This article was originally published by WireTap.
July 10, 2008
Balancing art and activism is a challenge. Just ask Ilana Weaver, better known to hip-hop fans as Invincible, the Detroit-based emcee who has been rapping for well over a decade. A 2002 XXL Magazine feature lauded her as a talented lyricist and seasoned performer. She was also called “every A&R’s worst nightmare” due to her notorious reputation for turning down record deals and butting heads with industry stalwarts.
Invincible’s home base is Detroit, a city where struggle and irreverence are hallmarks of local residents. Left behind in the post-industrial rush for profit, Detroit has the worst on-time high school graduation rate of any major city in the country, with less than 40 percent of youth receiving diplomas. Young people, frustrated with outdated teaching methods and dwindling job prospects, work hard to forge new opportunities.
While Weaver has worked with innovative Bling 47 producer Waajeed and emcee Talib Kweli, she’s also an organizer, seeking balance in both worlds. Recently, she started her own record label, Emergence Music. Weaver also works with youth in Detroit Summer, a grassroots non-profit, to develop youth leadership through hip-hop and media campaigns and to address the city’s dropout crisis.
In May, she released her first solo project, ShapeShifters. A self-described “lifetime in the making,” the album showcases her lyrical skill, political insight and musical connections. Featuring production and guest appearances by artists Black Milk, Waajeed, Tiombe Lockhart, and Detroit political activist Grace Lee Boggs, Invincible is poised to take her music and message to new audiences, all while inspiring social change.
Wiretap: How did you begin making hip-hop?
: I moved from Palestine/Israel to the United States when I was seven. When I moved here I only spoke Hebrew, so I started to listen to hip-hop to learn English. Most people [learn English through] “Hooked on Phonics,” but I guess you could say I got “hooked on hip-hop.” I’d hear a word and then go look it up in the dictionary. I started writing my own verses when I was nine.
How did you get your stage name?
: I was about 15 when I started to take rhyming seriously. One of my friends at work was really into graffiti, and we would have these ciphers. I dabbled in graffiti, and he dabbled in rhyming, but eventually we both got really serious about each of our elements. He gave me my name because he wanted to see something that looked good tagged and started with “I”–my first name is Ilana. We also picked the name because it had a battle-emcee competitive feel to it.
I researched the meaning of the word “invincible.” Eventually I came across [Sun Tzu’s] book The Art of War. What struck me about [it] was the concept of being so strategic that you don’t even need to get to the point of war. It also speaks of invincibility as knowledge of self and continued internal learning based on each challenge. That mentality fits into our organizing motto for Detroit Summer, which is “opportunity in crisis.”
How has it been for you as a woman in the hip-hop business?
: Right now, there’s such a strong movement of women who make music within hip-hop. I was part of a collective called ANOMOLIES, an all-female, all-element hip-hop crew. We’ve supported each other for years and we’ve always tried to confront the false representations of women in hip-hip, not just by critiquing them, but more by counteracting them with our own definition of who we are.
Over the years I’ve met hundreds of talented female hip-hop artists who are doing their thing and supporting one another. This August I’m touring Europe as part of an all-women tour headlined by the legendary Bahamadia and Roxanne Shanté. The tour will culminate in an international female hip-hop fest in Berlin called “We B-Girlz.”
To me, the real way to nurture the female hip-hop movement is through events like this, and also by having as many institutions as possible supporting women to develop their skill sets. Columbia College in Chicago has a fellowship program for women in hip-hop and I would love to see more programs like this. One last idea is to build more partnerships between community organizations and women artists, such as the work 5th Element does in the San José area.
Is that why you started your own label, Emergence?
: Yeah, definitely. While I was with ANOMOLIES, many of us were approached numerous times by record executives. But with each offer the record industry wanted us to change something about our appearance or our music. We weren’t willing to compromise our music or ourselves. We wanted the full rights to distribution, etc. Through Emergence, I’m trying to test out different ways that cooperative economics can work in the context of hip-hop, and create different ways to share that model. I’m not necessarily trying to sign artists as much as share a blueprint for them to sign themselves, so people can use hip-hop to build larger, sustainable, self-reliant economies.
In a lot of ways, [this model] was inspired by my visit last summer to Palestine where I met with the Palestinian Fair Trade Association. They have a network of hundreds of farmers’ cooperatives and do such incredible work. They really showed me the potential of building networks for self-reliant economies.
Talib Kweli was quoted as saying that you’re one of the best emcees he’s ever heard, but that you spend too much time on activism. How did you respond to that?
: Well, when he said that back in ’04 or ’05, I was more involved with music through organizing, and in the hip-hop community, not necessarily doing it as actively within the music industry. Since then I’ve found more ways to balance the two. The way I see it, my music is integral to my activism, and vice versa. They’re inseparable.
Invincible’s ShapeShifters (Emergence)
| It’s easy to name-drop when discussing Invincible. Talib Kweli has called her one of the most talented emcees he’s ever heard. Jean Grae echoes that sentiment. A quick peek at her first solo LP’s liner notes reads like a who’s who of Detroit hip-hop: Production by Black Milk and Bling 47’s Waajeed, vocals by Detroit-affiliate Tiombe Lockhart and moving interludes by political icons like Grace Lee Boggs. While Invincible modestly refuses to play up the album’s heavy-hitting guests, her personal ethos is clear: Build community, by any beats necessary.
The 14-track LP shows that it’s impossible to separate an artist from her politics. In her own words, she “doesn’t write rhymes/[I] write ransom notes.” And she does so with a calculated and life-hardened swagger. Whether it’s describing her childhood in Ann Arbor, MI, a liberal college town where resident communities face school tracking (separating students based on perceived academic ability), or denouncing racist violence in the Palestinian West Bank, her statements ring loud and clear. Her goal is simple, and etched on the track “Looongawaited” where she spits, “I’m striving to be/one of the best/period/not just the best/with breasts/and a period.”
There’s such a strong musical history in Detroit–from Motown to J Dilla–and your album is produced by some of Detroit’s finest: Black Milk and Waajeed. How do those legacies impact your music?
: In so many ways. For starters, there’s a strong musical legacy in Detroit, but there are also so many strong movement legacies here, too. On the music end, there’s always been so much talent here, and I feel like especially after Dilla and [D12 member] Proof’s passing, folks have started to come together more, and realize how important it is to represent for Detroit.
What are some of those movement legacies?
: There’s Grace Lee Boggs, who’s one of my mentors. She’s 93 years old and has been active in the city for 50 years. She came up with her late husband, Jimmy Boggs. They were involved in many things, like helping to organize to bring Malcolm here for the Grassroots Leadership Conference where he gave his “Message to the Grassroots” speech. They were also some of the founders of Detroit Summer.
If you go to downtown Detroit, there are three monuments that pay homage to movement history. One of them is the Joe Louis fist, another is a monument to union organizing, and the whole monument is covered in radical movement-based quotes. Not far from there is a monument to the underground railroad. A lot of underground railroad activity went through Detroit since we’re close to the Canadian border. What other city can you go to where all of the downtown monuments are movement-based?
We’re surrounded by all this history, and not just history in a nostalgic way. Many of the people who were actually involved in those things–DRUM, the Black Panthers, Ruth Ellis–are still around. The legacies are still being built upon in very dynamic ways. It’s not static.
There’s a song on your album called “Locusts” that talks about gentrification in Detroit. Why is that song important to you?
: That song was years in the making. Finale and I took a lot of time to write that song. He rode around Detroit with his grandfather and really talked about how the community had changed. I talked to a lot of mentors and elders through my organizing work and I just talked with people who I met in the community. It’s important for us–as artists, people who are from the city and who love the city–to preserve the legacy of our communities. The people who are moving to Detroit now in the name of so-called “development” don’t know these legacies, and definitely aren’t trying to preserve them. It’s up to us to keep the history alive.
Your work with Detroit Summer has taken you a lot of places. You recently did an organizing project with youth in Detroit and in Palestine’s West Bank. Can you describe that work and why it was so important for you?
: The focus of the work is local. There were two youth delegations from the U.S. that went last summer: One from Detroit Summer, and another from The Palestine/Israel Education Project based in Brooklyn. They do workshops at Bushwick Community High School where they use popular education and media including excerpts from the documentary on Palestinian hip-hop called Slingshot Hip-Hop. We’re both part of the U.S.-Palestine Youth Solidarity Network, whose focus is doing local work in our communities using a global lens that connects similar struggles–like education, or occupation in relation to police brutality.
In Detroit Summer, we have the Live Arts Media Project (LAMP) and the focus is on youth creating media and hip-hop to document and organize around the situation in the schools. They actually created a CD that we call an audio hip-hop documentary–Rising Up From the Ashes: Chronicles of a Drop-Out. The CD was created in 2006, and since then the youth have created their own curriculum, facilitated popular education workshops and performed throughout the Midwest. They have also conducted a survey and thrown all-ages hip-hop shows called D-Tension.
I went on the Youth Solidarity Network delegation last August to do a shorter version of LAMP with Palestinian West Bank youth. We were out there for ten days, and together we had workshops on everything from website design to rhyming. It was incredible to see kids who had never really heard hip-hip get on stage at the end and perform. It was also really powerful to have all that happen despite the language barrier. We used youth interpreters the entire time who translated everything we said into Arabic.
Actually, at this year’s Allied Media Conference we had a workshop organized by the Palestine Education Project where several U.S.-based organizations including Detroit Summer had a live, online video-conference with the youth we worked with last summer in the West Bank. The youth were able to perform for each other and also speak about current local organizing work and struggles.
For me personally, the trip was so powerful. I hadn’t been back since I left when I was seven. So to go back, and especially to go back with hip-hop–making connections to Detroit and our local struggles, sharing experiences, and building true solidarity–brought everything full circle.
Jamilah King is the associate editor of WireTap.