Music

New Orleans’ Dee-1 Balances Community Activism With A Thriving Rap Career

In the entertainment industry, it should be a requirement for celebrities to use their platform, money or influence for the benefit of others. Major musical artists’ philanthropic efforts have been front and center as of late, such as Tierra Whack’s six-figure donation to benefit music programs for Philadelphia-area schools, and Taylor Swift’s contributions to The Tennessee Equality Project in 2019. Other musicians have opted to move in silence when it comes to their community outreach; the late Prince was notorious for large acts of service without media fanfare, and even gave $1 million to the Harlem Children’s Zone in 2011. However, there are several big names who are making sure their services are felt as viscerally as the material they release on wax.

“I didn’t want to be that guy who was doing a lot of good work in the community, and he’s working with the youth and he’s a mentor… but his music is about selling dope, and killing people, and sleepin’ with your baby mama,” New Orleans, Louisiana rapper Dee-1 tells Uproxx over-the-phone regarding consistency in his artistry and personal beliefs. A former middle school math and life skills teacher, the 30-year-old’s transition into hip-hop has solidified his spot as a role model who works tirelessly to combine community with content.

The 30-year-old Louisiana-bred spitter’s catalog offers glimpses into problems with society and the music industry, with lyrical solutions aiming to alleviate concerns within these spaces. Through song, he’s offered advice to the rap game’s biggest names (“Paid, powerful, and popular, you got it all, Use that to fight the real enemy and make ’em fall,” he spits on 2015’s “Jay, 50, And Weezy”), and reprimanded those who contribute to the longstanding issues in low-income communities in the U.S. (“In the hood, we gotta fight the problem…” he preaches on 2017’s “Hood Villains”). He also focuses on his faith; his 2019 LP God And Girls focuses on how his relationship with God helps him navigate and shape his own romantic partnership with features from Grammy winner PJ Morton and gospel sensation Jonathan McReynolds.

Before graduating from Louisiana State University in 2008, Dee-1 began to work with Baton Rouge’s Young Leaders’ Academy, an organization that aims to “nurture the development of leadership abilities of young African-American males,” cementing his life’s purpose. Today as a public figure, the rapper has amplified various local and national causes through his position, such as a tour promoting college planning in collaboration with college payment company Sallie Mae. $5,000 was awarded to one student on each stop of the tour, which was first held in 2016, the same year he released his song about loan repayment, “Sallie Mae Back.”

No stranger to public involvement on the issues at-large, Dee-1 is making sure to actively practice what he preaches. In November 2019, he took part in a special one-on-one interview with the Governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards. The two connected in October 2019 during the South Louisiana Youth Summit on Opioid Awareness, a teen-centered event designed to educate middle and high school students about the devastation caused by opioids. Gov. Edwards expressed gratitude for the musician’s passion and enthusiasm for youth causes, and as they say, the rest is history.

“Everyone was really connecting with not only the performance, but the words that I said,” Dee explains of the New Orleans-based event. “Little did I know that while I was on stage, [Gov. Edwards] walked into the arena, and he was set to come up and address the crowd right after me. He was blown away, he told me how inspired he was by my words.”

The topics discussed during their conversation included health care, education, and criminal justice. Dee applauds the Edwards Administration’s commitment to salary increases for Louisiana teachers, a cause that is “near and dear” to his heart as a former educator. He’s also pleased with how much concern and care Edwards has put into criminal justice reform. A report from 2018 states that the recidivism rate throughout the state has been between 46 and 49 percent, and Louisiana’s prison population has dropped to a 20-year low under Edwards’ administration.

The rapper tells Uproxx he’s working closely with the Administration for Edwards’ second term, in an effort to help pinpoint the issues concerning Louisiana residents. “I don’t want to be a finger pointer as a person with influence,” Dee-1 explains. “I want to be an artist that’s like, ‘Hey, let’s work together to make this change.’ I know that the politicians can’t do it all on their own. Someone whose heart I believe in, I definitely keep close by, and John Bel Edwards? I believe in his heart. I want to be there to help.”

With one of the most crucial Presidential elections of our lifetime at the end of the year, it’s of the utmost importance to select a candidate who wants to see and be the change all Americans want and need. Some of the most pertinent discussions today involve immigration reform, college loan repayment, and affordable health care, which makes voting all the more lucrative. 2020 is also the first-year members of Generation Z will be voting in a major election. As someone who worked closely with young people and focuses much of his current work on youth outreach, Dee-1 is hoping Gen Z’ers can make their way to the polls to “express themselves freely.”

“The biggest barrier is for Generation Z to not feel alienated from the political process, or to not be ignorant [about] the importance that voting actually has in their futures,” he notes. “Be aware of the candidates, aware of the issues and to actually get out to the polls… If you don’t get out to the polls, then you’re not allowing your voice to be heard, and you’re not allowing your presence to really be felt.”

As for his outlook on the candidates gearing up to potentially go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump in November, Dee-1 doesn’t feel as confident. At this stage of the race, he says he wants to put his faith in someone who not only tackles issues like economic affairs and criminal justice head-on, but can compete with Trump on a social level.

“To bring it back to music terms: Donald Trump is like an artist with a cult following,” he notes. “If you’re going against someone like that, you also have to be someone who has the ability to have a cult following. I don’t think that we have anyone who has gotten big enough of a critical mass to go that hard behind them on the Democratic side. We’ve been exposed to each of these candidates for a while at this point, and [there] still is a consensus that no one has fully emerged from the pack. I think it’s dangerous. I’m worried when it comes to this year because I don’t think it took Barack Obama that long to really stand out from the crowd when he was running in ’08.”

A solution for 2020 hopefuls and future Presidential candidates, he offers? Be more like Kanye West (“I know Kanye has that cult following that would make it interesting, honestly, I’ve been impressed with his evolution in the past year,” he explains).

Dee-1 laughs when asked if he’s ever considered politics, saying he doesn’t “want any part” of that lifestyle. His main focus today is to continue educating his fans through his music, and going into the trenches to see his visions through. He details his aspirations to “digitally create” a classroom to give back to students in a more formal way. With an admirable relationship with his fans and community, plus a career that continues to heat up, Dee-1 ensures he has no intentions of slowing down when it comes to educating onlookers.

“I still feel like I’m a teacher,” he says. “I’m still like a teacher to this day, and I think I just have a much bigger classroom now than I had back when I worked at an actual school. I still carry myself as such on the microphone and off the microphone, so I feel I have that same role, I’m just revitalizing what [being a teacher] means now.”

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