I Self Devine is playing the long game

Chaka Mkali, aka I Self Devine, speaks into a microphone
Chaka Mkali, aka I Self Devine, speaks into a microphone while lifting his arm. He's wearing headphones, a brimmed hat, and a collared shirt. Behind him, lights and sound baffles decorate the space. This photo is in black and white. (Press photo by Bruce Silcox)
I Self Devine talks about The Disruptor Suite
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During The Current's spring member drive, we're highlighting eight Minnesota artists – from newcomers to veterans – with new music you need to know. We asked each artist to talk about their history in music, their new songs, and their hopes for the future. Today, we're featuring rapper/organizer Chaka Mkali, aka I Self Devine.

My stage name is I Self Devine, and I've been in music all my life. The first time that I became aware of hip-hop was in 1979, when my mom gave me "Rapper's Delight," the 12-inch. Prior to that, I was involved in every aspect of what would be hip-hop. I began freestyling before you even called it freestyle; tried DJin', tried breakdancing. Once I got involved in writing graffiti, that was a way for me to channel my rage and passion. You know, in the communities that I come from, nine times out of 10, you have no input or participation in the shape or conditions of where and how you live. You're not engaged in the overall process. So one of the things I liked about graffiti is that you can take space. Any city or country I go to, I look at the walls to be able to tell what's going on.

"The Disruptor Suite"

"The Disruptor Suite" came out of a series of working groups held by The Democracy Fund, using the scenario planning process called STEEP+C. The scenario planning process was about figuring out, what are potential disruptors of our democracy? How could we look at the intended and potential unintended consequences using the STEEP+C framework? To do that, you figure out whatever your disruptor is, and then you figure out what it looks like from a Societal perspective; a Technological perspective; from an Environmental perspective; an Economic perspective; from a Political perspective; and a Creative perspective. One of the themes that I brought up was what it looked like to defund the police state. Each piece of "The Disruptor Suite" corresponds with a section of STEEP+C.

When I was thinking about the song first off, I knew it needed to hold a lot of information. If I put it all in one song that had just one beat, it would be monotonous, and I would lose people. So part of what I had to do is figure out how, as a hip-hop artist, can I approach something like a jazz artist, in terms of suites and steps. I felt that that approach of looking at things from a multitude of issues was most important. Understanding the moving pieces: So, why areas with high concentrations of people of color have a high carbon imprint. How when you build projects, there's train tracks, there's industrial, there's incinerators. That's a frame of environmental racism.

I wrote that song in September 2020, and then it was actually being held up for a while, but I just took it and put it out in January, because it was so relevant.

Good things to come

During the pandemic, I chose to just hunker down and focus on creating content, dialing back on engaging and communicating. So now, 2021 is a display year. I have two albums coming out. First, an album called Rituals of Resilience is coming out around March. That's the one I'm most pleased about, because it is a multimodal experience, where I got an opportunity to co-curate an exhibit at Mia. The exhibit has artists from the whole African diaspora. What's going to happen is, this gallery is going to open up, and we'll instruct folks to come in with their earbuds and things of that nature. As soon as you walk in, your phone is taken over by this album, and you can watch video, so it's a whole experience.

And before the pandemic, I had an album already done: recorded in LA, then mixed and mastered. But that album – called That Which Is Hidden – is actually going to be the latter album.

I thought about putting "The Disruptor Suite" on Rituals of Resilience, but it's too about now. It doesn't fit. But some of the same people worked on the suite and the album. Medium Zach co-created every song on there, as well as engineered them. Not only is he involved with the production, he's involved in the thought process. We've known each other from way back and have a long working history.

"A new world is being asked"

One of the things that I spoke on in one of the "Disruptor Suite" cuts is: "Rebuilds of the uprise is gentrifying." It's most important to differentiate a riot from an uprising. A "riot" is kind of saying that you just willy-nilly, and it strips the political meaning behind it. When you're uprising, you're staging an organized political rebellion. People will say, well, they're tearing up their community, but let's define who is actually owning the community. Some of the places that they may burn had a predatory or very transactional relationship, so to a degree, you are accelerating bigger frustrations. And when you're able to put that in perspective, it's kind of like the difference between police officers saying that crime is just a natural feature of an expanding city, as opposed to saying that socioeconomic conditions create the need for crime.

But we need to begin to imagine new worlds and possibilities. This is the harvest era right now. How many harvesters are paying attention and tracking all the different things that are happening right now, from a societal perspective, a spiritual perspective? A new world is being asked. The power of artists is that we have radical imagination, and we try to see new possible worlds.

I really take this stuff seriously. I can joke and have fun, and I am pretty funny when I want to be. But these are different times right now. Part of my agreement when I came to Earth is to be a part of overthrowing the empire, whether that be capitalism or whatever other -isms. So I stick to that agreement. I've been here for 48 years, and hopefully, I'll be here for 48 more, doing this kind of work.

Paths of life

I'm originally from Los Angeles. I came to Minneapolis because my mom got accepted to the University of Minnesota for social work; I didn't come here because I wanted to. But when you look at things from a spiritual perspective, this is probably where I'm supposed to be.

There was a situation in my career – this is around '99, 2000 – where a deal was on the table for about half of a million. I had a fork in the road, where I could have prioritized my career and been a halfway-father or stayed with my children in Minneapolis. The group I was in didn't end up getting the deal. And in the early 2000s, when I saw peers moving on with their careers and achieving worldwide success, I second-guessed my choice to stay with my children. But now, many years after that, I feel that what happened was the best situation. I'd hate to be in a situation where I have a good career, but I don't have good relationships with my kids.

To think about emceeing or even being a community organizer – those are great things and have big impacts. But to me, when all of my kids are together, I feel rich beyond belief. I feel crazy wealthy, like I got gold as far as you can see. I got five kids, from a 27-year-old daughter to a 10-year-old daughter, and I'm 48. I've been a father half my life.

Also, I come from an environment where I never thought I would see past 18, 21. To be my age, it's a luxury, a treat. Each time around the sun, your level of perception and knowledge is increased. And then, you get to be an elder, on your way to ancestorhood. At my age, my job is to just be cool, calm, and collected, and to show grace as it relates to engaging younger folks, whether it be my family or younger organizers that are coming up in the scene.

When I leave Earth, I want to be light. And what I mean by that is that if you were to put my heart on a scale and put a feather on the other side, my heart – in terms of actions and deeds – will be lighter than the feather. You know, I come from a very dysfunctional harsh background. And all of the -isms. I shouldn't be here, and I shouldn't be functioning and aspiring to be functional. Because I have no reason to try; I have no examples. So I'm breaking generational curses. I'm unpacking and interpreting what happened from a generation before.

Those are the things that I think about, you know. I think about peace. I think about being more softer and empathetic. As Black men – coming from an environment where I come from – to be sensitive is death. And as I've gotten older, I've gotten softer – more rounded in the face. My legal name is Chaka Mkali, and the real Chaka is more empathetic and very sensitive. I Self is not a facade – but it's a hyperextension of a few of my attitudes and personality traits. It's taking a few things and just bumping them up. But me is who I am all day.

As told to Cecilia Johnson.

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