Posted by StreetWise in Magazine Articles
Adopted by a foster father who inspired his love of music, Rappn Tate, StreetWise Vendor 2343 and activist rapper, tells of his life preaching through lyrics. Advocating for education and against violence, Tate toured public schools for years spreading his message, and impressing audiences with his dual skills: rapping and playing trombone.
He is best known for his work in the Chicago Public School system, traveling from school to school for almost two decades teaching kids to stay in school and stay away from drugs and gangs. He’s produced several albums under his father’s record label, T.O.M.A., all of which promote messages supporting youth literacy and education and advocate against youth violence.
StreetWise Director of Distribution and Vendor Services Greg Pritchett first met Tate at a music festival in Gary, Indiana, before reuniting with him years later at StreetWise. Below are excerpts from our interview with Tate.
How did you meet your foster father?
Someone named David Goliath had a competition at the Rose Theater on the South Side for rappers and singers. I went and auditioned and won. I then was introduced to a man named Daryl Wilson. They call him the Saxophone Preacher. He had an independent record label called TOMA: Temple of Music Association. Soon after, there was some problems at the foster care center where I was living on the North Side and I wanted to get out. I called up Wilson and he told me, “Come where I am at and I will take you in as my son.” He began to engage me in his life and he said that I reminded him of himself. I played the trombone, which is unheard of for a rapper. Wilson liked the idea that we had something in common, since he played the saxophone. He also liked that I came from Brooklyn, New York, where my aunt raised me.
What was life with Wilson like?
My foster father made me study books and read a lot about musicians. I learned about a guy named Barry White, who used to direct his symphonies without even practicing a lick of music. I soon made a single and my father put me on his label. My father was a student of Columbia College, but he never graduated. He showed me that you don’t always have to be the one in front. I was marketing his album, even though I had one song on the album. So I was, in a sense, marketing myself at the same time.
How did you become homeless?
I ended up homeless because I was going through depression. At the time I was stressed out and what happened was they did a story on me. The Chicago Sun Times did a story on me being homeless. Someone I met at a church talked to me and knew me from my work at the Chicago Park District. All the while I was homeless, I was going to public schools and talking to students about violence and homelessness. There were a lot of homeless children in the CPS and they saw me as a way to connect to these kids. One day I was talking to students at Thomas Chalmer School and someone at StreetWise had come to talk to me. He had read the article about me in the Sun Times.
You said you toured through a lot of public schools. How did you first become involved in that?
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dean Goldberg saw people going crazy for hip-hop. Goldberg saw me perform in front of 5,000 youth at The Shell where Millennium Park is now. He had never seen someone rap and play the trombone at the same time. He came up to me and asked me “how would you like to work for the park district doing what you do?” I said, how much are they paying? I was a senior in high school at the time and I needed some money. He responded by saying “$10.50 an hour.” I was thrilled because that was a lot of money at the time. I said that I could only do it for a little time, because I have to go to Hollywood by 1992. I said that in 1989. Dean agreed and told me that I had to pass a music exam because I would be an instructor. I did well on the exam and he hired me. He told me that he would drive me to whatever park and would pay me to play.
What kind of work did you do there?
The Literacy Hip-Hop Program was created when I found a lot of young males did not learn how to read in CPS schools when I was playing music in the parks. Many of the young males were afraid to read aloud because they had a speech impediment, and I could sympathize with them because I had an impediment as a child. I started volunteering for schools that were on probation and taught students how to read. And I would always keep my rap clean and talk about positive things. No one likes to hear the negatives about society. I did that for 18 years.
What really inspired you to advocate against youth violence and support education initiatives?
My five kids. I am very proud of them. I realize that their generation is going to be in trouble if I don’t do something. For example, 5-year-olds nowadays sing Lil’ Wayne songs, not the ABC’s. It is very severe and is a problem.
What current projects are you working on?
I am working on a new non-violence album. I plan to release it under my foster father’s record label and I hope it will be a voice for the people and really speak to children about literacy and non-violence. Hopefully StreetWise can use me as a model for non-violence.
How has StreetWise impacted your life?
Well, I think the most obvious way is that it allowed me to access employment during one of my greatest periods of struggle. It helped me stay on my feet. But today, as I focus more on youth education and helping young kids stay in school and off the streets, I think StreetWise can be an asset for teens. I want teenagers and young adults to come to StreetWise and use all the amazing resources that this organization has. I think young people shy away from StreetWise because it might not seem like the “cool” thing to do, but this organization is growing every day and I just want younger generations to understand that StreetWise can be the answer for them. I hope to inspire youth to come here and see what it’s all about.
By Brittany Langmeyer & Duncan Weinstein
StreetWise Staff & Editorial Intern