A lot of rappers talk about wanting to build something, but very few mean it in the physical sense, the way New Jersey’s Hasan Salaam does. With his latest album, Music Is My Weapon, he’s hoping to not just continue to build on his already large fan base that knows him from his solo work as well as his work with Rugged N Raw as one half of Mohammad Dangerfield, Salaam is hoping to build a well, a school and a medical facility in Djati, West Africa. He’s calling the project It Takes A Village, and it stems from work he’s been doing with people in the Guinea-Bissau community, and a trip he took there last year.

This week RapReviews caught up with Salaam to find out how he became involved in Guinea-Bissau’s cause, why his goals aren’t going to be as difficult to reach financially as one might think, and why the n-word is something he never wants to be called.

Adam Bernard: In November of last year you became the first US hip-hop artist to perform in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa. How did that trip come to fruition?

Hasan Salaam: I was approached by this dude Austin (Dacey) who works for The Impossible Music Sessions. Basically they connect artists from the United States with artists from other countries where they might not be able to get their voice heard. The first one they did was with a rock band from Iran where the lead singer is a woman.

AB: Oh wow!

HS: Yeah, exactly! It went over really well. They did a show in Brooklyn, and they wanted to do another one and they wanted to do one with hip-hop. There’s this group from Guinea-Bissau called the Baloberos Crew who makes very strong political hip-hop dealing with situations in Guinea-Bissau and they had gotten snatched up by the military police over there, roughed up, and threatened. They wanted to get their message out so they hit me up and were like “would you be down to do it?” They had somebody translate their lyrics from Portuguese Creole to English and I rewrote their music into English and performed it over in Brooklyn and they were via Skype for the crowd. That was pretty much how it started. Then someone from over there was like “would you like to come to Guinea-Bissau” because they also saw the work that I do with kids and we just figured out a way to make it happen.

AB: When you went over there, how did being in Guinea-Bissau affect you?

HS: I had went to Morocco as a child, but I hadn’t been to Africa as an adult. We started off in Senegal, we went to Goree Island, which was the last place our ancestors would see, one of the final points they would see in Africa, before they were brought over here. That was probably one of the most… it’s hard to put into words. It was like I felt their souls, I felt their spirits, I felt their hopes for us. Then we traveled to Bissau from Senegal. Bissau is probably the lushest place I’ve ever seen in my life. I felt like if I went there with anything I could plant it and it would grow there in five minutes. This is not to tell people to try to go grow their weed there. Nothin like that {laughs}. It’s a beautifully amazing place with people who were extremely welcoming. Everybody there was fascinated that I was there because you can’t go directly to Bissau from the United States. The United States doesn’t even have an embassy there. It’s considered to be one of those no-travel places on the US list.

AB: Why is that?

HS: It’s a narco-state, which is another reason I wouldn’t suggest to try to go over there and grow your weed.

AB: It might not be too good for your health if you do that.

HS: Yeah, you might die. But actually, I think one of the dudes, while we were there, that was appointed to the head of the navy, is on America’s top drug traffickers list. It’s very unstable. They have had civil wars since like 1973, all type of military coups. I think there was actually a coup while we were there.

AB: That’s wild.

HS: It sounds crazy, but in a way it worked out because there was a lot less military in this capital city because of all the other shit that was going on. There were actually talks that the military might try to break up the Baloberos show that I was doing with them. Allah is the best of planners.

AB: Not to get too off topic, but if drugs were legal how different do you think the community would be?

HS: I mean, it depends on where you’re talking about them being legal because Guinea-Bissau is a jumpoff point for drugs that are being shipped out of Mexico and South America into Africa, Europe and Asia.

AB: So it wouldn’t matter what America does at that point.

HS: Yeah, I don’t think it would really matter because it’s not even on their list.

AB: After that trip you came up with a really fascinating project you’re working on right now, which is the It Takes A Village ( http://www.indiegogo.com/ittakesavillage) project, and includes your Music Is My Weapon EP. A lot of artists, when they talk about their hopes for their album those hopes involve sales, but I know your hopes for this are on a much grander scale. What are you looking for the Music Is My Weapon EP to accomplish?

HS: To build a school, a medical facility and a fresh water well in Djati, which is a city like three hours outside of the capital. Basically, I want the album to be able to not only build these facilities, but also to sustain them long after they’re already built, so when people buy the project, or they spin it on Pandora, that money still goes to the actual school to get new books, new supplies for the kids, new supplies for the medical facility and actually helps this village get on its feet. They lost their school during the rainy season last year. They have to walk hours to get fresh water and if anybody has any kind of really serious medical issues they have to travel hours to get that taken care of, so just off of the music it’ll be able to create a little bit better of an environment for the people there.

AB: I went to your It Takes A Village project’s indiegogo.com page and read the cost for each of the things you’re looking to build and it surprised me how little money is actually needed for each. Why is it that it’s only costing 3g’s for a well and 3g’s for a school?

HS: Honestly, the currency out there isn’t what it is here. The actual building of the well is gonna be built by people from the area in the traditional way they take care of wells. It’s not the same way we build a well over here. I had an engineer explain it to me and I’d be lying to you if I said I could explain it as well as the engineer explained it to me. I understood it when he was telling me, but for me to repeat it all… nah. Basically, with all of that, everything here is so expensive due to inflation and due to what we’re comparing it with, with let’s say China, or England, or even Russia at this point, so over there everything is a lot cheaper because for one they’re going to be doin it on their own, and they’re not gonna be trying to compete in the global market, per se, to get their books. It’s what they can afford, what can be done. It blew my mind when they told me how much it was gonna be, as well. Some people go to Vegas and blow that shit, or people blow that shit at the fuckin club. It’s funny now because whenever I hear people talking about money I’m like damn, you could build like three schools with that, son, or they could build a hundred water wells with that. The shit that people just waste. Kim Kardashian, it was like X amount of money and I’m like damn, they could have spent that on providing children with a future.

AB: They could have built a whole community.

HS: Yeah, they could have built up countries with that, and people are just wasting it.

AB: When disasters happen a lot of people text $10 to the Red Cross. Why do you feel this is a more effective way to get a well, a school and a medical facility built?

HS: This isn’t even just based off disaster, it’s based off necessity, for one. A lot of people hear about something and it’s a “fly by” type of thing. When I was over in Bissau it affected me in the sense that, you grow up in the hood here, or you grow up in a trailer park here, and you still have a certain access to information. Even just the simplest thing of being able to drink the water out of your faucet, unless you live in Jersey City, just that is something that we don’t think about. Just having a roof over your head, a front door, sneakers. When were were doing a project with the kids over here one of the questions one of the kids from Bissau asked the United States students was “do you have a bike” and a lot of the kids in the class were like a bike? Of course I have a bike. I was like, don’t look at it that way because some of the students that we had there, they showed up without shoes. We went through this thing where we started asking the kids “how many pairs of sneakers do you own?” We’re talking about kids from Harlem and Queens, we’re not talking about Beverly Hills kids. We’re like how many sneakers do you own, and we had kids who owned up to eight pairs of sneakers. Little things that we take for granted. You have an option to wear black or white sneakers today, or to wear sneakers at all today, or to take the train to school. It’s like a necessity thing.

HS: With the Red Cross and all these other things, some of these organizations, they take the money and they gotta pay their staff, or they make all kinds of crazy, strange, decisions with people’s money that just want to help somebody. This money is going directly. We’re working with a company called Life Link that has a 501(c)(3) that’s gonna be directly getting the money and we’re working with people in Bissau that have already been working with an orphanage called Casa Emanuel, that’s a very well respected orphanage in the capital city of Bissau, to get this money to go directly to the people who need it. The only people who will be getting paid are the people who build the well, the teachers, and the physicians, and those are the people that need to get paid to do this work. It’s not like there’s administrative fees or all that kind of stuff, it’s just going directly, and I suggest for most people, because I know there are so many people out there who want to help who’ve been turned off by FEMA or the Red Cross for their mishandling of funds, there are ways people can give directly. Even if you don’t want to give to someplace across the ocean there are places right here in the United States that can use it and people in our own communities that can use it, as well.

AB: You’ve always been a community minded individual. Is your coat drive still happening, or is the It Takes A Village project taking up all of your time?

HS: Oh it’s never stopped. We do it every third Sunday of the month and it’s not just me out there, there are a whole lot of other people that run it, as well. There are a lot of people involved, (including) 5th Column and BFS from the NJCU campus in Jersey City. We’re always out there and if they want to contact me or anybody involved in it we definitely need coats, definitely still need school supplies, and any kind of warm clothing because there are people right here in Jerz that need it, as well.

AB: Before I let you go, you posted a video a little while back about your thoughts regarding the n-word and it’s use not just in hip-hop, but in casual conversation. Could you share those thoughts again with the RapReviews readership, or expand on them?

HS: I was raised in a household where that word meant that you were gonna get an ass whoppin, and at the same time I grew up around folk that used it everyday, so it’s not like I’m on some high horse, or an outside of the situation kind of person. It’s just, to me, I’ve done my knowledge on it, I’ve done my research on it, and I’m not telling anybody what to do, or why to do it, it’s not my place, just for me, I don’t like anybody to ever refer to me as such. A lot of people say the word has changed because an “a” has been added to the end of it, or something like that, but if you check our vernacular I’ll say “how you figa,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not a “ure” when I spell it, it’s just how I talk. It’s the same word. When a policeman is beating on me and calls me a nigga, I don’t think he’s calling me his brother, I don’t think he’s referring to me as a friend or using it as a term of endearment. We still live in a society where there is a lot of racial inequality, whether you look at Oscar Grant’s situation, or Ayanna Jones, it’s not all better, it’s not fixed.

HS: We’ve made a lot of strides and that’s a good thing, but at the same time I feel like if you accept the lowest common denominator that’s all you’re ever gonna get. That was a word that was created to try to belittle us as human beings, to put us down, and a lot of times we accept it and it’s not even a term of endearment because if you look at it, even if you look at the V-Nasty situation, people would say “yo, she’s more gangster than most niggas.” They refer to it as if being Black is something that’s negative. Not all Black people sell drugs to our people. That’s genocide. Not all Black people refer to their women as bitches. We have doctors, lawyers, shit we got presidents, kings, queens, across the spectrum. Just like everybody else, there’s good and there’s bad, but it seems that we’re still focused on our own destruction and our own demise and I feel that as long as we accept that word and we accept what comes along with that word we’re not gonna get over this hump that we need to get over.