So, the story of how I linked up with today's featured poet is pretty crazy.
I've been following hip-hop artist and spoken word poet Jason "Propaganda" Petty's work for a while now, really since my freshman year of college when he dropped his fourth studio album, Excellent. Since then, I've loved getting to hear him on various podcasts, especially his conversation with my friend Branden Harvey about positively affecting culture with art.
After that podcast episode, I texted Branden because I knew I needed to share Propaganda's perspective on the Car Window Poetry blog. He put me in touch with Prop via email, but I didn't hear anything back. Then, a few weeks later, I was visiting my best friend in Los Angeles, where Prop is from, and randomly ran into him at a church Bible study.
We met after the service, and I shared my heart behind Car Window Poetry with him and how I wanted to feature him on the blog. Now, what you're about to read is my conversation with Propaganda about his creative process, poetry's ability to touch the heart, and helping people better understand difficult concepts through metaphor.
Who is Propaganda?
I started doing poetry a few years back in the L.A. spoken word scene, but, even before that, I was pretty heavily involved in underground hip-hop. I was just this L.A. rapper battling all the time. I'm an L.A. native and I got involved in hip-hop pretty young and did a number of things around that space.
I was part of a larger group called The Tunnel Rats, and, throughout that time, we did Warped Tour and Smoke Out. I went on tour with KRS-One. I did a lot of really, really hip-hop stuff.
I fell in love with poetry in college and started traveling around doing that. I was a Christian the whole time, but, if you're familiar with how L.A. works, there wasn't a specific space for Christian rappers or poets. I knew a lot Christian rappers and poets, but we were all just at the local spot.
There was an event at the Key Club out in Hollywood where I think someone connected the dots and realized I was a Christian. Then, I started getting invited into different Christian circles to speak and perform.
I taught high school for six years. I got a master's in education. And now, I do music and poetry.
Is there a difference between rap and poetry?
It may be corny, but, if you use a cooking analogy, it kind of helps. So, sushi is not nigiri which is not sashimi, but it's still sushi. Hip-hop and poetry are definitely different art forms. And, if you're going to specialize in one, you're going to have elements where the purist part of you comes out, where you want to be true to that particular art form. There are going to be influences from other areas, but you want to be true to what it is.
So, for me, in terms of hip-hop, I'm built from the old world where MCs are MCs, you rock the party, you battle, you serve dudes, you're complex, you're intricate, you rep your city. I come from that complex hip-hop that also has an element of protest to it. For me, I come from that world, so I want my hip-hop to be hip-hop.
As far as the hip-hop side, I'm much more of a purist than I am on the poet side. There are elements of poetry that have a lot more to do with literature, and it has a long history with guys like G.K. Chesterton and Orson Welles. There's a longer history of poetry, so if you're going to be a purist in that sense, then you're going to pull from those things.
I learned to pull from poetic literature, but I basically felt like there were things that I just couldn't express in rap because of how much I love rap and I want rap to be rap. Everybody doesn't have this opinion, but, with music, I think what makes a song a great song isn't the words or the music; it's the words and the music. It's a marriage.
The strength of the marriage is the strength of the song. Who's more important in a marriage? The husband, or the wife? That's a ridiculous question. They're both equal. In poetry, the words have to do all the work, so I think that you have to write much differently.
Rap is my native tongue, so I pull from hip-hop as an influencer for my poetry, but, in poetry, the words have to be able to stand alone. That's the difference. I feel like if the words don't stand alone, then you don't have a good poem.
What is the story you're seeking to tell in your poetry?
It's kind of hard to nail down an overarching message for me and my poetry. A lot of it has to do with the rhythm of life that I'm in at the moment. But I think, for me, I'm always interested in taking the long, scenic route to a conclusion. I'm always interested in another perspective or another way to look at something.
To be as trite as to use my own work, one of the last poems I put out was called "20 Years" about the relationship between the United States and the country's laws and systems of supremacy as they relate to people of color. But the poem is about an abusive marriage. I take something that's not mentioned directly and come at it from another angle.
I have another poem that isn't released yet – it's about racism. But the story is my daughter brought a cat home, and I'm just not a cat person. So it's about not being a cat person, but no it's not. I'm always interested in the question: What's another way to say this?
Ultimately, I try to write really soil-level about what humans are experiencing. I try not to put my poetry stuff in the rafters. Even though I may use metaphors that are in the rafters, my poetry is supposed to be really gritty as far as showing people this is where we live.
I think people get a challenge from my work. For me, it's (a) let me put words to what you don't know how to put words to, or (b) let me present a very challenging perspective. I also like to have something where the knife cuts on both ends. So, if we're talking about you being the problem, at some point, the knife is going to turn and it's going to be about my problem and how I'm participating in these ails that I'm pointing at outside.
Why do you believe words are powerful in challenging people and helping them think differently?
Because you're using words, but it's really not about words. You're using words to invoke either a sense of connection or a sense of personhood. A good poet doesn't necessarily tell you how that poet feels, but somehow they tell you how you feel. The words are actually supposed to tap you at the small of your back, climb up your spinal cord, and animate your mouth or resonate in your own brain. So it's not so much the words but what the words invoke.
So I really think the why is because the words are the access point to the part of you that is really the point, the part of you that we're really trying to get to. But it's not so much the words because, if that's the case, then read a scholarly journal. Read statistics because those are just words, but it's not about that. The poetry is something that's designed to go beyond words and get to the heart.
What is your creative process?
I'm never not writing. I'm kind of writing all day. My brain is Post-It Notes. When I'm washing dishes, when I'm cooking, while I'm watching the news, while I'm listening to podcasts, while I'm listening to music, it's all a writing process. The palette that I pull from is the world we live in.
So, if I'm writing all the time, it means I'm thinking all the time, which means that I'm listening all the time. I listen far more and far longer than I write. So, I might've been sitting on an idea or a feeling about something for six or seven months before I actually write about it because I'm thinking about it from so many different perspectives.
A lot of it is not intentional in the sense that I'm like, I want to write about bourbon and bourbon is going to be a metaphor for raising children. I'm not going to go, Okay, I'm going to read a million books about bourbon. No, it would potentially happen like this: I'm with my toddler all day. My toddler goes to bed. Then, as soon as she goes to bed, I'm sitting down finally and I'm going to pour myself some bourbon. So, I'm just sitting there on the couch feeling great and then I'm like, I wonder if there's a connection. Then, you're like, That's funny, and you giggle about it. Then, the next day, you're like, Man, I might be on to something.
I'm thinking about it for so much longer than I'm actually writing. So, you have to observe. It's a lot of observation. It's a lot of listening. It's a lot of process for me, then I'm just jotting one-liners here and there, throwing them away, thinking about what works. For me, it's as I go about my day.
In the current season of your life, what themes do you find yourself writing about most?
Obviously, you can't ignore the election and Trump. But I think, for me, that was just the capstone of a very emotional year when it came to things, such as trying to explain to white evangelicals that racism is real and they should care about the undocumented or that Aleppo matters. You know, just trying to explain things that seem so hella basic. I think a lot of my trauma was just kind of racking my brain trying to figure out why people don't get this.
Any artist who's worth their salt can articulate what's happening publicly and how that's a problem and can make music off of it. But for Jason, for me, if I find a lot of people saying something, I want to find something else to say. I want to talk about how this season has affected my mold and my heart and the raising of my children and what's going on in me that has caused me to see the world differently. What's going on here is more just like a backdrop of what's happening at the soil.
For this next album I'm putting out, a lot of it is really that, which is a more painful process because you really gotta dig real deep and be honest. I can't leave all of the pain and the corruption and the wrongness out of me. I can't say that all of it's happening outside. I have to talk about what's happening inside and where I'm finding myself falling into despair and cynicism and being hypercritical and impatient and judgmental. It's not saying that, what I'm angry about, I don't have a right to be angry about. But it's saying I want to talk about the anger, not the fact that I have the right to be angry.
What affect does poetry have on you as the writer?
It depends on whether we're talking about a commissioned piece, or something for an album, which is usually part of a body of work, or a more unplanned, casual piece brought about my inspiration. I think all of those things are different processes and have different impacts on me, but, overall, if it's something that I'm putting my name on that's not a commissioned piece, because of my process, it has already rattled around in my ribcage for so long.
Because I've thought about it for so long, I've already been through the emotional rollercoaster of despair, hope, change, joy and laughter of whatever that poem is going to be. A lot of people write therapeutically. My writing is oftentimes in retrospect because I've thought about it for so long.
I see you as a translator who makes difficult concepts easier for people to understand. How do you do this in your writing?
If I find myself fielding the same tweets or the same question from a bunch of different people, (1) I can't answer you in 140 characters, then (2) I'm seeing there are so many people who are asking the same question and I can't understand why they don't understand it, so I try to find the disconnect.
Then, the sociologist hat gets put on, so I'm like, from the 10,000 ft. perspective, why is there a large swath of culture that has a gross misunderstanding of how to relate to each other? How does this happen? Where does this come from? And what's a great analogy to give them for them to understand, so you're not putting out little fires but you're answering this overarching question? Some of my more recent work has come from that.
It's like speaking in parables.
Actually, man. In a lot of ways. With parables, Jesus, if ever, very rarely finishes the story, nor does he answer the question that the people think they're asking. Like the Prodigal Son parable, for example, does the older brother go back into the party? Does he forgive his younger brother? Does he just stay outside of the party salty? Does his dad stay out with him? Do they both walk back in?
The story is not over. I don't know what happens. But that's not the point of the story. I pull a lot from that sort of science.
When the Pharisees approach Jesus and they're like, Good Teacher, I noticed that your disciples washed their hands on the Sabbath. Tell me about this, and Jesus goes, Why do you call me good? He was like, There's your answer. Your answer is, when you answer why you called me good, you'll understand why my disciples washed their hands just now.
That's what I mean by taking the long road, that scenic route, towards a conclusion. You don't even know you've already answered this question. So going back to the "20 Years" poem, you know that it's crazy to look in a dude's face and tell him to just get over the racism he has experienced. You already know that's crazy. So then, when you turn around and you're telling Native Americans or people of color that it's in the past, you already know that that's crazy. I pull a lot from that parable thing.
What are you consuming right now that's having a significant impact on you?
The thing I'm intrigued with and I think I'm probably going to be cooking for a while is this concept of post-truth. That's the new word that they're adding to the Oxford Dictionary. You have the modern era, the postmodern era, and now we're in an era that's called post-truth where essentially the facts don't matter.
So, the uprise of these fake news sites and Trump's election are perfect examples of the facts not mattering. It's how you feel about the information being put in front of you, but it's incorrect information. With post-truth, inconsistencies don't matter. Trump is taunting Hillary Clinton and Governor Rick Perry and all these people about getting checks from Goldman Sachs and then you hire the CEO of Goldman Sachs in your cabinet.
I'm intrigued by this time and people making a mockery of fact-checking. You had a fact-checking thing during the debates for both candidates, but people made a mockery of the facts being checked. I'm guilty of making fun of the prudish, conservative evangelical who was upset about prayer being taken out of schools, but they understood that, if you make truth relative, then eventually truth isn't going to matter. It's almost like, Oh crap, we're here.
Car Window Poetry is a movement of people gathering their friends, writing encouraging poems, and sharing those poems on car windows. What words of encouragement would you like to speak into someone's life today?
Don't let things that are beneath you define your narrative.
For example, for people of color, specifically black people, if you allow your story to start at slavery, then you've defined your narrative by something that's beneath you. That's not where your story starts. For Syrian refugees, if you allow your narrative to start there, you're missing the beauty of who you are. As a Christian, I believe people started the day creation started, so you have a long history of beauty and joy and specificity. Don't let things that are beneath you define your narrative.
To learn more about Propaganda, you can check out his website here. It features a collection of all of his albums, all available for free, as well as a listing of his upcoming shows. You can also watch a few of his music videos and book Prop for your next event!