Gabriel Teodros. Photo by Dean Zulich
Quite honestly, I don’t remember how or even when I met Gabriel Teodros for the first time. It might have been when I was writing a piece on him for Sheeko magazine, although even that doesn’t help me remember where we began.
What I do remember, however, is sitting in my apartment in Mexico City, interviewing Gabriel and feeling as if I had known him for a lot longer than I did. We chatted about Toronto artists and creating our worlds from our parents’. I’ve since had the pleasure of hanging with Gabriel in person. Over the years I’ve come to know Gabriel as one of the kindest, more earnest people I’ve ever met. Below is the conversation we had for my series on writers.
How did you get into writing?
Gabriel: It’s hard to remember how I first started. I remember writing in high school and being kind of a closet emcee, I didn’t really share with people. That was back when my family lived in Seattle – when my family moved to Las Vegas I got to be a little more outgoing. But it was the first time I realized that there was a system in place that wanted kids like me to die, and that made me want to live more than anything else. That’s when I started taking my writing more seriously. I started taking my education more seriously and the two go hand-in-hand to me. The more I read the more information I’m able to incorporate into my writing. I was in the 10th grade in Las Vegas when I started really taking the writing seriously and started sharing the writing, and that was always in the form of rap.
What makes you want to write?
I’d go crazy without it. It’s not seeing or hearing myself or people that I relate to in the media or anywhere that compels me to write. Feeling like our stories just aren’t represented compels me to write. Hungering to hear something compels me to write.
It usually comes from a little voice. If I’m still enough and patient enough with it, the thing that needs to get captured, I can just hear it and write it. There’s a part of it that feels spiritual. It feels like I’m talking to God sometimes. Some people go to church, some people pray and have different spiritual practices. Me – I write.
So in terms of your process, the writing just comes to you?
There’s no one particular way. Every possible way that you can imagine for inspiration to strike, I’ve had that. I’ve woken up out of my sleep and needed to write something. A lot of times now, I’ll just listen to a beat and start writing on the spot. Now I can just call it up. For years I wouldn’t write unless inspiration struck. But then, I think around 2009, I just made time and space to write every single day, and I got a lot more comfortable in my process. I had an area in my house that I went to. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t write. I think in reading Octavia Butler and about her process, really confirmed it: “Habit is more dependable than inspiration.” When I was writing every day it was like my writing just became better.
I feel like there are a lot of muscles that are not just physical muscles. I have that song where I say faith is a muscle, trust is a muscle. I think creativity is like a muscle that you can work out. And the more you work it out the sharper you get at it. And the more you trust your process the better you become at it.
How long did you keep that up, where you had to write every day?
I did that for more than a year. These projects were all written back to back – some of them you’ve heard and some of them you haven’t. I went to Europe and I didn’t get in but I landed in Brooklyn and I started writing the Air 2 a Bird project and immediately after that I did the Ethiopium mixtape, and then immediately after that I did the Lentil Soup EP, and then immediately after that I did an Abyssinian Creole record that hasn’t come out yet. So I did pretty much four projects all back to back. But it got to a point where, particularly with the Abyssinian Creole project that hasn’t come out yet, I felt like I started repeating myself, so I figured it was time to slow down a bit.
You hinted to that on your blog. Tell me about that project
I took the train from Seattle to the Bay Area, which is a pretty long train ride. And while I was looking out of the train…this is another part of my process. A lot of times I’ll see a picture. Instead of hearing something I’ll see something and I have to paint the picture with words. So while I was on the train I saw a picture and it was a memory of when I was in Ethiopia in 2011, and I wanted to show somebody the picture that I saw in my head. So I started writing it in the form of prose and I really like how I started it. And I just kept going from there and it was almost like a nonlinear experiment in visual storytelling. That’s the best way I can describe it. That was pretty much the genesis of this book that I’m working on. I’m trying to write for it everyday but to be honest, I’m not as disciplined with the book as I have been with music. And I think it’s because with music, there is immediate satisfaction because you write a song and can record it and listen back to it immediately. I can do that in a few hours. But with the book, for me, I feel like it takes a lot more dedication. It’s a much harder thing.
Like for CopperWire, I wrote this whole sci-fi story to go along with it. I wrote every day for two weeks and still didn’t finish it, and it felt like every time I came back to the story I had to put myself back in the mindset of the story, and it’s a lot harder to do that for me.
That’s the sci-fi story that was connected to Octavia’s Brood?
Yeah, I’m still supposed to submit something for that actually. My friends Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown put a call out for this anthology called Octavia’s Brood, to people who have never written sci-fi but who are activists, organizers – people who work to make the world a better place – to actually engage with their creativity, to write it out and imagine different worlds through science fiction. They asked me to submit a short story and the first thing I did was write the song “ET Phone Home” which turns into the whole CopperWire album. So literally the group CopperWire and the concept of that album came from being asked to write a short story. But the actual story short story was a lot harder for me to do.
Who are some of the writers that inform you as an artist and as a person? I know bell hooks is a big one, Audre Lorde too.
I feel like my biggest influences as a writer and storyteller in general are Haile Gerima – I always talk about him, he’s a filmmaker… Just his dedication, his conviction to telling the stories that he hungers to hear. That’s how he describes making films. He’s so uncompromising and so dedicated to the people he’s making the film for. He runs the bookstore but it’s more like a community center in D.C. It says, this is Sankofa, for and by people of African descent. He really inspires me. Sometimes I just do a YouTube search and watch him talk about anything. I do that with James Baldwin too.
Suheir Hammad is another one of my biggest inspirations as a writer. When I first read Born Palestinian, Born Black, it was the first time I’d ever read somebody’s story that was like a child of immigrants who grew up in a black neighborhood loved hip-hop has all these different experiences but none of them contradicted the other, she embraced all of it. I had never read that perspective before. Even though she’s very different from me I saw pieces of myself in it. That feeling I got from reading Suheir Hammad for the first time is something I always go back to as something I hope to give to people. Yeah I see Haile Germina and Suheir Hammad are probably two of my biggest influences as a writer – which is funny because neither of them are rappers [laughing].
I was going to say that.
I stopped thinking of myself as just a rapper so long ago. I’ll always have a hip hop aesthetic and approach to what I do, but I’m 32 years old, I’ve already kind of given up on rap as my main source of income. And it’s actually a pretty liberating feeling to have let go of that.
Last year you did a TED talk. I really enjoyed it. You talked about a few things – hip hop and science fiction among them. Tell me how that came about.
They actually want to CopperWire to do a performance at that but the other two members of the group were living in the Bay Area and they’re really busy people so it didn’t work out schedule wise. So I met up with the TED organizers and said I can perform, but I really want to talk [laughing]. So they asked me what I wanted to talk about and I told them I’m feeling hip hop and science fiction, you know, afro-futurism. So they let me and I pushed myself to do it. I was incredibly nervous. But the lesson that I got from that – because people responded really well to it – is if I feel really scared or nervous about something, but also really excited and I know that it has a good impact, then that’s what I should be doing.
What is it with you and science fiction?
I love it. After they asked me to write for that anthology, I started reading Octavia Butler and I became addicted and read everything she had ever written in a year.
I think it’s really important that black people imagine themselves into the future because we so often don’t see ourselves there. I feel like culture and storytelling and media – they are all powerful tools. And sometimes we don’t even recognize that a weapon is being used against us when the only images of us are images that aren’t being scripted by us. And these things inform our imagination. I hate to say it, but our imagination is so influenced by things we intake. I think it’s crucial that black people and people of colour imagine themselves in the future and in different realities. Ponder what happens when capitalism falls. What do we do when everything were used to isn’t there anymore? If we can’t imagine it, I don’t know what we’ll do once that really happens.
This next question isn’t related to writing or reading directly, but I know you have thoughts on this. What are your thoughts on the current state of hip hop and the music industry?
As far as the industry, I stopped relating to it a long time ago. Hip hop and industry are very separate because music and culture can exist without industry. I like to think of music outside industry, actually. That’s the direction I want to move with my music. I really want to inspire a generation to see music as something that is not just a commodity. I’m not so attached to hip hop anymore. Like I said before, hip hop is what helped raise me, it’s a part of me. But the hip hop I grew up on, that doesn’t exist that much. This generation that’s coming up right now, they can and should be drawn to a lot of different forms of inspiration and find their own expression, because the majority of the stuff out right now is a really sad attack on our humanity. Did you read this article that Homeboy Sandman wrote about hip hop and the prison industrial complex? That article had a really big impact on me because I listen to the radio and I teach middle schoolers as well. And the messages they’re getting from hip hop and the things that they’re identifying with within hip hop, it’s like it’s all about drugs, it’s all about sex – and a lot of times it’s sex without consent. It’s all these things that are almost designed to put you in prison. Hip hop is straight up being used as a tool for slavery in United States of America right now. And that’s not on the form of the music, that’s what the industry is doing but that’s also how people are perceiving it. It’s like the double consciousness. I talk about that a lot because as a hip hop artist I have to be aware of how I perceive myself and what the music means to me, but also how the music is being perceived as a whole by society.