underground hip-hop icon jean grae talks activism, education in south africa, and her new albums in our afropunk exclusive interview. #soundcheck

January 29, 2014

The legendary Jean Grae is an underground hip-hop icon. In the last 2 months alone, she’s released a full length version of her epic concept album / EP series Gotham Down, her Jeanie EP, and a book / audiobook The State of Eh. She’s currently working with NYC-based activist and puppeteer Andrea Lomanto on the Power Up Youth Project to demand education as a right in South Africa. She spoke to us about the importance of education, and some of her current projects.

Interview by Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor


Tell us a little about the Power Up Youth Project. What are it’s goals? What excites you about it?

I think the idea of everyone having a right to an education is so incredibly important. It’s the most important thing in the WORLD to be honest. The fact that children would grow up somehow thinking that this is not true is absolutely soul crushing. Education is not a privilege. Too many times, they are led to believe that their creativity, their possible contributions to the future of our world, are not valuable. We HAVE to change that.

How did you get involved?

Andrea asked me to get involved with this project about two years ago. She got about 30 seconds in describing it and I said “I’m in.”

How connected to South Africa have you been since leaving as a kid?

My connection to South Africa has always been strong. I thank my mom for allowing that to be. For allowing me to understand where I come from and for me to be so proud of my rich and diverse history. To be so far from home and to have only your immediate family as the reflection of you, is amazingly difficult. My cousins came to visit. I didn’t get to go back as often as I could, because… well… lol.. that’s an amazingly expensive and a long trip. Especially in the 1980’s. But I never felt disconnected at all. My mom was a genius artist and the respect that I have for the things she did in the arts is immeasurable… but she was also a school teacher first. That absolutely came into play with her parenting. I wouldn’t be me without it.

Who were the teachers who inspired you?

Well, my mom. my mom was really the greatest teacher I ever had. Not only for teaching me to read, nourishing my creativity and academic prowess, but for making sure I attended public schools that would continue to do that outside of the home. That is an amazing thing to do as a parent. It’s hard to trust that public schools won’t drain all the creative juices and imaginative forces out of your child. There are great schools out there. Great teachers. She made sure I knew they existed. I thank all of the teachers I had, from Montessori school on.

A lot of your projects right now are focused on complex and longform storytelling, when the rest of the industry seems focused on singles. Was that a conscious choice?

Pretty much. I don’t like to play by the rules. I don’t feel like I have to and I want to inspire others to do so. To use their imagination, to dream different. To dream big and then do it.

What inspired you to make The State of Eh?

I had wanted to work on a book for awhile. The passing of my mom last year has really pushed me to take my “don’t dream it, do it” ideal to a new level. If not right now, then when? If I am able to crank out consistent, quality work and break boundaries, then I will continue to do so. At every and any level and in every form that I can. The idea to do the audiobook came late. I wanted it to be a nod to my childhood. The “read along” audiobook with the chimes that turn the page is such a classic thing to me. I was honestly so excited to record it. I recorded the whole thing in about 6 hours in a day. Mostly first takes, unless I really REALLY messed up a word. LOL. But it was exciting for me to do that whole project.

How did Gotham Down come about?

Gotham down as a whole is something that’s been in the works for 10 years. The story started on Bootleg of the Bootleg and continued through the rest of the albums. None of my music work actually exists independently, together they tell a long story that I’ve been telling since the inception of my rap career. I think that’s pretty cool. It’s also never been done before. That gets ignored a lot.

What can we expect next from you?

Next? The rest of the season of Life With Jeannie, which you can catch at The first episode is receiving so much love and I’m so excited to be really finally delving into that. Musically I can say for SURE Cake or Death. Otherwise, I don’t know. The white Hot Room with Jean Grae- which is a live one on one interview with myself and a special guest. A very intimate talk, like the audience is eavesdropping on a conversation. That’s beginning at Union Hall on February 14th, Valentine’s Day. I’ll also be screening Life with Jeannie, Episode 2 directly before that.

There’s so much to come this year. My projects will always heavily involve music, but it could not be the main focus. My goal and my brand is most focused on promoting and inspiring imagination. In ALL of us. It’s so important for children, but it’s so important for adults to not lose that spark. You can create anything. Be anything. Do anything. Nothing is impossible. We have to know that so we can push ourselves further than what the supposed glass ceiling of society tells us.

We are all superheroes. We can all be great. We can all save ourselves if we are taught that way from the beginning.

The Power Up Youth Project uses large scale puppetry and processional art to encourage young people to see themselves as agents of constructive change in the world. They’ve been organizing processional arts events for the last 3 years in Joe Slovo township, Port Elizabeth in South Africa. Students choose a social issue that they want to raise awareness around and together they build large scale puppets, props, and banners for the procession and community forum. The 2014 procession will take place on March 22. They rely entirely on donations and volunteers to make it happen, and are currently running an Indiegogo campaign to support their 2014 program.

Click here for info