“Let us grow,” Tufawon chants near the beginning of The Send Off’s “Freedom Seeker,” starting a conversation with the cosmos. His hungry intonation swoops into a stellar verse from Elay, and soon, Tufawon will return to spit bars and shut down the song. But first, he repeats, “Let us grow” — with a “please” this time, reverent and calm. This song, “Freedom Seeker,” was never released as a single, but it feels like a good introduction to the rapper’s catalog; the travel-minded song is part prayer, part declaration, and it looks toward the future. While the beat’s subtle, dark curve glides underneath a hi-hat, Tufawon dreams about the people and experiences he holds most dear.
Tufawon (Rafael Gonzalez) grew up in Minneapolis, calling Seward, Longfellow, and Phillips home. At Seward Montessori School, he met the other two-thirds of Illuminous 3 (which comprises Freez, Franz Diego, and Tufawon — alias Mavin MC). The trio has stayed together for over a decade. Tufawon can rap and dance; he plays bomba (percussive, traditional Puerto Rican music); he knows nearly everyone in Minnesota’s hip-hop scene.
This year, he released not one but two solo EPs (The Send Off and The Homecoming). He lives with artist/producer Sevadar Sehaj, recording in a studio at home. As he puts it, he writes when a wave comes (which, these days, is all the time).
I saw Tufawon’s latest release show (for The Homecoming) this month, and even from the Icehouse balcony, I felt the rhythms grab me. Looking confident and joyful, he put on a great show. A couple of weeks later, we sat down to talk.
What does your music mean to you?
All three of these records symbolize freedom, but in different ways. With Schwag, I didn’t have a lot at that time, and that record symbolized being able to celebrate with whatever you have. If all you have is a can of Four Loko, crack it open and celebrate. There’s people who find happiness in the worst conditions.
The Send Off was my yearning to travel and see the world, and it starts off in a dark place. It’s a very wintery-sounding album. Then, it gets hopeful. Toward the end of it, you’ve got the “Send Off” track, where it’s me waking up to a boarding pass, and I’m like, “I’m out of here.”
That moves into The Homecoming. Like, The Send Off and The Homecoming are practically one album. But they’re distinct, because one of them is produced by James 1000, who’s a very undercover producer that you don’t really hear about. The Homecoming is produced by Sevadar Sehaj, who’s been getting his name out a bit locally.
But I would say The Send Off is the call, and The Homecoming is the response. During my travels, I was able to take in all these new experiences and that new world perspective and conversations with new friends — I was able to take all of that and dump that into The Homecoming. It happened in a very short period of time. I wrote and recorded all that in two weeks.
Traveling seems like a huge part of who you are, as an artist and a person. What’s behind that?
Traveling — that whole idea came from the US Cuba Artist Exchange. I’ve played traditional Afro-Puerto Rican and Afro-Cuban music, and I figured I should go to Cuba. I’d been to Puerto Rico many times, but not Cuba. So Sarah White actually connected me with Mariesa [Sun-Saenz], the director of US Cuba Artist Exchange […] and that all started in 2014. I took one trip to Puerto Rico in 2014 in the summer, and I went to Cuba three times that year.
I really started to get the itch for traveling from Cuba. Growing up, I never really got the opportunity to travel. If we did go on vacation, it would be to visit family members on the reservation in South Dakota. I’m Puerto Rican and Dakota.
As I became a young adult, I started going to Puerto Rico, just to see and learn a different perspective and a different life. Especially just talking to my cousins and my relatives […] that’s what brought me to Puerto Rico a lot. As far as Puerto Rico’s concerned, there’s two different versions for me: the arts side, when I’m in the city and I’m with people I’ve met in the city and I’ve played shows, and there’s a whole other part of the island where it’s just family. And in Cuba, they have such a rich musical history. And it’s not just traditional Afro-Caribbean music–they have a vibrant hip-hop scene. The history of Cuban hip-hop is very, very interesting. Especially because there was so much isolation between the United States and Cuba. I could talk about that for days.
Do you have particular parts of Puerto Rican culture you connect with?
There’s many things, but one that a lot of people don’t see until they actually see me with my group is the dance. I’m also a dancer. And dancing bomba is like channeling my ancestors. Playing it, too — sometimes you zone out, and nothing else in the world matters. When you’re so into it, you kind of feel the ancestors traveling through you. When I’m playing that bomba drum, I’d echoing what my ancestors provided us.
Bomba and hip-hop are two different art forms that I’ve practiced throughout the years, and I’ve done shows with Bomba Umoya. I’ve done shows with Illuminous 3 and as a solo artist. They’ve always been kind of separate. But I think what I’m moving into is bridging the two. [pause] I’ll have people coming up to me at shows where I’m playing bomba, and they’ll be like, “I had no idea you played this kind of music.” And vice versa. Now, the direction where I’m heading is like — that separation is not going to be there. Everybody’s going to be like, “He does traditional Afro-Puerto Rican music that’s like 500 years old, and he does new, experimental s—, and there’s all this area for movement and dialogue.”
I think that’s where music is heading. I’m hoping for music to head in that direction.
Can you tell me the story of “Solstice 2”?
[The original] “Solstice” was the beginning of The Send Off, setting the tone. It’s about the wear and tear that the winter has on the spirit, living here in Minnesota. Transitioning into a darker phase. I was born on the winter solstice, so I talk about how the moonlight feels like a familiar thing, and I yearn for the daylight because I was born into the darkness. The summertime was something that I gradually moved into.
And then we move into the summer solstice track. [On April 21] I was on the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and I read the internet. The internet messed me up that day, because Prince had died, and I’m like, dang. We have the longest ride on a chicken bus back to San José to get on an airplane to head back to Minneapolis, and throughout the bus ride, I’m crying off and on. So then we fly back in looking at the skyline. It’s early morning, and as soon as we touch down, “Purple Rain” plays in the airplane, and I’m like, this is just so much for me right now.
“Solstice” and “Solstice 2” are like a call and response. A lot of my music is reflective of what I’m going through in [a given] moment. It just represented a lot of what I was going through.