To quote the ever-quotable Toki Wright: when a door closes, a window opens. Just six months after finding out that he would lose his long-running position as Department Head of the Hip Hop Studies program at the now-shuttered McNally College of Music, Toki has announced that he’s relocating to Boston to take an Assistant Chair position at the prestigious Berklee College of Music.
The move means that Toki will be discontinuing his weekly program on the Current, Wright About Now, with the final episode airing this coming Wednesday, June 27. But luckily for all of us here in the Twin Cities, he’ll remain at the station in an evolving role, contributing to the Current’s Monday-night music discovery show, New Hot, the next iteration of our weekly hip-hop show, and hosting a new video series.
With so many changes afoot in Toki’s life — in addition to packing up to move cross-country he just got married earlier this week to his longtime partner, Brittany Lynch (now Brittany Wright), and they have a baby on the way this fall — I was eager to chat with him about his long career in the Twin Cities community and all that lies ahead. You can hear portions of this interview on The Local Show this Sunday night, along with a career-spanning set of Toki’s music and tunes from a few of the many artists playing his going-away party next Thursday at Icehouse.
Andrea Swensson: Let’s start by talking about this new job. What are you going to be doing at Berklee?
Toki Wright: I’ll be the Assistant Chair of Professional Music in the Professional Music Department, which is a hybrid program for young students and artists that may have an interest in multiple areas. You might be a business student, you might want to understand contract law, and you play bass guitar. So how do you create an environment or a curriculum that really fits your multitude of interests? [I’ll be] helping to develop that, helping to develop a new record label at the school, throwing special events, and working with a lot of the artists that come in from all over the world.
There’s always some big name artist coming through. On an average week Wyclef, Bela Fleck and Paul Simon will be there. It’s definitely an opportunity to expand the work I’ve been doing over the years, and a lot of the work I’ve done in the international community – Boston being a city that has more colleges than the state of California. There are 60 colleges in Boston, just in the city, so every semester you have a big influx of people from all over the world.
That seems like a perfect job for you, because you’ve always been this very interdisciplinary artist and educator, working all these different angles. For those that are familiar with your recording career here in Minnesota but maybe not as much your educator career, can you share some of that history? Including your recent work at McNally Smith, where you were very involved in a historic program.
Yup, the first fully accredited Hip-Hop Studies Program was at McNally Smith College of Music, up until the closure in December due to some unfortunate decisions by the owners. It was one of the best unfortunate things to ever happen. Those things happen a lot — they tend to in life. They make you have to move. You get into a comfort zone and you feel like you could just ride things out, but it’s important to shake things up from time to time.
Before that I’d done a lot of different work. I ran Sharon Sales Belton’s Mayor’s Youth Council when I was 19, and I worked with Yo! the Movement. I was the executive director, at like 23, for this youth organization that fought to lower the voting age for school board elections, and did events like raise money for Katrina and did the world’s largest car wash. I understood that music was something that drew multiple communities together, and so we would always include music in our events — so while I was growing in the education world, the non-profit world, I was also developing myself as a musician, as an artist, and as an event planner for those types of events. I have been able to be blessed to have a different perspective when it comes to working with multiple communities of people and teaching.
I also travel around the world doing Track II diplomacy work. I’ve worked with the State Department, with UNC Chapel Hill and a lot of different organizations. I’ve gone to Rwanda and Uganda and Sierra Leone and Croatia, different places around the world to try to network their arts communities with the U.S. arts community, but also to listen and grow and figure out how my Americanized version of thinking might have flaws.
It’s been a blessing to be able to interact with different people at different levels of their careers, where I’d be doing an event with Slick Rick one day and then the next day I’m performing for kindergartners at Riverway Learning Center in Winona. I don’t hold any of them in higher regard than the other. I think they all have value, because Slick Rick was a kindergartner at one point in time and that kindergartner has potential. I’ve always tried to treat everybody with the same level of respect and not get too caught up in celebrity. Anytime that I ever have got caught up in celebrity it’s been bad.
Between taking on this job, moving to a new city, getting married, and getting ready to welcome a new baby, you’re going through a lot of transitions all at once. How are you feeling right now?
Right now is a time of growth. When you’re in the process of moving or downsizing, there are four things you can do – I’ve discovered this in my backyard, burning things — you either keep it, you give it away, you sell it, or you burn it. I think that if you really want to transform and grow, you have to go through those processes. You have to decide whether you’re going to let things go, whether you’re going to continue to dwell on things, or you’re going to give them to someone else. And that could be an item, or that can be grief, or that can be hard feelings. Am I going to take that bitterness that I might have about something that might’ve happened in my recording career, or somebody that said something to me at a show, or the time I was offended, or a paper not putting me on the cover or something like that? Am I going to take that with me or am I going to go do something better?
There’s so many bitter old rappers. There’s bitter old rockers, too. I’ve met a lot of them. There’s a lot of people that feel like they deserve something and they didn’t get it, or they got it for a little while and they feel like they still should get it. You got to keep working, you got to keep trying or you got to shift. I like to use the Bruce Lee quote: You got to be like water.
I think I’m at a point in my life where I know what I’m worth and I’m willing to bet on myself. I take those chances. So when this chance presented itself for me to go to Berklee, it wasn’t something I was looking for at all. I just tried to be diligent for years. When doors close, I try to open windows and I try to open other doors.
That reminds me of a big question that I wanted to ask you. This is something that I think about a lot, because I host a show called The Local Show. I know that not every artist wants to be seen as “just” a local artist; there is this tension of what does it mean to be called local, and how to you break out of that? I’m wondering if you have some thoughts to share on that, because you’re going to be leaving but also maintaining all these connections here.
We tend to maybe not value the thing that’s next to us. If I hear Gary Clark, Jr., or if I hear Naia Izumi, who just won the Tiny Desk Contest, I’m like wow, you’re just a natural. But I didn’t know that you played that instrument nine hours a day for 15 years on street corners where people walked by and spat on you and you grew thick skin and you learned to play no matter what. If I live next to you, you’re the annoying person that’s playing music all the time and always trying to get me to go to your show – why are you asking me again, why are you asking me to share your video? So we tend to minimize the value of the person that’s next to us because we’ve seen it all already. We feel like we’ve seen it already.
I’ve heard the quote from Prince, that you have to leave to be able to be valued at home. There’s a lot of truth to that, because we get stuck on local mentality sometimes. I went to China last year and played six shows. None of my shows were less than 2,000 people. There were like a million people that watched me on TV. But I come home and people are like oh, that’s cool. Or didn’t see it at all, because they’re not paying attention to me because I’m a “local artist.” But I know I’m not a local artist. So do I sit and complain about how people treat me, or do I continue to go out in the world and make connections?
Think about it this way – this block that you live on is not the universe. This block is just a block. You can go to Jamaica and there are people who might care about what you do way more than they do here. You can go to China. You can go to Croatia. There are hip-hop artists from the 1990s that are crushing in Europe because people value it in a different way than they value it in New York City. As long as you believe and you’re willing to do the work and you can take criticism — that’s the big thing that we have to come to grips with as an arts community. Are we ready to take true criticism, or are we forever going to accept the Minnesota niceties? Are we going to forever accept, “Oh, that was pretty good,” or, “That was cool, man,” that kind of neutral indifference?
You put out a song, “Gatekeepers,” on your record Pangaea back in 2014, and I heard that when I was in the midst of a big turning point in thinking about my own role and responsibilities — so first of all, thank you for making me think so deeply about what I do. In recent years, you have also come into a role being a gatekeeper, and maybe accepting that role more than you had in the past. Can you reflect on that, and how it relates to the radio shows you’ve done and the media work you’ve been doing?
I think it’s one thing to complain. It’s another thing to wear the shoes and figure out why people think the way they think. For me, I understand I never got a flier living on the North Side of Minneapolis because people either didn’t value the people of North Minneapolis, they didn’t value the music of North Minneapolis, they didn’t value black people, or only assumed only black people lived in North Minneapolis. So I never got those same opportunities that an artist that lived in the more art district of the city would get.
But you want to find a way in. Everybody that creates something wants to find a way in. And we tend to look for a way in in places that have already proven to help people grow. My perception, as a young person is that I saw Slug on the cover of City Pages — next thing you know Slug’s playing everywhere. I saw Lizzo on the cover of City Pages — now Lizzo is playing everywhere. I see Allan Kingdom on the cover — now Allan Kingdom is playing everywhere. There’s 100 other artists that never made it on the cover, and none of them are playing in those places. So I believe the validity is in the cover, and so I strive for that cover. I strive to be considered in that same realm with those other people that have done great things.
People are often fighting for something they shouldn’t even be fighting for. You don’t need to fight to have somebody recognize you that doesn’t want to recognize you. Some people just may not be into what you do, but there is a community of participation somewhere else, and you have to find it or develop it. Being a gatekeeper means you can either open the gate, close the gate, or lock the gate. I just choose to open the gate for people that haven’t had the chance, and open the ears of people that are already tuning in. And I hope that whatever happens with the program on Wednesday night, people are thinking about things in that context. I’ll continue to have a relationship with The Current doing other media work, like video, and breaking down concepts and ideas and giving people access to new music that they may not know about, and going to other places in the world and taking people with me.
I think if Minnesota really wants to grow and be as amazing as it could and should be, there needs to be that kind of opportunity. I remember sitting in some of those meetings, planning around the State of Hip Hop, and a lot of hip-hop artists rebelled at that concept — like how is The Current doing a program on the state of hip-hop community when they don’t play us? We’re out here. We know we’re not being played and we don’t even know how to get in that door. Some of the people in the group – I remember me and DJ Kool Akiem were having a conversation and trying to convince everybody, like yo, why don’t we just start a station? And people were like, that’s never going to happen. There’s never going to be a hip-hop station in Minnesota. We need to just think about this. And then within a couple years, there’s too many [hip-hop stations]. It’s saturated and people are fighting for the same space.
We think we can only get through that door. And that’s why I’ve always left. I’ve always gone. I probably played more shows outside of Minnesota in the last four years than I have in Minnesota, unless I was DJing a party or something. You don’t have to live in Minnesota; you can live in the world. You don’t have to live on the south side; you can live in the world. You can connect yourself to all these great possibilities that exist out there.
I’m very eager to follow along with all your journeys in Boston, and to see you as you come back here to the Twin Cities. As you say, you’re not going away forever.
Nope. I’m around and I’ll still be doing things in town. I don’t want people to think that the distance means that we’re disconnected. It just means that the connection is bigger. And I’m not going to leave this microphone without telling you how much I appreciate you for being willing and being open minded and making the effort where a lot of people just got offended and chose not to address elephants in the room. It just takes a little bit of humility and a little bit of effort to try to see somebody else’s perspective. And it can be a great benefit to everybody, including ourselves. So thank you for that. And thank you to all the listeners. Thank you to The Current. Thank you to everyone that continues to support what I do. This isn’t a goodbye. It’s a good – we’re about to do some really cool things, starting the week of July 9. So stay tuned. Toki Wright. You can’t get rid of me.
We wouldn’t want to. Toki Wright, thank you so much.