A talk with Alex Steed
By Chris Busby
Alex Steed, 22, is a student at the University of Southern Maine and a columnist for USM’s student newspaper, The Free Press. Last summer, he and friend Nathaniel Whittemore (a Scarborough High School grad now attending Northwestern University) embarked on a project they called “Just Naïve Enough.” The pair traveled to several countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East to learn about volunteerism and inspire others to volunteer in poor or war-torn territories like Serbia and Palestine.
Steed is currently planning another trip abroad, this one scheduled for the summer of 2007, with local hip hop DJ and promoter Gabe Faulkner-Macklin (a.k.a. Gabe FM). They call this project Hip Hop Without Borders.
The Bollard: So tell me about this project.
Steed: We’re working on bringing hip hop to Serbia.
[In the 1990s, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic] had these kids who weren’t raised with the rhetoric of Serbian nationalism, and they weren’t raised with the rhetoric of communism. He realized the kids, the youth, were going to be the greatest challenge to his nationalist defense, so he just cut off — like any propagandist or any totalitarian government does — all aspects of popular culture that represented dissent. He and the government, right down to various warlords, heavily promoted this nationalist music called turbofolk, which is like this horrendous dance music they still play in clubs.
There’s like two camps of kids in Serbia: kids who are really into turbofolk and kids who are totally into 2Pac and Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down and Eminem – [performers] who are against the ridiculousness of government, who are social critics, but more specifically, who are against the ridiculousness of the United States, as well. Because while [Serbian kids] are trying to rebel against their own government, they don’t necessarily want to idealize the government that helped in bombing the hell out of them six years ago.
So they’re not grateful to us.
It’s interesting, their view of [us]. I just dealt with teenagers. I didn’t deal with adults. It’s tricky, because you don’t know who you’re talking to. There were a couple of uneasy situations [last summer] where I ran into nationalists. You don’t really know what people’s intentions are. Some people just won’t open up to you.
With teenagers, it was great. All the teenagers know English, as well, which is a huge help. They just wanted to hang out with whoever, wanted to hear everything about America.
This one kid who started debating me, he was like, ‘Well, you know it’s different for you Americans. You live in the big cities and your daddies buy you cars at, like, 16 years old,’ and all this other stuff. Being from Cornish [Maine], I was like, ‘I feel the same way you do, man.’
There was no way I could explain to them that the town I come from is an 80-ith the size of the town that they come from…. I felt the same exact way growing up. I felt like I was from a third-world country.
What would you and Gabe be doing?
The idea would be to go with five people, including ourselves, to teach the history of American hip hop — from Kool Herc in ’73 and Afrika Bambaataa right through now – and explain the cultural significance of what turned out to be — kind of later on in its existence, with Public Enemy and N.W.A. — a very political music, a very political form of expression.
We’re going to talk to different companies about getting donations of either equipment or money to bring equipment with us to put in various cultural centers. For example, in Zrenjanin [a town Steed visited last summer], they’re creating an American Cultural Center. We’d like to set up a place where kids can go in and create the music.
We need to start connecting on a global level, realistically connecting on a global level. We need to start transcending borders, because national borders just aren’t working. That’s my feeling. Traveling through all of these areas, I realized we all have the same problems, we just don’t all have the same resources. It’s a matter of starting to tear down national borders so we can start recognizing that we’re all humans.
Hip hop certainly went through a political period, with Public Enemy and others, but since then it seems to have devolved into music that glorifies violence, sex, etcetera. Are you concerned the Serbian kids will just get into bling and guns and so on?
The thing I fear more than the promotion of violence – because I feel like promotion of violence is a stage – is the promotion of materialism.
But no. Flat out no.
I’m delivering a speech up at a human rights conference in Orono at the end of January…. Part of the speech is about Ice-T and ‘Cop Killer.’ It [goes] so far as to compare the public trial of Ice-T and ‘Cop Killer’ to the public trial of Christ. You have someone who’s saying something dangerous to society, but in fact it’s the society that’s proven to be the dangerous thing. In Ice-T’s case, he is protesting the Rodney King trial, which actually happened, and making art of it.
The message is what’s truly important to me. The reason that I feel so strongly about doing this is, for example, in Serbia, there’s these completely mild-mannered, little white kids who love 2Pac. I too love 2Pac, but there needs to be some diversity in the message they’re getting from the music.
2Pac comes from a very violent, revolutionary standpoint. There needs to be some Mos Def in there. There needs to be some Common in there. There needs to be some N.W.A. in there, but on the other side of that there needs to be some good, old fashioned, you-just-want-to-chill-out-and-hang-out music, as well. I think by introducing more diversity in the messages, you’re gonna have far less chance of people embracing that [violent] aspect to it.
So what’s the end result you hope to achieve with this trip?
I just want to get aspects of American culture that are not bullshit, like apple pie and baseball – which I love, both of those things – I just want there to be something else about American culture [in Serbia]. Acts like 2Pac and, say, Eminem, are now global acts. You don’t necessarily think of the United States when you think of these people — when you’re in these other countries. I’d like people to recognize that some Americans came up with that – some Americans that are not the Bush administration, and some Americans that are not propaganda, came up with these various art forms.
There are very legitimate forms of art that are coming out of the States, and this is how you can connect with Americans — not on the basis of liberation and not on the basis of random agendas. You can connect with us on a very simple level, on an artistic level, and you don’t have to just unconditionally hate us for bad things that we’ve done in the past.
How are the kids there finding out about American hip hop these days?
Mix tapes, bootlegs. There’s this huge bootleg culture, at least for the next year. I think they’re finally tackling copyright issues.
[Also] the Internet, kind of. Everyone has access to a computer and has access to a phone line, but their computer’s all virused-out. All of their Internet cafés – viruses throughout the computers.
Have the kids you met there done any rapping?
Yes. I heard a tape by these three kids. I think the best I can describe them is like the gang of kids from A Christmas Story. It was like Ralphie and his two friends rapping about some brutal stuff, like how hard their day was at school and all this other stuff.
They have recording equipment, but they don’t have beat boxes or anything like that. A lot of it is a cappella. It was a very valiant effort, but something that Gabe and I are interested in is getting the technology over there for them to actually excel.
Were they rapping in English?
Yes, because to be like 2Pac, you have to rap in English. There are a couple of Serbian hip hop groups over there… but very, very few.
American hardcore does really well over there, really well. I’ve seen posters all over the place. You can totally recognize that photocopied, black-and-white, kids-screaming [look], and then once you check it out it’s totally an American hardcore band.
Kraftwerk was the first mega-group to play in Serbia since Blondie. They played when I was over there. The globalization of music hasn’t really brought many acts there yet.