Propaganda has been carving his path in the Los Angeles underground for more than a decade. The West Coast poet and MC is a true artist of our modern times, brooding and solicitous on one hand, pissed and powerfully charged on the other.
Five albums deep and Propaganda, a former teacher, has yet to waver in his passion to spark social change. He's a mouthpiece for would-be poets who instead went the way of academia, perhaps unwilling to stay the course of a bard logging endless miles on the road. His music, heady and oftentimes unsettling, can feel like exercise next to the shallow-albeit-easily digestible offerings of most top 40. But his success proves that many are willing to put in the work. As with most art worth the trouble, Propaganda's tunes demand engagement on the part of the listener.
“I've been working on something different,” Propaganda tells BET on the phone from his home in the West Covina area of L.A. “It's something I've wanted to do for a while.”
The different he's referring to is his first book, I Am Becoming, which is slated for release this fall through an imprint of his label Humble Beast.
“We're excited, man. The book is a partnership between myself and photographer and filmmaker Squint, who's also the brand manager for ROC Nation boxer Andre Ward. Squint and I basically just drove around our cities and he interpreted visually what I had written."
For Propaganda, the book marks a departure from what he's used to producing as a rapper and performance poet. “I've always written poetry for performing, not reading,” he says. “So this project made me pay more attention to literature, to how the poems look on the page and to modern names like Toni Morrison and Sandra Cisneros. In a book, the words have to do all the work.”
Again, Propaganda is no stranger to experimentation.
Some years ago, he made a conscious decision to go the more abstract, stream of consciousness route in his approach to recording. “When we were starting our Humble Beast label, my friend Odd Thomas encouraged me to move in the direction of spoken word. He told me that it had more of a shelf life. I fought it for a long time because I came up as a battle rapper. But there were always things I wanted to say that I didn't feel fit right within the confines of a traditional rap song.”
Really, it was about understanding what worked for him and being intentional about what he wanted to accomplish as an artist. It's a decision that certainly paid off and opened more doors than he could have expected. From touring the country with Lecrae to collaborating with the multimedia movement I am Second, Propaganda has shown himself to be a voice that can impact a generation starved for substance.
Despite Humble Beast's motto to “freely give” away all their music via their website, Propaganda's last album Crimson Cord still charted at No. 55 on the Billboard 200 and No. 8 on the Rap charts the week of its release. Similar to other West Coast mainstays like Murs and Tech N9ne, Propaganda's fans continue to come out to shows in droves and support his independent hustle.
Propaganda's most popular video, “G.O.S.P.E.L.,” has views in the millions and his other pieces are equally as gripping, challenging perceptions and re-imagining the possibilities of the form. “Most of the poems in I Am Becoming will only exist in print,” he says. “They won't have videos and won't be done live aside from a short five-city run kicking off in September.” The book will also be followed by an extended fall tour with Andy Mineo and Mali Music.
One thing that has long been present in Propaganda's work is his zeal for education and his concern for a machine that continues to falter. His latest video, “Bored of Education,” is a weighty indictment on today's public education structure and its failure to engage youth.
“The thing with me is that, in addition to teaching high school for years, I was also involved in writing curriculum for charters schools. So I see things from a systemic perspective,” Propaganda says. “What's in our books is just someone's body of research that got funded. But at the end of the day, who is testing the test? What do we value? In our culture we're telling people to become entrepreneurs but at the same time putting young people through an educational system that doesn't mirror that philosophy. Still, as a parent, it's my job to fill in those gaps where the system might fall short. Naturally this all comes through in my music.
As far as new music, Propaganda has been slowly cooking up the next one. “I'm stoked for the next record, it's going to be called Crooked. The last few records were solely produced by Beautiful Eulogy, so we plan to add a few more ears to the production room this time around. Lyrically, you can expect a lot of challenging ideas on everything from race to politics and faith. We're gonna do it this record.”
(Photos: Squint Foto)