The EmergeNC Interview with Thomas Easley

After I debated out loud whether the music in the coffee shop was too loud for me to record the interview, Thomas offered to ask the employees to turn it down. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Are you sure?” he asked. There was some back and forth between us. He kept offering, until I gave in. Then he asked an employee to turn it down. It foreshadowed his answer to my first question, and there was even a polite laugh to accompany his words.

Thomas Easley

Who is this Thomas Easley? I’ve heard that he is this person that does all this stuff.

Thomas Easley is a southern black gentleman.

I’m from Birmingham, Alabama, and I’ve been in Raleigh, North Carolina for twelve years. I’m a pastor of a church at N.C. State called Peace Church, and I’m the diversity director and a professor in the College of Natural Resources…also a hip hop artist, writer, author, and speaker.

What do you speak about?

I talk about diversity and environmental justice. I do motivational speaking too. As a pastor, I think I don’t consider myself to be out there, but I think other people do now. I’m not anti-tradition, because I respect tradition. I just don’t think our lives have to be based in it. At least you realize what it’s there for, and you understand you don’t have to do that anymore. So I speak a lot about Jesus in the bible, and Jesus really pushed against tradition if it didn’t have anything to do with love.

As a diversity person, I’m always talking against inequality and why various groups should have access and human rights issues. I get that part, because I’m the nephew and son of civil rights activists. My mother Marion Orange Easley, she was pulled into the movement by her brother, Rev. Dr. James Orange, who was Dr. King’s first field lieutenant. That’s in my family. That’s in my blood, to do this kind of work, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten more intentional and more bold about it.

You don’t hear that combination very often. I’m a pastor. I’m a hip hop artist. So what really drives you to deliver a message that way and what kinds of messages are you delivering with your music.

Really I’m talking the same thing that I would preach about in my music which is the same stuff I teach about in the classroom. I just do it different ways. I challenge the church a lot in my music. I speak about empowerment of women, about empowerment of GLBTQ brothers and sisters, people of color. My music is always about empowerment. I use this platform to not only do the music side, but I’m working with students now showing them the business side of music too. But everything is still the same. I’m trying to elevate the people but speak out against oppression. Hurt people hurt people. So we need to heal.

When you’re working with other artists, what do you feel like is the one thing you can bring to them?

Freedom.

They are free to be who they are. Everyone that I’ve worked with, whether they were from New York, Atlanta, or here in North Carolina…when they find out those other parts of who I am, all of a sudden they get aware and conscious…oh wait, I can’t talk about smoking. Oh, I can’t talk about running…and really, I love the look on their faces. What’s so crazy…I’m not going to say it’s hard for them to do them, but I can tell that it moves them in a way. When they hear me go harder than them without cursing, using ten dollar and fifteen dollar words on them and then explain to them that he or she who commands vocabulary, that’s a wealthy person. You’ve got to expand your vocabulary so you can say more. I don’t want to tell them how to be, but if you really want to do this then why sound like somebody else? Why talk about the same thing that everybody else is talking about? Why don’t you make your own lane instead of trying to get in someone else’s lane? So the freedom is what they like.

I also feel like sometimes even though I’m open for people coming to work with me, I’m an example for them at the same time. Then it’s like…where do I want to be in fifteen or twenty years. I think that they get that too. But they love the fact that there’s no judgment.

If somebody says what is a hip hop artist? How would you define that?

A person who speaks through poetry and rhyme to bring a message across.

I think a hip hop artist is someone who knows the history of hip hop and also contributes to hip hop. You have a lot of people who like to rap, but I don’t believe a rapper constitutes a hip hop artist. If someone were to ask me who are my influences, I can say UTFO, LL Cool J, Monie Love, OutKast, Goodie Mob. Young Money won’t even come up. That’s no disrespect. They just won’t come up. I can say a lot more before I say Tupac. I respect Pac and Biggie. It’s a lot more history before that. I’m a native tongue person. Tribe. De La, Kool Moe Dee, things like that. That’s the first rapper I ever learned. Kool Moe Dee. That’s one of the things I think is missing. That’s people who actually don’t know the history.

Do you think the idea of having access to easy delivery systems means that we don’t work as hard as we should work? Do you think it’s made us complacent about the quality of our work and our message?

Yes I do, because now the aim that most people have is oh, you just need to put it out there, like that’s it. But where’s the ethic behind making sure that it sounds good? Where’s the ethic behind making sure that you don’t sound like somebody else or if you do, make sure you’re respecting it. Everybody’s got a mixtape that’s out there. Everybody’s giving away free music. I just want to be heard. But I look at certain people in hip hop the same way that I look at people when it comes to diversity and inclusion. I tell my colleagues all the time. We can talk about engineering. We can talk genetics and stuff like that. But when diversity comes up, all of a sudden people get stupid. It’s like IQ drops.

The same energy you put into this discipline. You can put into learning other people and being open and inclusive over here…the same thing I tell students who want to do music. Kirk Franklin wasn’t an overnight success, unless overnight is ten years. Kendrick Lamar wasn’t an overnight success. Drake wasn’t an overnight success. Nicki Minaj wasn’t an overnight success. But people want it so quickly.

So you’re working with youth and this whole idea of helping them find their own path, what is the biggest personal challenge you have…when I go to bed at night sometimes and I can’t sleep, what worries me about the world is x.

I’ve been struggling with this for the last couple of weeks. I don’t share in the theology as other people who are ministers…that’s a tough one for me. I don’t see love being preached a lot of times. I see more of what I consider to be hate as well as oppression being preached, and legalism instead of love. So that is really a struggle of mine, and I’ve been really struggling the last couple of weeks, particularly because I’m back. Church is back in session. School is back in. So now I have to see these people again.

It’s hard, because the people that I struggle the most with look like me. These are people that I consider to be mentors, older people…I have a lot of respect for them, because I know that it took patience, energy, long suffering, all the fruit of the spirits we can think about to get to where they are. But then I feel like, and I’m not saying that I’m so far along, it’s just that I feel like somewhere someone got stuck. It’s like I’m not hearing any newness. There’s no understanding going on here. It’s just that everything confirms what we already know. And to me, that’s all about just being comfortable.

The other one is that now that I officially have what I consider my hip hop family. We call ourselves The Dean’s List. There’s a little bit of the pressure of what Dr. Dre said on the Compton record, it’s all on me. That’s what it feels like a little bit.

What sorts of conversations do you have with people in helping them recognize…look, this is a talent, and I’m asking you this especially because you’re a pastor. What kind of conversation do you have with them about understanding that that’s God’s gift and how they think about wanting to do something with that.

The conversation has changed over the last couple of years, over the last five years really. When I first started, it was having to justify to people why I’m doing it. They didn’t think that someone like me, given the position I have in the church or whatever, should be doing that. Then at the same time, as an academic it was the same thing too. You’re supposed to get tenure, write, get published and do that, just do research and keep it moving. Then as I continued, it started changing. When people saw me on television, when they heard my songs, they were like wait a minute…that’s actually real music. That’s not a song that’s just made in somebody’s closet, even though it could have been.

What I noticed is, and I tell students this, if people are not on board in the beginning, but your heart is really in it, don’t stop because they will catch up. So really, it becomes a conversation about freedom and courage. Now they’re the people asking me to go to the studio and do other stuff. It’s ok. I’m glad that I didn’t say shut up, and I’m glad I never did that. I’m also glad that I heard them, but I didn’t listen to them.

I heard you, but I didn’t listen to you.

The name of Thomas’s next project is RaShad presents The Dean’s List, with artists Morgan Cheek, Mitchell Davis, Kiarra Hicks, Brian Jackson, Tyler Payne, and Talitha Rising.

Shelia A. Huggins is an entertainment and business attorney located in Durham, North Carolina. This interview is an excerpt from her January 2016 talk with Thomas Easley. To learn more about Thomas, visit his website at www.rashadeasley.com

Shelia A. Huggins is a North Carolina licensed attorney who practices primarily in the areas business and contract law. Her niche is working with new and expanding businesses in the entertainment and sports worlds. Ms. Huggins obtained both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from North Carolina State University. She has a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Certificate in Documentary Arts from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. As an attorney, she has worked with musicians, filmmakers, writers, performing artists, restauranteurs, and a variety of small business owners across the state. As an artist, she has been recognized as an Ella Fountain Pratt Emerging Artist in Photography and was selected as a 2015 Documentary Fellow.