Hip-hop Hero: An Interview with Sage Francis

Sage Francis says he is “different, in a different way.” Standing outside the stereotypical rappers, Francis, 27, raps about vegetarianism and relationships, war and politics. The Providence, RI native went from rapping alone in a literal closet in 1968, when he was eight years old, to pursuing a career in hip-hop while earning an Associate of Arts Degree in communications from community college, and then moving on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of Rhode Island.

Francis, who�¯�¿�½started touring nationally this month, once worked in an ice cream shop, serving children in his home city. He is a white rapper�¯�¿�½but rarely mentions the color of his skin in his songs. His emotions are on public display, and if he has any shyness about him, he hides it well.

On Oct. 11, 2001, a year before his first full-length album and only a month after Sept. 11, Francis urged Americans in a song called “Makeshift Patriot,” “Don’t waive your rights with your flags.”

Although his assessment of the situation was tough, Francis was also sensitive to the state of the public. He had visited Ground Zero just five days following the attack and saw the rubble first hand. “Using commercial aviation as instruments of destruction / Pregnant women couldn’t protect their children / Wheelchairs were stairway obstructions / Now I have to back petal from the shower of glass and metal / Wondering how after it settles we’ll find who provided power to radical rebels.”

In a song released in 2003 called “Hey Bobby,” Francis attacks President George W. Bush directly. At the time, Francis contested in his song whether Bush was even elected into his presidency. “This so-called president got elected in a court room / With the war efforts of pops, he inherited a fortune.”

Francis’ ability to expand his audience was propelled forward in 2004, when he was added to the well-known independent label Epitaph, becoming the first rapper on the long list of mostly punk bands. A Healthy Distrust, which was released on Feb. 8, 2005, was his first on the label.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½Last July he released his firstÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½music video of a song on the album,Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½Escape Artist.

On A Healthy Distrust, Francis attacks military recruitment techniques. He challenges God in “Sun vs. Moon” – “The Devil only exists because you believe in him / Same goes for that other guy.” He questions political activists, among others, in “Slow Down Gandhi” – “You support the troops by wearing yellow ribbons? Just bring home my motherfucking brothers and sisters.” On “Gunz Yo,” he says, “I know that only stupid people increase the birthrates / I’m just about dumb enough to hold up a sperm bank.”

His previous distribution company, Anticon, distributed his first and only other studio-recorded album, Personal Journals, in 2002. Currently, his music is still very much underground. Although his underground artist status could change with the new label, Francis maintains control over the content of his music.

Before the release of Personal Journals, Francis pirated his own music for distribution, not unlike MC Hammer. His parents did not know of his intent to turn his hobby into a career until he started college. He first snuck out of his parent’s house to compete in local rap battles when he was 12 years old. His first release came as a cassette tape demo in 1996.

In 1997, he started the band Art Official Intelligence and distributed a CDR called “Voice-Mail-Bomb-Threat.” By the time the studio-recorded Personal Journals was released in 2002, Francis had nine releases on cassette, vinyl and CD. His friend Joe Beats has written a large number of the tunes for his songs.

His increasing audience base and progression to the mainstream shows that for some, rap is not all murder and money. Most of all, Francis is a savior for those who loved the fun that rap once was.

Q: When did your parents realize you wanted to rap for a living, and how did they react?
A: I kept it a secret for a very long time. I think they found out I was doing it seriously when I was in college because they got their hands on a tape of mine. Since I was in college already they didn’t really trip. It wasn’t an issue. I have always been able to take care of myself. Rap or no rap.
Q: How does being on a major label affect your creativity?
A: Epitaph is not a major label, although it is one of most successful indie labels. Being on a bigger label hasn’t affected my creativity in any direct way. Even though my music is about to tap into a larger audience, I have recorded every album with the understanding that the music is going to touch more people than I will ever know about, whether it happens in 5 years or 50 years. All of that is beautiful, but it is incidental to the music I make and how I do it.
Q: What was the world’s reaction to “Makeshift Patriot?” Do you feel the public was ready for it?
A: I don’t know what the world’s reaction was, but I got a lot of positive feedback from people everywhere. I don’t think it hit big internationally as quickly as it did in America. I think a lot of people were hearing that song for the first time when I toured Europe by myself back in 2002. Some people were very confused by it, which led to some unnecessary aggression. Mostly it was received with open arms. People were very happy to know that not all Americans were flag waving maniacs.
Q: How does the title “A Healthy Distrust” fit your new album?
A: The content of the album shows a healthy distrust of religion, school, family and relationships. I want people to question their surroundings and the situations in their life. I want people to make changes for the better if they find it in their power. Don’t believe in my particular truths…just put them into consideration. If they make sense to you then we may find ourselves wearing the same jersey color some day, who knows? Look at your world from different perspectives if you can, and do your best to be fair with the world.
Q: How do you feel about Bush’s re-election?
A: I thought it was pitiful how the youth were pandered to during the Presidential race. And I thought it was funny how the youth showed once again that they don’t feel like anything they do matters. It takes more than a Rock the Vote campaign to get the youth involved in political matters. There needs to be serious improvement in the schools and communities that these kids come from before they can even understand the importance of voting in a democratic society and what role they play in such a political process. Bush in office for another 4 years…I couldn’t think of anything better to prompt serious change.
Q: When did you begin working with Joe Beats? Do you write lyrics to fit his music or does he write music to fit your lyrics?
A: I met Joe Beats in 1997 and we began working on music in 1998. He makes the beats first and then I write the lyrics to the beats. That’s how the whole HOPE album got made anyway.
Q: Why did you earn a communications and journalism degree? How have you utilized your education?
A: I went into communications because I wanted to learn about audio engineering and Dean College falsely advertised its communications department as one that would teach me such a thing. Then I went to URI to buy myself some more time, and journalism was of interest to me because I enjoy writing and I have a yearning to report certain things to the public. College was great for a lot of reasons, none of which were included in my tuition.
Q: You mentioned once that some people view you as an asshole. Is there any truth to that view?
A: Some situations require you to be an asshole, and unfortunately I am faced with those situations a lot. Other than that I am sweetest guy ever.

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