Tef Poe: “That makes me the only emcee in the world with this combination of academic accolades.”
The full interview from the listicle, “6 Indie Rappers Dispel Myths About Being Independent And Explain Why They Wouldn’t Have Their Careers Any Other Way,” published on Blavity, June 2021.
Chances are you’ve heard of Tef Poe, the revolutionary. In 2014, the St. Louis native indie emcee hit pause on his career and beat the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, following the killing of Mike Brown. Since then, he’s been on a tear of community activism and social justice work, while resuming his prosperous rap career. He joined me for my article highlighting six indie artists you need to know, but his full interview was so fruitful that I had to release that as well. Buckle up, you’re in for a high-speed ride as he held nothing back. This Q&A was originally published in The Living Room.
LR: Let’s take a proverbial tour of your career, starting with how many years you’ve been active as an artist?
Tef Poe: It’s difficult to put a real number on the amount of years I’ve been active. I jumped off the porch and started attending rap battles when I was only 16-years-old. I’ve been a member of several squads and crews. In 2014, I was crowned an undefeated BET Freestyle Friday Champion. That’s the same year an unarmed teenager in my neighborhood was killed by the police. His name was Michael Brown Jr.
It was hard for me to be focused on recording at that same time. I left my regional tour and joined the movement.
Earlier that same year, I ended up signing a deal with Bungalo/ Universal. It didn’t work out, so I went back independent and dropped a concept record titled Cheer For The Villain, produced by DJ Burn One and The Five Points Bakery. If you know the history then you know Burn One has made records with ASAP Rocky, Gucci Mane, Young Dro, and more. I’ve had artists like Scarface, Killer Mike, and Talib Kweli publicly co-sign me. Right now I’m involved in a 50/50 venture with Tommy Boy Records.
In St.Louis, I’m one of the most well-known rap artists the city has ever birthed. They know me for dropping complete projects and street albums. I’ve traveled all over the world by being myself and standing up for what I believe in. Everything our team does plays a role in dictating the pulse of the culture in our city.
LR: What is one of your personal career highlights?
Tef Poe: Truthfully, going undefeated on 106 & Park was more difficult than I made it look. The lights, the cameras, and being on TV every week in front of six million came with a lot of pressure.
I’m featured in the Netflix film Whose Streets.
I’ve been an intense fan of Nas most of my life, and then I was selected by Harvard University as the Nasir Jones Hip Hop Fellow. I met Nas in Boston and thanked him for the opportunity. I’m also a Harvard University American Democracy Fellow. That makes me the only emcee in the world with this combination of academic accolades.
I am also a United States Cultural Ambassador to the country of Jordan. I’ve traveled to the Middle East and worked with the best Arab emcees in the region. I’ll be going to Egypt this summer. Over 25 mixtapes, albums, collaboration projects under my belt. I’ve recorded records with Trinidad James, Project Pat, and Young Noble from Tupac’s crew the Outlawz.
I’ve toured with Run The Jewels, Talib Kweli, Chino XL, and Immortal Technique. I’ve opened up for Lupe Fiasco, Big Krit, Kendrick Lamar, Dead Prez, Stevie Wonder, and so many more. I used to wash dishes for a living. My greatest accomplishment is using my skills to get myself out of the dish pit.
LR: Aside from having complete ownership of your work, what other benefits are there to staying indie?
Tef Poe: The ability to build your own team and then also play for the team you own is a game-changer. Being independent teaches you accountability, responsibility, and humility. You can learn the business up close and personal. My business partner Jay Stretch has been with me every step of the way. We’ve weathered a lot of storms and possible shifts in our relationship. We learned the game together and became grown men at the same time. My brothers Corey Black and Rockwell Knuckles have been there with me. Friendships and comradery are molded differently when you build them together. The underground always determines what’s relevant for the mainstream. It doesn’t matter how many streams you have if your influence doesn’t really exist.
LR: Based on your experience, what advice do you have for artists on the rise?
Tef Poe: There’s a deep difference between recreational music and music you’re making for public consumption. You don’t have to make stuff that’s not your actual forte to be successful. But you do need a well-balanced palate of versatility. Study songwriting, learn to write songs people can rap with you. Regional connections are hella important. Burning bridges doesn’t work in this business unless you manage to be more successful than the bridge you burned. But even still it’s dangerous because the music business is really all about distant relationships feeding each other. People think talking about money is a negative thing.
But this is the business of selling music. That’s already an unnatural occurrence, the ancestors most likely never intended for drum sounds to be packaged and sold as a product. Making is spiritual but selling it isn’t; capitalism is at play here at all times. So it doesn’t matter how much you’re praying for success if you aren’t treating the rap game like it’s an actual business. Don’t prematurely quit your day job — use it to your advantage. The truth is if you’re not getting to the money you’re wasting your time.
LR: What platform, outlet, or resource has given you the best ability to showcase your work and earn money?
Tef Poe: That’s a dangerous question for me to answer as an indie emcee. If I tell the truth I run the risk of ruining some relationships which currently help me eat. The digital streaming platforms aren’t the kindest to us, but you need a presence on all of them for today’s music lovers. Bandcamp is the most equitable platform. But they can’t compete with Spotify and Apple in terms of listeners. We make more money off of the hand-to-hand products, merchandise, and stage shows than we do with anything else.
Learning how to book and throw my own shows has kept me alive and gave birth to my fan base. I’m vastly known as a performance artist, people know my stage shows are worth the money they’ll spend to get in the door. Immortal Technique told me I was one of the most entertaining acts he’s brought on the road with him. Nothing beats the dollar amount you make off of live performances. But most importantly learning how to control these shows on the business end has completely empowered me. I determine when I come outside and when I do come outside I get paid, the streams boost, the energy is different. Live shows are our primary breadwinner.
LR: Any indie artist myths that you want to bust?
Tef Poe: Ummmm, I don’t know, I think everybody wants to be fake like their indie these days. It seems like a maverick thing to do. But the reality is it’s not easy. This hustle is for people who have a long-term vision. This route is for people who don’t mind starving in order to walk up the mountain. You’ll have to find ways to sustain yourself outside of music. Expanding your interests and learning to get over yourself — that’s hella necessary if you’re indie. You don’t get to pick which team drafts you, you play for whoever has a check and wants to lease your services. I hate seeing artists quit their jobs without a real game plan. Nah, use that job to fund your dream. Learn how to save some bread or organize your family.
The universe gives you a route and you take it. I’m going to Egypt in August, I don’t need a corporate record label in order to do that. During the pandemic, your favorite world-famous rappers had to give their cars and jewelry back to the label. Meanwhile, we’re buying houses, and giving away cars to people in the community. We didn’t blow our money on blood diamonds. But we ain’t struggling to live.
LR: Detail your work with Hands up United and why you felt it your duty to stand in activism, especially in the current times?
Tef Poe: Hands Up United is an organization me and my homies from St.Louis started together. We created a lot of community programming, but Books and Breakfast was the most popular one. Which was basically the 2.0 version of the original Black Panther Breakfast program. We gave away thousands of books and thousands of free meals. We had technology programming teaching folks in the hood how to code and build websites for small businesses. On the flip side of that, we went to jail a lot, we stayed in court fighting different cases and whatnot.
We had friends who died, and we know people in prison behind the Ferguson Uprising. The real story wasn’t made for TV. Today I’m a part of something called Black Men Build. We give away free diapers to struggling parents, we put free coats on kids’ backs in the winter, and we clean up the community. We were also outside on the frontlines of COVID-19 giving away free masks and protective gear. We’re nationwide and functioning in seven cities within the United States. My homie Joshua Sankara is my co-field general, he’s a reputable music producer who has worked with names like Buckwild, Rick Ross, and John Legend. Our art reflects our life, in most cases. We have our own culture, our own language, our own image. We’ve also started a print magazine called “WARTIME.”
I’m not an activist, I’m a revolutionary. The only thing I’m trying to activate is an actual revolution against the rogue forces of United States imperialism and these unjust conservative drug laws. My father Frank Jackson played a huge role in the reason I act like this. He put that energy in me and I took it past the point of return. My favorite emcees are Tupac and Nipsey, I’m just doing my part to carry the torch.
LR: Tell me a bit about your role as Executive Director at The Boycott Times. Were you involved in the development of the outlet; how does it speak to your work as an activist; as an artist?
Tef Poe: Well, I’m actually also one of the owners of The Boycott Times. I don’t get involved in anything that lacks a position of equity for Tef Poe. My new label Gangland Political Party is also a subsidiary of Boycott. We’re also a clothing line that was technically started in Columbia by my business Danny. We combined forces with Cornel West and Mordecai Lyon, on the business side of the ball.
We wanted to create something fearless, so we prioritized writers with revolutionary voices. We’re a news organization with its own political agenda. Our apparel line keeps our doors open so we’re about to expand into different international markets with our clothing. Anything you order from is shipped directly to you from South America. You’ll never see our brand on shelves at Wal-Mart or any other place where the workers are extorted. We really do own the company and we don’t hide it. I was Democratically elected to be the Executive Director by our members.
I got my start in journalism from the Riverfront Times in St.Louis. I had a weekly column that only paid me $30 a week, but I was able to turn this situation into my own personal cult following. I won an NABJ Salute to Excellence Award in 2014. I’ve written for TIME, ESPN UnDefeated, and many more. I’m signed to Norton Publishing for my memoirs, aptly titled “Rebel to America.” I’m a writer, that’s my natural-born talent, so at The Boycott Times, we tell stories.
When West left Harvard we carried the story for him. That’s what really blew us up, places like The New York Times were pulling content from us for quotables in their articles. We want to do to the literary journalism world what Master P was able to the music world. In a few years, we could be what VICE could be if it was run by communists, Democratic socialists, and anti-zionist- Pan Africanists.
LR: In what ways do you believe you’ve grown as an artist — from your lyrics to your performances; what has shaped you into the emcee you are today?
Tef Poe: I think about what I’m verbally saying a lot more than I used to these days. I also understand the importance of working with the right producers. That’s what I care about more than anything else in the creative space. I want the vibe in my music to be full of substance but I also want you to enjoy yourself.
People like Duke Rellington stayed by my side and created an original sound for our universe. Even if we don’t talk every day we come together at the right time and make underground classics. There’s nothing more powerful than undeniable music. I’m blessed to work with my producer by the name of ByAnyBeatsNecessary on a really connected level. I keep people Trifeckta and Jackpot Hitz close to me. I’m not afraid to lean on the talents of my internationally-based proteges in Africa. I’ll send a record to Ethiopia and ask my brother Giday to produce and write it. I know what vocals need to be sent out to Lord Byron B. in Los Angeles. I’ve learned how to build my own Underground Railroad.
I don’t care about the bars, as much as I care about the sonics. I want people to recognize I’m capable of curating music on the same level as their favorite artists. This means my albums sonically can compete with Kendrick, J.Cole, Kanye, and whoever else but with a much smaller production budget.
LR: What next for Tef Poe, the artist?
Tef Poe: My new album Nine drops June 9th, after that, I plan on releasing “Cxntra” with T-Dubb-O and “Mo Smoke 2” with Indiana Rome. I already have another solo album ready to be released by August as well. Creatively myself and Duke Rellington feel like we have a point to prove. We want to be known like a Dre and Snoop or 40 and Drake, YG and Mustard, type of combination.
I’m also signing and managing my own cadre of artists, but we’ll talk about that more when it’s time to fully discuss these new deals. In my real life, I feel like I live at the margins of what Tupac and Malcolm X were both trying to do before they were killed. On Valentine’s Day this year, a car crashed into my living room.
That entire experience woke me up, I could’ve died. Since then I’ve been on a warpath, I live an innately political life because I’m a Black man in Amerikkka but my music isn’t all about politics. I’ve ghost-written for some of the dopest non-political rappers in the culture today. I like to twist up concepts, I discuss my relationships with women, I talk about my shortcomings. Nine is basically a concept album — it flows like a movie. If you’re interested it’s in checking it out…it’s already inside of your phone, smoke one and zone out. Hit me on IG and tell me how you feel about it.