Interview with Rahel Haile and DonChristian Jones.
Camp and Street
Friendship, Collaborative Creativity, and Self-Affirmation
Jazmine Sullivan’s “Brand New” is playing in the background and I’m chilling on a vintage couch in 27-year-old Rahel Haile’s sunny yellow studio apartment atop a highrise in Harlem. The view is gorgeous: the Queens skyline and Bronx projects nestled in the background, the Harlem river in the foreground. Haile tells me she prefers this view to the one most New Yorkers covet: the Manhattan skyline. Haile is right at home in Harlem, she’s from the Bronx nearby but spent idle childhood hours in the neighborhood she’s put down permanent roots in as an adult. A consummate host, she offers coffee to the room at large. Fellow Camp and Street crew member 25-year-old DonChristian Jones, who met Haile at Wesleyan University, is seated near the window in an all black onesie. We both jump at the chance for an early morning caffeine injection. Haile heads to the kitchen as Jones lights a Marlboro Black. Smoke fills the air in small eddies that snake through wintry morning sunlight.
Mask Mag was lucky enough to grab facetime with these two as part of an interview with Camp and Street, a down-ass crew of artists, producers, singers, and visionaries – a number of whom connected at Wesleyan but mostly call New York home. Our interview took place just before singer and crew member Rahel dropped her new album, Alkali. Like most of what Camp and Street puts out, Alkali is both a collective effort and a labor of love. Rahel’s debut album, which was produced by The Drum’s Jeremiah Meece, includes collaborations with DonChristian, Le1f, and others.
Do you think of Camp and Street as a collective?
RH: We were discussing what it is exactly that makes us a crew. It really is about having a shared frame of mind – being on the same page about not just taste in music and what we like, but also our politics. How we carry ourselves, who we are, and our intentions. It’s more than just the collective exchanging of work – it’s also about being real human beings with each other.
DCJ: It’s a feeling. We’re more than just a collective or a record label. It has more to do with our personal relationships with one another and the different ways we interact and collaborate with one another. We’re all very different as individuals, but we are like-minded in the ways in which we make things. We’re very genuine and earnest and we’re not making work that people are telling us to make. We’re simply making work that we want to make.
So I think, you know, everyone probably has some Camp and Street in them. It’s just a matter of…
RH: What you gon do about it?
DCJ: Laughs. What you gon do about it.
What is that collaborative process like? Obviously, you’re a crew. You’re friends, you chill together. So how does that work as you create together?
RH: My album in particular could not have come about unless it were a collaborative process. Unless DonChristian was helping me, unless Le1f was helping me, unless I was getting advice from people in our collective. It involves collaboration, accrediting that collaboration, and recognizing it’s a group effort.
So, we’re trying to actually practice what we preach.
DCJ: That’s true. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t be here if Khalif and Boody hadn’t taken me under their wings. It has so much to do with inspiration and support and belief in one another.
Which other friends are in the collective? Can you run down the Camp and Street roster?
DCJ: That’s probably the hardest question. Laughs.
RH: That’s the hardest question. There are active and inactive members, and then when they pop up, it’s like, okay word, what’s good? As of now, Le1f, DonChristian, myself, Boody, Max Piff, Cybergiga who is Maine right now, Norrit who is in Kansas City, Chaz who is a founding member.
DCJ: And then loose affiliates who are on the periphery: Sam Jones, our close friend Lindsay Keys who does most of our photography, Akua who styles us.
RH: Emily Schubert, she does all of our makeup.
I remember having a discussion about our goals as Camp and Street initially in maybe 2011 or 2012. Guys, Camp and Street should just be all the homies who we know and love who can all bring something to the table so that we can all utilize each other’s talents.
DCJ: Ideally, we’d all live on a commune somewhere. We’d live in some abandoned church upstate and just make things together. We’ve discovered the power in our words and in ourselves. The hardest part is believing in yourself, so having people around you telling you to keep going makes it that much easier.
We’ve discovered the power in our words and in ourselves. The hardest part is believing in yourself, so having people around you telling you to keep going makes it that much easier.
Rahel, you mentioned the values you were raised with impacted your politics and your music. How were you raised? You’re from the Bronx, can you talk about what it was like growing up there?
RH: My parents were guerilla fighters in the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. For your typical Habesha parents, they’re out there in left field. But eventually, you just had to get out of there. My Mom, my Uncle, and my Aunt founded chapters of the EPLF in the Northeast. And they’re still strong. But it’s hard, the political climate in Eritrea is very volatile. It’s essentially a dictatorship. It’s always been a fight, even after they left it’s still the fight. I was raised knowing that.
I was having that juxtaposed – being working class and Eritrean – with going to an elite private school. There was a huge dichotomy there, they clashed a lot. I was often caught in the middle, but it allowed me to have access to two worlds that normally don’t have access to each other.
DCJ: Camp and Street.
RH: Exactly. And as much as it creates dissonance – going to private school my whole life leaves a very sour taste in my mouth – I can’t deny that if I hadn’t ended up at Wesleyan, I wouldn’t have the tools and knowledge it takes to do what I want now. To actively be my own business and my own support. To feel like I have the confidence to do that with my friends and make something of our own. But I also wouldn’t have this attitude of doing me if I hadn’t had that foundation at home. That family structure and a really strong grounding in who I am and where I come from. That plays a lot into how I carry myself every day and how I perform and what music I make.
DonChristian, you’re from Philly? What was it like growing up there?
DCJ: I had a similar experience. I grew up in Philly proper but I went to Quaker school my whole life, so I went to elite private schools from Kindergarten on. Then for high school I went to a boarding school. Up until the 8th grade, I was one of maybe two black kids in my class, which was defining. I had resentment about it for so many years. And then I went to boarding school and met all these kids from New York and L.A. and Europe and Africa and it opened my mind to the power behind diversity. I went to Wesleyan looking for something like that.
I had my qualms about Wesleyan too but I still found the people that inspired me to become an artist there. My parents are blue collar – my father has been a school police officer for fifteen years. He works nights – leaves at midnight, comes home at seven in the morning. I miss home all the time, and half the time I wonder why I’m not there. It’s so much more sustainable but my network is here.
You mentioned that you as a collective value giving credit where credit is due. But you also play with appropriation in ways that seem political. For example, DonChristian’s ‘Reappropriation Mix’ for Black History Month last year – I loved the black Mozart art on Soundcloud. How do you position yourself with regards to appropriation?
DCJ: A driving force in my work is history, and the way that history unfolds. I don’t want my work appropriated obviously, as an artist. But that’s how art is made: the best art is stolen. That said, I want to receive the respect I feel I deserve. And others can expect the same from me.
We live in a time where everything is fair game. I just want to be honest and real about where I’m pulling from. I do think there’s a combative component to it. I want to take back what I feel is mine.
The taking hasn’t been equal, historically.
DCJ: Absolutely. And the more you think about it, it can make you angry. I sometimes wake up feeling like I have a chip on my shoulder. Not even just for me, for other artists that I’m watching ascend and also have things stolen from them. The whole conversation surrounding Azealia Banks, it really brought light to a lot of the things we’re talking and thinking about.
RH: I think we’re also more concerned with affirming ourselves. Because we’re not affirmed. There’s no one image coming out right now that I feel is representative of who I am or what I think or how I feel. With the exception of the Azealia Banks interview – she affirmed a lot of what especially black women in the art world feel and think. It’s intensely emotional, as she displayed.
DCJ: It’s trying to figure out how to navigate it. With tact and class and grace. Because you can go on these rants like people do, but there’s also another ways to do it that might be more effective. And that is in affirming oneself, rather than dwelling in the negative and being angry about it. I think it’s just best to affirm oneself, affirm one’s brilliance, as a people, as a community. I could sit here and be like, “White people, fuck that, you’re taking my shit!” But I’d rather just raise up myself instead.
Some examples of self-affirmation just off the top of my head: the Kwanzaa mixtape you did, and this idea of cooperative economy in the community. And you also throw a Kwanzaa party every year. How did it start?
DCJ: It started in college. So many of us had grown up celebrating Kwanzaa. But then we went to these private institutions for college where, if you bring it up, people are like, “What’s Kwanzaa?” I was shocked that I had reached this level of academia and was still having to explain Kwanzaa to people. That struck me and Khalif and the rest of us at Wesleyan. We thought we could have a Kwanzaa party. The first time we did it was for my birthday because my birthday falls around the same time, and it was so much fun. We realized that, you know, Kwanzaa is lit! It is actually lit.
RH: It is lit! All the principles are lit.
DCJ: It’s my favourite holiday. It really stands for important things, the core values are beautiful and affirmative. So we’ve done it every year since and now it has become a concert of sorts and we just invite our friend-performers to enjoy.
Is Wesleyan where the beginnings of the crew emerged?
DCJ: It was founded by Le1f and Chaz, and they picked up homies along the way. And now it’s something that I live by.
Le1f introduced you to Jeremiah Meece from The Drum, who produced your albums. How was working with him?
RH: Jeremiah is incredibly talented. He picks up on what you’re trying to do and then does it – it’s unbelievable. He works his magic and ten minutes later it’s a hit.
DCJ: He’s really an engineering and beatmaking genius. When we first sat down and started to work on music – whether it be for Rahel or for me – it was like rap camp. We’d sit down, and write song after song after song. I’d be writing a song, Rahel would be writing a song, he’d be working on the next beat. And then by the end of the day we’d have five songs to pick and edit down from. It was really cool.
So what is it about his sound that you sought out for the record? It’s kind of pulled-apart sounding to me.
RH: That’s interesting that you say that. It’s definitely pulled apart. He incorporates electronic elements. When I listened to the sounds he initially sent us, I thought, these are soulful but electronic, what are these chords? They sound like RnB chords, but ...
DCJ: ... like futurist instrumentation.
RH: And that was what I was trying to do. I had been fixated on this idea that one of the things that’s really oppressive to my psyche as a black woman, or just as a black person, is that I’m constantly being reminded of where we were in the past and where we are right now. We never get the opportunity to imagine ourselves in a different context or in the future. Where do we want to be? It’s a privilege that black people don’t have. It’s always about reverting back to what’s happened, or what’s happening right now because of what happened in the past. And I don’t ever get to imagine myself where I want to be. That’s the direction I wanted to go musically. So when I heard Jeremiah’s music I felt it was familiar, it was nostalgic. But he’s going about it in a way that’s futuristic and I was about that.
DCJ: There’s a tinge of Afrofuturism in everything we do. Camp and Street is also about present and past, juxtapositions, opposites, balance. So it’s very much highbrow versus lowbrow.
RH: The academic versus the oral tradition.
DCJ: Man versus nature. So what we want to do is to make sounds that hearken back to something but is very much ahead of its time.
You were saying that you probably have more power and influence on the internet than you would if you were to go into politics. This is one of the reasons we’re running this project: there’s this moment in culture right now when people are so disillusioned with politics and there are very antagonist tendencies in popular culture. Part of it is people recovering what’s cool and what’s “street”, but with the internet, there’s also attention and respect being paid to people who have more real politics. What are your reflections on this moment in culture, is this something you’re seeing as well?
DCJ: Absolutely. Culture moves in waves in my mind, and you can only go so far in one direction before something has to counterbalance with a reaction. It’s all about restoring balance. I think we went so far in one direction of disillusionment and naiveté and not giving a fuck and YOLO that it’s like, what do we have to live for? The whole Tumblr generation of oversaturation and bombardment of imagery and loss of meaning of symbols. People living their lives dictated by symbols that mean nothing. How far can we go in that direction before we dissipate? That’s why it is so captivating when you read something that’s heartfelt or pseudo-political online these days, that feels genuine and that’s not entirely bigoted. My thing is that, if we are to exist in that realm and do all the work we have to online, it’s that much more important that all of our real-life interactions and points of contact with one another, fans, whoever, have to be that much more real and important.
RH: And also our imagery. It’s very nature oriented, I want to get as far away from this shit as possible if I can, and if I can’t do that in real life, let me at least act that way in the music videos. At least portray that image. The visual is giving you a sense that I want to be in nature. Getting back in touch with nature, but also it’s escaping to a safe space, unhinging from all of this, knowing that it will drive you mad. Entire lives revolve around this shit. And it’s wild because I wasn’t raised that way. I remember not having this stuff. I remember what being social was like without it.
DCJ: It’s totally weird because in some ways you feel like your careers are reliant on it.
What are some of the inspirations in terms of music, books, people, whatever, that when you were younger inspired you to bring yourself up, to create?
RH: Music wise, my parents knew Eritrean music, Tigrigna music, and they knew Motown. That’s what I was raised listening to. In high school and middle school I was figuring out how to use Kazaa and Limewire and Napster. Being on Napster, entering a name I saw on VH1 at 1AM and downloading they had, that was how I figured out my musical landscape in high school. In college I realized that everybody had been doing that, so everybody had gigantic music libraries. We all listened to some of the same shit and some really obscure shit. Music wise that’s what influenced me.
I was an African American Studies Major at Wesleyan. I had some really radical professors who helped me deconstruct everything I knew about the world. I would walk into class, and walk out in tears with my mind fucking blown. It was like church. It shattered everything, and I had to find a new lens through which to view the world. Ever since that moment, I’ve just been trying to recreate the way in which I’d like to see the world.
But one unexpected effect of that was the realization that I can’t live in the normal world anymore. I was like, I can’t do this! I can’t get a job, because I can’t stand anybody. I hate everyone except for my friends. Can I get a job with my friends? And I guess that’s kind of what I did.
I remember that feeling so aptly. The feeling that I can’t stand anybody, how am I gonna do anything in the world?
DCJ: It’s that chip on your shoulder.
Yeah. I saw Nikki Giovanni speak last night and she basically said the same thing. “I want to go to space but I can’t.”
DCJ: We existed for so long in these elite bubbles, so for us to talk about it as a negative experience feels weird sometimes. But it’s true. It’s proven that trauma is hereditary, and collective memories are passed down through generations. There are things that are a part of me that I cannot change.
In previous interviews, you’ve talked about how being queer in New York, being black in New York influences your music. I know other members of the collective are queer. Is it a queer collective?
DCJ: I use queer in a more broad sense than I think most people would. I use queer as having a free mind, a non-judgmental approach to the world. So I would argue that everyone in Camp and Street is a little queer. And it doesn’t always have to do with sex or sexual preference. But I think that’s the coolest thing to be in this day and age. Because queer people are the most innovative, provocative, creative. At least of the people I encounter.
RH: And genuinely so. Because they have to be. You don’t fit in otherwise.
DCJ: It’s survival. And I think it probably has to do with evolution but I don’t wanna get into that.
RH: It’s definitely survival.
DCJ: We’re at a point where we can all pick and choose our own visions of the world. So to judge someone on any of their personal preferences or aesthetics feels wrong. This is who you are. The internet may have made you who you are, your church may have made you who you are, but that’s not your fault. It’s when someone is imposing their ideals and values onto you that it becomes a problem. But at this time we should all be able to feel the way we do. Because it’s a waste of time of money and energy and resources to do anything else. And it makes me think that all of this stuff is systematic and orchestrated. Because why else would they be investing all that time and energy into incarcerating a community or a race?
RH: The only message I’m getting from everything that institutions of power impose on us is that they’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that brown populations are contained and controlled. They’ll spend three times as much money on incarcerating them as educating them.
DCJ: And all of their money on propaganda in the form of sports, media, pop culture.
RH: We’re just a small crew of friends trying to do our thing. I just don’t want to be bothered. I’m just trying to do my thing. If you’re down with that, hop on. If you’re not, get out of the way.
DCJ: It’s so refreshing to meet people like that, who are so much themselves that it rubs off on you. For instance, the rapper Bbymutha is someone we formed a relationship with online.
RH: She collaborated with a producer we were collaborating with.
DCJ: And then she finally came to New York last week, made her debut here, and she stayed at my house. Upon meeting her, it was like I had known her for years. Because she was so distinctively her, and it inspired me. And now I feel like she’s our sister. So I would consider her our Camp and Street affiliate in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
RH: Mostly because we fuck with her so hard. You know when you’re a fanboy or a fangirl for somebody on the internet, and then you meet them and they’re just a normal human being.
New York beats that out of you though.
DCJ: I think because everyone comes here to get their own. When you’re in this sea of people where everyone’s doing the same thing, it can be oppressive and make you start questioning yourself. Why am I here? Why am I special? Should I keep doing this? I’ve done retail work, I’ve done service jobs. But it’s a slippery slope to forgetting your dreams. You enter into that workforce and losing sight of who you are amidst pedestrians around you. You have to affirm yourself. I am an individual. I am special. You have to tell yourself that everyday, and not in some egotistical way. Believe your mother when she tells you you’re special, if you so have that privilege. Because most of us do not.
I can make a list of people that I’ve met in the last year that have blown me away. Abdu Ali, Cakes Da Killa, Junglepussy, Joey LaBeija. I’m so fortunate to have met these people. It feels like we’re a part of something. I don’t know what necessarily. It’s like a swelling.
This country came from a crew of white dudes putting each other first and helping each other out. Big things can come from friendship.
RH: Yeah but we’ll do it on Mars. Let’s get to Mars before white people do.
I feel like we’ve talked about who you fuck with – who do you want to fuck with?
RH: I want to hang out with K. Michelle right now. She’s heartbroken in the same ways I am and doesn’t give a fuck in the same ways I don’t, you know? The way she talks about her relations with men, I identify with a hundred percent. So I would like to hang out with her a little bit, talk to her about where she’s coming from.
Laverne Cox is another person I want to hang out with. And I kinda want to know what’s going on in Rihanna’s mind right now. You know, she’s put on such an incredible pedestal. It’s obviously really good marketing but also somewhat part of her persona that’s like, “I don’t care. I don’t give any fucks.” And to manage that at such a huge scale, to do so kind of effortlessly and still have the attention of millions of people.
And still getting caught with blunts! Like, what is it? I know it has everything to do with the fact that she’s beautiful and she’s talented. But she has … swag. Or she has something about her that make people willing to bend the rules. In the pop world. Beyoncé too. She is unbelievable. She is a robot and I mean that ambiguously. There’s no way somebody can do all of that and be a real person. Is she a real person? I would love to know.
Her brand is her name which I also find so weird. Like, how trippy would that be?
RH: She ensured her body. She’s somebody who’s in this really difficult realm for black women. People will forever put her on this pedestal for what she’s accomplished but we’re not talking about the sacrifices she had to make. Did she have a social life? Did she grow up with friends and hang out at the mall? She says she did but there’s no way you could be in Girl’s Tyme freaking like that, being on StarSearch and be at the mall at the same time. She’s been doing this since she was in diapers. What is that like? What is it like have so many people look up to your brand that is you but is also not entirely you?
DCJ: This celebrity-driven and consumerist culture has become almost like a religious system for the Western and American world. We have this pantheon of gods, demigods, that manifest as celebrities. They dictate what we wear, what we listen to, what’s cool, what’s not. And there are people behind them pulling their strings. I just want us to delve into something that is other than this. It’s also our appeal. That whole shift that we were talking about of people wanting more substance. I think people appreciate that.
Earnest is in. Sincerity…
RH: Absolutely, at this point it’s all we got left. We’ve exhausted everything else. You can keep coming up with whatever. Making things up. The speed at which things become old is so much faster than it used to be that we’re just consuming, consuming, consuming.
DCJ: And what are you left with?
RH: It’s exhausting. Our current understanding of what the figure of man is, is no longer sustainable. It’s not only depleting us as humans but we’re literally depleting the Earth of everything it’s provided us. It’s unsustainable. And we’re agitated. People of color have been agitated for years, of course. But when people who are traditionally privileged suddenly feel like they won’t have access to things, that’s when it all starts to implode on itself. They know this is unsustainable – they know that their understanding of life is threatened. Whether it’s because of the threat of people like us – we’re not having it anymore – or, because you’re going to deplete all of your resources.
We need to reimagine ourselves as human beings. We did it before: the Enlightenment period, the Renaissance. It’s time to reimagine ourselves in a way that all people are affirmed and human and recognized. And once we do so, we have to redefine our understanding of how to interact with the world.
In the music world, men age like wine, and women age like milk. There’s not a niche for older girls trying to be smart about it, it’s all about younger girls being cute about it.
I don’t often hear people talk about how capitalism changes our relationships to each other and ourselves. We don’t talk about how to think about our own creative capacity, or how we want to live and position ourselves in the world.
At first, I was pretty worried. In the music world, men age like wine, and women age like milk. There’s not a niche for older girls trying to be smart about it, it’s all about younger girls being cute about it. Once I did decide I wanted to pursue music, I was so worried about that. But I realized that you have to fall back not on this [pointing at her body], but what you know, and how you carry yourself, and that’s what I’ve always fallen back on.
In that sense, I’m so happy that I’m here at this age in my life, that I did this. I did the work thing. I did the let-me-save-some-money-and-buy-an-apartment thing. Let me own some property. I was just trying to do me, but I recognize now that I was trying to do something revolutionary for people such as myself. I’m trying to change the narrative and the pace that women such as myself are forced to move at. Again, redefining your life, and then having your music be a reflection of that. They are all one and the same.
And that’s another thing. We spend a lot of time and effort trying to divide the person from the music, to make it a product. It’s never been about being a product. Making it a product is not an option. If you don’t like my album, fine. I like my album. It didn’t touch you, you won’t buy it, but it’ll touch somebody else, they don’t even have to buy it. Listen to it. I’ve got to speak for myself. It’s a journal entry.