Ric Wilson, self-proclaimed artist and abolitionist, is in many ways a bridge between the worlds of organizing and music on the South Side. He entered these worlds at an early age: he’s been rapping since his early teens, and started learning about social justice around the same time as a summer fellow with the Chicago Freedom School. There, he met and became close with one of its co-founders, prominent Chicago-based organizer Mariame Kaba, whom he likens to a second mother. He moved to Atlanta for college, and had to drop out for financial reasons, but not before he was able to make connections within Atlanta’s nationally prominent rap scene. He recorded many of his early tracks there before moving back to Chicago and releasing his first mixtape, Penny Raps, whose themes reflect those financial difficulties, earlier this year.
At age twenty, Wilson now organizes with We Charge Genocide and was part of the eight-person delegation the organization sent to the United Nations in Geneva exactly a year ago to present a case for charging the Chicago Police Department with torture. 2015 will continue to be eventful for Wilson—his new EP, The Sun Was Out, drops this month; two new tracks, “You Need Me” and “Pray to the Lord,” were released in the last month; and this past week he received one of the Chicago Freedom School’s annual Champion of Justice awards. The Weekly had a chance to sit and talk with him about his upcoming release, being a full-time musician, balancing his worlds, and how it feels to walk off a porch into sunlight.
Can you tell me about The Sun Was Out?
It’s about this moment last summer where I just had this realization of who I was, and about being comfortable with who I am, where I am in life and pursuing that and not just music. It’s about the little things, like what I wear and being comfortable with being in my skin, with not being in school, and doing this. It’s looking at all these opportunities I have and seeing that I can do what I want to do in my life.
That realization was like the sun was out, and the sun is supposed to be this representation of what light means to me, of leaving people and things in the darkness, in the night. It’s almost like being “naked on the porch”—you’re naked on the porch and everything you thought you were is stripped away and you’re this new person. You can either stay there naked on the porch and freeze to death, or you can just walk off the porch and be this new person in this new life. That’s sort of what “The Sun Was Out” means.
So why is it The Sun Was Out? Did you walk off the porch?
The sun was out because I had that moment in the past and now I’m in this new me. The whole tape is pretty much about what happened in that moment almost, and what happened in the wakes of that moment. Because I was also thinking, “Is the sun out now?”—and I was like “Ehh, nah.” I was also thinking about the turning of fall from summer and that feel; the tape really has some summer vibrations to it with the beats and everything.
How was the process of creating The Sun Was Out different from the process of creating Penny Raps?
So Penny Raps was just a bunch of beats I found. I was like, “Damn, I need to put something out” because I wasn’t in school and I just wanted to push something out. And this [The Sun Was Out] is going to be way smaller because it’s just an EP, but also I handpicked all the beats; I talked to the producers; we had a mutual understanding. The Sun Was Out is all going to have this sound, like the sound of my single “You Need Me” and this new song “Pray to the Lord.” I’m really trying to establish like what “Ric Wilson’s music” sounds like, so all my music from now on is going to have that sound.
Do you know what that sound is?
Yeah, but it’s hard to explain. Actually, someone just expressed it in a Twitter DM [direct message]. He was like, “Do you need a beat?” and I was like, “Yeah.” And then he explained it and I was like “Damn, this is right on point.” It’s like “jazzy soulful with modern elements, such as 808s.” I was like, “Alright, alright, I’m down with that.”
What are your thoughts on Chicago’s scene? How does it compare with Atlanta?
In Atlanta, everyone that you’ve heard of knows each other and they’re friends because they all make good music. It’s not as integrated as Chicago is though. Here, you could run into Chance the Rapper walking down the street. In Atlanta, you won’t really run into Sonny Digital or Makonnen walking around down the street. It’s because of the size and dynamics of the city, but the artists are very distant from the community. But also, Chicago is a little bit clique-ier than Atlanta: in Atlanta if you make good music everyone just rocks with each other. But Chicago is not at Atlanta status. Chicago artists are still more localized so it’s still clique-y.
Is there a lot of competition in Chicago?
Not really, it’s more like a lot of people in Chicago make music that sounds the same. That’s why I tried so hard in The Sun Was Out to sound different, because people in Chicago sound the same. They try to mimic a sound that’s popular, which is cool but not cool enough for me. I want to be different.
Are you glad you came back [from Atlanta]?
Yeah, I’m really glad I came back. My family is here, and also organizing in Chicago is like nowhere else. Even if you’re not organizing in Chicago, you’re going to see a protest or you’re going to see some sort of demonstration somewhere. In Atlanta there was just none of that, even though I went to school in West End Atlanta, which is also a marginalized area, so there should’ve been. And as soon as I got back to Chicago I got a call from Mariame Kaba; she calls me and asks if I want to be the MC for an event.
Is that how you got involved with We Charge Genocide?
Yeah, Mariame knew I was an outspoken voice and that I could rap, so she knew I wasn’t afraid. She asked me to MC a protest and it was literally at that protest that my friend Ethan [Viets-VanLear] told me that his friend Damo [Franklin] had gotten tased and was in a coma. Two days afterwards he told me Damo died. Then I went to California for four weeks. I came back and We Charge Genocide had started up and was running, and they were just like, “Yo, do you want to be a part of this?” and I was like “Yeah!” So it just happened.
How do your worlds of music and abolition work overlap or work together?
I’ve always declared myself an abolitionist, but I knew there was going to be a point in time where I was going to be in music sessions and have music practice and wasn’t going to be able to go to [organizing] meetings. I miss a lot of meetings now because I’m doing a lot of music stuff; I do music stuff full-time.
Is it hard to do that full-time?
It’s kind of hard to balance because I’m managing myself right now. I engineer my own self, I shoot my own videos, I’m planning my own PR drops and campaigns and all that. I also play the cajón and I’m working with this pianist and this violinist, so now I’m practicing for that and for gigs I’ve got coming up—it’s a lot.
And most of the [organizing] meetings happen at like 5pm and later on because folks have jobs, but I sleep ‘til like 2pm and then wake up and do what I do, so I can’t make the meetings and it feels like, “Damn, I suck!” And now my activism is turning more into my art and I hate it. I did not ever want to become one of those “I just do art” activism dudes and now it’s like come to that point. So yeah, I’m trying to figure out how to do that.
Will you tell me about your choice to use “abolitionist” instead of “activist” to describe yourself?
I like to use the term “abolitionist” and I believe “abolitionist” is more of a revolutionary term. “Activist” is almost more of a reactionary person. So like, activists show up to demonstrations; someone’s killed and then they’re there. That’s their reaction and then they leave and don’t really do much planning or organizing. They just really show up—which is needed, which is dope—but abolitionists, revolutionary abolitionists, constantly have this idea of what they want the world to look like and they put that into practice every single day of their life.
It’s hard as hell but you do it. Like, I don’t call the police, I don’t rely on the police, I try to encourage people not to call the police, but then I also try to bring alternatives to not calling the police: “Oh, you know, we could do this instead of calling the police,” or “Maybe you could do that instead of calling the police”—keeping that conversation going and going. I feel like that’s more than just activism; that’s a lifestyle, that’s an abolitionist lifestyle.