Ed. note: As long as humans have been making music, it’s been used as a form of protest. As part of KQED Arts’ 100 Days project, documenting artists’ responses to our new administration in its earliest days, I’ve asked Bay Area musicians to get in touch with songs they’ve written or recorded that serve as reactions to our current political climate. A new one is posted each week.
Rocky Rivera, a rapper, teacher and San Francisco native, has been making “conscious” music since before most of her students were born.
A former music journalist turned musician, the emcee’s lyrics have never been subtle when it comes to politics — her 2016 song “Turn You,” for example, is a straight-up feminist-conversion hip-hop manifesto. But after the election, says Rivera, it felt more important than ever to create music that moved people to act.
“Round We Go,” a collaboration with friend and frequent co-writer DJ Roza, is the result. The track came out of a retreat that the pair’s label, Beatrock, held over the holiday break. “The political mood was so somber regarding the new administration, but us artists, we were excited,” says the emcee, whose real name is Krishtine de Leon. “Beatrock Music has been making what most people call ‘political’ music since before Obama came into office, but it was relevant now more than ever.”
With only enough time for one recording session, Rocky and Roza took an instrumental loop Roza had cut and arranged from Solange’s “Where Do We Go,” from the album A Seat at the Table, and rapped over it. The lyrics, Rocky says, are a continuation of and response to the question Solange asked: Where do we go from here?
“I answer it in my first verse,” Rocky says. “Rap music is an entry point, but not an action. We are far beyond ‘spreading awareness’ on an issue through music — we need to organize. We need to get off Facebook and engage each other IRL, including our racist family members.”
Per the song’s lyrics:
Now that Obama’s gone
These racists feelin safe again
Now we got a “pussy grabber”
As our President
It’s hard to stop myself
From tellin y’all I told u so
Instead I put in the music
So dissent can grow
As for that growing dissent part: the emcee’s longtime career as a public school teacher in Oakland is, she says, far more than a day job. (She currently works at two high schools, Oakland Tech and Oakland High, and she’s also managed afterschool programs at McClymonds, Castlemont and in Fremont for the past five years.)
“I choose to work with high school youth because as a female emcee, I know that the industry has put an expiration date on me,” she says. “I know that it limits me purposely and disregards my contributions, much like how women are disregarded in many other vocations.”
The song’s lyrics end with a nod to the future, says the rapper, because she wanted to end on a positive note — and with a reminder that our elders have seen this before.
So I call upon the strength
Of generations past
So they can guide our way
Illuminate a path
We got it better now…than we ever have
It time to finish what they started
Where my soldiers at?
DJ Roza and Rocky went on to create an entire mixtape, Winter In America, around similar themes — Rivera calls it “one of her best yet.”
“It’s like salve on a million tiny paper cuts that you get reading the news every day,” says the emcee. “People have called my music ‘medicinal’ before, and I wanted to keep dishing them the antidote. My folks need healing now more than ever, so I believe I straddle the lines between writer, artist, healer and educator, all with the intent to keep each other and ourselves accountable to the harm that is happening around us and within us.
“The political is personal,” she says. Of course, “women know this from the moment we are born.”
Rocky Rivera is working on a book and album to celebrate her 10-year anniversary in hip-hop.