Up Close with Rapper Sage Francis

Friday, November 04, 2011


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Speaking truth to power: rapper Sage Francis

Although intellectual and self-reflective hip-hop artists may be a rarity at the moment, Providence rapper Sage Francis is the exception. Francis has carved out a unique niche for himself as a successful underground artist since the mid-1990s via his witty social and political commentary. As if being a multi-talented MC were not enough, Francis is also a former participant in the national competitive poetry scene and the current CEO of a major independent record label.

GoLocal caught up with Francis just in time for Saturday night's concert at The Met in Pawtucket.

Unlike a lot of mainstream rappers, your music offers both poetic elements and a socio-political commentary. What led you to become a socially conscious performer?

I know what you’re saying, but I do think that mainstream rappers offer poetic elements and social commentary in their music. I don’t enjoy how they do it a lot of the time, but I can’t deny that there’s a poetry and social commentary involved. As for my own style, I learned from all the rappers in the golden era of hip-hop. Public Enemy, KRS, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, Ice-Tea, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, NWA, Beastie Boys, Too Short, LL Cool J, Kool G Rap, Run DMC, etc. The list goes on. They’re the ones who influenced me to develop my own style and speak my own truth.

Were you ever pressured by managers or record labels to become more “commercial” or to alter you socio-political style?

Yes, absolutely. Those pressures are always there, for every artist, whether they’re direct or indirect. I made a choice early on to never bend to those pressures and I’m very happy about that. I started pursuing a music career in a serious way since I was 13, so I’ve maneuvered my way through gauntlets of all sorts. They’re all entertaining in their own way. I once had a manager who suggested that I sell crack in the projects of Brooklyn so that I could have more of a “street” angle to my music. No joke. Now that I think of it, maybe he suggested this because I wasn’t making any money for him with my music at the time. Needless to say, I gave up on managers early on in my career and to this day I handle all facets of my business.

Speaking of handling all facets of your career, you originally started Strange Famous Records in 1996 as a way to release your own material. Over time SFR developed into a leading independent label that now features numerous artists. Can you discuss this evolution?

Strange Famous Records was organically grown from the bottom up. I built it, as it needed to be built, while keeping up with the demand for my own music. I was pretty broke in the early days, so investing $50 into purchasing cassette tapes felt like a big gamble. When those tapes sold, I felt more confident in making bigger investments in my career. I then got to the point where I was able to create a demand for other people’s music, which is when the SFR roster grew. And then the staff grew. And then the music industry went to shit. Yay future! We're doing well though. There aren't many indie ships that sail as boldly as ours. We've definitely earned our sea legs.

You were a member of three national Providence Poetry slam teams in 1998,1999 and 2002; can you talk a little bit about your experience with the Providence and national spoken word movement?

Truthfully, for me, the whole "slam" thing is more of a media talking point than anything else. Yes, I was involved in competitive poetry. And, yes, I did well in that realm. But it didn't provide much outside of putting $20 in my pocket every time I won a slam. Well, that's not entirely true. I did meet some amazing people along the way, but I also met amazing people in my years of playing ping-pong. I'd prefer if my ping-pong years were a media talking point. I feel like a mediocre ping-pong game is much more interesting to watch than a mediocre slam performance.

Although you've toured all over the world, how special is it for you when you get to perform in RI?

I prefer to stay low-key in my hometown these days, which is why I don't perform here too often. I hide in my cave and live a hermit lifestyle while I work day and night. Originally, RI was the ONLY place where people went wild at my shows, but I've been spoiled by other cities over the years. It's always a wake-up call to return to the East Coast and remember that this is the TOUGHEST territory to play. Truth be told, that's a big reason I pushed myself as a performer and became well known for memorable performances. If you can make a crowd full of east coasters unfold their arms and wave them in the air, then you're going to absolutely kill everywhere else.

You have an "Occupy Wall Street" piece on your official Web site in which you discuss economic injustice in the US. Just wondering if you have participated in the Occupy Providence movement.

I poked my head in, spoke with some people, inquired into who was doing what, donated a bit of money, and went back to doing what I need to do behind the scenes. A few people have urged me to perform or speak at this occupation, but I don't feel like that's my place at the moment. For now I'm trying to help and support in other ways. That said, I respect the hell out of the people down there on the front lines. I'm proud that they've decided to stand up, exercise their rights, voice their gripes and stick it out through all the nastiness.

I read that you are going to cease touring to focus on producing, writing and recording. Is this true? If so, what led you to this decision?

I made that announcement in 2010 while I was wrapping up my final year of touring around the world. There have been a lot of ups and downs during my 10 plus years of touring relentlessly. Being on the road all the time is taxing on the mind, body and spirit. Even though shows are my main source of income, I decided I need to cut way down on them in order to focus on other things. That means I will no longer spend more than a week away from home. So far, it's going pretty well but I'm still adjusting to the new life. For some reason I still feel just as exhausted and overworked. Hahaha. Can't win.

Lastly, can you foresee yourself in a political or community activist role?

I have no aspirations to be a politician. I can definitely see myself getting involved with community activism, but I have no desire to be a leader of any movement.  I'd much rather operate behind the scenes and stay involved on a non-spokesperson level. There are a lot of things I've learned through the years of schooling, business and entertainment that I will continue offering to movements I believe in.

Check out Sage on Saturday, November 5 at The Met in Pawtucket, RI. For more information visit www.themetri.com. If you would like to learn about Sage visit sagefrancis.net or follow him on Twitter @SageFrancis.

Watch Sage Francis, here.


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