“It’s Just About Black Girl Futurism Really!”: An Interview With Mother Nature

Jack Riedy speaks to the South Side Chicago duo about the Gr8Thinkaz collective and the changes they've been writing about in their music.
By    June 11, 2020

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It’s only right that Mother Nature, a group who value education via music, come from Bronzeville. For the last century, the South Side neighborhood has been a hub of African-American business and culture. Addresses belonged to legends like Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole. And it was Walter H. Dyett — an educator who moonlit as one of Cole’s early bandleaders — that kicked off a proud tradition of musical genius, passing down the belief that music education leads to discipline and joy in life.

Inheritors of this rich legacy, the duo of Klevah and TRUTH formed amidst the creatively fertile scene at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The ad hoc arrangement was initially to share an opening slot for Run The Jewels’ Pygmalion Festival performance, but later that year, they launched the Miseducation of Hip-Hop — an ongoing series of music-based education workshops based on an empowerment ethos that Dyett might have championed if he had grown up on Lauryn Hill CDs. The duo recently announced a virtual workshop running from July through mid-August, open to all “creators, colors, and cultures 13 – 18 years old”, with applications due by Monday, June 15.

Mother Nature immersed themselves in Chicago’s independent scenes after moving there in 2016, performing at neighborhood street fests, DIY venues and LGBTQ+ pride after parties alike. In 2017, they participated in Next Level, a hip-hop cultural diplomacy program sponsored in part by the State Department that sent Knox to Morocco and TRUTH to Azerbaijan for three weeks. They found kindred spirits through the music, even if they communicated via translators.

“Over there, it’s a little more underground because there is no industry for real, but they’re pursuing just as hard as we are,” Knox said last spring. The experiences and connections overseas helped Mother Nature further develop their Miseducation programs stateside, and their educational work in turn influenced their own music. Their 2019 track “SIMPLE” features vocals from a chorus of kids they met teaching a workshop at West Side after-school facility Kidz Express Boys & Girls Club, and they returned to the facility to shoot the video starring those same kids.

Chicago writer/ musician Jamila Woods met Mother Nature after they performed at a Soho House event, and she was impressed by the creative communities they had formed in Champaign and Chicago. “I love artists who not only create exciting art but also build community around themselves and think about ways to share their knowledge with others,” she says in an email.

After booking the group to open for her in Brixton last fall, Woods recommended the group to her colleagues at Chicago indie label Closed Sessions as a way to “take things to the next level,” Woods says. “I saw that Klevah and Truth really knew what they wanted and had so much drive and passion, and I thought Closed Sessions would be a great support and resource for them.”

Portalz is Mother Nature’s first release on Closed Sessions, and the EP is more playful and upbeat without sacrificing their technical skills showcased on their earlier work. Klevah and TRUTH’s seasoned on-record chemistry is reminiscent of early ‘90s groups like Outkast and A Tribe Called Quest, dressed in a Cross Colours-esque super-saturated aesthetic to match. The EP is a great showcase for one of the hardest working rap groups in the city. I spoke to Mother Nature over video on early May about livestreamed shows, Tron bikes, and the things they’ve achieved through hip-hop. — Jack Riedy

As seen in the recent “Rotationz” video, you guys are at home, but you guys have a lot of roommates with you, and they’re all creative people too, right? What is your living situation right now?

TRUTH: We are. This is our collective, the Gr8Thinkaz, so producer homies, videographer homies, all that good stuff. So we’ve just been able to come in from a DIY perspective already, it just makes us work our brains a little bit harder to figure out how to do things completely in-house. We’ve definitely been blessed to have everybody here and still be able to just get these ideas off and make them present.

Klevah: We’re in a duplex with the same people that we’ve been in a cipher with for the past five, six years. Two of our homies, Jeff K%nz and Gr8sky, featured on a lot of our music, some of our only features [laughs]. But they live next door. And Jeff’s older brother is H.Kal-El, who produced “Horus” and “DMN.” And the person who shot “DMN,” “This Yo Year,” and “Rotationz” also lives next door.

OK, so it’s a whole crew.

Klevah: Yeah, they’re brothers. [laughs]

TRUTH: A lot of family ties for sure. We just got to make sure that energy remains high, you vibrating as high as we can and just get stuff done. Quarantine definitely messed up a lot.

Klevah: Everybody been keeping it going on, though. DJ Cymba’s been with us, being a big motivation too, like, “Yo, get up, hit the studio.” Makin’ beats, he’s got something new, going live every day, you know what I’m saying? And if you get down for a day, or you not feeling well – because that’s a very real thing, we all dealing with real things in our personal lives – we don’t stay down for long. And the floor’s not even that low, you feelin’ me?

TRUTH: We also the only women in the space, all guys. And our cat buddy. It’s definitely that Mother Nature instinct to just make sure everybody’s good, you know, emotionally, physically, if we eating and if we exercising.

Shows were such a big part of your career up to this point. How are you guys adapting for the performances you’ve done so far?

TRUTH: The thing about it is, it’s a blessing to have two of us, because even when we do shows in physical form that the crowd was just “eh,” not really getting that energy, we feed off each other. That energy is still always felt. Of course it’s something different in person, but it’s still always felt even through the screen.

Klevah: I always use this example: people like b-boys or b-girls, they don’t do it because there’s a crowd watching. They do it because their spirit just tells them to do it like, yo, you literally can’t help but to do that. When a beat comes on, you have to break. I mean, it’s hip hop. It’s the same. We have to get these rhymes off regardless, whether people are watching or not, whether it’s physical or digital. Mother Nature still has to exist on all these levels.

Klev, we’ve talked before about your dad’s rapping getting you into hip-hop. What does your dad think of the tape and the Closed Sessions deal?

Klevah: [laughs] My dad is a man of few words, to be honest. His favorite music is the music that we haven’t made yet. But if you were to ask him what he thinks about the project, he would be like, “Oh, it’s great.” And he wants a Tron bike. That’s his main thing, he wants a Tron motorcycle.

TRUTH: It’s on our vision board.

That’s perfect. That’s a good gift. That fits the Mother Nature aesthetic too. You can use it in the videos. On the hook for “Language,” you talk about like going through changes, and then there’s the title Portalz. What changes have you gone through that you’ve been writing about?

TRUTH: Confidence. Self-identity and self awareness are still always a foundational thing for Mother Nature. But I think now we’re trying to connect the internal with the external. So the things that we envision in regards to what we wanna be, where we wanna go. Prophesizing. I think we are always writing to our future selves. I think we’re always writing to utilize what we have now and what we envision, and materialize that from the present moment to the near future. It’s just about Black girl futurism really! What do you want to be, and speaking that, be direct, you know what I’m saying? ‘Cause that’s when we start to see things manifest. Before everything happened, we opened up Doja Cat, we opened up for Free Nationals, some of the bigger stages that we’ve performed on – we spoke that into existence. You have to really believe in yourself. Right now, it’s about all the visions, writing those things down, putting them in bar form, and just watching them come to pass.

How does it feel now to listen to older tracks and realize that you’ve accomplished some of the things that you were working on?

TRUTH: I’ve been doing that lately. Man, there’s so much wisdom. Sometimes there’s things that I say, like, “Damn I still ain’t learn that.” But that just shows you how real it is. We’re truly scribes, and these are prophecies, these are messages from our ancestors. That is living breathing hip hop. I think that right now being with our collective is one of those things that we’ve definitely manifested. We manifested a bag. We’re definitely putting ourselves in positions with both the music and the nonprofit. We’ve truly manifested the ability to be as free as we are right now.

You mentioned earlier that you’re used to being the only women in the crew or in the cipher. Do you think that that is changing in Chicago, or in the rap scene in general? Do you see the music getting less male dominated, less straight cis dominated?

TRUTH: It’s definitely taking a turn for sure, opening it up for more narratives, more perspectives, more dope mindsets. You got to dig for it a little bit, where there’s people that’s really going crazy. Shout out to our homie Roy Kinsey. He’s amazing, another queer artist. but like at the core, that’s why I think we have trouble sometimes connecting with that, just being like “queer artists” and all that, just because if you a dope hip hop artist, it don’t matter. If you can spit, you giving me your heart, your soul, your experience, through your content, through your messaging? That’s all that matters, and Roy always speaks to me when I listen to his stuff. But it’s dope to see everybody being accepted. The main thing is queer artists have been around since forever, you know what I’m saying, but to now have the spotlight, to now be center stage.

Klevah: It’s lit. It’s lit for the Black girls right now. We got so many representations of ourselves everywhere, it’s so beautiful. So many black girls are iller, so many black girls are rock stars, and just naturally multi-layered. I love it. I’m here for it.

The sound of the music is more upbeat this time around. Was that a deliberate choice, picking those kind of beats?

TRUTH: When we came from “Pressure,” and “Saturn Return,” we wanted to be happy, we want to be joyous, you know I’m saying? The “Antidote” track, our oldest baby on there, we had it for a couple years, and nothing really resonated with that type of energy, so we held it. We didn’t just want to drop it without anything surrounding it, so let’s find something that matches its energy. We wanted stuff that you can still get the messages, still have bars, but let’s make ’em dance, let’s make them feel joyous.

You mentioned the Miseducation program earlier, and I wanted to find out more about how that’s going. How is that affected by quarantine?

Klevah: A whole new world opened up again. It happened last year with the [2019 Chicago Teachers Union] strike, too. And then this year the quarantine happened so we had to stop our programming mid-program.

TRUTH: We’ve just ended one of the programs a couple weeks back, but we ended that just still connecting through Zoom, through Google Hangouts.

Klevah: Still doing exercises, still doing meditations. Them being able to see our face, us see their face, exchange music, like this is how our programming goes, homie to homie. So to do it online, it gives us a lot of ideas in ways that we could push The Miseducation. As things get bigger in the music realm – of course we still want to be present in Chicago, especially present in Champaign – but we want to be able to be global, and have hip hop be a part of the educational system. Like, if we’re not gonna be a part of y’all’s system, we gonna create our own system. And I think that’s where this is leading us to. Let’s use this as a moment to now decide how we’re going to exist digitally and how many shorties we can reach.

TRUTH: But for us to be able to do it like that, it’s gonna be so dope, it’s gonna be so hot, it’s gonna be so much soul food for your mind, you feel me? So I feel like this is just our time to really build it. And we are also learning just as much as we interact with kids, to understand more of what they tap into, what allows them to explore their genius. So again, quarantine is trash but at the same time, it’s opening up portals.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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