Art in a pandemic: Sacramento hip hop artist’s new album is a personal exploration

Paul Willis
·5 min read

Editor’s note: This story is part an ongoing series of journalism produced as part a collaboration between The Sacramento Bee, Sol Collective and other community organizations called the “Community to Newsroom Pipeline.” To learn more or to contribute, email us at voices@sacbee.com.

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For artists like myself, being inspired to create during a pandemic is a significant hurdle.

It is hard enough to imagine new possibilities for our creative process and even more difficult to reimagine new processes for our city and country. As an artist, we clock countless hours, send hundreds, if not thousands of emails to book gigs, set up photo and video shoots, collaborate and create new music, manage our social media to generate leads and build engagement. All of that effort, which is similar to owning and operating a small- to medium-size business, does not guarantee financial success.

The pressure and stress weigh heavy and can be overwhelming. Yet, many of us create art because it is therapy, a release and exchange of energy between the creator and the art supporter.

The message has always been more important in my music than making money. In the past, once I made back the money invested in the music, I would give my music away to students and supporters who could not always afford it.

The fact that every one of my releases has been profitable without giving up ownership of the music to a label is a bonus to when I hear from fans and supporters how much the music has affected their personal lives and even encouraged some courageous conversations with people they love. As a hip hop artist and poet, when people quote my lyrics in their text threads, infuse my poetry in their curriculum or adapt an album concept to a business strategy, I know I am creating positive change in people’s lives.

It generally takes me a long time to carefully craft a verse, song and album. I spent the past three years with my latest release, Wonderland, a nostalgic album about growing up thinking I would not leave my neighborhood or build a life outside of my hometown Boston.

When I meet new people and reflect on how, quite literally and figuratively, far I have come, I am saddened by how my neighborhood experienced gentrification and the people, places and sounds can no longer be shared. My family was one of two Jamaican families in a neighborhood of predominantly Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban people. I grew up with Bob Marley and Celia Cruz, The Fugees and Aventura, Daddy Yankee and Nas. However, between the ages of 14 and 24, the RIP stickers covered the backboards on the basketball courts; community murals were painted over or replaced entirely; and the Hi-Lo International Foods store became a Whole Foods, who to their credit hired on many of the staff who would have lost their jobs.

Cities grow and change and the stories of people, places and neighborhoods are lost in that expansion. As someone who experienced that loss nearly 20 years ago, I have seen Sacramento communities, similar to my own, be impacted in the same ways.

I thought it was important to document the stories of communities like Seavey Circle and what the residents imagined for themselves and their children. I sought grant funding and received it to do a film that combines live music, poetry, dance and these community conversations about the concept of Wonderland and what possibilities could be for ourselves and others in our community during a pandemic. As much as people need health, safety, economic and job security for COVID-19 relief, they need the arts to deal with the every day stressors.

Hip Hop was my Covid relief. Hip Hop transforms the way I see myself, the world around me and our collective future. When it is created and performed at the highest levels, Hip Hop is fine art.

In the same way that classical art, music and dance have standards for each of their respective forms, Hip Hop culture has principles and standards that were created and documented in The Declaration of Peace, a United Nations recognized agreement that governs the culture and was signed by over 300 Hip Hop dignitaries.

While you may wonder why the music on the radio does not reflect those principles, it should be noted that the commercialization of Hip Hop music reflects more on the consumers than the artists. Commercial Hip Hop used to have greater balance in its content themes, and while artists like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar maintain the highest levels of commercial success as conscious Hip Hop artists, the music industry machine makes them the exceptions to the rule and not the norm.

Regardless of the outcomes, artists create with intention because it is therapeutic, esteem building, a passion they love, something they can inspire others with and, for some, to make money. The nexus for me is all those things and to create a lasting positive impact in my community. Wonderland, the album and the film, is a chance for you to experience that with me. If life has taught me anything, it is that we can create beauty in the struggle and persevere through adversity. Hopefully, one day, we won’t have to. Until then the radio will hold you down from 5-9, and I got you during your 9-5.

Check out my new album, Wonderland, at www.paulwillisishiphop.bandcamp.com. You can see the Wonderland film screening and panel conversation about the role of Black arts during the pandemic hosted by the Black Artists Fund today from 6 pm to 8 pm. The live stream will be available at www.blackartistsfund.org/wonderland, and a recording of the event will be available on the Black Artists Fund YouTube channel.