“I think making hip hop is implicitly political”: Watsky on politics and poetry

As Americans head to the polls, Nasim Asl sat down with spoken word artist come rapper, George Watsky, to talk politics and poetry.

As far as hip hop artists go, George Watsky is unusual. His journey to the genre has been a weird one. He brought out a collection of poetry and performed as a spoken word artist before finding his way to YouTube sensation, Epic Rap Battles from History, where he made a pretty hilarious Shakespeare.

His fifth studio album, X Infinity, was released earlier this year. Watsky is just wrapping up the album’s European tour, performing as the US election takes dramatic turn after dramatic turn. Multiple songs on his album discuss politics in a frank and open way: “with a ballot we can put a reality TV personality in DC…you couldn’t write this shit” he decries in ‘Brave New World’.

‘Stick to your Guns’ is damning of the hypocrisy surrounding gun laws in the US. It’s topics like this that the 30-year-old rapper finds most disconcerting. “I just feel really disconnected from a lot of America” he says to me, his sadness evident on his face. He gazes away as he explains: “It’s such a polarised time right now.” He sees this as directly connected to the US presidential election.

“The debates that I watched are so different to the debates that Conservative Americans watched. I’m terrified by the prospect of a Trump presidency, and also terrified by the fact that so many Americans feel that that’s a good thing. It’s a very alienating time that we live in.”

Watsky doesn’t see this as just an American problem. He gestures to me: “Seeing Brexit as an example of how democracy can go awry when you don’t take your voting power seriously, and you don’t really consider your role in a democracy seriously – that’s just got to be a warning for us.”

A proud liberal, Watsky’s Twitter feed is often filled with his encouragement and promotion of civil rights issues. He sees America on the brink of a change he is not on board with, as Obama’s presidency comes to an end. “I was so inspired by Obama’s candidacy. I don’t want that to feel like an anomaly, like some blip on a historical radar. Seeing the possibility of the first female president is really exciting to me. It’s been a strange presidential cycle. I worry we’ve entered this reality show political world. I hope it is not the new normal for us.”

“Seeing Brexit as an example of how democracy can go awry when you don’t take your voting power seriously, and you don’t really consider your role in a democracy seriously – that’s just got to be a warning for us.”

Although Watsky does touch upon dating and sex in his songs, his new album feels overwhelmingly political. He explains himself simply: “I knew I would be touring in an election climate, and I was freer because of that. I wanted to establish where I stood.” Although he has dealt with political subjects in the past – see 2014’s “Sarajevo’ – X Infinity is definitely a turning point in Watsky’s career. “I thought it was important for me to come out as a proud liberal. [The album] felt like it was a political coming out for me, and I wanted to make no bones about where I stood’.

“I think hip hop and politics can go hand in hand, and be a perfect pair. I think making hip hop is implicitly political.” he muses, but acknowledges that he has always been influenced by politics. “I grew up during the Iraq War. That was when I started making poetry, and it was very politicised”. Performing spoken word amongst San Fran’s famed activist scene, it is not surprising, then, that Watsky’s career deals with such topics through his blend of hip hop and spoken word.

They’re two genres that merge throughout his albums. It’s evident on some songs, like ‘Tiny Glowing Screens’, and ‘Cannonball’, which are essentially spoken word pieces with musical cushioning. “There’s a lot of bleed and crossover”, Watsky admits. It’s the personal experience of his poetry that move into his music too – he deals with family history, relationships, and his childhood battle with epilepsy in his songs. “I’m not concerned I’m oversharing,” he frowns at the idea that some people may think he is. “I think that’s what my responsibility is to do with my music. I’m intentionally trying to make personal music.” He describes the process of putting personal material out there as “cathartic and therapeutic”. It seems to bring him some comfort:  “You realise how many other people are going through it.”

He’s working on a poetry collection at the moment, and will focus his time on this once his tour is over. It’s a far cry from his essay collection, How to Ruin Everything, that was released earlier this year. “I don’t think I’m going to be a personal essayist”, he laughs. He struggled with writers block, but is happy with the project. “It was ultimately really gratifying to feel that I got better as a prose writer.” The book certainly went down well with Hamilton director Lin Manuel Miranda, whose raving review makes its front cover, and its now in its second run of printing.

Watsky is, if nothing else, impressively ambitious. He considers himself not just a rapper, but a writer – and this is a distinction that clearly makes his music come alive. His songs feel crafted, and in X Infinity especially, the structures of the songs are clearly thought out. “I wanted to incorporate a lot of different types of story telling. I wanted to push myself”, he shrugs.

After he finishes his poetry collection, he plans to get back into the studio, but also wants the world: “I’m going to take stabs at fiction writing, play writing, screen writing. Eventually, I’m going to carve the time out to write a novel, and eventually a screen play”.

He’s an artist constantly striving to push himself to his limits, and his ambition is high. Here’s hoping he gets there.