PREMIERE: POETRY AND COLOR FLIRT IN MYKELE DEVILLE’S “FREE SOUL”
January 24, 2019
You might have had that English teacher who swore up and down their classroom that rap and poetry are worlds apart but in the bowels of Chicago, street poets shaped and influenced the trajectory of Hip-Hop with their blends of the city’s jazz and blues adding unforgettable cadence and class to the pulsing core of the movement. Because it was born as a movement before it blew up into a genre and Chi-town rapper/poet/actor Mykele Deville, who uses his multidisciplinary talents to breathe fresh energy into the experimenter’s medium.
Deville’s latest EP drop Maintain speaks to a meeting of multitudes between the rapper and rap itself. It floats on air and swims through depths, elevated by Deville’s masterful prose and reverence for his city of Chicago. “Free Soul” is a colorful homage to Deville’s hometown, infused with jazz and blues motifs that find new life through the rapper’s lyrical cadence and infectious spirit. It’s a celebration of artist, artform and muse, serving as the perfect single video to set the tone for a compelling EP.
Mykele spoke to AFROPUNK, musing over artistry, color energy and the power of the living monument to “the culture” that is Chicago.
I’ve always maintained that rap is poetry in motion. As a rapper and poet, can you speak to that relationship of how they play into each other?
Yes, I love that! Poetry and Rap have always had a fluid relationship from where I’m from. They have their differences which are dependent upon the poet/rhyme sayer, but the link to me is story weaving however cryptic or literal. Taking a moment to report about what is going on around me or within me, the ebbs and flows, the episodes in the crevices where the therapist or news channel can’t reach, that’s the utility and responsibility of both the poet and rapper. We exist to comment both socially and personally to elicit a response. Hip Hop and the poem are eternally linked. It’s just about which vehicle you feel like driving that day. Maybe one comes with a beat, maybe one is prose from your journal. Chicago is varied enough to allow its rappers to flirt openly with poetry and have a platform for both so I take advantage.
Why is Hip-Hop the ideal medium to get (our) untold stories to the world?
Hip hop can tell the untold because it is and has always been from the perspective of street level. The stories from there are always happening and are a microcosm of the nation we live in, without the candy paint. The larger world and its accepted narratives are based in sensationalist, romantic, fantasy. Hip hop isn’t immune to that but the stories that come from the street reporter, or the have nots, or the historically misunderstood get the chance to illustrate the world how they see it, often for the first time in their lives. That perspective is precious. You can always be surprised when you hear that perspective. You can always learn. Hip hop is rooted in Black and Browness. It’s rooted in our politics essentially which are vast and non-monolithic. So the genre itself has now ballooned into a medium with sub-genres of experiences and poetic rhythmic stories that have gone untold for so long. Hip hop is the way through.
Rap is largely persona these days. Does your acting background help you navigate that if you subscribe to it at all?
Nahhhhhh, lol. I see them differently. As an actor, I’m hired to read someone else’s words, take someone else’s direction, lose myself (or find the common ground) in a character I’m assigned to portray, in a universe that is conceptually not my own. I enjoy acting because of that relinquishment of myself. I went to school to learn how to give myself up for a while. Rapping, for me is about getting back to me. Writing my story and feelings about the world. That’s why I use my own name instead of creating a rap moniker. I want you to stumble on each syllable until you know it like the back of your hand like I had to. Rap for me is about authenticity. Acting has that too, just not in the same way. (Nervously shouts out to my acting agency, Paonessa Talent)
How has your theatre background helped your rap career?
Yes Theatre!! Yo it was the most useful background to have when going into rap when I started 3 years ago. Diction, articulation, intention, clear storytelling, urgency, beat work, filling a space with your voice, crowd work etc. I had all of this from years in the theater before I ever wrote my first rap. It melded with my sound and especially live performance which in my opinion is the most important aspect of the rapper. How good are you live? Theatre gave me a framework in which I was able to give each show an objective and every song I played and everything I said on stage was a tactic to getting to that objective. It really is insane how much crossover lies between our art forms if we entertain the idea of being full artists vs. Sticking with the one we trained for. Now I know my theatre degree didn’t just get me a serving job in the real world and doubled as toilet paper. I know it also contributed to who am as a rapper. And that makes it worth it. I think.
What is it about Chicago rappers that allows them to navigate an old school hip hop sound with fresh energy?
Chicago is the blues and jazz. It never left us. It’s laced into our hip hop, neo-soul, house, and R&B. We have long memories. We are also adept at change (look at our weather) so we find ways to merge memory and the classic with the latest sound. We pay homage while pushing forward (look at our architecture) and what emerges is a comment on where we are right now. That may be political or it may be a bop, from Common to Chance we understand where we’ve been and respected that while passing the baton. I really try to do that. Shout out Elements, the UK based producer of Free Soul, who reached out to me over the net saying he understood my sound and had some heat for me. Turns out he did.
When, where and why was Maintain born?
2018, Chicago, and because it needed to be. Maintain is an album that says hold on to what you have and pay attention. I needed to hear that when I was 14 like I need to hear that today. It needed (it) to be born because people still have to navigate difficult lives and they need to be told that they are enough.
The first line of ‘Type Love’ is “I used to think I was unlovable until I discovered what love could do.” Is that Mykele the poet speaking or is that your purview of rap?
It’s both and more. I think we are bombarded with dehumanizing messages every day. Especially black men. I think it’s easy for me to forget that I am a full universe, I am worthy of love even if I never had too many constant and stable examples of that. Popular messaging reinforces this idea and rap does that too. I wanted to remember myself. Love was what led me out of darkness many times. And those times that I loved myself shine, untouched by self-deprecation. There’s also a Smith’s song called ‘Unlovable’ that I used to listen to and be a bleeding heart with over and over again back in high school on the west side of Chicago, way before I knew what love actually meant. So there’s that reference to my past self too, lol.
Which song on Maintain speaks to your creative blueprint in this current moment and why?
The first track, “Whispers” produced by my friend, fellow rapper, and collaborator Malci, speaks to my creative and internal blueprint for where I am and where I want to go in the rap world beyond this project. It’s formless, political, and urgent. It’s a cry for reflection, a realization of the short life spans of black men, and most of all a question, which I think become the most malleable material for good art. I want to be riskier and cut away from the verse chorus verse model of traditional hip hop. I want to see our genre evolve into what it’s destined to be, a vehicle for innovation and street reporting. That song is my first foot in that world. I’m still in the infancy of finding my voice but I felt good about the wildness of that track.
Can you speak to your intentions around your color usage on the album cover and in Free Soul?
Yes! My previous tape, ‘Peace Fam’, had really dark tones on my skin with a pop of a pink sweater on the album cover to show that under the surface there’s this depth and outwardly there’s a positive costume I’m wearing. Maintain’s cover has this bright blue sky behind me to symbolize hope and vastness. I myself am wearing a yellow tank top to emulate the sun as a comment to inner warmth and peace. I was in a good place in my life when I wrote this record. Happy. So I wanted the cover to keep the depth but turn up the optimism filter a bit. ‘Free Soul’ is pure joy. The colors had to reflect that.
Is ‘Free Soul’ a portrait of your Chicago?
Absolutely. A connected, no BS, forget your brand collaborative day in the life of Chicago creatives. We all know each other here. We go to each other’s shows. We consult with each other. We support our uniqueness. We can’t stunt. New Trash, the company that shot this video, was all about capturing the magic of a united scene. We do what we do without permission or gatekeepers telling us how to do it. It’s in us to create and big each other up. My label No Trend records is about that and so are my homies labels. We are family here whether you’ve heard of us or not. And guaranteed, if we keep that mentality, you will hear us. Each and every one.
Maintain is out on February 22nd via No Trend Records.