last year. On that release, she explores themes of social justice and women's empowerment with a strong Afrocentric vibe. That's exactly the same mix of elements I typically spotlight in this column, so when I saw McNeil was listed as a performer at the Chreece hip-hop festival happening this Saturday in Fountain Square, I jumped at the chance for an interview.
You can catch the full conversation with McNeil on my Cultural Manifesto radio show this Wednesday night at 9 on 90.1 WFYI Public Radio. McNeil performs at 12:30 a.m. at White Rabbit Cabaret on Saturday.
NUVO: You released your debut project Davu last year. Tell us about your entry into the world of hip-hop.
Rehema McNeil: My entry was an overnight surprise. Honestly, Davu
was supposed to be all poetry but when I was in the studio with Terrance Anderson (who produced the tracks I was writing to different samples and beats he had) nothing was really coming to mind. I asked if it was ok if I tried something different and I tried writing a rap. After we laid that down I was like I want to do another one and then another one.
NUVO: Prior to Davu, your background in the performing arts had primarily been in spoken word?
McNeil: Absolutely, that's my foundation. That's why Davu
sounds like poetry. That's what I've been doing for about four years. I'm an art fanatic and I love trying to discover new things. I'm always up for challenging myself.
NUVO: There's a specific track on the Davu EP I wanted to ask you about. "Terrorist" references the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots in Oklahoma. This was an incident where one of the wealthiest Black neighborhoods in America - an area that was referred to as the Black Wall Street - was burned to the ground and looted by white rioters. It's speculated that as many as 300 people died in the riot. Why did you decide to incorporate that bit of history into your music?
McNeil: A part of who I am is reflected in my music. It's hard sometimes to not be preachy, but it's important to tell the truth and speak up about your passions. Even if you might be ridiculed or mocked. I want to stand for something that's positive.
When it comes to "Terrorist,”, throughout history people have been saying why doesn't the Black community get itself together and start saving their money and investing in each other. That happened in Tulsa and it really hurt me when I read about the outcome of that story.
NUVO: We're facing so many social problems here in the United States right now: poverty, attacks on our civil liberties, mass incarceration, police brutality and on and on. For you what role does hip-hop have in addressing these issues?
McNeil: I wrote a verse recently that said hip-hop is more powerful than politics or government. I say that because the youth are tied to hip-hop. I believe Malcolm X said most revolutions are started by the youth. I personally think the elders are where the wisdom comes from. But the power comes from the youth.
Hip-hop is so powerful. It influences lifestyles whether it's good or bad. You have positive voices in hip-hop like Common and I believe those voices are leaders and they can truly instruct and influence people around the world to speak up and stand up for something that's positive
NUVO: The Indianapolis hip-hop scene is almost completely dominated by men. You're one of just a small handful of women currently working as an emcee in the Indianapolis scene. Any thoughts you'd like to share on the gender gap in Indianapolis hip-hop?
McNeil: Honestly it is what it is. It is males that are dominating the rap scene. But I do feel like there's a door that's open wide for any female emcee to take over that path and blaze it. There are some dope women emcees in this city like Lexy Contra, Azieb Abraha and there are a few others. I feel like what I'm doing stands up for and represents the women. I hope that it's empowering.
NUVO: Did that lack of representation and diversity on concert bills here in Indy discourage you from getting involved in the music scene?
McNeil: I'm not going to lie. I've seen some shows and thought, “Dang, I wish I was on that bill." But I always push myself to connect with new people. I try to find out who the coordinator of the event is. Sometimes people might be into what you do but they don't know you exist. I always try to find out who is putting events together so I can introduce myself. Sometimes it's not their fault if they don't know who you are.
You've got to take the game by storm. You don't have to wait for somebody to give you permission. You don't have to wait for people to acknowledge you in order to show the light and the talent you have. Just do what you do. Stay grinding and stay humble.
I've wanted to interview spoken word artist turned rapper Rehema McNeil since she dropped her debut EP