“I got woe-is-me stories I could turn around and tell, but who cares?” Homeboy Sandman tells me.
Since his well-received sophomore effort, 2008’s “Actual Factual Pterodactyl,” the Queens rapper, born Angel Del Villar II, has made a name for himself as a loony genius whose ambivalent relationship with hip-hop inspires deadpan, cerebral rhymes. But today we’re talking justice, today we’re talking about changing the world.
“Hip-hop is a big ‘woe is me’ thing," he says. "Like, who cares. That’s not empowering, that’s not even productive. That’s not helping get anywhere. I can’t stand the whole ‘Oh man, I had no choice, I had no choice.’ That makes people believe they had no choice if they come from the same community. That makes people feel like they’re doomed to failure, or something like that. Which isn’t true.”
Sandman, who will perform at the Middle East Upstairs in Cambridge on June 13, has always chafed at hip-hop’s tropes and preoccupations—the unabashed pursuit of wealth, the glorification of urban violence. He has a penchant for speaking out which, at its best, takes aim at cultural hypocrisy with incisive wordplay. On 2010’s “The Good Sun,” for example, he delivers a damning rumination on New Yorkers’ indifference towards the city’s homeless population in the song “Angels With Dirty Faces.” Most recently, and controversially, he penned an incendiary op-ed for Gawker titled “Black People Are Cowards," a reaction to the Donald Sterling scandal that excoriated the black community for what he deemed its collective failure to mobilize politically in the face of entrenched racism.
It’s easy, in light of the emcee’s moral and political outspokenness, to overlook his sheer skill as a rapper, and his impeccable taste when it comes to beats. Playful Homeboy Sandman is as engaging and witty as his more serious self. His latest EP, “White Sands,” which features the work of producer Paul White, opens with the upbeat “Fat Belly,” a colorful, densely-rhymed, and humorous ode to food: “For some Dominicanos, so you know/ I love arroz con habichuelas/ During hot sauce application I may get a bit overzealous/ If you’ve ever seen me turn down pasta/ I promise you it wasn’t me it was an imposter.”
The rest of “White Sands” skews in a darker direction, from the existential melancholy of “I Saw A World” to the tragic parable related in “Echoes.” White samples eerie, hypnotic melodies and conveys both urgency and fragmentation through lopsided, glitch-infested beats. Homeboy Sandman’s next full-length album is due out September 2.
Sandman points to two experiences—a challenging romantic relationship, and the personal tribulations of a close friend—as cause for the melancholy flavor of the songs on “White Sands.”
“I wanted to show some more depth, some more gloom. I wanted to really have the dichotomy between life and death going on in ‘White Sands,’” he explained in a recent phone interview. “A lot of the stuff that I was going through in my life and a lot of the people I’ve been around—there was some heavy stuff going on.”
In a sense, Homeboy Sandman has always stuck to rapping about what he knows. His songs don’t refer to gangs or guns or drugs in part because his was a happy childhood in an economically and racially diverse neighborhood in Queens. He remembers fondly his Dominican-born father, a saxophone player, as a music enthusiast with eclectic tastes and describes a home suffused in the comforting strains of soul, jazz, and Latin music. Homeboy Sandman was a standout student who went on to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania and enroll in law school. Once an avid pothead who got high in order to write songs, he quit smoking because the intensity of his habit felt self-destructive.
“I didn’t grow up in the ghetto,” says Sandman. “I grew up in probably one of the last neighborhoods in New York that’s not a rich neighborhood, that’s not a bad neighborhood, you know what I mean? And I think that’s due to the diversity of it. So that was a real blessing too.”
Though his parents sometimes struggled to make ends meet, the emcee says he never felt the lack too keenly: “The truth of it is, people that grew up in the same building as me look at their life differently than me. And I think the reason is I always had love. I had a great mother and father. I came from a two-parent household, which is a blessing.”
Yet he also reveals a hesitation to delve into the tougher details of his autobiography due to a fundamental discomfort with hip-hop’s willingness to exploit those kinds of stories.
One of Homeboy Sandman’s biggest beefs with hip-hop is its obsession with the trappings of wealth. In “Not Really,” off of 2012’s “First of a Living Breed,” he raps about refusing to let success change him: “Far as money I was always out/ Now it's always money coming in/ I never worry about money now/ I never worried about money then/ I still don't let nothing go to waste/ Leftovers any given day/ I spend about the same/ There's just a lot more left over to give away.”
“Hip-hop is about who you are, not what you have. It started off with people that had nothing,” he declares. “In the South Bronx, people didn’t have nothing. You couldn’t be proud of your clothes, you couldn’t be proud of your schools. All you could be proud of was who you are and what you had. You couldn’t be proud of your money, or your car. Whereas if you had a little athleticism, you could be a b-boy. If you had some charisma you could be an emcee. You were a good artist you could be a graffiti writer. It came from you, that’s what it really is. So when people look at it as the complete opposite—oh you can be the nicest rhymer in the world, but if you ain’t famous it don’t matter. You could be the nicest rhymer in the world, but what makes you cool is being a villain or being a criminal or having all this money. That’s actually the opposite. That’s the opposite of being cool for who you are.”
The same impassioned contempt drives “Black People Are Cowards.” In the now-infamous op-ed, Sandman criticizes the Los Angeles Clippers, many of whom are black, for not staging a boycott in response to the revelation of racist remarks by the basketball team’s owner, Donald Sterling (who has since been banned from the NBA and ordered to sell the franchise), and rebukes black Americans for not protesting structural racism in myriad individual and collective ways. Needless to say, the op-ed’s title alone was enough to cause offense. On Twitter, the piece was criticized primarily as a form of “victim blaming” that failed to understand how oppression operates by labeling the oppressed weaklings.
Sandman stands by the op-ed, saving his most scathing critique for the same fear-based apathy that he identifies in “Angels With Dirty Faces”—the willingness to look away from the misfortunes of others and to buy into a morally corrupt system.
“All I’m concerned about is the fact that we do not stand up for ourselves. We don’t stick together. On the streets, you see things going on, police roughing people up, nobody stops. People [could] just sit there and film the police … When you start filming the police, they let the dudes go, you know what I’m saying? But no one wants to even stop and do that. I mean we should do more than that. People should never allow other human beings to touch them without their permission. This is a free country. People should never allow people to stop and frisk, or touch, or look through all their goods. That’s never going to happen to me. I’m free, you know what I’m saying? And I’m just talking about a community where people are not free, and complain about all these things. It’s our responsibility to stand up for ourselves. So I’m not concerned about Sterling. ... [The Clippers] are heroes, they’re role models, they have an opportunity to stand up and make a statement. But of course, they never would. People never do anymore.”
Sandman’s remarks convey a disgust with the status quo as well as a wistful admiration for the Civil Rights era. During our conversation, he makes references to both Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s easy for me to empathize with his frustration when the modern struggle for civil rights is anything but monolithic. It is, instead, a diffuse and vast collection of movements, with racial equality just one of many progressive agendas, frequently subverted in favor of other campaigns. The most salient point in the op-ed is Sandman’s suggestion that black Americans leverage their economic power.
“Boycott was the foundation of the Civil Rights movement,” he writes. “Let’s step it up and not buy magazines pushing music designed to glamorize a lifestyle certain to land our youth in prison. ... Let’s step it up and take off from work and stay home with our kids until these preposterous tenure rules are revoked from public schools and it’s the kids that can’t be fired, not the teachers.”
Whether he is rapping reflectively about homelessness or holding forth about racial politics in America, at the core of Sandman’s work is the gnawing sense that, surely, we can do better—and the fear that, maybe, we never will.
In softer moments, Sandman raps with heart-rending empathy shaded by guilt. In “Echoes,” he tells the story of a young woman’s anonymous death on the street, the result of “a family where there weren’t no providers.” In the final verse, he turns his attention inwards:
I haven’t seen her in a stretch
I wonder if she rests
I wonder if the demons that had haunted her in her life, would haunt her in her death
There was not a missing persons file on anybody’s desk
The topic hadn’t made anybody’s docket
The change she needed more than what could jingle in your pocket
Or had she been a prophet?
A saint who withstood pain that wouldn’t lessen
Who’s life had been so I could learn a lesson
That even those that get high and just say “F it”
Can die and go to heaven
And who was I for questioning her ethics?
Should I be ashamed I never made the effort
Or took the time for taking her to breakfast
Or to the Fertile Crescent
Woebegone that I never heard her message
Before she’d gone returning to her essence
It’s the lament of an earnest citizen who sees injustice everywhere he looks, despairs that things will ever change, and regrets that he personally isn’t doing enough to make things better. Take him off his soapbox, and Sandman is an everyman. Who hasn’t thrown the newspaper down in disgust? Screamed at the news on TV? Posted a vitriolic Facebook status? Joked about moving to Canada?
Sandman admonishes, lectures, and observes with rare wit and skill. Sometimes, though, he is struck more by the loss of a singular life. Even in such an elegy, he doesn’t let himself off the hook. Surely, he wants us to know, we can do better.
This article was originally published on June 11, 2014.