, we need to support each other," if there is something that we need to boycott, if there is something bad happening in our community, etc. And I think that there needs to be collaboration between fans and artists. A problem in this industry is that we have made fans feel like they aren't important, and they are such an important part of the equation.
5. Flyby: Can you name one especially fun memory from production? Was anybody particularly great to work with?
DB: It was really cool to shoot the "Californication" video. It's with me, Snoop, Game, Nipsey Hussle, K.R.I.T. It was just really cool to be with some of the legends and some of the West Coast greats. And to be able to say that I had something to do with it is a real cool opportunity. I loved being able to be around and learn from Snoop. And to navigate myself through those smoke clouds!
6. Flyby: Right now, who would you look up to? Who do you think is a real game-changer in the music industry?
DB: As far as hip hop is concerned, I would honestly say me. I think that with the 2M1 movement and with what I am doing, you know it is really changing how we approach our fans. We can approach our music and actually distribute our music by taking control of our finances, and I would say that it's me and the 2M1 movement and that's not being an ego-maniac.
7. Flyby: How would you define the hip hop generation and is it a static movement or something that is always changing?
DB: You know, I always say hip hop is a reflection of what is going on in the mirror. When the era was more political, the music was more political. Now America is so commercial, and I think that America cares a lot more about big businesses and the corporations. I think music contributes to that. People think more about what the record company thinks than what the streets think, and I mean that's my own personal opinion, but is reflected in the music. When America became more commercial and more about reality TV shows and the race for president became more about people's personal lives than their political affiliations or their ability to actually run our country, rap became focused on radio singing. Yes, we do need a radio singer, but it shouldn't just be about the commercial aspect of it.