Words by Jonathan Stout
Atlanta based MC Sa-Roc made a buzz in 2016 as the second female rapper to be signed by genre staple Rhymesayers Entertainment. However, this was far from the beginning of her career, as she’d already released nine albums by that point.
Her creative journey can be traced all the way to her childhood in Southeast D.C., where her parents made sure she was exposed to art and culture at an early age. This early inspiration, followed by a leap of faith from D.C. to Atlanta, helped shape the context of her newest album, The Sharecropper’s Daughter, which is arguably her most powerful work to date.
In an era where underground hip hop is once again standing up to the excesses of mainstream rap by bringing back socially conscious lyrical content, Sa-Roc seems to be a forerunner in a potential upcoming renaissance. With the help of dj/producer, Sol Messiah, Sa-Roc expertly blends old school influences filtered through a contemporary lense. With gritty delivery, catchy melodicism and thought provoking lyrics, The Sharecropper’s Daughter offers true heads everything they could ask for in a contemporary hip hop release.
Off Shelf: You have a very interesting background, filled with rich cultural and literary influences, from your parents and through your time at the Sankofa Institute. I know that you take inspiration from many genres and literary sources, but what artists first inspired you to rap specifically?
Sa-Roc: I have had a myriad of varied influences, all that have shaped both my expression and the way that I hear and create music. I can’t say that there were artists who directly inspired me to rap because my foray into a career as an MC was kind of accidental. By that, I mean I didn’t plan on it, nor had I been actively pursuing a creative career. But as my voice, skill, and stage presence developed, I found that some of the characteristics of the artists that had a profound effect on me as a listener, had inadvertently found their way into my artistic expression as a performer.
For example, the brilliant way that Lauryn Hill paired her deft wordplay with melody and tender vulnerability, the seemingly frenetic yet effortlessly controlled energy of Busta Rhymes, the commanding power and teachable bars of KRS-One, the unrelenting lyricism and technical skill of Black Thought, and the metaphysics and esotericism of Jay Electronica and Rakim, have all found their way into my work. They all gave me permission to create music on my own terms and charter my own lane in hip hop.
OS: What made you flip the script from studying biology at Howard University to relocating to Atlanta? Was it your goal to pursue your poetry and rhymes there or was that something that manifested organically?
Sa-Roc: I just wasn’t satisfied with the way my life was going. Although I loved biology, I felt deeply that something was missing and I knew that I wouldn’t find it within a career in science or in D.C. I had originally wanted to move to New York, but I couldn’t afford the rent! [laughs] I ended up choosing Atlanta because I had some family there and it was a city with a cost of living that my humble budget could handle.
Although I’ve always been a writer of both poetry and prose and have long been attracted to the creative arts, I’d never seriously considered it as a career. In Atlanta, I met and became friends with Sol Messiah, my current dj and producer, who was working with some amazingly talented artists at the time. Through him, I was introduced to the independent hip hop scene in Atlanta and was surrounded and inspired by amazing music and incredible MCs. It wasn’t until 2008, four years after I’d been living in Atlanta, that I ever seriously attempted or even had an inkling of interest in rhyming – besides goofy freestyling as a teenager.
There was one time that I asked Sol Messiah if I could record one of my poems to his beats – I was obsessed with listening to his instrumental cds at the time – and he indulged me. Once he heard me rhyme, he was surprised at what I was able to do as a newbie, so he encouraged me to write more. He taught me how to write a 16, to take risks, and to use my singing voice more. My creative mind was immediately sparked and I started writing what would eventually become my first EP, Astral Chronicles. It was on from there.
OS: You’ve shared the stage and collaborated with some of the best in the industry; including Common, Jay Electronica, Rakim, De La Soul, and Talib Kweli. Your newest album features an appearance by Black Thought, who you’ve also performed with, how did you all originally link up?
Sa-Roc: It’s amazing to have had the opportunity to perform with so many artists whose work I admire so much. Though it felt so surreal as these things were happening, upon retrospect, I realized that these opportunities were confirmation that I was exactly where I needed to be. That the years that I had spent dedicated to the culture and developing my skill were starting to pay off. Both Talib Kweli and Black Thought gave me a tremendous opportunity by sharing their stage and platform with me before anyone else really had. Ironically, both times were at the same hip-hop festival in Atlanta. In this industry, all it takes is a leg up or co-sign from the right person to pique awareness of your music. Unfortunately, so many people who have the access are unwilling to share their platforms, so I’ll forever be grateful that they did so with me.
Thought and Sol Messiah have a mutual friend that has always been a champion of my music. She had been sharing my albums with him for a while and he told her he thought I was dope. In 2014, there was a hip-hop festival in Atlanta called A3C that Black Thought came down to headline for. He and I met right before he went on and I thought that would be the highlight of the evening. Little did I know, he would end up surprising the hell out of me by inviting me on stage to perform during his set! I must have made an impression, because a few months later he asked me to perform at a benefit concert – along with Rapsody and Rah Digga – for a community organization in Philly that supports and teaches principles of empowerment, social justice and wellness for women and girls. We went on to perform several more times together, and he continued to look out for me and support my movement. Fast forward to 2019, Sol Messiah and I both knew that Thought would be perfect for the “Black Renaissance” track. Judging by people’s reactions to it, we definitely made the right choice.
OS: Are there any MCs or producers that you would specifically like to collaborate with on future projects? Why?
Sa-Roc: I would love to do something with Lauryn Hill and I don’t really think that needs an explanation! [laughs] Twenty plus years and she’s still incredible. I’d love to see what kind of creative space she’s in now. Andre 3000 for sure. I just think he’s so dope. Outkast was one of my favorite groups of all time, and Dre’s in my top 10. Because I started rhyming in Atlanta, and Sol Messiah’s from Atlanta and has collaborated with Dungeon Family in the past, I just feel like it’d be such a full circle and gratifying moment for me. I also feel like Kendrick and I could create some dope music together. He’s mad creative and a risk taker and I just feel like we’d do some real space age shit.
As far as producers go, Sol Messiah is my exclusive producer and I love that we have a synergy and sound that can only come from working together for so long. But I would love to work with DJ Premier for the culture. He’s one of the illest to ever do it.
OS: Your newest album, The Sharecropper’s Daughter, is a true achievement, both lyrically and sonically, and seems to be the culmination of many years of hard work. What are you most proud of in regards to this album? Do you have a favorite track?
Sa-Roc: I appreciate you saying that. It took a little over two years to complete the album and it definitely took a lot of labor, both emotionally and creatively. I’m most proud of the fact that the story behind the songs was so immensely personal to me, yet it resonated with so many people. There’s always some apprehension when releasing new music, because you hope that the listeners understand it the way you do. I’m so happy that I was able to create something that touched on very painful moments in my life and family history, yet there’s something still so triumphant and empowering about the project as a whole. My goal was to create a project that not only shared my personal journey, but inspired people to find the light within their own moments of darkness. I think I achieved that. I think “Forever” and “Lay it Down” are probably my favorites. It took a tremendous amount of soul mining to write those two, and I’m proud of myself for digging so deeply to write those pieces.
OS: How did your signing with Rhymesayers come about? What made you decide to work with this label?
Sa-Roc: Years back, I caught the attention of a key figure at the label who used to play my music in the Rhymesayers office. They liked what they heard and decided to book me for the label’s annual Soundset Festival in 2015. I’d never been to a festival of that size or anything that represented the culture so well. I mean, there was a b-boy and dj stage, lowriders, ciphers and a crazy roster that featured both mainstream and independent artists. I was blown away that something like that still existed, and wanted to find out more about the label that was able to pull that off. A few months later, we started talking about doing a project with the label and officially signed in 2016. I loved that there was this boutique label that was being run by people who were creatives themselves and understood how important creative autonomy was. It was really important to maintain the same independence that we had before signing, while gaining a widened exposure and a team dedicated to pushing our music out to as many ears as possible.
OS: With the pandemic affecting musician’s ability to tour and promote in person, releasing an album this year was a little more complicated. How have you navigated the last few months, both personally and professionally?
Sa-Roc: It’s been incredibly challenging since most of my year is usually spent performing and traveling. I love that part of being an artist. Being able to interpret the songs in a live setting, exchange energy with supporters, and to just be free on stage…there’s nothing like that feeling. Before the album was even announced I had a tour and several performances and festivals scheduled for the year. Everything was, of course, canceled and it was disheartening to say the least. Of course, I keep my loss in perspective and count my blessings when I think of those who’ve lost family members and jobs during the pandemic.
Having the album drop when touring was not an option was definitely complicated, but because this year has been so devastating for so many, I think people were looking for uplifting music. With it’s themes of racial and social injustice, uncertainty, and finding personal power in the midst of tremendous obstacles, the album was very relevant to everything that happened this year. I’m grateful that I was able to offer it and that it acted as a salve for many. Not immediately touring after the album pushed me to find more creative ways to connect with supporters. I started doing more IG live performances – which never was my thing pre COVID – dj sets and mini virtual performances.
Personally, I took the time at home to reflect and reignite my meditation and yoga practice, and really explore myself outside of my artistry. When constantly creating and touring, sometimes you don’t get many moments to check in with yourself. After the initial shock of the show cancellations wore off and I transitioned into the “new normal,” I really began pouring a lot of love into myself and refocusing my energy into new projects and really cool collabs. The ability to adapt has been so important this year.
OS: I think it became clearer than ever this year the problems and lack of support that musicians and independent music venues have, from a governmental and economic stance. What kind of changes would you like to see in the music industry moving forward to try to ensure the bottom from falling out again?
Sa-Roc: I’d love to see governmental funding for smaller artists and venues. Canada provides really cool grants and funding for artists and I’d to see that adopted in the States. It’s crazy how this government doesn’t see how vital music and arts are to the community and local economy. Also, the percentage that artists get from streaming is criminal. If we were fairly compensated for our streaming sales, it’d be easier to stay afloat during times like these.
OS: Beyond music, you’re also heavily involved in activism and are an ambassador for the Hip Hop is Green organization. Do you have any big plans for 2021 that you’d like to share with readers, concerning either music or activist related activities?
Sa-Roc: I’m working on new music now, so I’ll definitely be dropping some new singles off the album next year! As far as activism, I’ll absolutely continue my work with Hip Hop is Green because the work they do is so important. Using hip hop as a vehicle to raise awareness about the impact of plant based eating on both health and the environment, especially in underserved communities that often don’t have access to fresh food, is really revolutionary work. Work that I’m proud to assist with. And while I don’t have any concrete plans at the moment, social and racial justice is essential to the art that I create, so it’ll continue to feature prominently in my music.
OS: It’s no doubt that 2020 has been rough. We’re all well aware of the many negative aspects of the year, but what do you think a positive take away from this experience has been?
Sa-Roc: I think despite all of the tragedy we’ve faced, we’ve also realized just how resilient, creative, and powerful we can be. To be able to endure so much and yet still use our bodies and voices to fight injustice, still innovate, and pivot in new and pioneering directions, is so inspiring to me. It reminds me of how much I still have to give when I think I’m running on empty. And how necessary it is for us to keep learning from and relying on one another to make it through.