Hip-hop artist Chali 2na—a founding member of the musical collectives Ozomatli and Jurassic 5, and a thriving solo artist in his own right—is adamant that an early interest in graffiti art and rapping kept him away from drugs and gangs.
Born Charles Stewart Jr. in Chicago 41 years ago, 2na will exercise his MC talents as a headliner at the Tucson Weekly's 2012 Spring Club Crawl®. Preceding 2na on the Rialto/KRQ stage will be the acts Vine St., Shaun Harris and The Project.
2na says music and art helped steer him clear of negative influences during his most-impressionable years—and he goes one step further, arguing that the ongoing loss of arts studies in public schools actually contributes to "the deterioration of the culture."
"Kids don't have as many opportunities now as they did when I was growing up, to pursue art and music in schools," he says. "This gets to an issue of mine: I just think that governments, especially state governments, are cheating the students by taking music and art out of the schools."
When you don't have that outlet for creative expression, 2na says, the soul pursues other distractions.
"Art is definitely a positive outlet, no matter what you use it for, and the ability to express themselves through some kind of art form is definitely something humans need to feel fulfilled," he says. "When we remove the arts from our kids' lives, we cut off that avenue of expression for kids, and it's gonna twist society up. It's a silent attack on inner-city youth, and youth in general."
A teenager slipping off into the night to scrawl graffiti may not sound like a responsible creative opportunity, but 2na says he was always organized and focused in his pursuits.
"I remember being a kid and getting up at 2:30 in the morning to sneak out of the house while my mom and my grandma were sleeping. We'd go out and bomb freight trains, and then come home, and I'd put on my school clothes and jump into my bed to be up and ready to go on time. And they didn't know I was doing that until much later. But that also gave me a discipline to ... rise early and get the job done."
These days, 2na is trying to teach himself oil-painting. "Oil has been a medium of interest for me in the past two years. But it's hard to find enough time to really do it. Some of my influence that sneaks in is from my background in graffiti and comic books," he says.
Blessed with a distinctive basso profundo voice, 2na uses it for more than simply rapping. He has done voiceovers for animation (such as the film The Night B4 Christmas) and advertisements (Adidas, for instance).
Although raised in Chicago, 2na moved at 16 to Los Angeles, which offered a kind of culture shock.
"L.A. is more of a melting pot than Chicago. There is much more acceptance of a diversity of race and religion. Chicago is still slightly segregated, especially in how they relate to each other and between different cultural groups, and how they mix or don't mix. It's still a little backward, and it sucks, in my opinion. When I came to L.A., I was trippin', because people actually hug each other when they greet each other."
During the 1990s, he co-founded two groups that have helped define the melting pot of Los Angeles music. He was there at the beginning of Ozomatli, which still combines Latin, funk, hip-hop and reggae, among other music forms. After two albums, he moved on, but is still on good terms with the Ozo guys. His next group was Jurassic 5, the powerhouse hip-hop ensemble that was hailed as part of Los Angeles' new rap underground. 2na remained with J5 until it disbanded in 2007.
In addition to his recordings with Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli, 2na has released one official solo album, 2009's much-respected Fish Outta Water. He also put together a pair of mixtapes, Fish Market and Fish Market 2, in 2004 and 2010, respectively.
He has appeared as guest MC on countless tracks with artists such as Swollen Members, Linkin Park, Blackalicious, Kardinal Offishall, Roots Manuva, J-Live, K'naan, and NASA.
2na said his latest project is a series of five EPs, each with several songs and drawing on different styles of music.
"They'll be released on iTunes and Amazon, and they're sort of a way for me to explore the ways that people consume music in this day and age," he says.
2na observes that much of today's listening audience isn't interested in full-length albums, whether in a disc, vinyl or digital format.
"They listen differently than we did when we were growing up. They taste and sample tunes, and say, 'I like that one,' or, 'I don't like that one.' 'Let me get that one, but I don't want to have a whole album of it.' We have to get the music to the people in the way they want it, if we want to reach them."
2na's first EP, Against the Current, is scheduled for release in May, and it will offer a sampling of the subsequent four recordings, he says.
"The second one is electronic stuff, dubstep and electro and a lot of stuff that has influenced me over the years. The third one is a live record and presents me and my band, the House of Vibe, as close as possible as you can get to re-creating that live sound. The fourth is going to be preoccupied with Caribbean music, you know, all the stuff I have been interested in over the years—reggae, soca and salsa. And the fifth will be a straight hip-hop record."
2na is offering a free download of his leadoff single, "Against the Current," on his website (chali2na.com). He also has invited listeners to remix it, and he'll include three winning mixes as alternate tracks on his EPs.