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[courtesy] AR-15 Interview
Author: Adam Bernard

The AR-15 duo of Jus Rhyme and Raw Potential (pictured L to R) are all about spreading the message of anti-racism. The AR in their name stands for Anti-Racist, while the 15 represents the 15 principles that their crew is based on (see all of the principals described in detail at: The duo met when they were fresh out of high school and both were volunteering with AmeriCorps. They struck up a quick friendship and started freestyling together there while they were doing community service projects such as painting houses, building trails and teaching English as a second language. Both of them kept in touch after their time in AmeriCorps and when Jus moved out to Oakland in 2003 they decided to officially move forward with their music. This week RapReviews caught up with Jus Rhyme and Raw Potential to find out more about their work, both musically and within the community, Jus' feelings on his time on VH1's The White Rapper Show, and the real reason sales are important to them.

Adam Bernard: What were the main reasons you started AR-15?
Jus Rhyme: We thought there was a lack of white role models in Hip-Hop who were really explicit about challenging racism and challenging white privilege and being a positive role model for how we move through the question of being white within Hip-Hop. There are a lot of people who've written on it, but we really felt like we didn't have a role model that really spoke to it. There were a few folks at that time, 3rd Bass, Ill Bill, Eminem had records that came out later, but it was really just a handful. We didn't know if America on a popular level, or even an indie level, would be ready to have a real conversation about what it meant to be white in Hip-Hop and take responsibility for racism, so we kind of put it together as an experiment, really trying to aim our music towards white listeners, and what ended up happening was a multiracial fan base and national exposure with VH1 and national mags. It's really been a surprise to us, but it's a positive one because it means there's an opening for conversation and hopefully action.

AB: When race comes up as a topic of discussion a lot of times it ends up being in an exclusionary way that only works to further divide people, i.e. X is Black, Y is White, and so on. How do you make sure to be inclusionary rather than exclusionary?
Jus Rhyme: That's a great question.
Raw Potential: You gotta use race to get through it.
Jus Rhyme: Yeah, and if you listen to our music, just in the way that we write records, Raw says they're records for activist house parties and anyone who wants to get down on positive consciousness. I think it's about not drawing a hard line like you're over there, we're over here. It's like, how can we build a movement? I think we write raps in that way to really try to be inclusive. It's an ongoing challenge. We're not trying to tell people to think this and that, but for Raw and myself we want to live a life that is connected to organizations that are led by people of color, that are doing positive work against racism and alliance building work with white folks, too. So we're part of movement work that really reflects a different kind of conversation that people are used to on a popular level. For us, we're really trying to make visible that these conversations where people aren't defensive about race, they're actually very open to talking about race, that these are happening all the time, but we don't get to hear about them in mainstream media, or even be a part of them, in large part because we don't know how to plug in to organizational work to challenge racism. But you're absolutely right, on a popular level I think people don't want to talk about race and I think a lot of that has to do with pain, across race. For white folks it's not wanting to acknowledge, or it hurts, to be honest, that we get privilege because of the genocide of American Indians, because of the slavery of African Americans, because of current police brutality in all communities of color, because of immigration policies that target our southern border but not our northern border. We're not concerned about Canadians coming into the US illegally.

AB: Well YOU might not be.
JR: {laughs} Right, South Park! Good point. But you know what I mean. I think it's a really important question and I think it really gets at the center of what it means to talk about race in a popular way.

AB: How will America having a Black president affect your work?
RP: Jus and I kind of joke about it like now every white person in America has a black friend. "Oh I can't be racist, my president's black." That's kind of a cop out like "I have black friends so I can't be racist."
JR: It's an historic moment, but also I think it's important for us to think about in the context of history that we've also never had two Black Secretary of State's in a row, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. The Bush administration had one of the most diverse cabinets the US has ever seen in terms of people of color and women. This is important when we talk about the visibility, but the point I'm making here is about identity. Identity does not always equal politics. Not all white people are racist and not all people of color are anti-racist, or against white supremacy. For our purpose, looking at the Obama presidency is not as much about how it will transform race relations, but how much it will transform institutional racism. If you look at Obama, he took a position early on about Palestine and Israel and now he's not talking about it in terms of fairness to both sides, he's really supporting Israel and not thinking about what the Palestinian situation is. He's talking about economics as a working class thing, but not talking about prisons and the disproportionate number of people of color who are being locked up. So I really feel like it's yet to be seen, but it does pose a difficulty of what does it mean to talk about race in an era where we have a black president and I think to answer it most directly it's continuing to focus on how our institutions are providing for racial justice, or not providing for racial justice, regardless of what the face is in power.

AB: Something I think people might find interesting is that even though you're a political group you listen to all forms of Hip-Hop. What do you feel can be gained by listening to every single offering out there?
JR: Even without any lyrics, just talking about bass, I think that there's something very political about music that shakes foundations, or shakes cars, or shakes houses, literally. You know that's a threat to the power structure because there's a thing called noise ordinances that specifically target black music with heavy bass. To me that's not a coincidence.

AB: Jus, you were on The White Rapper Show. A LOT of people had a lot of negative things to say about that show regarding the way it treated race and Hip-Hop. Sage Francis posted up an epic article on the topic. As someone who went through the process of The White Rapper Show, what are your feelings on the way it was done and the final edits of it that landed on TV?
JR: Yeah, it's VH1, so off the top I guess you just have to say that. Our decision to go on the show was really because of Ego Trip, because they were behind it. We really had a lot of respect for them as a crew, as well as individually. Actually, Sacha Jenkins recruited me to the finals after the fact. We submitted a tape and he emailed us a week before the show. He said he wanted to fast track my application to the finals in New York. Sacha said that they were in eight or nine major cities, had thousands of applications, and none of the white folks they had were talking about race, so to me it wasn't even a question, it was more like a responsibility to go on the show regardless of how it was going to be edited. I asked Sacha, why do you want me? And he said because of your politics. That really sealed the deal for me. Prince Paul and Serch decided to put me on the show in the top 40. In terms of how it was edited, it's VH1. I was actually really happy with how I was portrayed. Did you get to see the show?

AB: I saw a few episodes.
JR: Just a couple highlights in terms of how I felt we had a positive contribution that hadn't been seen on reality television, or arguably, on television ever, was the first episode where another contestant was using the N word very liberally in talking about white folks and people of color and I just said how I felt about it, that I felt that it was inappropriate and that I was actually hurt by her use of the word. I had an opportunity to talk about why I think that it's not a helpful word to be using in Hip-Hop, particularly coming out of white people's mouths. And to have a white person check another white person on the use of the N word… I think it was really important for people to see that white folks can take responsibility within the white community to check racism. In the last episode I was in, episode seven out of eight, Ego Trip actually put all fifteen principles that our crew is based on on the screen for a long enough time for everyone to read them. Those principles came out of community organizing and date back to the 1960's. We've been blessed to build with movement, with people of color and white folk, who gave us the blessing to carry these principles forward and Ego Trip saw the importance of them to post them. Of course they threw in jokes about it because VH1 can't be a propaganda machine for anti-racism. Ego Trip told us that they had some difficulty in having control over the editing, that they only had 50% control, but in terms of how I was represented I thought it was new for white folks to see someone who's white talking about race in a proactive way. To us we're just a vehicle, we don't have any answer, but we had the opportunity, so we took it. But the reactions to that show, I totally agree with you, I think Ra would, as well, it was hit or miss. I think it runs the risk of white folks not being conscious about race, but I think the attempt was to interject a conversation about race.
RP: Jus definitely held his own. They could only show snippets or quick little cuts, but everything that he gave them was anti-racist, was pro racial justice, and it was just like fist in the air people power. It was a delight to see.
JR: Another highlight for me was being able to build with people that were mentors to us in terms of race and whiteness. Ill Bill, Everlast, Serch, and all these guys have their different approaches to what it means to be white in Hip-Hop. Everlast said something really interesting to me. He was talking to myself and Bushwick Bill off set and he said you know the goal really is to just be a rapper and to not be called a white rapper. For him, that's his approach and I really felt like that's probably where we all want to get, both white folks and people of color.

AB: Finally, I'm guessing you don't necessarily equate success with money and album sales, so how do you define success?
JR: {laughs} Money and sales! I mean, that's part of it. I think money and sales are important. I think politics is, too. All of that together. To us I think sales are important to keeping the message alive and keeping it popular. Success is making white anti-racism popular, and also making it popular for white folks to feel like they're invested in talking about race and challenging racism, that it's in our interest to do it.
RP: I second that. When we do a show we bring out people from the local town or city who are organizing and active around race in their community and we share the stage with them, giving them time to talk about anything that they're currently working on. We also donate 25% of what we make from that show to that org, so our profits are being invested. Just being able to say we do that, for me, is a success and is a win. When people from the crowd stick around afterwards to ask questions about how they can get involved, that's a victory right there. That's huge.
JR: Every step of monetary success for us is also monetary success and money for the movement. It's the same reason we were on The White Rapper Show, our success there and our visibility there was also visibility for principles about racial justice that are 40, 50, 60 years old. So for us it's not just about us being successful, we see that we're getting visibility for the movement and we're actually helping to fund the movement.

AR-15 can be found at

Originally posted: February 24, 2009

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