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This story is a part of Lit Mag: The Rhythm & Move Issue.
Local artist Ras Ceylon is a Bay Area educator, MC and community organizer who represents a bunch of different crews around the East Bay. He produces a mix of reggae and hip-hop about the fight for freedom. Since a young age, I’ve been inspired by lyrics that spark awareness about social and political justice.
I interviewed him here at Youth Radio. What we talked about has been edited for clarity.
JW: When did you begin creating your music?
RC: About 21 years ago I actually started out in a DJ crew. I was the only one that didn’t have turntables. I mean it’s expensive to buy all that equipment. When we started doing house parties and stuff I was the only DJ without turns so I ended up getting on the mic and holding it down. A lot of my earlier music was more battle type stuff.
JW: So what brought you into the culture of hip-hop?
RC: I started with break dancing first and then when I got a little older I started to try to get my hands in the graffiti but I’ve never been a great visual artist. I mean my tags are pretty sloppy. The four elements of hip-hop are breakin’, graffiti, DJ-ing, and MC-ing. The fifth being knowledge. Over time MC-ing stuck with me the most.
JW: Can you describe your music for someone who hasn’t heard it before?
RC: I think it’s safe to say my music will be categorized as woke. Back in the day, there used to be conscious rap this and that but it seems like now it’s kind of a different shift with this new generation. It’s like reggae and hip-hop with a positive message. Revolutionary rap music to get woke to.
JW: What is the central message of your music?
Hip-hop itself is an expression of resistance. I mean, it came about with people that didn’t have anything trying to use whatever they had to talk about what’s around them. We’re talking about the South Bronx in the ’70s to ’80s. Hip-hop is an expression of what’s going on in the streets. It’s one of the only voices that young folks have so I try to carry on that tradition.
JW: What was the inspiration behind your song ‘Panther Town’?
RC: ‘Panther Town’ was a little anthem for the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. Askari X is an old-school Oakland legend. He’s locked up right now so free Askari X, free them all. The song was a way to bridge that generation gap. I’ve actually worked with a lot of the Black Panther Party elders. So the game they’ve been giving me all these years I am giving back to this next generation.
JW: Who would you say could relate to your music?
RC: I hope everybody. If I’m writing a record, I never say I have to make this song for the club and this one for people in this office. I try to make it naturally and whoever happens to pick up on it, then cool. It’s a trip. We never know who might like our stuff. I’ll do a concert and there might be some people you wouldn’t expect there. I really make music inspired by the Most High.
JW: What would you tell youth who want to spread their message through music to affect their community positively?
RC: The number one thing is to be yourself. Tell your story and be your authentic self. A lot of times folks have had so much struggle in their life that it’s hard to talk about those things. But what made artists such as Tupac Shakur so powerful was that he exposed what he went through. Listen to ‘Dear Mamma’ and check out how deep he got in that song.
I chose to interview an artist about the relationship that hip-hop has to with Bay Area. This relates to “Rhythm & Move” because messages flow through the minds of artists and their audiences. Unless one is able to get out of the area they live in they might not be able to really know what’s going on. So I’m doing this project in order to be a part of the movement and rhythm of greater the Bay Area.