Eneale Pickett seems comfortable as a hip-hop artist on his new mixtape “L.I.F.E.”, but he’s quick to denounce any intention of sounding, posturing or circulating as a rapper. The freshman First Wave scholar from Chicago’s south side has been a lover of hip-hop and poetry alike since early on, but it wasn’t until he was thrown into the mix of slam poetry in his middle and high school years that he felt sure of his artistic stature and purpose in the spoken word vein. The latest chapter in Pickett’s journey proves that he’s no live-performance purist either.
Pickett’s new mixtape demonstrates how his appetite for spoken word finds a modern, propulsive energy in the studio. His rhymes dance and juke in acknowledgment of cadence, flow and musicality, but his poetry isn’t bound to these creative devices, nor is his poetry bound to the hip-hop and jazz instrumentals which accompany it. At its core, "L.I.F.E." is an ambitious and perceptive black student’s challenge to higher institutional impediments, both conspicuous and not.
Pickett speaks about institutional inequities, which so often limit underprivileged urban youth from scholastic improvement. He also speaks about need-based scholarships, which often brand standouts like himself with an affirmative asterisk next to their names, leaving students open to unjust scrutiny and judgement from the greater collegiate masses. "L.I.F.E." is an impassioned and tactfully delivered statement that serves as both an acceptance and an affirmation of his unique, exceptional place at a large public institution. I recently sat down with Eneale to talk candidly about his beginnings as an artist, his growth alongside fellow First Wave scholars and his crucial position in promoting social justice on campus.
DK: I’m wondering...where did the impulse to write poetry come from?
E: I was inspired by my father’s death. My father died when I was two years old, so me coping with my father’s death was through writing. For years, the reason why my mixtape is called “L.I.F.E.” is because I lived in a ferocious environment most of my life, Chicago is not an easy city to make it out of, so anybody that can make it out of Chicago here is an extraordinary person
Not having a father...not having a male presence in my life...I saw poetry for that. Poetry was an escape. I started writing when I was 12 [my fault] and I started slamming when I was 13, and that’s when I got my male influence who helped me out a lot which is my mentor to this day Zayn Bulli. I slammed with Uplift slam team which is heavily associated with Kuumba Lynx...a huge Chicago poetry organization, it’s a non-for-profit.
DK: So this was a scene that you came into because it was prominent where you grew up? This mentor, was he established in slam?
E: No, he was actually a math teacher, but his wife, [who] runs Kuumba Lynx, she’s the leader of an organization that was founded in 1996. I met him through her poetry slam, which is called Half Pint Poetics. I did a poem about my father and it was really personal to me. After that, he walked up to me and said, ‘you’re actually really talented and I really want to work with you.’ At this time, I’m in 7th grade, so I’m like, ‘ok, that’s cool with me, I’m down with that.’
Since then, I went to the high school he taught at, Uplift [high school], that’s in Chicago uptown. Ever since then, I’ve been slammin’.
DK: What was your first experience at a slam like?
E: I was nervous as hell. My heart was pounding, I was sweating uncontrollably...it was unbelievable. When I first got up there, my voice was cracking, but as I kept going on with the poem, I [got] more comfortable on stage. That’s when I realized I liked being onstage, because I’m giving myself to the audience, and I really like that.
DK: I’d like to learn a little bit about why and how you got involved as a First Wave scholar.
E: The reason why I’m involved as a First Wave scholar is my brother. He’s not here right now. His name is Jeremiah Perry [of] 7Co. He left because he had some personal problems. He told me one day, ‘I got into college, and I got a scholarship for poetry!’ I said, ‘you’re lying, I don’t believe you.’ He said it's a four to five year scholarship that can pay for your college and you do your art. Ever since then, I wanted to go here for my art. If an institution wanted to do that for me, I want to go there.
DK: You’ve had almost a full year of this structured program, how has your time in the First Wave changed your artistic process?
E: I don’t think First Wave actually kinda did anything, I believe it’s my cohort who is constantly inspiring me every day and pushing me every time. When I need to read pieces to somebody, I read it to my cohort brothers and sisters. We’re always pushing each other to new limits. We’re in the process of making a new show around #TheRealUW. We’re trying to bring everybody’s stories together. We plan to tell everybody's stories about their experiences on campus through our art. We’re going to do it onstage.
DK: Whose stories in particular are you telling?
E: Minority students who have difficulties being at this oftentimes racist institution. My cohort sister Synovia [Knox], she was spat on by an Asian student, and after he spat on her, he said, “I will sue you.” He said everybody on scholarship is poor. There’s plenty of stories, the silent stories on Facebook, we’re [telling] those stories.
Right now, I’m writing a poem, to this [Yik Yak post], ‘There’s this black girl on my floor constantly bitching about oppression, bitch I score twelve points higher than you on my ACT, yet you have a full ride and I got zero scholarships #checkyourprivelage.’
DK: It seems like that’s a prominent feeling at the center of the affirmative action debate. How do you reckon with that?
E: Through my mixtape. Basically, the skits are the most important part of [the project]. I did a good job with the poems, but the skits are supposed to wake you up. When I was talking to this [character] Ms. Privilege, I was talking to students who have class privilege and racial privilege. These are two different types of privileges and people confuse them all the time. These types of students, when they say, ‘Affirmative action helped black students get into this school,’ and help us get our scholarships, that is a lie. I busted my ass for four years in high school to get my scholarship, I have to work ten times harder than anyone on this campus to keep my scholarship. That frustration is displayed on my mixtape.
DK: "L.I.F.E." seems to be a very personal account that draws directly from your experience. Does the Eneale character at the center of the tape’s narrative differ from the Eneale who is sitting in front of me?
E: He don’t differ. I’m the same person that created the mixtape, as is the character that was displayed on the mixtape. Throughout the whole [project], I’m trying to see if my life at this university matters. [Does] the university actually value me as a person? At the end of the mixtape, you see that it doesn’t. That’s how I feel all the time. To this university, I’m just a number. It hurts, but I have people around me that love me. This university doesn’t.
DK: But what of the platform that this university has afforded you, to be here and to be around people with a similar mindset and a similar way of navigating this place?
E: The people in the First Wave community [are] mostly minorities, so I feel that it was minorities that believed in me. Those who are in power in this campus are white. The only reason I’m here is because First Wave wanted me here. I’m here because I busted my ass too, but for the most part, it’s because First Wave saw potential in me. They wanted to mold me as a student and as an artist.
DK: Have you seen any instances of a disconnect between those in power and First Wave?
E: My cohort sister [was] spit on, and Patrick Sims [Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate] sent a general email to everyone that wasn’t [factually] correct. When she got spit on, the police came, they only talked to her for 15 minutes, but they talked to the intoxicated person that spit on her for two hours, and they took account of everything he was saying for two hours. He wasn’t removed from housing or anything like that. The fact is, the university shelters his own. Either you have economic privilege or racial privilege. When we speak up, we’re seen to be complaining.
DK: Has your work always served as a means of personal growth through coming to terms with your experience? What are some other motivating factors behind your art?
E: Justice. To bring awareness to an issue. Most of the time, I don’t even write about my own experience. I write about what I see going on in the world, or what’s affecting somebody that I know, or telling somebody else’s story because they won’t tell it themselves. Ever since I’ve been at this university, I’ve been writing more about what’s happening [at UW]. People have tried, but they’ve been silenced. Since I’ve been given this platform in First Wave, because I’ve been given all of these resources, I want to make everyone aware of what’s going on.
DK: Let’s talk hip-hop. Socially conscious rap is in no great shortage these days with guys like Kendrick and Chance the Rapper coming out with high-profile acclaimed projects in the last year or so. They’re each bringing their own styles, sounds and experiences to music that is coming from different hubs of hip-hop in Los Angeles, Chicago and others. But they’re representing similarly afflicted communities. On the other hand, you hear artists like Future, YG and Migos to name a few, who are unashamed of street traditions and street vices and about thriving in spite of those pressure cookers, but also wearing them as a badge of honor. What do you think about the coexistence of these two traditions, do you think that they are equally important to hip-hop culture?
E: I love hip-hop so much. One thing about hip-hop that I love is that it’s not one-dimensional. I hate when people make a separation of conscious rap and like Migos and those guys. People are so fascinated with making conscious rap a subgenre. Why? That was hip-hop. That is hip-hop. Knowledge? That’s a key element. And hip-hop has a fun side. Yeah, Migos and others are the fun side. That’s not anything I’d like to listen to at a protest, but I’m going to listen to it because that [too] is hip-hop. Hip-hop is not one-dimensional and it evolves all the time.
You can’t criticize a culture that criticizes itself all the time. It always checks itself. You have artists like J Cole, who is misogynistic, and he knows he is, and he checks himself all the time.
DK: I hated that one verse on Jeremih’s “Planez.”
E: [Sings] ‘It’s like a foot up…..,’ yes.
DK: That was horrible.
E: Yes, but he knows it. I always say hip-hop is a reflection of society. So if hip-hop is misogynistic, then society is misogynistic. If hip-hop is violent, then society is violent. It’s just a reflection.
DK: So you’re a lover of hip-hop, but you’re a slam poet first. With this tape, you record your poetry over instrumentals, some prominent ones like [Kanye’s] “New Slaves.” Where do you see yourself sitting on the spoken word/hip-hop spectrum? Is this an important consideration for you?
E: I’m trying to do a new industry with spoken word. Before there was hip-hop, there was Gil Scott Heron, there was The Last Poets. That was poetry and they influenced hip-hop a lot. People took their styles, their flows and transitioned them. They were doing it over a beat too, but at that time, it wasn’t called hip-hop, just spoken word over a beat.
That’s one thing I see myself as doing, that I’m contributing to hip-hop, because hip-hop, in a sense, is poetry. I want to make a new genre, no not even a genre, an industry for myself, because I’m not a rapper. But I’m a poet. A beat doesn’t contain me, I can go outside the beat and do my thing.
Check out Eneale Pickett's poetry mixtape L.I.P.E. at this soundcloud link: https://soundcloud.com/enealepickett/sets/life