Environmental Hip Hop | An Interview with Cavem Moetavation, Hip Hop’s Captain Planet

I was at the Schomburg [with all these artists] and we signed the declaration of the 10th element of hip-hop right after Phife Dawg died [and it just hit that] all these other artists are dying from food-related illnesses.


It is not often in modern times that we come across mainstream music that aims to address and alter our eating habits. In fact, I can only think of one particular genre where I have heard of such: Conscious Reggae. But this is not a phenomenon unto itself. Anything ‘conscious’ nowadays acts on the premise of elevating the listener’s conscience towards loftier and more responsible ways of thinking about social
issues.

What’s in a name?

DJ Ietef (pronounced “EE-teff”) Vita aka C.A.V.E.M. Moetavation. Communicating Awareness Victoriously Educating [the] Masses holds many titles and responsibilities under his belt. An emcee, deejay, and producer, Dr. Ietef is also a father, husband, vegan chef, midwife, and environmental activist. He’s a hip-hop Captain Planet of sorts. In addition to his nonprofits Going Green Living Bling and Vita Earth Foundation, as a Green For All fellow he helped launch June 14th as “Keep It Fresh Day” in Denver and Baltimore, since according to him, “we have three days a year to eat candy, but we didn’t have anything for green, healthy foods.” In his Five Points ‘hood in Denver, he acquired his first turntable at age 10 and was nurtured in Motown and Jazz by his Detroit-raised mother.

So how did this all begin?

Cavem Moetavation: I was born in the middle of it. My Dad literally was a photographer who stopped gang-banging when I was born. That same ‘hood that he tried to leave for the church is what adopted me around the same time my parents split up. It was that same mentality of the wild wild west. Next thing I know I’m studying Rastafarianism trying to find myself, and around age 14 went vegan. That’s when the compassion started. My whole life switched around. I grew up around poets, and my mother had a film festival here in Denver and a poetry night from the late 90s and all the way to the mid-2000s before she moved to Oakland. It was called Café Nuba. She was bringing out everybody; all the dope poets came out to perform in the West. The hip-hop and the jazz and the poetry are really what pulled me out of the ruckus.

When you say it that way, were you exposed to the other kind of hip-hop, or was it always the
conscious stuff?

CM: I wouldn’t say, like, I grew up to Native Tongues, that’s kind of what I had in my house. But when I went to school, I was bumping gangsta shit like [No Limit Soldiers and Dre]. Stuff that I played when I was with my friends. I was definitely stuck in two different worlds. When I started to write my own music and started to study Rastafarianism on my own, that’s when I had a different perspective. I was already eating ital; didn’t even know what the word vegan was. Some of the things I got addicted to was the classic street corner food and bodegas, all the candy and craziness. My parents were not vegetarian or vegan; I found that by myself. But one thing I did have was a deep background in agriculture, and my grandfather [my mom’s father] was born on a plantation. His father was a sharecropper, so I’m literally like two generations away from that. It helped me understand a lot about why I care about the planet so much. Nowadays I gang-bang for the planet. I definitely dedicate a lot of my wellness practice towards that.

My mom took me to West Africa when I was a kid. I was still trying to gang-bang, and then I started thinking about why am I bringing this energy back home to The Continent when I should have left that there. I think I maybe gave up around that time.

You brought up an interesting point there. So Africans in America have been practicing sustainability for centuries. How do you think we got from this to an urban culture of fried food joints? How do you see us getting back to our “roots”?

CM: I definitely feel that a conscious use of arts activism. We learned how to dance. For example, people got free when they heard music [like] “Swing Low,” which showed them the way. They were aware of the Underground Railroad due to the song. I feel like that’s the reason why I like music about sustainability and holistic health. I haven’t had an issue with battlin’ nobody because ain’t nobody wanna battle an MC talking about food! They’re like “we can agree with that.”

Everybody agrees that they want healthy, green fresh organic food. Arts and activism will heal the people. I will put a clean glass of water next to a dirty one with no problem. I think that there’s an internalized oppression when it comes to holistic health where we’ve kind of demonized the idea of sustainability and remedies that come from the earth. I’ve dealt with that colonized idea that when we see lab coats, that that’s where medicine comes from.

Children don’t really know what it is to grow a potato, but they love French fries. I think we can have conversations where we redefine the image of wealth. People don’t want to garden because they feel like it is beneath them. Slaves gardened; I don’t garden now, I go to the store. We don’t even think about the fact that our elders had beautiful gardens in the backyards and that’s the reason they substantially lived for a long age and had a large alkaline diet, didn’t really eat meat like we do now. I think our communities are really suffering more from internalized oppression and stress beyond just the food. It is what we have absorbed from the past centuries.

Besides the obvious disconnect from nature that urban neighborhoods often face, there has been a prevalence of the phenomenon called “food deserts,” which manifests as inadequate access to fresh produce, plant-based foods, and healthy choices or alternatives to processed, high-fat foods.

Do you see food deserts as something your movement and hip-hop can address?

CM: Of course. I already have. I’ve been able to transform my own community with arts and activism, going into schools. Next thing you know I have kids growing sprouts, and when they go home they want to do the same. They want to transform their fridges into the produce section and redefine that image of wealth in the hip-hop culture. They’re not interested in having the biggest gas-guzzling car, some of there are interested in localizing their food systems so that they can ride a bike to the store instead of having to drive so far.

Food deserts are because of the traceable source. There is a lot of displacement. They don’t get rid of the corner store or liquor stores. They now have wine stores. That’s the only thing I see that stays in gentrified communities. Black and brown people get pushed out, but the liquor stores stay. I’m not against hipsters, but I feel like they really value the urban lifestyle and culture, but they don’t value the people who created it. The only time you get vegan and health food stores in those communities is when gentrification happens.

When I started seeing the first yoga studio pop up in the Five Points in downtown Denver where there was a beautiful Black community, I can’t be mad that there’s a yoga studio. But there was a disconnect between who it was [being marketed to]. Also, there’s a lot of dogma with internalized oppression. When I go to a school, I can’t call it yoga, I literally just call it breaking. I literally have to transform the language.

We have a big responsibility to the youth to give them the opportunity to eat healthily. I think when we start to adopt the idea that we can transform food deserts by growing food on our roof and in your window in urban communities. We can sequester the carbon that’s in our atmosphere; we can talk about regenerative agriculture, like transforming the activities of our ocean and soils in rural and urban areas. These are such deep conversations that happen at expos and conferences a lot of Africans in America are left out of.

Ietef continues on, answering my questions before I ask them, seamlessly linking topics of social justice and environmentalism with modern movements. He points out that even now, the more progressive efforts in land use are tinged with draconian race, economic and classism divides.

CM: The concept of sustainability is kind of like the new reparations. Medical marijuana has taken off in Colorado, but they’d rather create this war on drugs but legalize it in predominantly white areas.

When the call to action digs deep into hip-hop, however, things get very special.

Hip-hop has long since leaped to collaborate with artists from very different backgrounds, fusing Rock, Electronica, Heavy Metal, and Alternative styles. When viewing I Am A Sun Warrior music video, many music elements are combined. Where do you see your kind of eco-hip hop fitting into the collaboration scene?

CM: One of my favorite environmentally conscious songs is Mercy Me by Marvin Gaye. He’s talking about look at the ocean; he’s really breaking it down in a way that affected me growing up.

Environmental hip-hop is what I know. People have been rapping for a long time. It is a back and forth conversation. When it comes to helping other people, the intelligent movement, to be hip and the hop. Of course, we can take it back to the call and response. I embrace every element of it because I’m an emcee, I’m a deejay, I beatbox, all of that is important. I was at the Schomburg [with all these artists], and we signed the declaration of the 10th element of hip-hop right after Phife Dawg died [and it just hit that] all these other artists are dying from food-related illnesses.

I just met up with Logic two days ago, and I was telling him about how we need his message to focus on climate change as well. I decided I would drop a whole album. My main audience is the youth and the schools because I started out as an educator. I need to get everybody on board, even the gangster ones; I can’t do this alone. I have my own radio show [Café Nuba 88.5FM in Downtown Denver and KGNU.org community supported radio] for the past seven years, and I play environmentally conscious music to spread that light on artists that speak about climate change and food justice, activism and other social issues affecting our community.

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