Artist of the Month: Chucky Black
Charles Stephens is a poet, rapper, and magician who has spent time in many places, but has found a home in Austin, TX. Charles make soulful, jazzy hip-hop as Chucky Black, a name carried over from his days of slam poetry. He is trying to use music to understand himself and help others understand his reality. Charles and I spoke in a hallway behind a yoga studio on the East side. We discussed Pantera, the performance of black trauma, and James Baldwin tattoos.
Charles: I have a hard time writing whole songs. I’ll write a single verse, but having a second verse that aligns thematically with the first one is so hard. (laughs) Lupe Fiasco has an album called Tetsuo and Youth and there’s a song with just fucking like eight minutes of rapping, nonstop.
I’m just like “Okay cool, we get it!” Toward the end of songs he just starts rhyming everything with “cat”. (laughs) But it’s for the art! It’s for the culture!
Jason: And how long have you been playing guitar?
C: I used to play guitar a bunch in early high school – late middle school I went through this hard core metal phase, so I really wanted to play guitar. But ever since I have been trying to do music more, I just needed an instrument that I could pick up again, that I could speak music to other people with, you know?
J: That makes sense. How hard core metal, who were you listening to?
C: I guess I wasn’t that hardcore metal, I was listening to a lot of weird screamo music. I listened to too much Slipknot. I think they were more creepy than metal, though. Metallica, Pantera, shit like that.
J: Were the arts always a part of your life growing up?
C: Yeah, for the most part. My mom has always been a visual artist, super into design and stuff like that. There was always music playing at my house. My mom, before she met my Dad, was really involved in the art scene in Cologne, Germany, where she’s from. I remember having a random Picasso print. A giant one. I remember thinking, “This is my favorite thing!” It was Guernica or some shit like that. And then my dad, just kept up with a lot of instruments.
J: So your mom is from Germany, your dad is from…
C: My mom is from Jamaica, moved to Germany, and my Dad is from California, but also all over. He took that 23andMe DNA test. He was like sixty percent black, but he had some Native American in him, a decent chunk of East Asian. I was like, “That’s why you so light-skinned!” (laughs)
J: (laughs) So did you grow up in California then?
C: No! I was actually born in Oklahoma, and my dad was in the military at the time but he then became a pastor. Pastors and military people move at the same rate, so we moved from Oklahoma to Cincinnati, Ohio, from Cincinnati to St. Louis, from St. Louis to this podunk town in fucking Illinois called Lawrenceville, and then finally to Austin.
J: How old were you when you got to Austin?
C: I was just starting high school. I’m glad I had my formative years here, of all the possible places.
J: So you would say that out of all of those places, Austin speaks to who you are most?
C: Yes, definitely. I have influences from living in all of those places, but they kind of feel faint, I guess. I mean, Nelly will forever be the biggest person in my life because I lived in St. Louis! St. Lunatics and shit like that. I fuck with Smino so much because he’s from St. Louis.
J: People from St. Louis love everyone from St. Louis!
C: It’s the arch! It’s so iconic!
J: It brings everyone together.
J: How old were you when you started doing poetry?
C: I think I’ve always been into poetry. I remember being in middle school – we had a poetry section. My teacher would always ask “Who wants to read poetry” and every time I was hands raised. I didn’t really get into writing poetry formally until my junior year of high school. That’s when a slam poet came to our high school and I saw them speak and I felt like it was something I could see myself doing. It was like this after-school program called Leaders of Tomorrow and it was a business simulation essentially. It was cool it was for Black kids, and Black MBAs would support it. But for some reason, they had two slam poets come through. One was Ebonie Stewart and the other was Brently Caballero. I remember watching them do their shit and I was just blown away. I didn’t even know you could do that with words! So I just went home and took out a composition notebook and just burnt through it. It’s been like that ever since!
It's cool because those people are still in the community and I get to see them and I say “You got me started in this!”
J: Wow. What do they say?
C: Ebonie’s just like “I know.” She’s like the queen of everything. Sh’e killing it. Brently’s like “ I didn’t get you into it, you got yourself into it.” He’s always on some philosophical kick! But I’m cool with it, you know what I mean? (lauhgs)
J: When did you move from writing in your composition book to performing?
C: It was kind of a natural step because I grew up in the church. If there was a Bible verse to be read, it was read by me or my sister. My dad was the pastor and my Mom would say “my baby’s going to read it”. you know? From [the time I had finished writing poems] I was so eager to perform. I performed my first poem at this place called Space 12 on 12th street here. I found out our school was doing a school wide poetry slam and so I got into the youth poetry slam.
The first year I tried out for the poetry slam team as a youth, I didn’t make it. I made it to the finals, and it was pretty close. The following two years, I made the team! So the first year, we got to go out to Berkeley, for the national youth poetry slam called Brave New Voices. The second year, we got to go to Chicago for Brave New Voices as well. From there, I’ve competed at Southern Fried, a regional competition for the South. All the Southern teams get together and do their thing. We funcking won that one! That same year, we went to nationals and took first in the Group Piece Finals.
My mentor was on the opposing team. I had never seen anyone outside of my parents this proud of me. He taught me – through high school I had this really bad lisp, and he sat me down. “Hey you gotta work on enunciating. Enunciate every word!” And now I feel like I’m able to get into something more complicated like hip-hop and enunciate every word. Dumb rhyme schemes and having the agility of tongue to do it.
J: How has it been for you moving from poetry to hip-hop? I imagine it’s probably not too far of a leap?
C: Not all poets are rappers, not all rappers are poets, but it’s all still kind of the same, you know what I mean? I felt like when I came to writing poetry, I got stuck in this trend of writing very deeply traumatic poems. That was just the climate of the time. Shootings and Trayvon Martin, all happening in this condensed circle of my early twenties. For me it just felt like that was what it meant to write poems. With music, I feel like I have the ability to speak on those subjects, but I feel like I have the liberty – you know, if I want to write a song about Magic: The Gathering, about being a wizard, something that's not heavy, something uplifting – I find that freedom in music.
I had been doing poetry for too long. I just got stuck in a rut. Rap has helped me push my conversation to the next level; to talk about what blackness is other than trauma.
J: I feel that!
C: I always say to poets “Damn, you’re still a poet? Fuck.” (laughs)
I was going to ask, what made you feel like you couldn’t write a slam poetry piece about Magic: The Gathering, for example?
C: Slam poetry is this whole other beast. When you’re performing on stage, and getting literally judged right in front of you, it’s easy to fall into a rut of making poems that you know are going to do well at the slam. To get to the national slam, you have to win slams you know? I have this poem called Black Magic, it’s one of my favorite poems, I get the most compliments on it, but it’s tuper uplifting. It would never do well at slam. But when I get up there and ssay “I was called a nigger once when I was in third grade” People are like “Oh my god, 10, 10, 10!” And as much as I want to say “Don’t let the scorecard change you”, when people are giving immediate validation on your work, it’s like Pavlov’s fucking scorecard.
C: That was the main thing I think. Now, spending no time getting validated in that way, writing just shifted for me. Weirder thoughts. Things that don’t really appeal to the masses as much, personal things. Just shit in the cosmos of my brain.
J: You have some music out, what was the process like hearing feedback on your music? It isn’t as immediate as poetry, but there is still a response.
C: First of all, the music process was way longer than the process of writing a poem. I had no inkling about the process of recording music at the time. I just thought “Oh, you finished the track, recorded in your bedroom, its done right?” I’m on Instagram like “July! We’re dropping in July!” (laughs)
A lot of “A Prequel To” was live instrumentation, I felt like I had to sit with it – this mix, that mix, it was amazing seeing how different the beginning product and the end product are. Then finally mastering and uploading to Spotify, which felt super official for me. I had some friends of friends of friends in San Antonio who were playing it for their kitchen staff, just fucking bumping it and people were into it. The process is slower than poetry, but I felt like I put so much more on the line. To have people say that it was dope felt really good.
J: I feel like your first project was very soulful. It was obvious that you have an appreciation for the craft of hip-hop. What can we expect from future Chucky Blk?
C: For future Chucky Blk – I guess right now I feel like I’m in a dungeon or a cave. like I need to crawl out of a primordial ooze to really figure out what the Chucky sound is. Same depth of appreciation for the craft of the music and dexterity and wordplay. Maybe not so much of falling for the most formulaic process. I come at music thinking about it as an art. I’m trying to be a Basquiat of rap. I’m trying to be something that has lasting power. I’m trying to find my own style – the completeness of myself in the music. Expect more funky saxophone, maybe even some 808s in there! (laughs) It’s going to to be the whole pie. Everything you see me as.
J: Have you written any poems since you stopped performing poetry?
C: Maybe one or two. It’s been a solid two years now. All my creative energy has been going into writing raps. I look back, and for stuff I have written in the past year – they are poems that just rhyme. Maybe the vibes were not right, but the motion and the words…the skills I’ve learned from crafting words have transformed. So a part of me wants to say I haven’t written any poems, but a part of me wants to say that I am constantly writing poems.
J: Do you have a favorite tattoo?
C: I have “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin right here. [points to forearm] It’s a really important book for if you are young and black and wondering what’s going on the United States of America. "Won't be a flood, but a fire next time." And then I have a tattoo based on the last song off of Noname’s last album. The chorus goes “Bless the Nightingale, darkness keep you well.” I feel like I deal with a lot of existential dread in my daily life so finding some sort of embrace with death is what I’m about. My Dad was like “Why do you have all these tattoos about death, I got tattoos about life!”
C: That’s a Rasta ass line!