Somewhere between Iggy Azalea and Erykah Badu, between Daniel Tosh and Dave Chapelle, there are tons of artists of color across mediums and localities creating music, comedy, film, fashion, dance, fiction and many other forms of art that challenge the discriminatory, oppressive structures at the foundation of pop culture. Some are buzzed-about indie darlings, while others stay in the underground. Either way, you might miss them if you don’t know where to look.
Welcome to Breaking, the latest series from Colorlines, where we highlight these artists. For our first feature, we’re breaking Kuf Knotz.
Style: Conscious, Fugees-style hip-hop mixed with reggae, folk and soul
Latest Project: "A Positive Light" (Rope a Dope, 2015)
Why You Should Care: If you’re feeling poisoned by the moroseness, cynicism and tone-deafness that permeates so much popular R&B and hip-hop music, Kuf Knotz might be just be your antidote. The MC, who started his career working under legendary Sound of Philadelphia producer Kenny Gamble on an unreleased album, mixes hip-hop with contemporary reggae, folk and classic soul to create an upbeat, modern-era answer to Bob Marley.
Like Marley, the New York City-based 33-year-old embeds a sense of cultural and social awareness deep within his two full-length albums, 2010’s "Boombox Logic" and "A Positive Light".
For example, on "Neva’ Give Up" from "A Positive Light," he raps about turning to art to get control over difficult circumstances while others were looking for quick-fix solutions on the street:
Any escape would be a so-called fix, I was reaching, resisisting, all in the same breath/
Confusion, delusion, I ain’t know what was next, saw my homies’ pockets swelling, corner yelling for bread/ but I was feeling something different, started using my pen, writing lines, over time they would turn into gems
While Knotz’s rose-hued music might come off as corny to current listeners nursed on trap and its derivatives, his origins paint a picture of spiritual immersion and earnest commitment to the ideals that birthed his music.
He was raised on the gospel music of his mother’s Haitian family while growing up, which explains the centrality of reggae and other West Indian music in his songs. Drawn to the consciousness and creative regimentation of rap groups and collectives like Public Enemy and the Native Tongues, Knotz began making his own music while attending The Art Institute of Philadelphia. When Kenny Gamble was looking to include hip-hop on his Philadelphia International Records label, Knotz was his first project. While the music wasn’t released, it allowed the MC to work with legendary artists including producer and Roots keyboardist and producer James Poyser and to learn about branding from one of the industry’s most prolific producers and label heads.
It was also in college that he began incoroporating elements of Rastifarianism into his life. "I don’t call myself ‘Christian’, or ‘Rastafari’ or anything, but as far as how I live and view things, it’s definitely through a Rastafari point of view. The interaction with people, diet, giving thanks and just, living a certain way…it’s informed in my music and how I write, even on the songs that aren’t as reggae-influenced," says Knotz in an earlier interview with this author. Although he never directly addresses current criminal justice controversies on "A Positive Light," songs like “Get Free” resonate with the mood of people who need empowerment in desolate times.
In his decade-long career Knotz has racked up some serious accolades. He’s been the opening act for Ms. Lauryn Hill, The Roots, The Wailers and Common, and he was the first MC to warm up the stage for Bruce Springsteen. Knotz also created the Philadelphia Phillies’s official theme song with legendary local singer/producer G. Love during the 2008 World Series.
Listen to “Get Free” and watch a live session above. Visit Kuf Knotz’s website to see when he and his band are touring near you. Check back on Colorlines for more installations of BREAKING, and e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any tips of artists we should highlight!