Junkyard Empire releases 'Acts of Humanity' Saturday at 7th St. Entry

Categories: Interview
Junkyard Empire Press Photo 2.JPG
It's not all that common these days that a band takes a real stand on a political message, much less forefronts it as the most prominent piece of their music. Granted, that's probably for the better, particularly given how easy it ease to ruin perfectly good music with a half-cooked ideology or to come off as preachy and holier-than-thou. Evey once in a while, though, someone does it right, and it winds up being refreshing.

Enter Junkyard Empire, the most political hip-hop group in the Twin Cities that you've probably never heard before, but you should. What's most interesting about their particular project is that they back up their music with real-life action--their shared convictions run deep enough that they've even been known to canvas together.

Their MC, Brihanu, was a middle school teacher for eight years in St. Paul and in Philadelphia (where he grew up) before joining the group, and now he's pursuing a graduate degree in Culture and Teaching at the University of Minnesota. Gimme Noise caught up with Brihanu recently at the Black Dog cafe in Lowertown to talk to him about Junkyard Empire's new full length, Acts of Humanity, which they're releasing at the 7th St. Entry this weekend. The album is a mix of new material and remixes drawn from their Rebellion Politik EP.

Gimme Noise: What made you guys decide to re-release the Rebellion Politik songs with the new material?

Brihanu: We talked about putting out another EP. The last album had a marketing plan but there were some mismatches of timing and we thought it could have been promoted better. We still think it's really good material, so we decided to put the two together and make a big album with two volumes.

How do you see the two volumes complementing one another?

Volume one, we call that "Acts of Love," that's the newer material, and Volume two is "Acts of Humanity," and that's the remixed older material. The new volume actually has a song recorded live in Cuba ["Regla"] and also a track with Alicia Steele on it ["Alright"]. "Regla" is different; it's got live instrumentation but also a track that Obsession produced. It's the only song we've ever done where it isn't completely live--usually we have a couple background samples and things like that, but not a whole track that we play over.

How did the trip to Cuba and collaboration with Obsession come about?

About three years ago Chris [Cox] started looking for place to go and he ran across this lawyer who does pro bono work. He was looking for people to do a cultural exchange and also to make a political statement, so we sent our stuff. We were actually able to go as a research expedition, so that meant we weren't just playing music but also had to disseminate things, which is where the documentary came in... Once we were okay to go with our visas, we were guests of this state-run Cuban agency that was set up to promote hip hop.

Do you think that the band's politics might have closed some doors for you guys, or have they maybe also opened some others?

Both. We've had kind of a difficult time breaking in, especially in the Twin Cities. We've played with some great groups and made lots of connections, but we've never been known beyond a small niche. At the same time, that's our niche, you know? We're very happy with the success we've had with the activist community, they understand our message and that it fits in with what they're doing. At the same time, we do have aspirations to make it to a well-known level, so we've been looking a little more at a national stage. Like in April, we were in New York City at Union Square for the Sounds of Resistance, which was a protest rally against the banks.

Obviously that opens some doors then, too.

Yeah. We've had some featured guests, too, like hybrid shows with speakers. For EP release we invited journalist Dahr Jamail, who was embedded in Iraq, and we've also had Chris Hedges and some other larger name activists. Right now we're kind of working on a project called Radical Voices where we provide a soundtrack to some poetry, readings, or speeches from people we work with, mix in their ideas with our music.

So kind of a multi-media thing, basically.


You mentioned having some trouble breaking through in the Twin Cities. Is there any reason why you think there's been a lack of a reaction here?

It's hard to put a finger on, honestly... I think part of it could be how we've marketed ourselves, where we choose to play and things like that. Although it seems like we get a little overlooked whenever there's a large political rally or something and they bring in a band that doesn't have any sort of political message.

Maybe you're just too radical for others to want to associate with you...

That's possible! (laughs) But the message we're trying to get across is that love and rebellion are the same thing. If you're rebelling for humanity, you're demonstrating an act of love. Coming from that angle, we want to show that radical politics aren't necessarily violent politics, it's just more a politics of what could be rather than what really is.

I'm sure our message turns some people off and makes some other people really think, but we do like to create a discomfort. We actually decided a couple years ago to stop playing at local bars and local clubs because we felt the message that accompanied the music needed to be felt in a certain element, so we've focused on benefit concerts and rallies since then.

I imagine you can feed off those types of crowds, as well.

Yeah, there's a vibe at those events, it's really intense, like there's a definite goal in mind. You're playing to a crowd that's determined rather then just having fun. Don't get me wrong: we love playing to those crowds, too, but there's a different vibe [at the rallies]... I feed off that, the band feeds off that. Those are our best shows by far.

JUNKYARD EMPIRE plays a CD-release show with Toki Wright, Guante, and City on the Make SATURDAY, JUNE 25, at the 7TH ST. ENTRY. 18+. $10. 8 p.m.

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Ditch the generic MC and stick to the instrumentals. No one wants to sit around and listen to a list of things that annoy you while you pretend to be above it all. You say a lot more when youre not so explicit and obvious. Again, though, the music is heavy, dark and jazzy, and I'd listen to it more sans the lecture.

Some other guy
Some other guy

Seems like you think you're above it all.  What annoys you makes many others think for a second about their own role in life here in the United States.  The media no longer does the job informing the public about the inhumane actions of the American government, so once again, as it has been throughout history, it is up to activists and artists to spread the word.  


My point is that it's very easy to write lyrics about corrupt politicians, the IMF, destructive capitalist policies, etc. And on the contrary, rapping about this stuff does not make everyone else think about their role. You listen to, it if you agree, to feel support, and if you disagree a dull MC isn't going to change your mind. I think the world is full of enough political ranters on both sides. I would put myself in the same general area of the political spectrum as these guys, but understand that angry lecturing isn't going to sway any of the people who need to be swayed. That kind of with-us-or-against-us opinionating is effective at political rallies, but not as a tool for real social change. If they want to make the world better, that's fantastic, but I just don't think this music will effectively do that.


Well there you have it, said the trombone player. :)


Hey man, the MC bored me, ok? He's not interesting to listen to, his cadence is generic and so are his lyrics. The music is interesting, and I complimented that in my original post. I'm also not questioning their authenticity; I met the horn player (Chris) once and he seemed like a really considerate, creative person. And that's great if they're succesful activists; doesn't mean their music is any better for it. Your point about Gil Scott Heron, Public Enemy, etc, is well taken. Great bands that filled a need, a gap in the cultural/musical environment. However, what is this MC saying that hasn't been said before? I think its disingenous to argue that all political bands are important because some political bands are effective/creative/interesting. I like Chuck D and GHS because of they're poetic and innovative use of language and music, sense of humor, and willingness to take risks in a difficult environment, before we had genres of "political music" and "socially conscious hip-hop." This MC, like the Flobots and Michael Franti, fills no real social need, except maybe to make neo-hippies dance and feel like they're accomplishing something (that's more exclusive to Franti).  And by the way, what am I supposed to judge this band by, your reality? I'm sorry I don't like this (or your) band, but when I listen to music I'm listening for MUSIC, not a message I could read in a college essay.

Some other guy
Some other guy

That's pretty pompous, I must say.  "It's easy to write lyrics about corrupt politicians", really?  Let's see yours.  On another point, it would be ridiculous and naive for any musician, or listener for that matter, to suggest that the music of Junkyard Empire, Rage Against the Machine, the Flobots, Nightwatchman, Billy Bragg, Michael Franti, Boots Riley, or any of the other overtly political artists around the country to suggest that their music has the ability to change things.  However, the actions of these artists off the stage is what sets them apart.  You should look into it.  Further, preaching to choir is often just as necessary as swaying "the people who need to be swayed".  You may not like it, but Junkyard Empire, and many other artists like them, are indeed just as much about the message as the music.  The members of JYE have been arrested, helped to organize large collective actions, raised money for important causes, and even written chapters in academic journals.  You're right, the music is not enough, but don't judge the band according to your own individual reality.  For some people, they did not become politicized and active until they heard Gil Scott Heron, Public Enemy, Dead Prez, etc.  

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