Rhode Island native Sage Francis is determined to get his point across, even if it means ruffling a few feathers. Rapping since age 8, the spoken-word poet, MC and political agitator is fast becoming one of the most popular and polarizing figures in hip-hop. Francis' upcoming Higher Ground performance promises to be a white-hot blast of verbal acrobatics and edgy insights.
The vegetarian, straight-edge Francis is often called the father of "emo-hop" -- a highly confessional style of rapping that eschews the thugged-out materialism of the mainstream in favor of incisive, often painfully earnest first-person prose. But this is only part of the picture: Sage's outspoken style is tough to categorize. His soon-to-be released disc, A Healthy Distrust, is loaded with explosive observations on romance, war and just about anything else that gets under his skin.
As the first hip-hop artist signed to the big-time punk label Epitaph, Francis is at the forefront of the genre's evolution. No longer an urban sensation, hip-hop has taken over small towns and suburbs from coast to coast. Like the punk rockers before them, modern MCs such as Sage thrive on bucking the status quo. Francis recently answered some questions for Seven Days via email and, in the process, learned a new vocabulary word.
SEVEN DAYS: Are you consciously trying to be progressive, or just making the kind of tracks you want to hear?
SAGE FRANCIS: Progressive? I guess so. I don't care to be conservative. I do like to feel like I'm contributing to the community, rather than just sticking to what's deemed traditional and safe. That pisses some people off and gets some other people excited. I don't know that I consciously do it, though.
SD: How do you know when you've gotten it right?
SF: You can feel like you've gotten it right, but you never know. Even when one million people tell you that it's right doesn't mean it is. I do what feels right, and always consider what might be wrong about it.
SD: Your lyrics are really well composed. How do you go about setting them to music?
SF: Either I compose the words to the music, or I wait for the music to fit what I've already written. It's usually a mix of both; there's no set pattern there.
SD: Is there room for improvisation in your rhymes?
SF: Always. If there wasn't, then I wouldn't do take after take after take, ha-ha. Some people like to boast about being one-take wonders. I was like that on my first CD. Ever since then, I've been trying to open up more in the recording booth. And as for live shows, improvisation is necessary.
SD: Your new record features some of your best production work to date. Is this a result of a bigger budget?
SF: Budget had nothing to do with it, because I recorded this album just like I did all the others. The money comes out of my own pocket, and it wasn't more expensive to record this album than the last one. This time around, I had history on my side, though. Lots of experience in the studio recording and mixing. And, I have many more connections in the beat department.
SD: The record industry seems like a black hole from which no art can escape. How does a guy like you survive in this business?
SF: Art can thrive if artists stick to their guns, but more often than not, I see them falling victim to compromise. That's good sometimes, but not to the degree most "successful" musicians do it. I had a friend tell me that he was surprised at how experimental this record sounded, especially because it's on a big label. My response was, "What good is working with bigger companies if you can't make them sweat a little?" That wasn't a jab at Epitaph, because they've been the most accepting and supportive label I've ever worked with. But just because I'm about to tap into a larger audience doesn't mean I'm going to slow down the development of my music.
SD: Music has a long history of being an important component of social protest. Where does your stuff fit into that tradition?
SF: I'd like to think that I speak the opinion of many people who are fighting for the progress and development of humanity. Beyond that, I add some ideas of my own to the collective discussion as well as offering theme music to their battles. I feel privileged for that.
SD: Sometimes it seems like there's no escape from our country's miasma, particularly when so many people pay so little attention to the results of their actions. What can a responsible person do about the situation?
SF: That is the first time I have ever heard the word "miasma." "A poisonous atmosphere formerly thought to rise from swamps and putrid matter, causing disease," says Dictionary.com. Damn, I live near a swamp. But, back to the question. Maybe we need to make people aware of the consequences of their daily practices. I think that would be a fantastic start.
SD: Have you ever considered moving to another country?
SF: In a moment of weakness, I did. Then the sand fell back into my sack, and I accepted that I'm an American, and it's my duty to work from within to initiate change and development. You don't run away and scream insults from abroad. I have love for my community, and it's not right to take the support they've given me and retreat while everyone else is stuck here. We need to take our country back from radical Christian conservatives.
SD: What do you expect from your fans?
SF: I have learned not to expect much, but to hope for the best. I hope for fairness. I hope people resist what they know to be wrong, rather than just thinking that they can't make a difference. But my fan base is always growing and changing, so expectation is not an option of mine.
SD: Hell's completely frozen and you've just been appointed Secretary of State. What's your first order of business?
SF: I'd begin the grueling process of making enemies at the IMF and World Bank by lobbying for debt eradication for countries that are paying more in loans than on their school systems. I'd make enemies in the military complex and the highest level of big business by demanding that Congress hold American business accountable to American laws. I'd keep doing all of these things until assassinated or fired. If fired, I'd use the bully pulpit of my status to hold conference after conference, speak at college after college, go on talk show after talk show to make the American public aware of how this administration manipulated us into war while keeping information away from the public's reach. So: Secretary of State until killed or fired, then full-time whistleblower.