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The Duality of Dahlak Brathwaite

By Jamilah Kingfeatures
Jan 25, 2008 - 4:03 PM

Photo courtesy of Dahlak Brathwaite.

Photo courtesy of Dahlak Brathwaite.

Dahlak's debut, Dual Consciousness, became an internet fan favorite and received rave reviews. The album is currently available on iTunes.

Dahlak Brathwaite is no stranger to the spotlight. He's a two time national poetry slam champion who captivated thousands around the country before his nineteenth birthday. He's also appeared twice on Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam to multiple standing ovations and, with his spoken word collective iLL-Literacy and as a cast member of hip hop theatre group Scourge, he's rocked shows from San Francisco to South Africa.

Now he's solidifying his position as one of the most versatile artists in the game with the release of his debut album, Dual Consciousness. With witty lyrics, catchy beats and a masterful approach to storytelling, the album has already become an Internet fan favorite by topping the charts at MP3.com (and is now available on iTunes). It might be easy to compare Dahlak to folks like Mos Def or Lupe Fiasco, but perhaps the most apt comparison would be to -- well, no one. Dahlak has a style all his own and his lyrics reflect the most honest parts of himself -- a laid back dude who likes to have fun and can kick insightful social commentary without any holier than thou snobbery.

He sat down with Oh Dang! to talk about his latest project:

Oh Dang!: Describe making the album. How was this process different than your work with iLL-Literacy and your solo spoken word? What were the hardest parts of making the album? What were your favorite parts?

Dahlak Brathwaite: When I was making my album, there was nothing on my mind besides that. It would be the first thing I thought about when I woke up and the last thing I thought about when I went to sleep. I was happily obsessed. It was different from working with iLL-Lit because I was writing with a different audience in mind. I wanted the audience to receive the material in a different way than they did when they heard me "bust" (spoken word). So I guess the hardest part was trying to make everyone see my vision. And my favorite parts were the times when the music surpassed my vision and surprised me.

OD!: Dual Consciousness is true to its name and seems to be split up in two ways: the first half seems a bit more playful, more danceable, while the second half is a bit more introspective. Can you describe why this is significant?

DB: I heard that if you can make people laugh, they will listen to anything you have to say. I use this approach towards most of my work. I wanted people to be able to feel me first -- to laugh, to dance, to sing along. Then when they were open (hopefully), I could make them reflect. Also, I put the more reflective material at the end because I felt that it was the strongest part and those are the ideas I want to leave the listener with. The whole concept of the album sprung from the fact that I'm always labeled as the "conscious" rapper or a "conscious" poet. And I am. But I feel people get "conscious" confused with "righteous". I wanted to show them another side. Thus, you have "Dual Consciousness" -- a spin off of W.E.B. DuBois' famous phrasing for the Black experience.

OD!: What is Black to you?

DB: Oooooooh, the question. I'd have to say that a Black person is anyone who is forced to face the social realities of Blackness because of their appearance and still chooses to own it.

Watch Dahlak's Def Poetry performance of "A Peculiar Evolution":

OD!: Throughout your album you have clips from the cartoon Boondocks. What do you like about the Boondocks and how is it relevant to your music and your overall experience?

DB: Some things you just get and Boondocks was one of those things for me. The satirical nature of the cartoon is very similar to my work. I always try to capture that "don't know whether to laugh or cry effect" in my lyrics. The character dynamics relate to me on a personal level. For me, Huey Freeman and Riley Freeman represent the duality I try to capture in the album -- the pro-black revolutionary alongside the street-smart punk, both desperate to remain real despite their white suburban surroundings. The story of my life.

OD!: You rep both Sacramento and Oakland. What do you think about the hip hop scenes in each city? What's something new your album brings to the game?

DB: Well, I rep Sacramento the most. I'm not from Oakland but I'm very much connected to the scene over there. I feel like Sacramento needs to find its own hip hop identity. We are the step-children of the Bay. Not quite independent but not quite included. I want to see my hometown stop looking for acceptance and just accept who we are. I think my album displays that. It's not in the tradition of Sacramento music and it doesn't really serve to form a Sacramento identity, but I show the listener that I'm not afraid to be who I am and from where I'm from. And I believe that's good enough.

OD!: Who were your major musical influences growing up?

DB: 2Pac, Biggie, Jay-Z, Nas, Stevie Wonder, Outkast, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye. I think the biggest recent influences have been Little Brother and Kanye West. Those are the folks that taught me to be me to the fullest.

OD!: What is hip hop to you?

DB: Hip-hop to me is the cypher and everything it stands for. Because that's where it started. We didn't know what we were doing when we were huddled up and beatboxing and rapping. No one taught us how to do that. We just did. That's hip-hop. No matter what they do to hip-hop on the radio or on TV.

For more info on Dahlak, visit www.thisisdahlak.com.


Jamilah King likes to call herself a writer as long as it pays the bills. She's currently an editor for WireTap Magazine, and her writing has also appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, TheNation.com and on her bootleg blog, Grits & Eggs.

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