Emcee, Activist, Stay-At-Home Dad: Interview with Rico PabonPosted: August 9, 2013
I’ve always had incredible respect for Rico Pabon as an artist, activist, and entrepreneur. When he became a father, I’ve been impressed by how he’s integrated fatherhood into his life, at times playing non-traditional roles as a Puerto Rican man. Now he’s the father of three. When I found out he was dropping a new album, I had to interview him to get more info about how he’s representing for a new generation of dads of color in the artist/parent trenches.
AYA DE LEON: Can you give us a little history of the last several years of your life, with the births of each of your three children and the births of each of your albums?
RICO PABON: I have released a few hip hop albums dating back to 1994, starting with my group Prophets of Rage, a socially conscious, political hip hop group, and I later began performing with a 10 piece Afro Latin Hip Hop fusion band O-Maya and then AguaLibre, which combined elements of salsa, reggae, soul, and hip hop and I released an album with them as well. It was because of that powerful combination that we were able to perform on a variety of different stages, crossing many genres, such as the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Stern Grove Concert Series in SF, Reggae on the River, not to mention the many salsa and hip hop clubs. Being front man for such a diverse band helped me grow as a writer and vocalist and ultimately led me to collaborating and performing with Grammy nominated artists and Bay Area legends such as Linda Tillery and John Santos. Around 2005, I started writing and recording what turned out to be my album “Louder Than Fiction”, a return to my hip hop roots in a sense, and during that same year, I decided to open a restaurant, “Sofrito” with my brother Ali “Choco” Luna after many years of running a food catering business. Just as we were about to open the doors and my album had hit the streets, my wife and I found out that we were expecting our first child. It was a busy and exciting time! When our first son Jahziel was born, I was working non-stop and my wife, who was a high school counselor, returned back to work full time after her maternity leave had ended. We had little choice but to put our son in childcare, but we were lucky to find a friend who was willing to help us out. The first person to take care of our baby while we worked is someone who you may know as DJ Leydis. She watched Jahziel all day, with her turntables in the living room, until one of us could pick him up, and she loved him so much, it made it a little easier to leave him for the day.
AD: Can you tell me about the various ways your family’s wage-earning and domestic labor has been organized. Who worked how/where at what point? How/when were kids in school, with family or other caretakers, etc? How are things now with your third child?
RP: The restaurant was closed on Mondays, so I’d spend all day with him at the park, walking, talking, feeding him, playing music, dancing. It was the greatest joy of my life. Depending on the day of the week, I might be able to leave the restaurant early to pick him up, but I wasn’t in any way satisfied with the amount of time that I had to spend with him and I knew early on that I couldn’t be a restaurant owner, musician, and be a father who is actually present in their child’s life. It was just physically impossible so I decided that I had to make a change. We sold the restaurant and my wife and I decided that I would stay at home with him, since she had a career that she loved, that made more consistent money and had medical benefits for the entire family. It would also, in theory, free me to do more music.
And so it began, after working at a day job for most of my life while gigging on the weekends, I was to be the house husband; taking care of all of the responsibilities of the home, while my wife went to work and took care of the finances. It was a complete role reversal from what I was accustomed to and it took quite a while for me to get used to the idea, more than the act, of “being the at home parent.” I hadn’t realized that I had a point system of sorts which determined how much of a man I was or wasn’t, and having a day job was high on the list of qualifications. Luckily, and with the help of my incredible wife, I was able to work through those feelings and before long, I couldn’t imagine ever having another boss besides my child.
AD: I was raised with images in the media that didn’t match my family’s reality, where the dad worked and the mom stayed home. Then in the 80s and 90s of both working parents. But nowadays I see an infinite number of arrangements that include self-employment, freelancing, entrepreneurship, and stay at home dads.
RP: It’s been 7 years since Jahziel was born and now he has two little sisters; Iselah, age 3 and Anaíza, age 8 months. I’m proud to say that I’ve stayed at home and raised them all. None of them, apart from our son for a while, has had childcare over any period of time. Jahziel went to a Spanish speaking Co-op Pre School, La Familia, that we helped to form, and I would volunteer once a week so that I could take an active part in his education and to really get to know the person who would be spending 5 hours a day with him, four days a week. His little sister Iselah was a baby when he was in pre-school, so I had to have her with me while I did my volunteer shift at the school, which included everything from cooking and serving lunch to taking them on nature hikes, which we did daily. When I wasn’t at his school, I kept Iselah on a feeding and nap schedule as much as possible, and in between shopping, laundry, cleaning and preparing dinner for the night, feeding and preparing food for the baby but still driving her to my wife’s office at lunch time to nurse (so she could get those much needed mama nutrients), and dropping and picking up my son to and from school, I started performing with Grammy nominated legends Linda Tillery and John Santos, and I began writing what would become my newest album “Todo Lo Que Soy/ All That I Am”. Writing and recording has been a longer process than usual for the obvious time and energy reasons, but it is an album that could not have been rushed into existence, with it’s many blends and bridges between musical genres. Also, fatherhood has changed my outlook on the world so I’m glad to have had the chance to grow as a person and artist, as the songs themselves developed and changed over time.
AD: I think our generation was raised with unrealistic expectations of family/work life. Growing up in the 70s, lots of people had a steady job and then retired. Not that my family’s story looked anything like that, and from what I know, yours didn’t either. I know we were both raised by single moms, and they basically did what they had to do, with various types of jobs/businesses/work arrangements. But I always thought that getting married (and staying married) and having a two-parent household would lead to a more stable life. But most families I know are in constant flux these days, responding to a very different economy than when we were coming up. How do you handle the complexity and the financials of parenting three kids, and how has that affected your process as an artist?
RP: Jahziel is now going into the 2nd grade in a Spanish immersion program at a public school in Oakland and Iselah is in La Familia, the same Spanish speaking co-op pre- school that her brother originally went to. I still work there once a week and at this point, it truly is La Familia. Most of the parents involved in the co-op were original founders, just as my family, and currently have their 2nd child enrolled as well, so our children’s sense of community is getting stronger as they grow and learn together. Just as Iselah was strapped to my chest while Jahziel was in pre-school, Anaíza is now the one strapped to my chest while I volunteer for Iselah. Life is very similar to how it was when our son was just starting school; I take care of the home duties while my wife brings home the turkey bacon, but with three children and one who is 7, it’s a whole new ball game! I used to say that one plus one equals double, add one more to the mix and it’s trouble! Honestly, the difference now is that I (very, very happily and gratefully) juggle my three children’s schedules and take loving care to the best of my ability of them and my wife, who I love beyond words, and they are all my very inspiration to create.
AD: As a writer, it’s been possible for me to sort of “sow my wild oats” as far as the spoken word and hip hop performing part of my career before having kids. I’m fully retired from hip hop theater, and semi-retired from spoken word. Now I’m focused on writing fiction, which is a bit more compatible with a primary parenting schedule. But for you, as an emcee, performance is such a big part of your artistic expression. How do you work the late nights and rehearsals in with parenting? Not to mention the fact that you’re also writing and recording?
RP: Taking care of them and balancing it with quality family time leaves very little time in the day for me to be in a creative space, mentally or physically, not to mention the tighter budget that we live on, making it unrealistic to rent a separate studio space, but those challenges have only made me a more efficient writer. I’ve learned to write in shorter periods of time by “writing in my mind” while I have any spare moments throughout the day, and actually, that technique has become almost a meditation that I practice that both keeps my pen ready, and keeps me thinking critically about things besides diaper rashes and growing pains. I find that I can (sometimes) even conserve enough mental energy to get some writing done late at night, when I’m usually burnt out. My wife has also supported me tremendously by taking day trips with the children so that I can have in-home “writing retreats” and really get some uninterrupted work done and by letting me sleep in on days when I have had a late night gig or rehearsal.
AD: I have long maintained that the arts and parenting are both incredibly important, passionate work that is either unpaid or underpaid. For those of us who do both, it’s an economic double-whammy, and a profound set of challenges to navigate. Did you ever feel like giving up your career? Did it ever seem like this album would never happen?
RP: Because of the amazing partner that I have, I’ve been able to overcome the challenges of raising three children and being an artist, and if I’ve ever considered trying a different career, she’s convinced me otherwise. There was one time that I toyed with the idea of redirecting my energy, and that year she bought me a really expensive wireless microphone as if to say, “Yeah right.” The synergy that we’ve built over the years by constant displays of unconditional support makes anything feel possible, and though at times I have felt like this new album would never come out, I have also felt a balance between my family life and the responsibilities it entails, and my job as an artist. And my family truly is my inspiration to write. Actually, the idea to record my new album came just two nights before Iselah was born a little more than three years ago. I had been asked to put together a band to headline the closing night of “El Encuentro Popular” which is a long running annual show of socially and politically conscious Latin music, both traditional and contemporary, but I only had a few new songs that I was working on, and no band to speak of, so I decided to put together a new “salsa- hip hop” band. It would be essentially a salsa band; with trombones and trumpets, congas and timbales, but with a drummer and myself rapping, and I’d occasionally sing a traditional style song instead of rapping, or maybe do a little of both. The musicians and the audience loved it. Little did they know how nervous I was that my wife was sitting in the audience feeling as though she were going into labor! At the end of the gig, a Grammy award winning producer by the name of Greg Landau approached me about recording my project. He offered me his studio and access to his network of talented musicians and I started recording some time soon after with his nephew, multi talented musician and producer Camilo Landau. Iselah was born two days after that gig.
AD: Can you talk a little about your latest project?
RP: My latest album “Todo Lo Que Soy/ All That I Am” has a little bit of a few different styles of music that I love, some that I heard growing up in a family of salsa musicians, and some that I heard on the streets, like hip hop and reggae and it is, in a very real way, a journey back to my whole self. What I mean is that I didn’t limit myself to one genre of music on this album, not even one language or subject. On this project you’ll hear something I like to call “Salsa-Hop”, a blend of “salsa” and hip hop, complete with a full salsa band, with extended dance sections, but with rap verses and a back beat, and you’ll also hear traditional Cha-cha. There’s a reggae inspired song, but using the Cuban Tres and bongo instead of guitar and the traditional Nyabinghi drum, and I sing and rap in Spanish, English and Yoruba. There’s a conscious salsa song that talks about imagining and working for a better future for our children, and an original bomba song, but written in the traditional style, which tells the story of a plantation uprising. There’s a dancehall reggae song that is mixed with bachata, but also has classical violins in it, and an afro funk inspired song where I rhyme and sing in Spanish and English. There’s even a bugalú dedicated to the mothers of the world. That one is one of my favorites because I wrote it on the morning of my birthday, while I was thinking about how we should celebrate our mothers on the day of our birth, since they do all the work to actually birth us. I even had the blessing of recording a traditional Son Jarocho song and putting my own twist on it with a recently Grammy award winning group of incredible musicians from Vera Cruz, Mexico, Los Cojolites.
AD: Lately, I’ve come to believe it takes a village to do just about anything. I see that cooperation and community are key ingredients in your life, from your living situation to the co-op preschool to all your creative collaborations. You’ve been on other albums with Deuce Eclipse, La Bruja, Linda Tillery, and others. How have you included other Bay Area artists in this latest project, and how did those collaborations work?
RP: The new album has a universal sound and since it doesn’t fall into any one category, I find myself playing it over and over without getting tired of it, which may make it harder to market, but I’m confident that when people do hear it, they’ll feel the same way. Writing and recording it was a liberating experience, being that I’ve only ever released hip hop albums and never felt confident enough to express my many loves and my many voices, but it was far from a solo effort. “Todo Lo Que Soy / All That I Am” is a collaboration of many of the Bay Area’s finest and most respected musicians, including Wayne Wallace, Ayla Davila, John Calloway, Zoe Ellis, Héctor Lugo, Anthony Blea, Destani Wolf, and John Santos, to name only a few. All of them generously contributed their talents and energy to make the album what it is, and their heartfelt generosity is what made the collaborative process feel natural and easy, and made the results sound beautiful, gritty and super funky. In most cases except for the song with ‘Los Cojolites’, I had written all of the lyrics and had a rough outline of either a melody or rhythm and I’d bring that idea to Camilo Landau, who produced the album with me. He’d add some instrumentation to bring the idea to life and from there we’d bring in everyone else and they’d build off of what we had started. Everyone has their own preference on how to collaborate, but I find it most exciting to let the musician “write” their own parts, and if I have a different idea, I share it and we find the middle ground, which is always the highest ground, making the song take on a shape that I didn’t originally have in my mind, and becoming something better than I could have ever done alone. Some of the musicians created their parts in the studio while others wrote it out, note for note, and everyone did a tremendous job. What an honor to have such musical giants willing to not only contribute their incredible musicianship, but also their creativity as composers. I’ll tell you the truth; I paid extra money to have the instrumentals mastered, which is a final mixing process that really brings out the important detail in the songs, so that I could enjoy just the music, with no vocals. I also am hoping to get the music placed in commercials, television shows and movies. I’ve had a few songs get some placement before, most recently was a song I collaborated on with another talented musician, Jared Faber, for the show CSI:Miami. The song was called “Huracán” and it also featured another multi talented artist out of New York ‘La Bruja’. In my opinion, the act of creating is all about collaboration; sharing ideas and lending our talents to each other, inspiring each other to be better musicians and write better music, and complimenting what each person’s strengths are. It’s similar to the relationship I have with my wife. Actually, it’s exactly what I have with her; a collaboration. Sharing ideas, lending talents, inspiring each other to be better, and appreciating and pointing out each others strengths.
AD: is there a particular song on the album that you would like to say more about?
RP: If I had to choose one song that could encompass the back and forth collaborative experience that I had while writing and recording this album, it would be “Isla Del Encanto” because of the way that the song came to me. I was hosting an open mic event at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, CA and a young man from Gambia, Africa by the name of Karamo Susso went on stage for his first time ever in the U.S. and he’d only been here for 3 days. He started to play his instrument, a Kora, which is a big gourd with a long neck attached, similar to a guitar or harp of sorts, and all I can say is that his song made me feel home sick. My heart just ached for some reason. I happened to be video taping his performance and from that recording I wrote the words to “Isla Del Encanto” which means “Island of Enchantment”. The song talks about how I feel like I am not from one place or another, but from somewhere in between, and now that I’m growing, I’m learning about this place that was born inside of me. In my case, that place is Puerto Rico, la Isla Del Encanto. I wrote the song in a decima style, which is a somewhat complicated form of poetry, with ten lines in each verse, and eight syllables in each line, and I’ve never been shown how to do that, and actually, I did it without thinking about it. When I finished writing it, I brought it to Camilo Landau and he said “Oh, he’s playing a ‘Seis Mapeye’” which is a traditional melody in Jibaro music, our traditional music of the mountains, if you will, that I heard my grandfather play on his radio all my life. Camilo pulled out his cuatro, a 10 string Puerto Rican guitar, and began to play a “Seis Mapeye” and my hairs stood on end and my heart ached again. That was the connection! The cuatro is related to the Kora the same way Puerto Rico is connected to Africa. They were playing different versions of the same melody, but so similar it was like listening to a grandfather and grandson speaking the same language at the same time; the same sound but with a slight different rhythm. I am not from here, or there, I’m from everywhere, or somewhere in between, just like I’d written in the song, and now, I’m learning about all that was born inside of me, just like I’d written in the song. So I brought Karamo into the studio and I had him and Camilo play side by side, one with a Kora, the other with a cuatro, and I recorded a nine minute musical journey. It also has a drummer playing a dancehall reggae beat along with a live bomba crew playing “sicá”, one rhythm of the many styles of Afro Puerto Rican Bomba music developed on the plantations of the island, and everything blends together beautifully and naturally. That song is a true mix in every sense of the word and the experience of feeling it’s original inspiration, to writing it, to discovering the cultural connections and then recording it and hearing the direct relation of my many roots has forever freed me from feeling locked into any category or label again, and is one of the reasons that this album is so varied in styles. For the rest of the recording, I trusted the inspiration and followed it, instead of following any generic song writing formula. At it’s core, “Todo Lo Que Soy / All That I Am” is a collection of 10 songs of pride, gratitude, history, freedom, hope, solidarity, empathy and love. All of the things that are important to me as a father, husband, artist and human being. This album truly has a little bit of everything that I love and cherish, and it is dear to my heart, both because of the personal journey that it has taken me on, but mostly because of the artistic freedom I now feel because of the experience of creating it.
AD: Can you tell us a little more about the album and the KS campaign?
RP: Since this is my first time releasing a solo album that is not a traditional hip hop album, which is bi-lingual, crosses borders and bridges genres, I decided to organize a Kickstarter type of fundraising campaign to fund some of the costs and the bigger visions I have for the album, like shooting a couple of music videos / mini movies and possibly hiring a publicist to help get the word out. Because of some of the limitations that most crowd funding websites have, I decided to do it independently through my own website www.ricopabon.com. I’m calling it “Self Starter Fundraising Campaign”. My goal is to raise $8,000.00 in 33 days and I’m offering all kinds of gifts from digital downloads of the album, signed copies of the album, t-shirts, writing workshops, live performances, and even some Puerto Rican coffee! As an independent, socially conscious artist, my career, in general and more specifically, the promotion of my work, have always depended on the community’s support and this project is no different. The deadline for my campaign is August 31, 2013. You can find out more by going to www.ricopabon.com.
AD: So as you’re wrapping up this album project, what’s the next project you’ll be working on?
RP: A funny thing happened while I was finishing recording “Todo Lo Que Soy / All That I Am”; I wrote another album. I found that I started missing traditional hip hop, and rhyming in English, so I started making beats, writing to them and before I knew it, I was done with another 10 songs. I’m currently in the studio recording that project and I plan to release it within a few months after the release of “Todo”. I’m excited about it mostly because it’s absolutely nothing like “Todo Lo Que Soy,” and because of the way I was so inspired while making the music and writing it, that it feels raw and unfiltered, the way hip hop should be, in my opinion. It’s personal and political; grown people hip hop for the youth, if that makes any sense. I wrote a song for the fathers of the world and another for the children. There’s a song about the current state of hip hop and another dedicated to all women of the world and the many hats you wear. The beats are varied and my style switches quite a bit from song to song. That artistic freedom that I built up inside of myself while recording “Todo” definitely carried over to this new album, which is as of now untitled. I may call it “Father’s Day” or “Love” or maybe “Blessed!” We’ll see. All of the information is and will be available on my website www.ricopabon.com.
AD: Anything else you would like to add?
RP Thank you for taking the time to check out what I’m about and if you’d like to find out more, you can go to my website www.ricopabon.com and you can visit my Self Starter fundraising page to help me turn my dream into a reality. The info is in English y en Español tambien!