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Healthy Is the New Gangsta: An Interview With Dead Prez's Stic

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Rap and health consciousness may not seem like a natural duo, but for Khnum Ibomu, or Stic -- best known as half of the rap group Dead Prez -- promoting a healthy lifestyle is a natural extension of the themes of political activism, social justice and personal motivation that run through his music. In a recent HuffPost blog, 7 Ways to Eat Good on a Hood Budget, he laid out tips for eating healthy without breaking the bank. I talked to Stic about how he became interested in the holistic lifestyle -- and why "healthy is the new gangsta."

Seamus: In your piece, you say you don't have to break the bank to eat healthy. But what about the argument that you can feed a family dinner at a fast food place for twenty dollars?

Stic: Well, you know, I understand that. Coming from the hood, coming from low-income and no-income communities, I understand that that seems like the logical thing to do. Yeah, you can feed a family of four for twenty bucks on fast food for one night, but you can take that same twenty dollars and get vegetables and fruits and make soups and salads -- and different snacks, raisins and nuts -- for the week, or at least a few days. And it's healthy food.

Most people know you as a musician and an activist, but there are probably people who don't know about the health, fitness and food side. How'd you become interested in this stuff?

I came down with a condition called gout, in my leg. Basically, I was living the young rapper's life: smoking weed, drinking, eating whatever was at the fast food restaurant. And one day I woke up with gout. In a nutshell, my wife helped me heal by introducing me to a vegan lifestyle and from there I wanted to get use of my leg back -- so I took up kung fu.

I always say having gout in my early 20s was a blessing in disguise... but I don't want it again [laughs].

We know from stats that poorer areas have worse access to healthy food -- and more access to convenience stores and fast food.

The thing about it is that in those communities -- what a lot of people have started to call food deserts -- you tend to get what's convenient. You get what you have a taste for, from the chemical addiction in these things. That's a whole other level of how these fast food products wreak havoc on people -- in terms of the obesity epidemic and heart disease and all these things.

You make an interesting point in your piece, where you say, We have to spend less money on alcohol, video games, TV, cigarettes. To what extent do lifestyle changes have to do with choices -- versus structural changes, like no access to healthy food?

I'm an advocate of bottom-up and top-down. So I think that we have personal levels of responsibility over what we can do to educate ourselves to resist the culture of disease and addiction. But then we have social responsibility. As an artist, we have a unique place in that because we help articulate and create the inspiration, the interest, the intrigue, into some of these things happening.

Throughout your music, you've dropped in themes of health. Maybe what people know best is the 2000 song "Be Healthy." That didn't feel mainstream then. How much has that awareness changed?

It's changed dramatically, man. The Workout is the first ever hip-hop album to be authentically hip-hop, artistically, but to have the theme of every track promoting health and wellness. People like KRS-One before us has classics like the song "Beef" about the beef industry. And he was an educator and he inspired groups like us to come about.

Is our society doing a good job of getting the word out about health?

I feel like there's plenty of information out there -- we live in the information age. You have to ask yourself, "What's the missing ingredient?" I think there's an element of the internal motivation of the person that has to be addressed -- through the arts and through creative marketing and media -- to get people excited again. I still want to see a sitcom about a vegan family.

That'd be radical.

[Laughs] Yeah, but it's coming.

You've always been part activist and part artist. Do you think that all artists should be activists by definition?

I think all artists are activists. It's just a question of, "What are we activating?" Every song, every movie, everything that we create, reinforces an idea. It reinforces a world view.

To an extent you've placed yourself outside, or against, the big corporate labels.

I can understand why you say that. I try to position myself as to what I'm for, not what I'm against. I love hip hop. Hip hop is my lifestyle, it's my culture. But what I try to do is revolutionize it. Keep the aggression, keep the confidence, keep the innovation, the creativity, the slang, the expression, but add content that is positive.

Are you working on new music?

Yeah, I'm working on the follow-up to my album The Workout -- The Workout: Vol. 2. And I'm producing other things in the works.

I just read an article by David Byrne [of the Talking Heads]. He was talking about Spotify and the changing culture around online music.

Right on, yeah, I like David Byrne's book, How Music Works. That's a good read. I definitely have been more economically sustainable and successful by moving my career beyond the plantation of the big five record companies that we was tossed around in.

In the song "Be Healthy," I said "my goal in life is not to be rich or wealthy." I joke and say, "But my goal in business is." So for me, what I advocate to artists, what I advocated in my book The Art of MCing, is be your own boss. Be your own business. So that you don't have to go to a company that pretty much is designed to tell you what is standard -- which basically means you're sharecropping.

Can the rules to being a successful MC be applied in the kitchen?

I'm probably a much better MC than I am a chef... but I get down. I think an MC is open-minded and studies a lot -- so that you have something to say and have perspective that can be interesting or shed some light. And I think a chef has an open palate, and is interested in how all the elements of cooking create this art that we taste. And you have to have tough skin -- because everything you create musically ain't gonna hit and everything you make in the kitchen is not gonna be a gourmet masterpiece.

You mentioned that your wife introduced you to cooking--

Her philosophy on food has become mine. She's a creative artist. She's an inspiration. She's an educator of nutrition and she's open-minded, so she introduced me to cuisines I would never try.

Like what?

Broccoli. Brussels sprouts. Sushi rolls. All the greens -- we eat greens for breakfast and that's not a normal thing in the standard American diet but for our household that's the norm.

If you had to have one spice, what would you go with?

Can I have a tie? It would be smoked paprika and garam masala.

It's hard not to be inspired by your message. But based on the epidemic health problems our country has, do you ever feel doomed about it?

Absolutely I don't feel frustrated or demoralized or intimidated. I've seen so many positive results, it's impossible to not know we can whip this thing. My mom beat diabetes on a plant-based diet. These things are real. We always say in the hip hop community, "Real recognize real." And when we see that sipping syrup and poppin' Molly results in poor health and a loss of opportunity -- and we see somebody else drinking green juices and running and enjoying life to the fullest -- real gonna recognize real.

One of Dead Prez's best known albums is Revolutionary But Gangsta. How is that concept relevant to the holistic lifestyle?

I feel that advocating health is a revolutionary act. It's a form of activism. In fact, we need to bring being active back to activism -- and moving back to the movement. You know, literally. I'm much more centered and grounded spiritually than when I was carrying pistols in the streets. We don't forget where we come from but we also don't forget where we're going.

"Healthy is the new gangsta" is the tag line for RGB Fit Club, a health movement you've created. What do you mean by that?

Gangsta as a term is really just a way to describe something that is really fresh or strong or magnetic -- it's like another word for saying "that's dope" or "that's fly." For me, I wanted to put it in the context of health. What's more gangsta than health? What's more gangsta than feeling good?