Photo: Dustin Rabin
Anyone who has met, listened to, or bumped into K-Os, whose name means “Knowledge Of self”, should know he has messianic aspirations. The whole emcee thing is a masquerade. Underneath it all is the underpinning of an existentialist existence and a new religion—the joyful rebellion. Born and raised black in a predominantly white, Canadian suburb of Whitby, K-Os was obviously different, which is why he feels a special kinship with the central archetype of his persona, Jesus of Nazareth.
In 2002, he released Exit. A seminal debut record, it espoused a musical philosophy of peace and love. A fusion of reggae, rap, soul, rock, and more, it was the sound of multiculturalism. On it, K-Os spoke out against materialism and like Jesus, he wasn’t afraid to run into the temple and flip the tables on the gold-selling Pharisees (or in this case, flossing emcees). For those of us who are poor in mind or spirit, those of us who idolized rich rappers as ghetto prophets, we were grateful.
And then he quit. Said his first album was his last. Fine. His life, his choice, our loss. But someone at MTV didn’t get the press release and they played “Heaven Only Knows” by accident. Arguably one of the better songs of 2003, it was a surrealistic video/cartoon featuring K-Os dressed as Gilligan riding his bike in the air and was largely concerned with his trying 40 days and 40 nights in the morality-depraved rap industry. It ended with one of those “To Be Continued / you have to stick around till the next season cliff hangers” reserved for complex, season-ending episodes.
The next time I saw him, I confronted him about the rumours of a new album as he leant up against the railing after a Pete Rock & C.L. Smoothe show in Toronto. He said little, as if he expected this, informing me to call Rose, who told me to call his label where I left a message and received a call telling me to call his manager. The conscious rapper everyone wanted to “write the songs to make the whole world sing” had grown bitterly inaccessible and it hurt.
K-Os resurrected his career when Joyful Rebellion hit stores in the summer of 2004. By that time I, along with most Canadians, had forgotten about him. He was missed but no one spoke about it. When he came back, he set his feet back on solid ground with “EMCEE Murdah”, a science fiction track about touching down on earth with a message from a heavenly voice. But it was the aptly titled “Paper Cuts”, a searing indictment of all those disciples who turned their back on him that led me to doubt his intentions and turn from his teachings.
What follows is a discussion between a prophet and a disciple:
PopMatters: What about people who say that your anti-rap message alienates certain members of the hip-hop community?
K-Os: My hip-hop community is what I like and I’m not here to be a part of a society that says hip-hop is this. I used to be. Maybe that’s why I’m confident that I don’t want to be that any more because I was that before and I just didn’t situate with most of that.
PM: The Wu-Tang Clan have a song called “C.R.E.A.M.” (Cash Rules Everything Around Me). How is revolution possible in a world like that?
K-Os: Revolution has nothing to do with money or government. It has to do with self. A lot of times, it has to do with knowledge. True revolution is what happens inside of you. It’s not what you have on you—it’s what you don’t have on you. What constitutes revolution to me is to reach inside yourself as an adult and look past millions of years of programming that exists within every human being.
PM: In “Crucial”, you have a verse that goes: “Change worlds, Change burns / We came first, that’s why we’re in chains and there’s no one to blame but time”. Can you explain this for me?
K-Os: It’s a reference to African people, black people. It’s a reference to all aboriginal people. A lot of the torture in the world has been done to aboriginal people and it’s done because they possess an innocence and a rawness that has been lost by civilized society. Sometimes, not all the time. So time meaning man’s ability to section off reality and to be so civilized and then calculated and seeing aboriginal people and saying they’re not as evolved and then putting them in chains.
PM: So… the only people that can comment on something are the ones who are invested in the culture?
K-Os: Yes. All critics are overzealous fans. Critics are a bunch of people trying to shape pop culture based on the fact that they have an opinion or they know how to articulate their opinion very well. Using that to take apart people’s music when you don’t play, when you haven’t tried to play, or you’re not in a band, or you’re not trying to do the thing yourself, it’s sort of contradictory. It feels a little pretentious in my book. And I’m not saying all critics, because I’m sure there are critics who’ve played in beautiful, marvelous bands that I just don’t know about and they’ve tried to get a record deal and they know what it’s like and they don’t tell anybody about it and they just criticize music, but nothing is absolute. I don’t know how many critics live that lifestyle.
PM: How do you respond to people who say you’re less hip-hop?
K-Os: It’s just music man. That’s all it’s ever been that all it’s going to be and all the people outside the culture who sit there and name names come up with catch phrases—its because they want to be a part of it. The true reality is that it’s an amazing life. It’s a free life and I don’t blame any of these people for trying to get down with it, but if you get down with it to be cooler than the artist or to tell the artist what’s going on that’s what I have a problem with.
PM: Kanye West’s The College Dropout, Talib Kweli’s Beautiful Struggle: how did conscious rap make a comeback?
K-Os: I just think people are tired and struggling and at the same time, they want a challenge to make music that’s commercially viable and has a socially conscious message.
PM: Why’d you come back?
K-Os: Just coming up with news songs that were better than what I thought I made before. Also, trying my best to realize that although I hate the music industry, I love music. That was the real struggle; how was I now to deal with the industry part of it.
PM: How does K-Os deal with chaos?
K-Os: Just by being truthful about those things to other people and to myself about where I am compared to the hip-hop community. I am trying to present an image of myself on my own terms. If people can grasp the truth about who you are is way more. Telling the truth about yourself and being honest about your own flaws has more power than trying to cover them up.
PM: Do you think that your fans, people a lot of whom already know that hip-hop is “dead in the mind of the emcee”, will grow tired of hearing you rhyme about it?
K-Os: Humans will always have a fascination with abomination. If you’re fairly apathetic, people don’t want to hear that, but if you find interesting ways to shed the light on music by not simply dissing that music but coming with good shit yourself, then that’s the best way to say it.
PM: Any last words, something you want people to know about you, or the album?
K-Os: There’s no limit; there are no rules. The rule is not to be cool. People end up following the rules (too much). I tried to not have rules on this record. Every music that I ever loved, I just put it in a pot and tried to absorb from it. I mean that’s what love does; it takes you beyond the grasp of limits. If you love music than it’s not about hip-hop, rock, or punk rock, it’s about coming up with all kinds of music. Perhaps that’s what the joyful rebellion really is, being happy about that process. Rebelling against only liking one kind of music or having only one kind and music and that’s your lifestyle.
The Book of Revelation:
Jesus’s number two disciple was named Peter. That my name is the French translation of Peter only speaks to a likely metaphor: Jesus and Peter are like K-Os and me, we share a bond. Jesus gave sermons, Peter told people about it. K-Os makes music, I tell…. Ours is rooted in the Afro-Canadian experience, but one tied more firmly to the suburban multicultural existence than it is to ghetto’s get-rich-or-die-tryin’ ethic. Another fact not lost on me is that many Jews did not believe Jesus was their messiah. Likewise, if you look around a K-Os concert you will see that his message is being devoured at a faster rate by the non-black community. He, too, must know this. How it affects him, to see his own people turning a blind eye, seems to fuel his need to attack rap culture even more vociferously, which is an attack of self, since if you’re black, rap is your story even if you never grew up with roaches and rats. In the end, he is but a man, an artist struggling with his own vices as he attempts to right the world’s wrongs through songs.