Raashan Ahmad is excited he’s been able to keep his houseplants alive this year.
Previously, he says, his green thumb has been MIA, but when we meet on a blustery, snowy day in his office on Otero Street at Vital Spaces—a nonprofit that provides affordable studio space for artist types in otherwise vacant buildings—he’s pretty sure something is different this time. He can feel it.
But then, Ahmad has never shied away from failure or from trying new things. “It’s how you learn,” he says. And learn he has. The multi-faceted musician, MC, lyricist, activist, artist, father and all-around force for goodwill on Earth has seen much of the world, lived on both coasts of America and, as of about seven years ago, moved full time to Santa Fe. Ahmad still travels often; he tours regularly, but Santa Fe has become his home base, a hub where he can spend more time with his kids, experiment musically and be a part of a close-knit community.
“I used to tour through here. I think I played Corazón, Evangelo’s, The Santa Fe Brewing Company,” he says of years spent with his band Crown City Rockers, “but it would always be on tour. We’d do the show and keep on moving; but snow was falling, there were rabbits, the sky was crazy, and I thought, ‘what is this magic?!’”
His office is freezing, which kind of makes the plant thing all the more impressive. A space heater hums in the corner behind one of those electronic drum kits, unable to compete with the icy weather, and a nylon string guitar stands propped against his desk. Ahmad is still learning to strum it, he says, as part of a challenge he’s set for himself in 2020: “To try and do things that scare me.” In this case, it’s performing a particular guitar run to one of his songs personally.
"How do you hold a pick, again?" he asks with a laugh.
Ahmad was born in Trenton, New Jersey, but his family moved to Los Angeles before he was old enough to form early memories (weird side note: Ahmad and I hail from the same LA suburb, Altadena). Still, he says, they would visit Jersey most summers to see the extended clan.
“I have a real East Coast/West Coast mentality,” Ahmad explains. “I had both worlds ingrained, and it was easy for me to see the beauty of it all.”
During the Jersey summers, he’d learn about new music from his aunts and older cousins. His father was a DJ, and his DJ friends from nearby would give him mixtapes; the faraway friends mailed them. And though Ahmad’s upbringing helped him develop an appreciation for funk and soul, for Motown and for jazz, for Aretha and Nina and Sun Ra and all the greats, his discovery of rap and hip-hop in the 1980s was the real game changer.
“Suddenly I was growing up with NWA and Ice Cube, living in LA, witnessing my neighbors and police brutality,” he says, “and when [Public Enemy’s] Fight the Power was happening, it was the most conscious music ever.”
Ahmad recalls how learning about black history in school often amounted to stories of slavery and little else, but somewhere during the birth of hip-hop, he finally found something that felt like his own, a new form of education.
“KRS-One starts talking about ‘you must learn,’ and it was the first time the whole movement of red, black, green—all this music was happening with people calling black people ‘beautiful’ and talking about black civilization before slavery—this was a revolution,” he says, eyes widening. “Just imagine what that would do for a young black kid—to have all your heroes talking about how beautiful black people are, talking about the things they’ve invented…saying, ‘if we can’t dance, we don’t want to be part of the revolution.’”
He’s quick to point out that this was in the days before the record labels got ahold of hip-hop and compartmentalized it into easily sold and overly genrefied packages. Divisions pay higher dividends, he maintains, but in those early days, hip-hop was hip-hop, and it seemed each new song deepened his connection.
“Conscious rap, hardcore rap, gangster rap, I was like, I like to dance and party and I like to think and go to the club, and all those things can exist,” Ahmad says. “That really shaped how I wanted to create my own music and, more importantly, think about myself.”
Dancing came soon after, and Ahmad joined up with a crew. By the late ’90s, he’d gotten pretty good, but a sojourn to audition for an opening slot at a House of Pain show wound up shifting his focus.
“We drove so far, and when we got there, they were like, ‘Oh, we don’t want dancers—we want a rap group,’” Ahmad recalls. “And we’d driven so far that we just said ‘Oh—we rap.’”
He straight up stole a rhyme from his brother that day, he remembers (there are reportedly no hard feelings), but nevertheless realized he had a knack for MCing. A diagnosis of bursitis of the knee a year later sidelined his dancing dreams, but his hip-hop trio The Nappy Heads was born. Later, they’d learn the name was already taken and change it to Extra Terrestrial Elohim—“or Extra Elos for short,” he says.
“It became three of us, and we had this whole shtick of going to thrift stores and getting these big butterfly collared shirts—we were into the ’70s—and we’d just sit in a room together, my one friend making the beats,” Ahmad tells SFR. “He had a little MS-1 [sampler] and a tape deck, and we’d rap into headphones over the tape. If you messed up, you had to do it again. You had to do it in one take.”
By the early aughts, Ahmad moved to Boston, where he was introduced to rave culture. He began regularly attending DIY parties and absorbing as much electronic music as he could. There was almost an ancient spirituality to the droning beats, he says, and the scene awakened something in him.
“I had never experienced spirituality,” Ahmad recalls, “but that whole world entered my consciousness.”
He was sharpening his MC skills in parallel and making friends at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. With those students—arguably some of the best in nation, maybe even the world—Ahmad learned to rap with a live band for the first time. In Boston, he says, he developed the MC style he carries to this day, and he did so alongside jam bands and techno-heads and an evolving hip-hop world. Ahmad and his Berklee friends would form Crown City Rockers, his biggest and most far-reaching project to date. Think a smooth and soulful hip-hop sound with elements of funk and rock bubbling up beneath Ahmad’s frontman MC skills. Simply dial up “Crown City Rockers live at the Independent” on YouTube for an idea of what they were all about. By the mid-2000s, the band would move to Oakland together. Tours followed, wild applause, fans on fans on fans and numerous full-length albums and EPs released; Ahmad had kids, life changed—Crown City Rockers released its final album in 2009, the sexy and synthy The Day After Forever.
Today, Ahmad says the band never officially broke up, joking that a reunion is possible so long as a promoter flies them out to wherever that would take place.
Ahmad and his family moved to Santa Fe in 2013, but those early days were spent in relative seclusion. It wasn’t until a few short years ago that he happened upon the building that once housed Warehouse 21.
“I saw the graffiti, and as a hip-hop person was like, ‘that’s where my people are,’” he says. “I remember I went in and was like, ‘I’m an MC/artist, can I get involved?’”
Ahmad would meet former W21 executive director Ana Gallegos y Reinhardt through the Santa Fe VIP’s Victor Romero.
“When I met her, I fell completely in love with the work she does, and just wanted to be there in any way they would have me,” he says. “But since I’m not youth, no one really knew what to do with me, so I think I was just hanging out, taking out trash, picking up chairs at first. It’s hard for me to self-promote, but I think one day somebody Googled me and was like, ‘Oh, we should use you to do hip-hop classes.’”
Gallegos y Reinhardt tells SFR her connection with Ahmad was immediate. “It was obvious Santa Fe was going to embrace him,” she says.
And it has. It started with mentorships, including with under-known (but absolutely incredible) local MC Jasper Rodriguez-Watts, aka Jasper Rumi.
“This was before I started rapping,” Rodriguez-Watts says. “Seeing someone who was so proficient was cool. It was a push to figure it out, and you’re seeing somebody who is so involved in their craft—it’s maybe more inspiring than anything.”
Ahmad took a position with the Warehouse 21 board and lent a hand in whatever ways needed.
“I kind of squirmed my way into Ana’s life,” he says. “All the things she is are so beautiful to me—that genuine, selfless love. I’m really inspired by that woman.”
Ahmad’s relationship with Gallegos y Reinhardt continues in numerous ways. She recently secured a small grant for Ahmad to conduct video interviews with notable Santa Feans alongside local drummer and sound engineer Isaac Scarlott. He’s keeping the spirit of Warehouse 21 alive, he says, in whatever ways he can, though the ideals of the teen arts organization are hardly new to him.
“There are a lot of community spaces in the Bay Area, so this wasn’t something I hadn’t seen before,” Ahmad points out. “This is something I know is needed. That’s just how I believe. The reason I fell in love with hip-hop was because of the reaching out to youth from the elders, and the community interaction feeds me.”
The community service goes deeper, too. Ahmad recently conducted a zine-making workshop with writer Hannah Yohalem and local teens through Vital Spaces, and for the third year running, he’ll be collecting backpacks to be stuffed with school supplies to donate to local kids in need. For the second time, Ahmad has secured quality backpack donations from Albuquerque tech company 2NDGEAR.
“A guy who has been listening to my music forever worked for this company, and he shipped me a palette of 150, 200 backpacks,” Ahmad says. “I drop my son [at school] and see other kids walking around with these backpacks, and it…feels so good. I grew up not having school supplies, so I just kind of relate, I know what a bummer it is to be in class and not have what you need, and it’s so basic.”
In January, Ahmad released the video for the song “Sea” with collaborator T.I.E., who penned the lyrics in Wolof, the language of Senegal and Gambia. It is, in a word, phenomenal. Shot in Dakar, “Sea” addresses the concepts of water and fluidity as they pertain to a certain spirituality with a free jazzy backbone that is somehow haunting and calming at once. In the video, Ahmad and T.I.E. stand or sit motionlessly, eyes fixed on the viewer, in various Senegalese environs; the beach, a port, an alleyway, a taxi and some sort of shop. Each scene finds the artists in a different couture outfit created by Senegalese designers Selly Raby Kane and Bull Doff, friends of T.I.E.’s. The costuming is, frankly, hot as hell.
Ahmad had traveled to Africa before, but something about this specific trip spurred something within him.
“You have this vision of Africa,” he says, “and it’s not like that. Almost immediately I was like, ‘You know we’re shooting a video here, right?’”
Ahmad met T.I.E. a decade earlier at a Paris house party.
“There was something about her, I just watched her the entire night,” he says. “Toward the end of the night, I asked her ‘What’s your deal?’ y’know? And she said ‘Oh—I rap.’ I started beatboxing, and she started rhyming and it was just…insane, her flow.”
"Sea" appears on 2019's The Sun, Ahmad's most recent self-released solo album and a veritable tour of his myriad influences and interests. As a whole, the album is a stunner—a wildly positive yet realistic and refreshing culmination of a lifetime of experiences.
"I sing praise to the universe for the breath," he spits on the track "Body Heat," setting the tone for everything else and revealing at least a little bit of his secret weapon: gratitude.
Full disclosure: I met Ahmad years ago while working for Warehouse 21, and if there were one word I would use to describe him, it's grateful. See, Raashan Ahmad is an infectiously positive presence, the kind of person everyone wants to be liked by, but he never acts phony or saccharine-sweet, nor does it seem like he takes his super powers for granted—or is even aware they exist. He's faced more than his fair share of adversity; his Los Angeles apartment burned down and cancer took his mother too soon. And yet, he stays grateful. He transfers the lessons learned into his music with an indescribable ease, even when discussing difficult topics like race and death.
"There's this movie, I forget the name, but it talks to all these indie rappers, they aren't even 20 yet, and the first few minutes, it starts off with them saying, 'I'm a vocalist,' or 'I'm a manager' or 'I'm a writer,'" Ahmad says. "No one wants to say 'I'm a rapper' because of the stigma around it. Me? I say I'm a vocalist and leave it alone. That's what I am. It's my base. My foundation. KRS-One said that rap is something you do, hip-hop is something you live. The culture I embody is hip-hop."
He'll probably nail that guitar part, too.
Raashan Ahmad’s Top Picks
Reading about the music is one thing, but for those looking to get familiar with the music of Raashan Ahmad in a hurry, here are his personal favorites from throughout his career.
"B-Boy" It's just me talking about my love for hip-hop culture. Simple.
"Cancer" This would be the first song…the shift from me being like, "I'm dope! I'm a rapper!" to my mom dying from cancer. It was the start of so much for me, not even knowing I was trying to write feelings, not knowing I was even writing a song. It's one verse of me screaming about being with my mom for the last year of her life. Writing it wasn't hard—recording it was hard, and it's hard being asked to perform it.
"Pain on Black" I wrote this, once again, with one verse, no chorus. It's about how hard it was being a father and not having money, being a rapper living in George W Bush's America, being a black man. You know Gilles Peterson from the BBC? He picked it up, and he brought me to London. There I am next to Thom Yorke from Radiohead, and it…was the song that catapulted me. I toured a lot off of that song.
"Falling" Featuring Aloe Blacc and Gift of Gab That's just a beautiful song. The main thing is, somehow I became a conscious rapper without realizing it. I was like, "I'm never gonna be a conscious rapper!" but somehow I became that dude.
"No" This is the closest I've gotten to trying to bridge my old love of free jazz like Sun Ra. The song's about police brutality and the fear in America. To me, that's a lovely song.
"Sea" Since I travel and perform a lot, I want to travel to different places and infiltrate different scenes. And I've been exposed to so much world music that it's intriguing to me to dive into those worlds. It's a metaphor for water. It's a song my friend wrote, and she's from a small village that's almost like an island.
“Initially, I had this idea for a video for the song ‘Pain Away,’ and it was to gather a bunch of black men and have a therapy session, where my song is like my testimonial,” Ahmad says of a recent project that didn’t quite go how he thought it would. “The biggest impetus to that is having the visual of a bunch of black men supporting each other emotionally. I don’t feel like that’s imagery we see enough, and it seems like the black man with feelings, who cries, who reaches out to the community for emotional support isn’t something we really see.”
Ahmad says that as he was setting up to shoot the video at Vital Spaces, the men he assembled, Mustiqirr Muhammad, Landon Wordswell, Clemente McFarlane Jr., Jamal Allen, Loveless Johnson III, Sol Bentley and Bradley Babb got to talking. The next thing he knew, hours had passed, and the concept for the video had phased into reality.
“It was really beautiful and healing,” Ahmad recalls. “I think all of us need to figure out how to do that more often. The African American community in Santa Fe isn’t too big—a couple heads have been here for a long time, since there were even less. But more and more, we’re out here, and it’s so good to be seen and talk to each other.”
“Raashan is one of those amazing people who wears his heart on his sleeve,” Bentley tells SFR. “The guy you meet at shows or at public events is the guy he is—he’s a truly amazing human being. ”
Ahmad also runs the monthly I Got a Story to Tell event wherein notable locals gather in front of an audience to tell their personal stories. Previous -versions have included Bentley, as well as former SFR intern Tintawi Kaigziabiher, Quinn Alexander Fontaine and many others.
“The event was inspired because of a conversation Sol and I had,” Ahmad explains. “I look to him for a lot of support and advice, to cosign in a way. For some reason when we get together, the walls come down.”
The next event in the series finds Ahmad -conducting hosting duties, and will feature stories from Shontez Morris, Faridah Ndiaye, Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz and others.
“It takes somebody like Raashan to put something like that together,” Bentley adds. “The place he created…to be able to be vulnerable and supported and repsected…you never know whose life might change.”
I Got a Story to Tell: 7 pm Friday Feb. 21. Free. El Museo Cultural, 555 Camino de la Familia, 992-0591.
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