Back in 2010, only a handful of people in the local rap game recognized the name Sol. In 2011, that changed completely for two reasons: He released a great EP (the third in his Dear Friends series) in the summer, and he delivered a great performance at Bumbershoot in the fall. The year 2012 finds Sol settled firmly in Seattle's A-list of rappers—performing at Sasquatch! and releasing the album Yours Truly, which contains a number of slamming tracks (one of which, "Stage Dive," exposed his burgeoning career to an audience outside of the city limits)—and in a great position to make the big and final leap onto the national stage. Sol is also about to leave all of these achievements to see the world. His trip, which begins in late June, has nothing to do with his music. It's all about his education as a young man (he is 23).
Leaving the city at this moment is indeed a bold move. Things could change in that space of time, he could miss a golden opportunity, he could return to Seattle with a new goal in life, and so on and so on. Sol is fully aware of this, but he feels this is the best time to expand his mind. He recently graduated from UW with a double major in American ethnic studies and the comparative history of ideas, he has no real attachments or pressing obligations, and he has the money (the Bonderman Travel Fellowship awarded him $20,000). It's now or never.
"It's a really crazy fellowship," he says as we sit at the noisy and packed Oddfellows Cafe. It was started by a man named David Bonderman who attended UW as an undergraduate and "loved it," Sol says. Bonderman went from there to Harvard Law School. "There is a similar fellowship at Harvard. He got it when he was young. Went on a trip. It changed his life. He became a billionaire and now pays for the fellowship out of his pocket each year. It's not endowed. So the fellowship is all about changing you. True, a part of the mission statement says you are supposed to leave an impression on the places you visit, but it's really about you soaking things up and coming back a changed person."
His itinerary? "India first. I'll be there for three months. Then I fly to Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa. After a month there, I leave Johannesburg for Saõ Paulo. From there, I plan to visit Peru, Venezuela, Trinidad, Haiti, and Jamaica—I have to mention Sri Lanka and Argentina because I'm starting to feel like I might fuck around and go there, too. In total, the trip will last nine months." Is he not going to make any music during this entire time? "You know, when I applied for the fellowship, someone on the committee was worried that I was going to exploit it for my career. But I was honest and told him and others that music is a big part of my life. I can't really turn that off. So the reality is, instead of just having journals and cameras, I will be writing music. I also want to meet other rappers in Kenya, South Africa, and Brazil. I'm already making links in these places. I'm an American. I have a totally different view of music than somebody else, so I want to know what that other view is."
Sol is all about Seattle. He was born at the Group Health Hospital on 15th Avenue, was raised in Fremont (his mother is Haitian, his father a Jewish European from Brooklyn), attended Nathan Hale High School, and currently lives and spends much of his time on Capitol Hill. He started rapping at age 11 and received an invaluable apprenticeship in hiphop and music production from Isaac Meek, an engineer and part owner of Undercaste Music/Studios in Shoreline. He came of age at the moment when the local scene was changing ("Neema of Unexpected Arrival was the one selling out shows at the Showbox, and the Blue Scholars [had] just got started—I looked up to both of them"). He joined forces with Nima Skeemz, a drummer (and the producer of many of his subsequent tracks, including the aforementioned "Stage Dive"), the bassist Elan Wright, who is also a producer, and DJ Nphared. All in all, it took Sol about 10 years to develop a distinct delivery that's intelligent, unrushed, confident, intricate, and seductive. Indeed, the rapper and young Bonderman Fellow—who walks off of the plane in Delhi on June 25 and hopes to change completely—is Seattle from head to toe.
"I'm trying not to make any assumptions about where I will be, both physically and mentally, when I get back. This will be a life-altering experience. There's the possibility I may never come back. With that said, I'll be surprised if I don't get homesick. I'm already well-traveled; I have been to Brazil and other countries, and still Seattle is one of my favorite places in the world. So I do plan on coming back and working on new music."