Robert Urban Interviews Hip-Hop Poet Baron
and Reviews his Troubled Man CD
I first experienced hip-hop artist Baron "live-in-concert" a few months back at NYC's Bowery Poetry Club. The tall, slim and handsome rapper/poet, (blessed with an equally handsome speaking voice) breezed onstage and immediately mesmerized the audience with his articulate delivery, quit wit and dramatic flair for words.
I quickly acquired his new CD Troubled Man, and am happy to report that Baron is as intriguing and thought provoking on CD as his is live onstage.
Troubled Man presents Baron's spoken word art in a variety of ways. Some of its tracks are excerpts from live performances; some are studio-made recordings. Some feature words alone; some include musical accompaniment. For those tracks with music, the accompaniment varies from typical hip-hop techno loops to orchestral strings to heavy metal rock band to vintage acoustic guitar blues.
Baron spins his eloquent raps in the first person, often in a confessional manner. In each track he self-describes a different character – be they gay lovers, hustlers, victims, braggarts or philosophers, etc. - and speaks directly to us from their experience. He does this so well that at first I thought all the characters were different sides of Baron himself (and I'm still not so sure that in a way, they aren't); until I learned he actually fabricates the characters in his poems, then acts them out to listeners.
Listening to the cuts on the appropriately named Troubled Man is like wandering through a gallery of dramatic, darkly lit, pathos-laden dreamscapes. In track after track, Baron's hopes for life, love and a better world rise – then are dashed – rise again – dashed again - on and on. With a painful resilience and resolution, he struggles, through his spoken words, to overcome the harsh realities of being both black and gay; of living in inner-city environments; and of anti-gay discrimination within the black community.
Track 2 – "Cuz ur Beautiful" is arguably the CD's breakaway metal/rap crossover hit single. In the pop-music sense, it is for Baron what "Walk this Way" was for Run DMC or "Cult of Personality" was for Living Colour. It's a hybrid style in which catchy vocal hooks alternate with fuzzed-out heavy guitar riffs. In Baron's case, the words are especially relevant to us, coming as they do from his gay-perspective.
brothaz I love you, openly
which is the only way I know how but I fear you sometimes
we get so caught up in the what's supposed to be wrong
and not the what's right
and what's right is loving you
so I take your punches against my cheek
because loving you is all I can do
we in fact do share the same skin and
cutting you will only make me bleed
and we've already been lynched once
and just because I shake your hand
it doesn't mean IÕm scheming to be your man
and just because I smile at you
it doesn't mean I'm trying to get into bed with you
brothaz I love you, openly
because you're beautiful
In the poetic track #8 "Gray", Baron masterfully creates an almost unbearably tragic scenario. It is a tale recognizable to any gay person who has experienced discrimination. His voice mourns the death of a beloved friend - apparently murdered - a victim of anti-gay violence.
Highly original, and with its own modern American, inner-city queer sensibilities, "Gray" is nonetheless on par with the finest poetic lamentations in western literature. Baron's rich use of stark metaphors; his ability to "be in the moment" and to hit primal nerves; his eulogizing as if he's the keeper of some great oral tradition - is downright Homeric. In listening to this piece, I was reminded of several great elegiac monologues from ancient Greek tragedy, including Achille's inconsolable grief for his fallen lover Patroclus in the famous funeral oration from Homer's Illiad.
Another song I found particularly engrossing on Troubled Man is the last track - "Misery and Me". Built from a clever word play on the motto "misery loves company", it's also a fine rendition, captured live-in-concert, of traditional authentic American blues.
Special mention must also be made for the way-hot, homoerotic seduction/romance rap track "Stop". Cooing barely above a whisper, Baron shows that in addition to possessing a probing socio-political conscience, he can also turn on the heat.
I recently had a chance to interview Baron as I attended the 2005 Fresh Fruit Festival's 2nd Homo Hip-Hop Poetry Jam on July 29th at the Blue Heron Arts Center in NYC. Hosted by Baron, and featuring a stellar cast of spoken word and hip-hop artists from all over the U.S. this show has already garnered 4 Fresh Fruit Festival Awards.
ROBERT URBAN; In your lyrics, poems, raps, etc. - you display an exceptionally large vocabulary and creative command of language. You really know how to use words. Can you talk a bit about your education, or self-education, your influences - in your artistic and intellectual development - as you managed to somehow rise above the many obstacles and unfortunate circumstances of your youth?
Baron: I graduated high school and went straight to college. I hated it and left after a year. I've since gone back to college to pursue Graphic Design. I'm almost ashamed to say that I don't read much. I don't watch television or listen to the radio at all. However, my influences do come from listening to music. I consume a lot of music.
Hip-hop, in its purest form, is a leading source of inspiration. Hip-hop allows for a mastery of word play, language, and culture. To be able to get your message across, an artist has to communicate creatively while maintaining a rhythm and a certain style. Contrary to popular belief, hip-hop isn't about the "bling", it's really about the craft. It's how words create an image or an emotion when put together.
I've always been fascinated by the way people speak and how others write to be heard. When I write, I imagine that I'm speaking in someone else's voice. For example, one of my poems, "Troubled Man", is a graphic story of a young male prostitute. I had wondered if given the chance to have a conversation, what would he say, how would he tell it, and whatÕs his attitude. It turned out to be my most powerful piece to date.
RU: Can you offer some thoughts, or even advice, for other young gay artists, in their struggles for higher acheivement - especially those who, like yourself, come from difficult upbringings and/or environments?
B: My major thought for younger artists is to use their art either to heal themselves or others. You will enjoy the "entertainment" world so much more. There is a business side to being an artist that most people do not know about. If your main focus is to better yourself or others, it will make that side easier.
Growing up in an urban environment, dealing with discrimination within the black community, created my purpose in performance. I perform distinctly with the intent to combat stereotypes and prejudices within our community. Through spoken word/hip-hop, I'm able to relate the frustrations of our society while connecting to a greater audience. Since my beginnings, I've made wonderful friendships and had great experiences that have changed minds. I know that for a fact. People tell it too me often. My straight friends say they would have never thought we'd have something in common.
RU: You really shine when performing your works to a "live" audience. Can you share some thoughts and feelings on live performance of the spoken word/poetry/hip-hop hybrid art form?
B: I believe every true performer loves an audience. If you don't love it, you should stop doing it right now! There is creativity behind the scenes, but there is nothing like that energy before getting on stage and then the rush once you're on. I am a bit of a ham sometimes, so I live for it. On the contrary, off-stage I am more reserved. I always get, "but you were so quiet" from audience members after I've finished a performance.
RU: What are Baron's future plans? What's in the works?
B: The future holds more musical endeavors. I've been secretly making music for my next project as well as tracks for others. I'm also a photographer and will begin working on my first book of images. That will be very exciting. I don't want to give away the concept but the LGBT community and others will be very interested.
This listener is anxious to hear more. Here is a rapper poet who can place himself (and thus place us listeners, too) directly into the immediacy of his many created characters' emotions via his considerable acting ability and fluent oratory skills.
I sense not only poet-laureate potential here, but also "hip-hop laureate" eligibility. And I wouldn't be surprised is somewhere down the road Baron produces the first great epic poem of our new century.
Troubled Man includes guest performances by some mighty fine contemporary recording artists, including Doughboy, Sista Kenya, Ben Griesinger and the amazing, multi-talented ButtaFlySoul.
More info at: www.artistbaron.com
Music & Arts writings by Robert Urban published at:
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