"I don't give a damn if my opinion is unorthodox," Homeboy Sandman shouted to the Snug Harbor crowd last Monday, ending a verse of his song "Whatchu Want From Me?" It's a line which summarizes that which makes him so intriguing.
Whether it's admonishing other rappers for using gun sounds in their song backgrounds, or penning a viral think piece that infers he thinks black people are cowards, Sandman — who holds an Ivy League degree and left law school and a job teaching high school to pursue his rap career — fearlessly follows his convictions and speaks his truth, no matter how uncomfortable it makes an audience.
I ask him if he was bothered by any of the backlash he received for the "Black People Are Cowards" op-ed he wrote for Gawker.com about reaction to the Donald Sterling NBA scandal, which had inspired numerous incensed response pieces. "What backlash?" he asks seriously, "In the real world, a lot of people came up and shook my hand for that article. Nobody said anything negative to me in the real world. When I think of response, I think of things that actually exist."
Sandman says opportunities arose from the article to speak at youth organizations. He says he encourages them to boycott "stuff designed to kill black people, or keep them alive just enough for companies to make money," such as what he refers to as "anti-black music."
For the past two decades, radio rap has suffered an excruciating drop in lyrical IQ points, and has painted negative caricatures of the black experience in broad, deliberate strokes. This is the music Sandman is boycotting.
At the same time, the indie hip-hop scene has been thriving with artists who drop line after thought-provoking line in sophisticated literary patterns. Sandman rises to the top of this class, combining the best of what it offers — serious subject matter, poetic metaphors, rapid-but-precise delivery — but he does it all with beats and energy that almost seem lighthearted. Bouncing along to "Whatchu Want From Me?" it may be a few minutes before you realize you're singing along with a verse about children going to prison.
He rejects a commonly held belief in modern hip-hop that songs with lyrical substance can't have danceable beats and vice-versa. And despite producing the awesome combination of both, he may never see commercial success in an industry he's actively encouraging a boycott of.
That's ok with him, because people are still listening. Even when his DJ, Sosa, backed away from the turntables on Monday night so Sandman could spit an acapella verse called "Fuel" about the need for equal access to fresh, nourishing food, the audience (usually in full twerk mode by this time at Knocturnal), hung on every word. The former teacher is still teaching.
Another thing he teaches children? Bully resistance.
"The biggest bullies that come to mind are police," he says. "I ask kids if we were in slavery times, what would they do? and their answer is 'I would fight, I'd rather be dead than be a slave,' then I tell them right now there's more black people in prison in America than were ever held as slaves and I ask if they feel the same way - would they rather die?"
Sandman says he was arrested once for a minor infraction, but it will never happen again. "I'll never allow myself to be taken into captivity. I'm a free man."
Despite the flaws of our justice system and media, the N.Y.C. native considers himself a patriot. "America is amazing! The technology, the access to resources..." He said he's even recorded a song called "America the Beautiful" (produced by John Wayne) which is scheduled to be released on his new album Hallways in September.
The title was chosen because he likes the transitional nature of hallways, and that they often contain several different destinations behind doors. "Right before you get somewhere, you're in a hallway."
How far his unabashedly outspoken style will take him remains unknown, but for Monday at least, it brought him to Charlotte, which he says he loves. Judging by the deafening cheers at the end of his set and the long line at his merch table afterward, it's safe to say Charlotte loves him back.