Rapper Fat Tony talks racism, elitism in music and his love for Chief Keef

Fat Tony performs at Forecastle Music Fest, July 19 2015. Photo by Olivia Graham.

Fat Tony performing at Forecastle on July 19, 2015. Photo by Olivia Graham.

It’s hotter than two rats getting busy in a wool sock in Louisville, Kentucky, on the third day of Forecastle Music Festival. After watching Fat Tony’s powerful set, we all chug a few plastic water bottles before heading backstage to talk with the Houston rapper who just traveled from Atlanta the night before and would soon be on his way to Chicago. Somehow he still maintains an excited energy despite the mugginess. Fat Tony’s second album, Smart Ass Black Boy, came out mid-2013, and he’s about as witty and slyly cocky in person as his album title suggests. The passion pours out of the musician like the sweat pouring out of strange crevices on all of our bodies when Fat Tony talks about his artistry. “Being a performer has always been a big aspect of me as an artist, so I give a lot of myself when it comes to a live show,” he says.
The energy he brings to a performance parallels that of some of the musicians he respects the most– from Miles Davis and The 13th Floor Elevators to UGK and Lil B. This appreciation for diversity of musical styles undoubtedly influenced his performance at Forecastle, where he dedicated almost every song to a different type of person and passed the mic numerous times to fans in the front row. “When I step on stage, I think of myself as a hip-hopper and a punk-rocker and just like y’all. I’m a musician, I’m a fan of music and I’m a man. We’re all the same.” One thing that frustrates him is that people sometimes forget their similarities because of their musical elitism. “Music is about sharing,” Fat Tony says. “When I meet people that are more familiar with an artist than I am, I want them to teach me about it.” He believes that regardless of genre and popularity, music can be life-changing. “It’s important to explore the most underground music because you never know what you’ll find, but don’t shit on somebody because all they’ve known in their life is popular music.”

Even in popular music, IU’s cozy region of the Midwest doesn’t have many representatives on the charts– the only notable artists that come to mind (or a quick Google search) are Big Sean and Kanye West. Some hip-hop heads wonder if the Midwest has a future in the genre. Freddie Gibbs and Danny Brown are often revered as the prides of Midwest hip-hop, yet both still are mostly prominent only in the indie-rap realm, with a majority of their fan-bases being White twenty-somethings. However, Fat Tony strongly refutes the possibility of no musical future for the No Coast. “Michael Jackson is from Gary, Indiana, from the Midwest. Let that sink in before you have to wonder if the Midwest has a future in music. He is probably worldwide the most important music artist of all time.” He further argues that the Midwest is currently on the vanguard of hip-hop thanks to artists like Chief Keef. “A lot of people think that drill and Chief Keef is mindless, ‘stupid’ music, but I know it as being honest and vulnerable in the same way that I’m trying to approach music.” In midst of heated internet beef about ghostwriting and even beat production, Fat Tony tips his hat to Chief Keef for doing it all on his own. “It’s even more impressive now that Chief Keef makes his own beats in a really avant-garde way, close to a punk-rock mentality.”

Fat Tony’s newest track featuring Asher Roth

Growing up with a classical singer as a mother and a Nigerian soldier as a father in the proclaimed musical melting pot of Texas, Fat Tony cites punk-rock and hip-hop as two of the biggest influences in his work, which, according to him, are much more similar than often realized, mainly for their DIY mindset and bare-bones approach to music. “(In punk and hip-hop) it’s like, ‘yo, we’re coming out here to be honest, to express ourselves, to give the audience something that’s different than what they normally get, to remind them of what it means to be a real human trying to communicate via music.’”

The ethics and intentionality of music are incredibly vital to the rapper. “Music is always a representation of where the people and their communities are,” Fat Tony says, and because of this, music can act as a tool in not only combating the struggles of existence but also in communicating those struggles to others. But appreciation can enter into dangerous territory when one enjoys a type of music (or other cultural artifacts) but not the culture from which it’s derived. Fat Tony argues that consumption of historical Black culture, like backpack rap or jazz, without noting the current necessities of the Black community, is a big point of White supremacy. “It makes it easier to scapegoat modern Black people as being a problem because (the historical part of Black culture that White people may be into) is closer to a time where Black people were less privileged and more under the dictation of White supremacy.”

And as a young White person living in the liberal utopia of Bloomington IN, it can be exasperating realizing that the 1990s dictation of living in a color blind, post-racial society is not only false but also dangerous. Fat Tony, now 27, identifies with this frustration, but because his mom went to a segregated school, he remained strongly critical of those who preached the end of racism when he came of age. “(Racial violence and oppression) has been happening for a long time in this country, and is probably going to continue to happen,” he says, “but at this point it’s really interesting because a new generation is starting to see that, and the young people now grew up feeling like maybe all this was behind them.” But for those who may feel disheartened by the news of People of Color appearing dead in jail cells or who may want to live in blissful ignorance of the continued struggles of gender and sexual minorities or the disabled in this country, Fat Tony urges you to continue engaging with the uncomfortable and to keep fighting hate. “Young people are misled all the time on both sides of the fence… but (they) need to listen to their hearts, ride with that feeling and make some new shit go down in this country.”