Defying definition, Rafael Casal is a “storyteller” whose tight grip on language masters each ‘story’ he possesses, regardless of artistic medium. Recently named one of the Bay Area’s Freshmen 11 Rappers of 2011 by KMEL 106.1, Casal’s resumé drips with accomplishment.
While these achievements include being a two-time Brave New Voices Poetry Slam Finalist Champion, performances on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry and a run as creative director for OMAI/First Wave Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (where he mentored other talented/aspiring artists), Casal’s focus has shifted towards his music and burgeoning theatre career. Casal has dropped two LPs and one mix-tape since 2007: As Good As Your Word LP, The Monster LP and The Bay Boy Mixtape (with Daveed Diggs).
Writing is essential to Casal’s identity. His words escape limitation as evidenced through their ability to explore the self and expose societal injustices in one piece, yet drop 100 Bay Area slang words under three minutes to a Grinch beat on another. While self-conscious about his work, preferring to record alone in studio, none of this doubt transfers as listeners are confronted by a confident voice spitting reality. After speaking for just half an hour, it is easy to see Casal’s conviction to his craft, grasp his passion for it and appreciate his unwillingness to compromise.
I first became aware of Casal during his performance of the poem, “Barbie & Ken 101” on Def Poetry. Casal stayed on my radar ever since through his spoken word progression, music releases and even while mentoring several acquaintances of mine through the First Wave Program. So when Francis came to me, asking who I wanted to interview for my first Musebox piece — there was no question: Rafael Casal.
What ensues is Musebox’s interview with Casal discussing the evolution of both his public image and that of a storyteller, with a few random questions thrown in along the way.
Musebox: To start with, how would you define yourself as an artist?
Casal: I don’t. -Laughs-
MB: As a person?
Casal: I can easily say that I don’t, but if you’re looking for a longer answer, I would say I’m a storyteller.
MB: When did you begin writing, and what led you to begin that process?
Casal: I must have been about 14. I started writing raps and then a high school teacher got me turning my raps into poetry so the divide — the two different formats of writing — kind of happened around the same time.
MB: What is your creative process, and where do you find inspiration?
Casal: As cliché as it sounds, it’s just life. It’s life that’s so interesting. Every small nuance of existence is fascinating as hell to me. I don’t really try to go searching for some vast well of information to come up with something profound. I mean, it’s the funniest moments, the seemingly simple but not boring or insignificant ones, that you have to notice. I just try to keep my eye on them.
I don’t really have to look for it. I think it finds me just fine.
MB: Any examples?
Casal: Yeah. Sure. I was walking back from the train station earlier and this woman was sitting at the bus stop with her ten suitcases. I was just like, I am really curious where this woman is going, so I made up some reason in my head. I came home and wrote about that for a little bit. It’ll be shit like that, just something that makes me wonder, and I’ll ride it out as far as it goes.
MB: What was the public transition from a spoken word artist to an emcee like?
Casal: Publicly, it was tricky because people have more of a familiarity with my work as a poet. I felt I had to (and still have to) pull back on poetry to put the emphasis on music, as that’s more where my attention is now. Nothing really changed in my process. I’ve been doing music the whole time I’ve been doing poetry. It was just about what people wanted to pay attention to first. That’s where the opportunities were so I took them.
I think the hardest part has been experiencing hostility as I’ve gained popularity — having music fans be like, ‘fuck all that poetry shit,’ and having poetry fans be like, ‘yo, fuck your music, keep writing poetry.’ People don’t like you to evolve or change or shit like that. There’s a lot of resistance right away, especially when people like something you do. They don’t want you to move away from that as you stop serving a function for them. In the early stages, you’re trying to find a piece of work that shows them how easily you’ve transferred over and to make your evolution mean something to them in the same capacity.
I enjoy writing so if I enjoy that, there’s no real difference to me between poetry and music — just different formats and expectations. It’s another writing exercise. Music is very spontaneous, reactionary and impulsive — especially rap — whereas poetry is premeditated and reflective — interested in analysis of a longer-winded thought. They’re just different capacities for thinking and expressing yourself. It’s fun to try to pull one audience to see the world from a very reactionary, impulsive place and to throw the other into a longer, contemplative place, introducing them to the broader perspective poetry can provide.
MB: Are there any similarities between your live rap and spoken word performances?
Casal: My personality is constant because it happens between songs and between poems. I think both have an emphasis on the content, so we try to build up purely listening to the word as much as possible. Poetry shows are built for that so you don’t have to condition your audience, whereas with music, people are just there to have a good time. Most of the time, they can’t even understand the words because the sound system is so bad. I don’t know that there are dramatic similarities, but when you go to a show, you don’t necessarily know what I’m going to do. I might do all new stuff, and I might do all old.
With music, you want to go and hear songs you already know. You can get into the new songs, but you want to hear something you can sing to and know all the words to.
With poems, when you’ve already heard it, it’s fine to hear it a second time, but you want to be introduced to new content. Poetry ends up being more like a stand-up show. I want people to have heard none of my stuff before, which is hard because now when I do something, someone puts it on YouTube. I prefer people to come in and not have a lot of experience with my stuff, or to have heard just enough to want to come in to the show and then do new stuff for them.
MB: What would be the largest challenge you’ve faced concerning your music career?
Casal: I have a straightforward statement and an arrogant one. The straightforward, more obvious one is that I’m not particularly willing to simplify myself to an archetype or gimmick. I enjoy my complexity, and it has been encouraged to the point where I am unwilling to compromise it. It is oftentimes such a big part of my identity that the angle with all of my writing is that we are always multiple things, we always feel multiple ways about things and uncertainty is an illusion. To me, it’s kind of a facade. It means something that we are always changing our minds. Everything is something.
Any time I’ve been approached by a label — somebody with an idea how to push me — it’s usually just too easy. If that were to be the only thing people knew me for, I wouldn’t be satisfied enough. I am stubborn as fuck, and I think that’s holding me back as far as any mainstream success. Who knows? Things could change. The group of people I have following my shit really like me because I don’t do compromise and keep labels far the fuck away.
The arrogant response is I know how to do too much shit. I can’t make up my mind. My shit is always all over the place because I want to do everything. I want to write these kinds of songs, I want to get on this show here — none of this shit goes together. I have too many interests, and I can pull off a lot of them. Cohesive bores me.
Casal: The Getback is a collective of folks (a few artists, rappers, singers, video directors and other organizing folks) from the Bay Area that help pull off a lot of stuff I, or other people in the squad, are involved in and ordinarily costs a lot of money. So we can shoot music videos whenever we want and don’t have to pay, get access to theatre and film opportunities and travel because this small network of collaborators have agreed to always help each other out in our careers or dream-chasing. Our slogan is ‘keeping good art in rotation’ so we’re invested in helping other artists when we can while producing and putting out as much quality art as we can — whether that be theatre, film, poetry, music or whatever — and encouraging other folks to do the same.
The Mr. Getback thing came when I moved to Wis., and my students starting calling me that. I was the only Getback member in Wis. and from their perspective, they felt that I was the head of it, that it was my shit. They just started calling me Mr. Getback all the time.
MB: How was your experience in Wis. by the way?
Casal: Complicated, inspiring and depressing. It was socially a nightmare, professionally a dream and academically I don’t know. Time will tell. Right now, it feels like a waste of time, but I know it wasn’t. I learned so much more from teaching than I did as a student. Being a student is not what got me offered the job but what inspired me to make the trip and go to school. Otherwise, I would have never gone to college. It was definitely a profound and enlightening experience in many ways, both positive and negative. I don’t regret a minute of it. It was an incredible experience.
MB: You’ve had the opportunity to travel, obviously. Which location had your favorite music scene?
Casal: You know what had the best music scene to me? Actually, I’m going to name two places since it’s between them: New Orleans, obviously, but the other curveball is Bermuda.
Bermuda’s music scene is the shit. It’s small, very community-based and it felt like there was just so much love in every little place I went to while there. There was a constant invitation for artists to get onstage, and I can’t imagine what it would be like growing up in an environment where people want you to express yourself.
It’s between that and New Orleans. I went there after Katrina and was blown away by how phenomenal the musicians were — how inspired and how passionate — all of them were. I was humbled by it.
MB: You released an album preview in the beginning of May. When does this album drop and what do listeners have to look forward to?
Casal: I am hoping to drop it in August, but I can’t promise that. I’m trying to get it done next week, actually. Everything is written, I have 90 percent of the beats and the producer lined up, so I need to just knock it out. It’s on me at this point.
What to look forward to…the last album I put out was The Monster LP. I made the album when I was on the road so I never got to go to a professional studio to even listen to it before I put it out. I didn’t get it mastered, I never heard it on speakers and I did the whole shit on headphones. This time we get to actually do it in a studio and make sure the quality of the music sounds really good.
Also, sometime in the middle of last year, I figured something out about myself as a rapper — an identity I’ve always struggled with. For some reason, just calling myself a rapper feels weird. For one, it has a negative stigma on it, which is shitty, but I don’t think I fully got what it meant to be a rapper until recently. My intersection of cadence, content and humor has come together for me in an exciting way that I’m super pumped to show off. I’ve been sitting on all these ideas and written songs with just my friends for the last year not really releasing much but excited to put them out. This sounds weird, but I don’t think people expected me to get better on this next album. That’s fun for me.
MB: Last question, do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
Casal: Doubt is healthy.
MB: Doubt is healthy?
Casal: Yeah. Doubt is healthy.
It’s not going to hurt you. It’s not going to stop you either.