Over the past few weeks, Sunday Sounds has been exploring the ways in which the South Asian musical diaspora has made sense of its immigrant experience. We continue in that vein this week by talking with Sri Lankan American EmCee Ras Ceylon, who lives in California and is also well-known as a political organiser and educator. His is a fascinating tale of burning passion and compassion. As well as how identity, consciousness, faith and musical tastes are malleable, when confronted with injustice and a determination to make a difference.
Tell us a bit about your background. Where were you born? When did your family migrate to the States and why?
Peace. I am Ras Ceylon, eMCee, organiser and educator of Sri Lankan descent based in Oakland California. My family came to Los Angeles in the early 1970s from Sri Lanka. Although the civil war hadn’t quite started yet, the political and economic situation in Sri Lanka did not look good, so my parents decided to migrate overseas. They first tried to move to the United Kingdom but there was a “colour bar” at the time that prevented back people from obtaining housing in London, so they ended up migrating to Los Angeles where I was born. I grew up in Southern California and moved to the Bay Area for college in 1999. Other than spending time in Kingston, Jamaica and moving to Colombo, Sri Lanka in 2012 to do post war reconciliation work and music, it's been home ever since.
Was yours a musical family? Were there expectations on you to be a "professional" (doctor, accountant, lawyer), and get a good job? How did they take your decision to become a professional musician?
No, my family was not particularly musical, although my mother played piano and there was always music playing in the house as far back as I can remember. There was not a lot of pressure to pursue a high profile profession but it was definitely expected that I take my education seriously. My music career took off in secondary school when I put out my first tape (Ceylon-1st Lesson EP, which turned out to be the first album from a Sri Lankan hip-hop artist from the west) before I finished high school. So it was a challenge to stay focused on grades and classes back then! After graduating from high school, I attended San Francisco State University and continued to make and perform my music, was politically active and began to work with youth. To this day I still teach and am always actively involved with the topics I address in my music. I strive to strike a balance and consistent parallel between my work as an educator and organiser and what I do on the mic.
Oakland California is Panther town
You know politics revolution right now
East Bay politics revolutionary sound
I hate living in a police state
Up in Oakland California
Where the police hate
Each and every black face
Shoot you right in the face
What drew you to music in general and reggae in particular? Who did you listen to as a young boy growing up?
I was always into music as far back as I can remember. I played guitar as a youth for a few years and was always serious about my tape collection. My favourite artists in my childhood were hip-hop artists like Public Enemy and NWA but also Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. I also was into some punk and heavy metal when I was real young. By the time I was a teenager, I was writing raps, battling and DJ’ing with a local crew I named ThundaCutz. At the time 2pac (Shakur) was who I looked up to the most and when he was assassinated it really affected me. It was shortly after that that I met my OG crew: Youth International Party at a Santa Ana open mic. They were Rastafarians and that’s when I really got into reggae music. I think it was the rebellious nature of both hip-hop and reggae that I was attracted to. Coming up I got in trouble in school, dealt with a lot of racism and police harassment and these music driven movements expressed resistance to oppression. I was naturally drawn to it. I was a straight ahead underground hip-hop artist for my first two releases until I began to voice mostly reggae rhythms, but I was still principally an eMCee.
You are clearly drawn to the political aspects of reggae music. Was your family political? To what degree have your political interests driven you to take up reggae and vice versa?
My immediate family weren’t particularly political but I have a revolutionary minded aunt and uncle who had a big role in opening up my consciousness to seeing the system for what it is. They woke me up at an extremely early age to see that you can actually say and do something about the injustices that exist. Because of this strong political presence in my family, it was fitting that I got engaged in activism early. I can remember my aunt taking me to protests. At my 1999 debut release party I passed out information on political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. Reggae and hip-hop are all about the fight for freedom so this was something that went hand in hand with the music I make. I am a registered member of The Universal Zulu Nation & work closely with the POCC/Black Panther Party Cubs Chaired by Fred Hampton Jr, so organisational structure remains very important to me.
Here & Now
Given the origins and very particular context of the birth of reggae and its ties with Rastafarianism what is it about the music that attracts you? Are you a Rastafarian?
I actually was a devout Rastafarian for about half of my life. I had many doubts about religion in my early teens and it was Rastafari that first got me to see life in a spiritual context and to care about my own roots and culture. I spent the majority of my adult life walking the path to the best of my knowledge as a Rasta. I took the lifestyle very seriously and spent time in Bobo Hill in Jamaica and organized Nyabinghis for years in Oakland as an officer for the Ethiopian World Federation. You can hear these sentiments throughout my albums particularly my “Gideon.Force” mixtapes.
However, after I returned to the States from Sri Lanka in 2012 a series of events made me look deep within and be self critical of some of the beliefs that I had been espousing for so long. I always want to search for and find the truth no matter how uncomfortable the process may be. I also always want to find the most authentic way to live spiritually. Around 2010, I befriended Malcolm X’s grandson El Hajj Malcolm Latif El Shabazz. He was constantly talking to me about and inviting me into the fold of Islam. When he was assassinated in May of 2013, it had a tremendous impact on me and made me look deeper into the Qu’ran, The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and what Al Islam has to say about the purpose of life and death. It was shortly after his janaaza (Islamic funeral) that I took my Shahada (declaration of faith) and reverted to Islam (we say “revert” and not “convert” as Islam is seen as the original state of being). It was also after marrying my wife (Hip-hop artist Alia Sharrief) who was born and raised Muslim that half of my Deen (way of life) was completed.
I still have much love for all my Rastafarian people around the world and there are so many similarities between the two faiths, the most important being they are opposed to oppression and seeing this modern world (dunya/bablyon) as corrupt. The main difference is that as a Muslim I subscribe no partners to my Creator and my prayers/fasting is much more disciplined then when I was a Rastafarian. Much of the new music I am working on, in particular my next solo album speaks to this journey. In fact this upcoming solo album of mine will definitively clarify where I am spiritually at this point in my life/career.
Betta B Ready
What is your aspiration and vision as a musician? Can your music and indeed, politically-infused reggae be enjoyed separate from the messages for social change?
My aspiration with both music and life has remained the same since I began: liberation of the mind, body and soul for humanity! Obviously, this is a large task – but for me, to struggle for self-determination of oppressed peoples is a universal imperative and can never be ignored no matter how much material success any individual may attain. I think my music can be politically infused with messages for social change and still be enjoyed. Ultimately the mainstream industry pushes content that tends to distract folks from what is really going on. So naturally I feel there is a void for reality in music that should be enjoyed by those who are tired of the fantasy.
All beings are born free with equal rights and dignity
Endowed with reason and a conscious to be brotherly
The spirit of justice is peace for all with liberty
No forms of slavery
freedom of nationality
The truth became a casualty cuz the victors write history
But it really ain't no mystery why the masses are in misery
Trapped in captivity
lab-rats we been literally
Taken out our homes and natural zones but its finna b
Is it fair to assume that given your musical preferences that you keep abreast of political developments in Sri Lanka? If so, how do you see political developments there? Do you hope your music will contribute to political/social change in Sri Lanka?
Yes, what is happening in Sri Lanka is always important to me. The reason why I chose the handle “Ceylon” when I was about 17, was to identify with my Sri Lankan heritage as a hip-hop artist. Travelling to the island throughout my childhood as the civil war was going on had a tremendous influence on how I see the world. In the short time I was there, I saw a lot, from curfews to checkpoints and other harsh realities that existed from 1983-2009. I have put out songs about what’s going on in Sri Lanka since my second album with songs like “Decolonize” and “My Island” which I wrote while visiting Jaffna in 2005.
Eventually, when the war officially ended in 2009, many were celebrating. But as an American born Sinhalese I was concerned what would happen to the Sri Lankan Tamil population that had been under control of the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] for so long. It was then publicised by a Canadian hip-hop artist (Humble the Poet) with whom I once collaborated, that I supported a post-war campaign called “Boycott Sri Lanka.” Even though I have always shown solidarity with Tamil people I could not endorse boycotting the entire island so I wrote the song: “Heal Lanka.” This was to be simply my post-war mission statement of what I thought was needed for Sri Lanka moving forward. It was immediately picked up by blogs and human rights news orgs such as www.groundviews.com in Sri Lanka.
Heal Lanka (Live in Lanka)
When I moved to Sri Lanka in 2012 Heal Lanka became a hit on local radio. I then shot a video for the song with a big time movie production team and was excited for what the song could do. Performing “Heal Lanka” at the Sri Lanka Unites Future Leaders Youth Conference in Jaffna College was definitely the highlight of my international musical experiences. There were youth from every caste, class and section of Sri Lanka all there for the purpose of fostering understanding and reconciliation and the song really captured the mood perfectly. Unfortunately as I get into in the next question, the government of Sri Lanka did not appreciate my efforts to Heal Lanka and reacted accordingly.
Has there been response (positive or negative) from Sri Lanka (either officials, or music lovers, family etc)?
Yes, both positive and negative. In 2012 I finally got a chance to “go back to the motherland” living and working in Sri Lanka for the better part of the year. Initially, I didn’t plan to do much music as I had a full time job out there, doing post war education and reconciliation work. But I immediately realized how important my music was particularly at that time because there were many people from the Lankan diaspora that had come back also and it seemed like they all were familiar with my music. I was literally getting recognised in the streets and in the clubs of Colombo.
It was then that I decided to make my musical persona and songs available to the island. I ended up doing many concerts, radio, television and newspaper appearances and articles came out and I was blown away at the love I was receiving. I then went to Kandy and shot a video for my song “Repatriation Time” which is a reggae/hip-hop anthem about returning to your homeland. This song went on to become the #1 most requested song on TNL Radio in Sri Lanka for two months and got me nominated as “Best Male Artist” for the 2013 YFM Homegrown Music Awards.
But it was soon after the success of “Repatriation Time” that “Heal Lanka” began to get popular as well. After I left the island, my management and production team in Sri Lanka were visited/intimidated by government officials and the song was officially banned from the Sri Lankan radio. I received a letter from one of the stations that had been playing the song that “due to the political situation they could no longer play “Heal Lanka.”
What made it worse was the music video for the song was completely halted as the ministry of defence and urban development put pressure on the production team and warned that there would be consequences if the video was released. Needless to say, all of this was quite shocking. What was puzzling was that this song and video was about healing and reconciliation, which is something that should not be controversial after the end of a 27 year long civil war.
What’s next for you?
We were planning on putting out a documentary covering my time in Sri Lanka and the repression of Heal Lanka and that may still happen. But now that there has been a change in government I am more interested in returning to my island and continue the work than rehash the negativity I faced from the establishment.
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