A pretty, tatted blond waitress slings drinks for a trio seated at a back table at Northern Lights Lounge in Detroit. A DJ — Dez from Slum Village — has Dwele cooking the woofers and a line of relaxed folks sit hunchbacked on stools along the bar while some guy's comfortably couch-slouched watching big-screen sports action near the club's entrance. That's about it. At 11:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night, little is happening.
Not 10 minutes later, the venue begins to fill. Local rap stars arrive — Phat Kat, Nick Speed, Blake Eerie are in the house, so's Marvwon; in strolls the waifish Danny Brown and Athletic Mic League's 14KT.
Fans too, an ethnically mixed crowd of shiny-eyed men and women pay the cover, step in and their numbers peak around midnight, showtime for Detroit emcee Invincible. The gig's barely promoted — the venue's maybe half-full — but no matter; heads are here ready to roll, ready for the emcee to illume the joint.
Even in the muted orange and excessively air-conditioned cocktail-y venue, Invincible, resplendent in a burgundy Scifen Comrade jacket, dude-low baggy jeans, Nike kicks and ubiquitous cap, hops the stage and bounces like how a boxer might — fresh in a bout's first round. Suddenly the beats kick, and with mic to mouth, her lips machine-gun lyrics and she just pulls, there are no affected coquettish hand and arm gestures — played-out rap-rockstar stage deeds are gauche here — no, she tugs the crowd in with dope flow and song, with presence. It's immediate, substantial and natural. It kills all neutral space in the room. She's got that ineffable allure born of experience, skill and genetics; there's realistic androgynous fascination too — roughshod femininity sidles a masculine attack.
It's just as she did nights earlier at the Max M. Fisher Music Center at the tail end of the Allied Media Conference with her former New York-based group the Anomalies. The room of about 200 fans, mostly kids — nearly every ethnicity you can name — partook rabidly in what was equal parts peace rally and booming rap show with a pro-female bent.
Tonight, behind Northern Light's cumbersome 3-foot-high railing, Invincible hastily stalks the stage side-to-side, calls it up and out, summoning elation — even in this otherwise idle weeknight setting. That joy is then lifted, slowly, unpredictably. At first her rhymes sound rote and purposely pessimistic, but soon an obvious literary bent comes clear, tinted with studied lines of inner-city Detroit aches and tributes, which are spit, crooned and spoken and then swallowed whole by each person here — no one gets away from her. Here's the twist: These often droll and empathetic couplets become emphatically positive. It's weird. Crowd hands rise and swing in unison, sing-along chants fortify her chorus rhymes as if she's offering up some beat street-corner sermon. Her grin and grimace, this facial yin and yang — are placed perfectly at select sections of her set, restrained as if rehearsed — between her witty political ya-yas and pathos-rich lines.
Her show can't be reduced to a typical rap performance, kids; there's something peculiarly subtle in her presentation that rides shotgun on hardened believability.
In a mess of shout-backs, raised arms and cigarette smoke, Invincible announces in a deep monotone that "all of us are able to create a change all around us. We're the Shapeshifters" ... and launches into her album's title track. The beats kill.
On "Looongawaited" she's "striving to be one the best, period. Not just one with breasts and a period," and pounce-sings-shouts and hop-steps onto the dance floor for face-to-face, eye-on-eye contact with heads in front, so close you could wipe sweat from her brow.
Her language isn't rap-trite hyperbole — the very idea that she'd gratuitously self-pimp is silly; if anything, there's irony. The DJ-emcee interplay is powerful (but not ersatz powerful; dare we say, um, spiritual?) as if the beat is but a transport for personality-charged messages about community spirit built on biting veracity, not shallow self-glorification; it's how rap was originally designed to work. Poignant, poetic, socially interactive and intelligent; it's all about awareness, a level of consciousness that begins locally, begins in the heart.
Her freestyle finale sees her solicit words from the mass gathered before her. She requests synonyms that spell hope for Detroit and the terms fly forth: "family," "faith," "love," "music," "another chance," "God," "Stevie Wonder," "Detroit Tigers." She takes each word in, repeats for recall, then works each into a rhythm-precise freestyle flow invented on the spot. Aces.
Sometimes she's that little Jewish girl raised in Israel and Ann Arbor (that sixth-grader who punched a kid at synagogue during high holidays "because he called me a wigger") and other times she's a big monster of a persona, Invincible, a louder version of her off-stage self.
Here's the deal: Invincible is one of the best emcees in the country, as many will tell you, gender notwithstanding, though the odds are stacked against her: 1) She's a woman working a male-dominated genre 2) She's gay and 3) She's overtly political — her sympathy for the Palestinians, for instance, flies in the face of many of her Israeli family members' (and this country's) principles. Politicking in a pop world often spells fiscal failure.
She's dedicates much of her life to grass-roots activism for community change — mainly through the nonprofit group Detroit Summer — from workshops inside Michigan schools to a federal prison in California, from a juvenile center to a West Bank group tour.
Barely 20 minutes after her set, the sweaty Invincible is standing at her mini merch booth, raspy as a whiskey-stung chain-smoker (she's effusive all hours of day and night, Blackberry in hand — no larynx can withstand such abuse), helping one of her Emergence label partners, Mike Medow, sell her just-released vinyl and CDs of Shapeshifters, carefully laid out on a table. (Her other Emergence biz partner is Athletic Mic League's Wesley Taylor.)
She greets the hell out of most people with fat hugs and first names. The emcee converses with everyone and anyone in gracious, accommodating ways; she bends forward slightly to greet, as if she's hard of hearing, then her grin widens and a nod and a "whatup" results. A compliment sees her straighten up — the movement suggests surprise — as if she's humbled and pipes back something like, "Aw, thank you ... peace, man."
Her vernacular is slanged-up street, speckled with a slightly mannish sense of phrasing; strange considering she's half-Israeli (on her mom's side; dad is Jewish and from St. Louis) and her first language was Hebrew. She turns her studded hip-hop patois into an ear-bending rhythm. This woman, born Ilana Weaver, who learned English mostly by rapping along to hip-hop tapes as a kid, went from stenciling her own singles on sidewalks in front of venues to extended European and U.S. tours. She's a self-contained DIY force with her own label and career-building "template," which she shares with other rising and beginning emcees.
Invincible's earning fans, handfuls at a time, by taking her music straight to their faces.
"What she does lyrically is what rap was designed for; it's all about awareness and enlightenment," says Waajeed from Platinum Pied Pipers, who've taken Invincible on lengthy tours in the United States and Europe. The former Detroiter, now based in New York, also produced tracks on Shapeshifters. "She's one of the greats. She's got it all; her beat selection, her writing, her live performances and her freestyle abilities. How many emcees now — or before — can cover all those bases? At shows full of men, she has to earn their respect. By the end their mouths are wide-open. She's a great emcee period, despite that she's white and female and gay." Wajeed pauses, and then he adds with absolutely no irony: "This is a great part of history."
It's an early Tuesday afternoon and Invincible zooms from her southwest Detroit home to the Cass Corridor in a Mitsubishi on loan from a pal. Her own ride, she half-chuckles, got nicked. ("Man, I went outside my house and the car was gone. That was that. ...") A CD by one of her producers (Athletic Mic League's 14KT) pushes the car's stereo as she negotiates corners and shifts lanes with speed and poise — pointing out community gardens with measurable joy and, contritely, where city projects have been demolished in favor of, say, condos. She talks of her city of the past six years, of its inhabitant's displacement, of its misguided changes: "Displacement in the city's a result of shortsighted and predatory planning, which completely devalues and destroys the relationship between people, places, community networks and institutions. Look at what the Ilitch family's doing."
The rapper can converse with authority and alacrity as she drives. Her Blackberry — which she constantly eyes for messages, and occasionally answers — could be surgically attached to either ear or hand. (She self-manages her career, is constantly writing, books her own U.S. tours, and stays involved with community organizing.) She continues the conversation about the connections between gentrification in Detroit and other cities she has visited around the world while on tour; she expounds on "the overlaps between colonization and gentrification." What can otherwise sound like hoary truisms become energized and glimmering ideals when streaming from Invincible's lips.
She likes to talk about an education system that clings to archaic ideas and how obsessions like reality TV have made it perfectly acceptable to be an uninvolved and unenlightened moron. She talks of her activism and the growing, multi-tiered youth group Detroit Summer, a huge part of her life.
She guides the car into a parking spot in front of Avalon Bakery, steps into the neighboring Goodwell's Natural Foods, greets her women-friends behind the counter, orders lunch, and slips into a chair at a sidewalk table.
Invincible's features hint of a younger, prettier Hilary Swank — dark brown eyes, thin eyebrows, perfect skin, short hair with wisps of delicate, faux sideburns, and a nose that scrunches up childlike when she laughs or grins — features guaranteeing an ID for booze. Her looks haven't given up a day since that basketball-playing tomboy was an Ann Arbor teen. Now, she's a rather worldly woman of 27.
Without prompting, the emcee sparks conversation: "I don't eat enough or work out," she offers. This from a woman whose elliptical exercise machine sits center stage in her living room — although it's apparently unused of late — and who's biting into a veggie sandwich, and one whose last paid job before going full time with music was "slinging sledgehammers at a carpentry apprenticeship." She rubs her midriff with her palm and grins, "I probably should exercise. I have the body of a 90-year-old."
She's apparently acquainted with each person strolling along Willis Street; gracious grins and nods land in her direction, which she returns in kind. She acknowledges a butterfly floating by and, as if on cue, explains how she stays away from vacuous rap and hip-hop driven purely by commercial conventions. She's all about communal conventions for community salvation. She's not concerned with fakes.
"I'm more interested in those into rap and hip hop who are interested in making a community. I'm talking about a community good for their families. ... I believe that Detroit is what the world has to look forward to because we have the rare opportunity to still reclaim land and transform it into a futuristic approach of how a city can function.
"There are so many different kinds of communities. ... It just comes down to mutual support." After a quiet moment, she adds, "It's not just self-interest. A lot of times it's about pushing each other to grow. It's about solving larger problems, but solving them collectively."
Invincible's an alert student of people, evinced in her work and observations; she has empathy for others without judging — from that comes her understanding and wisdom. She believes in love, she says, and has a long-term, long-distance partner in Oakland, Calif. And her buoyancy is infectious, it touches others — seemingly unbeknownst to her — and people are drawn to her; it's not her stage magnetism, but self-belief, self-reliance.
But suggest that she exudes confidence beyond the stage, and a surprised look flashes on her face. "Look, there are many points when I thought I suck, when I think, 'Why am I doing this?'" she says with a mild shrug.
The woman who adopted Detroit as her hometown in 2002 questions everything with an intellectual curiosity; she'll research whatever fascinates for her personal edification, which frequently becomes song fodder, or some tool for outreach.
A few days later, Invincible's wheeling the loaner ride around her old Ann Arbor haunts — her sometime emcee partner Finale soundtracks the scene from the car stereo — his latest CD Finale & Spier 1200 Present Develop. (Finale and Invincible paid dues together and have incendiary chemistry. They've shared myriad stages, songs and toured Midwestern cities by hook, crook and Amtrak.) She rolls past her elementary school in the Stoneybrook area, an abandoned hotel where she co-promoted a show 12 years ago ("At 15, I'd have to sneak into clubs, so me and my DJ found places to throw shows"), her alma mater and then moves slowly past her two-story childhood home in a sedate and modest neighborhood.
"Back then, this neighborhood had a different dynamic — blacks, Iranians, Iraqis," she explains. "Ann Arbor puts itself out there as a liberal college town, but there's racism underneath. They might not talk of the disproportionate youth imprisonment ..."
She tells a story of strolling down an Ann Arbor street wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh and getting a drive-by bottle thrown at her, accompanied by the words "Fuck you, Afghanistan bitch." She says a cop was nearby but did nothing. The skirmish gave rise to her song "Deuce/Ypsi" on Shapeshifters: "White picket fences, green lawns, nice, rich, expensive/College campus, so progressive-every child advances/Lies and Deception."
Born in Champaign, Ill., Invincible's family moved to Israel that year; she landed in Ann Arbor in 1988, after her parents found computer tech work at the University of Michigan. Her parents were older; Mom was 44 when Invincible was born. "She started having back pains," Invincible laughs, "and I turned out to be those pains." She has four much older half-brothers, with whom she has never lived.
Her first day in Ann Arbor doubles as a little life metaphor: The sprightly 7-year-old "was so excited to move to the U.S., I ran and fell on the front stoop of the house and ..." — pauses to point out the little scar just above her top lip — "I just make my way."
She describes her parents in her formative years as depressed, which she "internalized and battled my own depression from a very young age," which helped inspire the song "Ropes," from Shapeshifters.
Growing up in Ann Arbor, she felt "excluded" by the Jewish community after having several of the people there take issue with who she hung with and how she spoke. She wasn't your typical girly-girl and, for example, sported an anomalous spike cut in third grade. "For me, it was a thing where I was the odd one out. I didn't know the language and [my] gender presentation was always androgynous. I got used to actually being comfortable being the odd one out." Her two best friends were neighbors from Iran and Iraq. She no longer speaks Hebrew — lost it by age 10 — which she regrets.
"When I got into music I was able to connect with people on a deeper level," she says. "I channeled all my pain growing up, my family — my thoughts on things — I was an observer. I channeled all that into my writing."
She began rhyming at age 9 and seriously gigging at 15, around the time strife at home — culminating in a physical altercation with Mom that involved the cops — saw her leave for six months. Invincible took her bike, backpack and her hip-hop tapes and stayed on friends' couches, continued with high school ("sort of," she says), worked odd jobs, but focused on music.
"That's basically when I started living music full-time." She says, shaking her head. She adds, laughing, that "it took me this long to make an album."
But the music wasn't exactly "full-time": She pulls her hand off the steering wheel to show off a gnarly knuckle scar from working "the Mr. Misty Machine" at a Dairy Queen. "Those are my battle scars," she cracks. Her high-school days were spent fiddling with toxins. "That's why I'm so mellow [about booze and drugs] now," she laughs. She got popped for weed at 15, to which she says, smiling: "I learned." She attended Ann Arbor's Community High School until she got the boot and went to Stone Alternative High School before returning to Community. She wound up graduating early by "taking mostly independent studies with a few teachers who had my back." She got credit for her hip-hop work.
More than once, the precocious teen emcee was caught on the wrong end of sexual mud-slinging by certain men intimidated by her. One episode left an emotional blemish, but she flinches as she begins to tell it. "It involved this older guy." She hesitates, considers her words, and says, "I won't go into it from that ..." adding that such moments in her life pushed her harder to demand respect as an emcee. She became inured to the chilly receptions of unsteady men.
Soon the conversation turns to her life-changing albums: Common's Resurrection; De La Soul's 1996 masterpiece Stakes is High and Nas' It Was Written. (She later cites Gang Starr and A Tribe Called Quest as major personal reference points.) Invincible turned on to mixing rap and politics by listening to underground San Francisco rapper Paris, and Detroit's Underground Resistance's subterranean power taught her about music with a message. "More than anything, those folks inspired me to go this route." She adds after a pause, "Detroit female rapper Boss was a big inspiration."
New York City in the mid-to-late '90s had lots to offer women who participated in hip hop, rap and its attendant artist-activist scenes. That's where Invincible landed at 17 to hook up with a collective of like-minded young women called the Anomolies, after meeting member Helixx (Shantelena Mouzon) at the legendary Nuyorican Poets Cafe — a longtime scenester spot for poets and artists — one day on a visit.
"I heard about the Anomolies my first trip there," Invincible says, "and I met her on my second visit when a mutual friend introduced us. I moved to New York a year later and stayed with her my first month in New York till I found my own spot."
To survive in New York, the 17-year-old picked up various jobs, including one that led her to dub herself the "wackest waitress." She worked for six months at an afterschool program and summer camp and was hired by MTV's Lyricist Lounge show as a writer. "I also worked at a health food store and did some shady late-night fliering." Part of her sustenance came from paid performances.
"When we started in those humble beginnings," says Helixx, who's now a mother and works a "corporate" day gig at MTV. "We were about getting together, writing, recording and performing. That's it. And it really centered around performing. So we spent a lot of that time going from show to show, writing the material, but having a lot of live recorded cuts of our shows, but never any formal recordings."
The Anomolies are political-minded and true to the original origins of hip hop, its power to raise consciousness, to change.
"The five of us are very passionate about what we believe in," Helixx continues. "And, when it comes to humanity, when it comes to activism, I feel like those two themes are very synonymous with who we are."
The core Anomalies (Helixx, Invincible, Pri the Honey Dark, DJ Kuttin Kandi, Big Tara) scouted by the major labels, entertained a few offers but balked — the dough didn't matter; they weren't about to be pawns at some record company's mercy.
"It's more about preservation of the art," Helixx says. "And we had a lot of issues with producers. Us showing up as who we were, and we weren't changing. And Invincible's history was pretty intense during that time — and I'd say as feisty teenagers," Helix continues, "or early 20s young adults, for us it was no compromise."
The collective accrued a New York-area cult following and at colleges in areas around the country. It toured up and down the Northeast, through the Midwest, West Coast and did a major show in Paris. "College students love us," Helixx says. "And still, to this day, we still do a lot of colleges. ..." (Not to mention being on Invincible's album.)
In 2000, Invincible became involved with Detroit Summer from afar "after throwing a benefit event in New York for (Detroit-based organization) Freedom House. I then started supporting Detroit Summer hip hop-related events while still living in New York and was asked to move here [Detroit] in 2002 to coordinate their events and media outreach year-round."
Helixx says it was hard on the group to see Invincible go. "It was heartbreaking. It felt like, um ... it felt like, at that time, it felt like the end of a dream because we had functioned for so many years together, five years. So it felt like the end of a dream, it was painful, I mean there were tears ..."
Invincible left New York behind after 9/11 — mainly, she says, because of the city's "McCarthy-ist attitudes toward itself, its foreigners and the arts."
Invincible's eyes opened to social dissent in 1996 while protesting the Ku Klux Klan, who spoke on the roof of Ann Arbor's city hall, but she was quickly disillusioned by "the reactionary nature of protest politics."
She's since involved herself in support work for other groups including the Boggs Center, Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, Detroit Noise, Freedom Schools, Michigan Welfare Rights, Palestine Education Project, and she's an artist mentor through the Prison Creative Arts Project linkage program.
"When I moved to New York I met several community organizing groups, which gave me insight into more creative, visionary and effective ways of making change, and then connecting with Detroit Summer showed me the possibilities are endless."
Invincible acts on Detroit Summer's ideas with an aplomb that's matches her emcee-writing skills; both are equally important to her, though her work with Detroit Summer has taken a back seat (somewhat) in lieu of the work needed for her debut album, but the Detroit Summer messages are carried city to city, where the emcee is introduced to, and learns from, similar organizations.
As co-founder Shea Howell says, "It's the idea of the importance of visionary thinking — reclaiming, rebuilding and respiriting the city."
There's no "leader" in Detroit Summer, nor a chain of command. It "organizes youth-led media arts projects and community-wide potlucks, speak-outs and parties." Its success is measured by the relationships it sustains with those who move through the program — it's where solutions and criticisms come from the kids. It's a collection of 30 or so highly organized people, ranging in age from high-schoolers up. The kids share responsibilities while occasionally receiving artist mentorship from a kind of advisory board, which includes Invincible. Detroit Summer steers clear of the major corporations and foundations so it can function without censorship. Its bills are covered by private donations and fundraising efforts. The organization keeps overhead low; the four people coordinating the summer program receive stipends, to cover cell phone bills, for example.
"I do the organizing thing in Detroit Summer." Invincible says. "I don't sleep much. Now it's hard to tour and be a community organizer — I mean, community organizing is all about building local relationships."
Hip-hop activism for Invincible was just a workshop topic once, or a fundraising and outreach tool; now it's completely integrated into her work as she uses elements of hip hop and music to systematize and inspire.
"For example," Invincible says, "with the L.A.M.P." [Live Arts Media Project — a Detroit Summer project] process, kids collected community interviews and then analyzed them to create their own hip-hop pieces directly informed by the interviews. They then developed interactive workshops based off the pieces and interviews, and used the workshops to allow other kids to create their own hip-hop pieces and brainstorm alternative solutions to the problems raised in the interviews, which will raise awareness in the city and for larger scale changes to be made."
Invincible did her first prison "workshop" in a California pen recently. She's done others including a career day at a local institution where songs from a Detroit Summer CD were used to spark dialog, mainly with kids tried as and convicted as adults. Put simply, she hopes the work she applies musically will spark others to think.
Another day we're at a Detroit Summer L.A.M.P. workshop upstairs at the 555 Gallery on Grand River and Warren avenues. There are a handful of teenagers seated around a table outfitted with a number of laptops. Each teen is editing video pieces they've been working on, including one about cooperative economics, another about respect within the school system and a third about alternatives to student criminalization. The energy and optimism in the room is crazy palpable.
Eighteen-year-old Jon Blount has been in Detroit Summer since he was 6 years old. He's a graduate of a Melvindale Charter High School. "Personally, I love working with media technology," he says. "It opened my eyes and I'm learning skills that I can apply. I love seeing the people evolve with their creativity."
Andrea Ridges just turned 17. She's a senior at the Detroit Academy for Young Women who has been in the DS program for two-and-a-half years. She's gazing at a laptop screen, fingers triggering keyboard commands causing image movement on the screen. She talks of the "alternatives to criminalization" project she's working on.
"The video is about different forms of transformative justice. Getting to the root of criminalization among minors is the main theme ..."
Dakrai Cater is a skinny 14-year-old with big ambitions. His work on the "cooperative economics" video has him charged up. "It's basically a study of business people coming together to make a better city, to increase the high school graduation rate. It's also about re-envisioning society, specifically Detroit, because of what it represents in the industrial revolution and being the first on the decline."
Invincible's personal goals with Detroit Summer are focused on developing "a creative, effective, vision-based, self-sustainable, reflective and constantly evolving organizing model here in Detroit." It's one that's connected to a larger movement of similar small-scale projects in other cities.
Invincible — bedecked in a Grace Lee Boggs T-shirt, golf cap and jeans — is overseeing today with Detroit Summer's Jenny Lee, while helping 16-year-old rapper Alexis "Malatta" Myrcks work out rhymes, using laptop beats created by another DS kid.
If Detroit Summer sounds youthfully naive, one not yet beset with jaded hues of unfulfilled life and dreams, consider one of its founders, 93-year-old Asian-American author and trailblazing anti-racist activist Grace Lee Boggs, who's still involved as a mentor and adviser.
"In 1992 a number of us including my late husband [James Boggs], Shea Howell, myself, felt that what we really needed to do was to get young people involved in the rebuilding and the redefining and re-spiriting of the city," Boggs says. "And until we did that, the city would continue to deteriorate, as it was doing already."
Continues Boggs: "Detroit Summer started doing some things which were almost magical, I mean they began working with older people, for example, who were already planting community gardens and who called themselves the 'garden[ing] angels.' [Just] start planting community gardens, and they painted public murals, and they rehabbed houses and cleaned up neighborhood parks. And there was something about the magic of ... there was something magical about the young people and the older people working together.
"And there was something about using vacant lots, which had appeared as only blight, become sources of healthy food. And also as the older people felt, not only for food, but to give young people a sense of process, which you don't get in the city. And it's an urban agricultural movement which has taken on fantastic dimensions. And then, there were all sorts of hope gardens, food gardens, and hospital gardens, and senior citizens gardens and school gardens. Not only because of Summer, I think because of, the image, that we could create something new."
Shea Howell talks of successful urban garden projects. "People thought we were crazy. Now Detroit leads the country.
"Around 2002 we shifted work to cultural arts," Howell continues. "That's partly because people like Ilana were coming around. Her first responsibility was providing opening ceremonies in Detroit Summer Block parties — in efforts to reclaim the city. Her first hip-hop festival in New York in 2000 drew 400 people."
Other Detroit Summer successes include the Hub, a full-functioning nonprofit bike shop business born to encourage alternate transportation because, as Howell says, "the Detroit buses suck."
Invincible traveled to Palestine a year ago with other Detroit Summer members as part of a network called the U.S.-Palestine Youth Solidarity Network (YSN). The purpose of the network is to assemble Palestinian youth with kids from communities of color in the United States. "It's to connect youth leadership groups in impacted communities in the U.S. and Palestine (mostly the West Bank) in order to exchange strategies of nonviolent resistance, and build relationships through joint media based projects," Invincible says.
The trip back to Israel-Palestine was Invincible's first since she was 9 years old. It wasn't the best experience as far as her Israeli relatives were concerned. She believes that Israeli nationalism is vicious political gamesmanship, a colonizing project built on principles similar to South African apartheid.
"Most of my Israeli family who live there refused to see me or speak to me once they learned that I was going to be working with Palestinians in the West Bank," Invincible says. "Nationalism was more important to them than family or our relationship. Other Israeli members of the family cut me off after the trip. My Israeli family seems to think that anyone not living there has no say in the matter, but in reality, 20 million U.S. tax dollars a day go to Israeli military aid, so all of us living here have something at stake, and beyond that, injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. It was important for me to go back in a way that was connected to my local work in Detroit and was able to build true solidarity."
Since Invincible became involved with Palestinian solidarity work, the topic has been the source of many "heated arguments and debates with my parents and I." Her mother began opening her mind to new ideas — probably because of Invincible's work — and she even protested "the Apartheid Wall" being built by Israel's government last time she was there. "Her sister, who she was staying with on this rare visit, kicked her out of the house when she found out about the protest," Invincible says. "This and my mom's continued commitment to the injustices in the region has actually brought us much closer than we've ever been."
Invincible's debut recording — the first song on which she was featured — was 1998's "Live and Direct" produced by Tink on SUN's debut solo album. The first solo track she recorded "that got spins" was "Livin in Rhythm" produced by Recloose, again in '98.
14KT and Athletic Mic League were instrumental in getting Invincible off the ground as an emcee; KT says he first heard a 15-year-old Invincible back in 1997, on a local Ann Arbor radio show. He was stunned. "Ilana was freestyling; I thought, man, she's killing it," KT says. The next day the pair just happened to meet at a local recording studio. "Ilana was there and we met purely by chance, and things went from there."
Invincible says Athletic Mic League quickly became like brothers to her. "They've always been in my corner and featured me on several of their tracks, as well as produced many of mine over the years. The first beat I knew had to be on this album was 'Sledgehammer!' which KT produced along with Haircut from the Labtechs. A lot of other people were trying to buy that beat from them, but they held on to it for me because they knew the importance it held for me as a launching pad for the rest of the album."
We're in the outskirts of Ann Arbor, meeting producer KT at his home, which sits in a very sedate, very suburban setting. KT's a slender and gracious gent, kind and accommodating. Invincible's helping produce and brainstorm ideas for a 14KT video that's to accompany his album due in the fall. KT's studio walls pay homage to everyone from his group, the Athletic Mic League, to Stevie Wonder and DJ House Shoes and the late J. Dilla. The postered walls, he says, are a mass of inspiration.
The track is played, KT's ideas flow and Invincible chimes in. And there's nuts-and-bolts talk; Invincible mentions pals in California for cheap camera rentals, her roommate, who's moving to California, for editing, and of bringing different people on board, using b-rolls, etc. Her knowledge of the inner workings of editing, storyboarding and visual style is extensive, having worked on her own videos with complete control. She suggests vinyl pressing plants for the vinyl that are good deals.
Back in the loaner car, Invincible talks of a kind of barter system, one artist helping another and then getting help in kind. KT produced tracks on Shapeshifters for trade. She returns the favor by offering time, thought and efforts on his video. Invincible sees Detroit's hip-hop scene as a movement: "On a national level, you keep hitting them over the head with a new album, whether it's Invincible, Finale or 14KT or Slum Village or whatever."
"With this album, I wanted to create a model so anyone can do it," Invincible says. So she brainstormed with Jenny Lee from Detroit Summer for funding ideas and came up with the idea of pre-sale album vouchers. "That's how I got the record pressed. Again, it's about a community of people.
The album's a stunner, from its central premise of shifting shapes to the prospect that personal changes lead to community transformation and how it's within anyone's grasp, to its pop-rap discourses on urban displacement and the importance of pro-active dissent, to sagas of gentrification. It's a wound-up hip-hop artist rapping about the (mostly) Detroit world around her, railing against hate and bigotry in stinging lines filled with venom and heart. It's a call-to-arms from its opening salvo — "It's a state of emergency" — for the new Detroit rap, one of activism and obligation to a city that's crumbling politically and literally.
Personal themes collect too: "Swinging sledgehammers for a minimum wage/renovate a DV shelter for women with AIDS." "Ropes" is the perfect Invincible metaphor with multiple meanings, which she penned after attending a funeral where the pastor condemned the deceased for committing suicide, but whose meaning can go in any direction: "It's a tight-rope, noose, a tug-of-war, whatever," Invincible says. "Recognize" features her comrade Finale in a beautiful salute to "those who bring skills and sincerity to the art form" while calling out rap fakes glomming and scratching for cash, at whatever expense, be it to their families or their own souls. The album boasts dynamic and powerful beats and composition and a who's who of starred producers (including Black Milk, 14KT, Knowledge, Belief, Waajeed) and guests (Wordsworth, Indeed, Buff1 and others).
Invincible says her biggest external obstacle as a gay, white and female emcee-writer has been redirecting attention away from the media and industry people keen to put her into neat little marketable boxes. "With most people the preconceived notions fall away when they hear my music and recognize the commitment I have to the craft and culture," she says. Shapeshifters and her live shows prove that.
Included with the album is the 15-minute video, a gem of a mini-Detroit history lesson set to song and narrative, that's both melancholic and uplifting, it stars Invincible, Finale and many others — even includes a cameo by Grace Lee Boggs. Locusts took more than five years complete.
"Finale and I picked the same beat off of a House Shoes beat CD and decided to collab on it," Invinicible says. "The concept is based on the forgotten and untold stories of Detroit, the historic and current effects of disinvestment, abandonment, and urban renewal on displacing community residents, and juxtaposing sustainable versus unsustainable development."
Finale and Invincible spent lots of time researching the song's content; Finale toured Detroit with his grandfather learning how the city had morphed into some kind of bastard child of the industrial revolution. Invincible talked to many mentors and elders through her organizing work.
"The year the Super Bowl came to the city," Invincible says, "Finale and I worked with Jenny Lee to create a radio piece about the effects this sporting event had on neighborhood residents." Interviews from the radio show are woven into the song, and Invincible and her friend Joe Namy began collecting video footage of buildings getting demolished for the Super Bowl, "including the downtown Motown building, which was actually demolished for a parking lot that wasn't even paved in time."
Invincible developed the treatment for a combined documentary and music video, "which would include many more community voices and perspectives on issues related to land use and then asked Joe to collaborate with me and direct the piece. Joe is the founder of the Other Detroit Arab Artist Collective, who all came on board to make it happen."
Invincible's small, beautiful Southwest Detroit home's tone is immediately set by a huge fireplace with turn-of-century tiles and maple work. Black couches and a futon eat up space that's filled with furniture and art given her by friends who "leave the city and they give you things." It's about reuse.
There's a small humidifier, a dusty TV that appears untouched, books, audiophile speakers attached to a hefty stereo. There's the exercise machine, front and center, inactive.
Invincible pulls out a dusty vintage Casio Rapman — an antiquated digital voice recorder-keyboard — from a corner and laughs, "Me and my best friend would rap on this in fourth grade, make crank calls an' shit. ..."
She talks of California as a place with more opportunity for queer people and her newfound obsession with John Waters films; she calls him "crazy," a blanket term she uses for anything that isn't so obvious, whether great or stupid. She goes on about how difficult it is to get paid in Detroit to perform, "but outside Detroit, Detroit artists are really respected." She talks about the new wave of socially positive Detroit hip hop. (In a later e-mail she rattles them off: "Finale, Miz Korona, Buff1, Marvwon, 14KT, Vaughan T, Quest Mcody, Guilty Simpson, 5-Ela, Elzhi, Black Milk, Nametag, Big Tone, Mr.Porter, Karriem Riggins, One Be Lo, Magestik Legend, Ta'raach, Buried Glory and Bo-Town" and many others.)
She laughs of her "personal pyramid system" that's promoting music the old-fashioned way; everything is hands-on, DIY: face-to-face. The emcee recently returned home from a tour that saw Shapeshifters release parties in seven different cities, including Toronto, Oakland, Los Angeles and New York. ("People aren't fully going to understand until they see me perform.")
Why did it take so many years to make Shapeshifters a reality?
"I'm a perfectionist," the emcee says, "and I didn't have access to the resources I needed to do things properly. I've had opportunities to get signed, or have certain resources available to me, but with strings attached that would have completely corrupted the spirit of my work."
She's visually excited about touring Europe this month and next as part of an all-female hip-hop show headlined by legends Bahamadia and Roxanne Shanté.
Hours later gliding back to her place in the borrowed car, we cross an overpass at I-75 where construction has made a monstrosity of the area, both visually and odoriferously. Invincible chirps in an unusual childlike voice: "It smells like a big fart, huh? Just one big fart." But she probably means something more: That revolution (personal and communal) can rise from wreckage and rubble, from the stench of post-industrial breakdown.
Invincible performs Saturday, Aug. 9, at the Buff1 record release show at the Blind Pig (208 S. First St., Ann Arbor; 734-996-8555) with Athletic Mic League and Magestik Legend.
Invincible's Docu-Music-Video, Locusts:
Invincible "Sledgehammer!" Video:Brian Smith is features editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]