Mark Todd

They're both anticapitalist, they both memorialize the WTO riots, they're both taking the step to bigger labels to reach bigger audiences. Florida agit-rockers Against Me! and native hiphop sons Blue Scholars might come from different worlds, but their ultimate goals are identical: political awareness through music. AM! singer Tom Gabel and Scholars MC Geologic sat down to the same e-mail interview. Here's what they had to say.

What do you guys think about the connection between hiphop and punk?

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TOM: Both punk and hiphop are "street" music. It's music that can be really simplified; you don't need money to be a part of it. In punk rock you don't even need to really know how to play an instrument; you can learn as you go. I would also compare the two to folk music: people telling stories of struggle from their everyday lives.

GEO: People can philosophize all day comparing punk and hiphop, but the connection, to me, is simple—they're both cultural movements that emerged as a response to fucked-up conditions at around the same time. And both have been commodified and repackaged for mass consumption!

You guys both started off very locally oriented in culturally isolated places. How does it feel to have a much bigger audience now? Do you engage with songwriting differently?

TOM: I think saying that I started off in a place that is "devoid of culture" is more accurate. I always knew though that there were places beyond the city limits where culture existed. I saw music as a real way out of the place I was. I saw it as a way to connect with people who thought about things the same way I did/do. I still approach writing music the same exact way. I've always tried to not think about who will be listening to my band's music, or reading my lyrics, when writing. I'm happy when anybody listens at all. The only thing that has changed from when I started out is now I feel more a part of something.

GEO: Everything I write is from observation and experience. So being aware of more people listening, and also traveling and meeting folks—it helps me become a better writer. I have more material, more stories. The lens might be getting wider, but the perspective that I write from is still the same.

You guys both have songs about the WTO riots in Seattle. What was your experience with them?

GEO: I marched from UW with MEChA on a beautiful gray, wet morning. It was my first public protest after months of getting educated about the WTO. I admit that I wasn't fully up on why the protests were happening, just that it felt like the right thing to do. Or, at least, I was curious enough to see for myself if it was or wasn't. We marched to Seattle Center, then heard that folks were heading over to Westlake. I split with my group to walk around and soak it all in. It was a peaceful rally and it didn't feel like anything was gonna happen—until bigger crowds started moving toward Westlake. I was probably three to four blocks away from Westlake when I saw white smoke/spray in the air. Then I heard loud pops and cracks. It scared the shit out of me, so I dashed the other way. So did most of the people around me. I didn't bother to find out what was happening. For all I knew, the police were gunning people down! I ran all the way back to Denny and called the homie from a pay phone to pick me up on Capitol Hill. And it wasn't until I got home that I turned on the news and saw that it was a full-on riot. I wished I had stayed.

TOM: I had many friends that went to Seattle. There were a couple carloads of people from Gainesville who made the trip out. I had no idea how huge it was going to be—I regret not going.

What does it mean to be political these days?

GEO: Politics is war without bloodshed—a quote by Mao that sums it up. The political is personal. The struggle for better working and living conditions, against racism and police brutality, against homophobia and patriarchy, for affordable schooling and housing—these are all political issues. If you care about any of these things, and if you act upon it and organize with others to do so, then that's political.

TOM: I think politics is a perverted word. It's a word that's thrown around so loosely without clear definition that it's lost relevance in a lot of ways. People assume (especially when it comes to music) that by just saying something is political that it's a positive thing. For instance Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet is a "political" album, but at the same time Toby Keith's Shock'n Y'all is also a "political" album. Obviously the politics in those albums are vastly different, so what does saying something is "political" really mean? Shouldn't you define the politics?

Do people respond to politics in music? Does anything in the system change through activism?

TOM: I guess so. As you said, our audience has grown.

GEO: Not everyone who listens to the music will "get" the politics, but at the very least they'll be exposed to it. It doesn't happen overnight. I started listening to Public Enemy around 1990 and I probably didn't really get what Chuck D's politics were really about until I hit college around '98–'99. The system is definitely changing—for the worse!

I'm curious about your musical awakening. When did you first know this is something you wanted to do? What else would you be doing otherwise?

GEO: If I weren't rapping, I'd probably be teaching. In fact, I still plan to do that one day. Nobody ever encouraged me to pursue this as an actual career. Many have been supportive, but nobody said, "You should rap professionally," except maybe Sabzi.

TOM: I've always wanted to play in a band. Since as early as I can remember. I've always wanted to play the guitar. I'm not sure what I would do if I didn't have music. Nothing else has ever made me this happy.

Did you have a specific political awakening?

GEO: Like most people from working-class families, I've always felt that something wasn't right. Probably as early as when Moms had to keep explaining why I didn't have the same toys other kids had. With my pops in the military, I was exposed to a lot of right-wing propaganda that really polarized the idea of America that I was given with the America I was actually living in. And that's where hiphop had a big influence as well. I was exposed to other realities that were different from my own, but similar. I found out who Mumia Abu-Jamal was because of a Digable Planets record. I had history teachers who would do shit like show us The Birth of a Nation and make us write about it—then I'd go home and listen to Ice Cube! But it wasn't until I started putting the books down and actually getting down with a political organization—Anakbayan Seattle, in 2002—that I truly understood how capitalism works and how to change it.

TOM: Philosophically, I consider myself an anarchist. I'm also a misanthrope. I look at the world with a kind of cynical optimism. I started figuring out all of these things around the age of 15, with punk rock playing an integral part in me figuring out my worldview. Of course, my politics have evolved as I've gotten older. I've been fortunate enough to travel the world extensively. I've come to the hard realization that the world is a really complicated place, and that I don't have any of the answers.

jzwickel@thestranger.com