Singer and rapper Rexx Life Raj has seen the world from quite a few angles in his life. From growing up in Berkeley and Vallejo, to playing offensive line for the Boise State football team, to his music career, which has exploded in recent years, he’s had multiple perspectives on the world.
At the moment, though, he’s stuck at home with the rest of us. He’s living with his parents in Vallejo, helping to take care of things for his mother while she recovers from cancer. He’s been passing the time playing “Call of Duty” and the Classic Edition of “World of Warcraft.” As he puts it, he’s taking the opportunity to just live a normal life.
He’s also still making music. He recently announced California Poppy 2, a sequel to his 2018 EP of the same name, and released its first single “Canvas.” If you’re into basketball, you’ve noticed that his song “Bounce Back” is ESPN’s official song of the NBA Playoffs. He’s a huge fan of our previous in-conversation subject, Damian Lillard. He’s also playing Inside Lands this Saturday.
Editors Daniel J. Willis and Roman Gokhman spoke to Raj about his family’s history of activism, his view of the resurgence of civil rights protests, and what he would like to see people do to help the cause.
Daniel J. Willis: In addition to being from the East Bay, which seems to be the center of a lot of activism, you’ve got a family history.
Rexx Life Raj: That right, yeah. My pops was aligned with the Panthers growing up, and the Muslims and everything. So he for sure comes from there. He’s cut from that cloth.
Willis: Has he told me some stories about that? How deep into it was he or is he now?
Rexx Life Raj: Yeah, he’s pretty deep. My dad is for sure political in every aspect and he’s telling me a bunch of stories. I guess he kind of grew up with Huey P and Bobby Seale so he knew those guys. He used to tell me about how that started in North Oakland, kind of where Children’s Hospital is in North Oakland. That’s where it all started.
So he’s got a bunch of stories about coming up. And I just think the Black experience back then was crazy, because everybody was so united on one front—especially in the Bay Area—of how they wanted to move as Black people and what they would and wouldn’t accept in just getting along. So I think his experience definitely influenced me.
Willis: You’ve got the second generation thing going on with this. You’ve got the background, the heritage and the stories. We’re moving into a new civil rights movement. How does it compare to what you’ve heard and what you thought about the stories from the old days?
Rexx Life Raj: It’s interesting. I talked to my pops, when he talks about it. Back then people were more united in terms of what we want collectively. I think right now it’s pretty dope to see people with more of a revolutionary mindset. I know I’ve got friends who over the last few years have turned real political, real revolutionary in terms of the way they think. It’s just been interesting talking to him.
For me, I think the biggest thing is it’s really clean to see the awareness that is spreading around about what’s going on. It’s one of those things. Within the Black community, we already knew what was happening. When I talked to my dad about it he’s like, “Yo, what’s going on right now is no different than what was going on in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ’80s. The only difference now is that they got cameras to see it.” I feel like the blessing is that people have cameras, anything that goes on is recorded. So now it’s not just word of mouth; what we’ve been saying. You can actually see what’s going on.
Seeing more people being aware of what’s going on and being willing to take action in their own way [is good]. … Whatever way you feel, you can make change as long as you’re attempting to make a change, then I’m with it. As long as it’s positive and we’re all moving in the same direction, you’re doing something. Whether it’s giving money, whether it’s starting a nonprofit, whether it’s doing this interview series like you guys are doing, whatever you’re doing to promote awareness and change is what I’m about.
Roman Gokhman: Is it weird to hear white people talking about the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s like “it was really bad back then,” but knowing that it’s the same right now? That some people are just not able to see the parallels or understand that right now is just as bad as it was back then?
Rexx Life Raj: It’s always kind of weird, but also to me it’s a willful ignorance at this point. It’s too much. You know, with the internet and books you can read and see what was going on. Also I feel like, especially in this country we live in, there’s an illusion of, “Everything is OK” if you can’t see it and it’s not really affecting you.
A lot of racism now is more covert. It’s not as in-your-face. That’s another thing my dad said; that the difference between Southern racism and racism out here is that, at least in the South, they tell you they’re racist. Out here it’s more covert. It’s the little shit. Like, we’ll be in the Berkeley hills, and you think Berkeley’s hella progressive and liberal and shit. But if you’re in the hills for too long, the police are coming and you don’t know who called them. In certain areas you get shit like that.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was more in your face. The Klan was outside. You’d see these pictures of the police siccing dogs on people. You’d see lynching pictures, all this crazy shit. But now it’s more covert with the prison pipeline system from elementary schools going to prisons. It’s the drug laws that are arresting way more minorities than white people. It doesn’t seem as bad, but it is. It is bad and it’s damn near worse because it’s so deep in the system that you can’t see it. And that’s even more frightening.
Gokhman: You’ve said before that white people in the suburbs have no idea of the stuff that’s happening in poor black neighborhoods throughout the East Bay. What are some of the things that you’ve seen that you carry with you?
Rexx Life Raj: It’s weird because I didn’t understand what I normalized until I went to college. My parents stay in Vallejo right across from the Crest, in College Park. You’ll hear sirens. You’ll hear gunshots. It’s just kind of something you get used to. It’s just what happens. It comes with living here. But when I went to school in Boise, Idaho it used to trip me out because at night, it was peaceful. There was literally nothing happening at nighttime. That’s when I realized, “Oh yeah, where you’re at, that’s not normal. It’s normal for you, but people aren’t living like that.”
It’s the way the system made it. It’s oppressed areas and underprivileged areas. Areas that aren’t funded, that don’t have money, crime happens. It happens like that around the world. And that’s what’s crazy. It’s not an American issue, it’s in all areas where there’s poverty, we have all these symptoms. The difference is in America, we have all these guns so niggas are killing each other. But in other places it’s the same thing.
To me, at the bottom line of all of it is empathy. If somebody tells you, like, “Yo, this is what we’re going through down here and this is what’s happening,” then you should either respect that and try to help them, or at least try to understand what’s going on. What’s crazy to me is that when Black people, or people of color, or oppressed people talk about their lived experience and people just be like, “No, that’s not happening.” What are you talking about? What do you mean no it’s not happening? We’re living this right now!
I feel like lived experience is like the biggest thing that you can learn from. It’s literally empathy. If it was up to me, all politicians, before you’re a politician, you have to go live in the hood for a minute. You have to go live in a Mexican neighborhood for a minute. You have to go live in Asian neighborhood for a minute. So you could really understand what’s going on.
The problem is people [who] don’t understand you really are ignorant, in the definition of the word “ignorant,” to these different lived experiences and situations, which makes you come up with assumptions about it. You’re assuming things off narratives that have been built off TV, and it’s not real. The best way to learn is to go there and really try to understand people and humanize people.
Willis: You mentioned that racism now is a little bit more subtle, but recently Trump has been getting a lot less subtle with his tweets about the middle class, or the suburbs and changing laws to keep the suburbs white. It’s not subtle anymore; he’s just saying it.
Rexx Life Raj: When you’re a leader and you’re in power, when you start saying things like that and you have a following that believes in you, there’s no telling what you’re igniting your followers to do with those words. That’s why it’s frightening. That’s why it’s always been sick with Trump. He says things but, you know, there are consequences and actions for things you say, because people who believe in you and believe in this country and everything it stands for and they are willing to die for it. So they’re outside when people are protesting for human rights standing there with AKs because of some words he said.
We’ve always kind of knew where Trump stood. He’s been preaching to one side this whole time and he hasn’t really been too covert about it. I think it’s terrible characteristic to have as a leader. That’s crazy.
Gokhman: How do you not get so raging mad when you hear rhetoric like that?
Rexx Life Raj: Because, for me, it’s not new. This is what I was born into. Like my dad, I learned early that this is just kind of like what the system is. Then you learn to deal with it. Some people do get raging mad. I got friends who are infuriated by it; they can’t stand it. And this is always interesting to me how it affects different people in different ways. I’m for sure mad, but I’m not enraged by it. …
I try not to let outside sources influence me to get out of my character and do crazy shit. I try to stay centered at all times. So yes, it is for sure upsetting, but I’m just not walking around in rage. I’m just trying to figure out ways that I can educate people, figuring out ways that I can help people, figure out ways that I can raise awareness. Because it’s all control at the end of the day.
Gokhman: You released “War” in 2019, and then you released a timely video for it a few weeks ago. What I heard was that you initially did’t want to do that. What were your reservations and why did you decide to do it?
Rexx Life Raj: When it comes to that type of stuff, I feel weird because I almost feel like I don’t want it to be self-serving. … I feel like a lot of people either try to bring attention to themselves or profit off of the struggle. I just don’t want to come off like that. I wasn’t gonna do it but a few people I reached out said, “Yo, you should do it because the song is resonating.” And I was like, “Nah, just doesn’t feel right. If I do it we’ve got to find a way to donate the money or something.”
So what happened is when I was on tour with Bosh his photographer, Chase; we got close. He’s a videographer and photographer. He was shooting the protests in Seattle. … I didn’t even ask him; he just sent [a cut of the song set to Seattle protests] to me one day. Like, “Yo, the song match these visual so well; if you want to drop it you can drop it.” … The video isn’t the whole song, it’s probably like two minutes of the song, because that’s basically what he captured and can make sense. So it just kind of fell into my lap. After talking to some people I was like, “I could bring more awareness to it and show people what’s going on through this video and I could donate the money.” … So that’s how that came about.
Gokhman: Where’s the money going?
Rexx Life Raj: We donated it to People’s Breakfast in Oakland. They go out and they literally feed all the houseless people in Oakland and all these camps. There’s a camp on MacArthur they feed. There’s a camp in West Oakland; they feed them. Me, ALLBLACK and Kehlani where we went out there. It was us, People’s Breakfast in Oakland and Puma, and we gave out like 500 pairs of shoes, we gave out 500 meals, we gave out 500 hygiene kits. I’m out there in the field weekly with it. That’s who I donate money to.
Willis: Some people don’t want to go out to protests because of the coronavirus and are struggling with what they can do. Do you have any ideas of stuff you would recommend they do?
Rexx Life Raj: Promoting the things you can promote. That’s, I think, the beauty of social media and the internet. Everyone has their own little following. You could post something, it’s nothing for you to repost something on your page or your story or on Twitter. You don’t know who’s gonna retweet it and that goes a long way.
And there’s a million different organizations. I have a group of friends right now who every week or every two weeks; we get together on a Zoom call and try to find different organizations and nonprofits that we believe in that we can give back to. We’re trying to pool our money to give to those nonprofits. And I think that’s the easiest thing you can do. Get five or six friends once every couple of weeks, everybody comes to the table with a nonprofit organization that you believe in, and then you guys pull up and give money to every once a month or once every couple of months. I feel like that’s really simple to do.
I commend anybody in a place of privilege trying to understand people who don’t have as much privilege as them. If you’re white, even like me—understanding that I have more privilege than a black woman, I have more privilege than a trans person. When you understand that, I feel like that’s a good place to just start from. Because you’re open to understanding people who don’t have it as good as you. I commend that.
It’s not my place for me to personally to tell you what to do. But if you’re open to learning and helping people, then opportunities to help people will present themselves. Whether that’s giving money. Whether that’s a situation where you hear another white person talking crazy about Black people, that’s your point of entry to be like, “Yo, no! That’s not cool, we’re not doing that no more.” Any way you feel in your heart to make changes the way you should make change.