Identity remains messy. The spheres of personhood we can occupy are vast and ever-multiplying. There are so many labels both self-ascribed and prescribed to us, it can be challenging to keep track of all you are at any given time. Enter: LA art rapper Rhys Langston, pitched to me by the honorable Jeff Weiss as the “Nebbish Frederick Douglass.” Rhys, half-Black and half-Jewish, and all-the-way nice with the pen, stands in some ways at an intersection of hip-hop history; how the Jewish diaspora has always found solace within Black cultural productions—for better or for worse, depending on who you ask. (See also: the Beastie Boys)
But this piece is not a class on the crossing wires of identity politics. At least, not entirely. With Rhys’ debut album, Language Arts Unit, in our hands as of February 26, 2020, this piece is as much about the music and the man’s obsession with language as it is anything else. If anyone is qualified to teach a class on anything, it’s our own “Poet-Swordsmith,” Rhys Langston. Language Arts Unit is not merely a namesake—it is a true-to-life take on the way Rhys, 26, curves cadences and snaps poetic structures to make catching and impressive hip-hop.
In Russian, there is a single word—toska—to describe the blunt aching of the soul. In English, there is no such word, but there are plenty of other words we can weave together to make meaning out of the depth of feelings we’re plagued with as feeling animals. I say this to say: Rhys Langston has mastered the art of weaving words to create singular feelings, as in “The Governor’s Water Glasses” and “Morning Becomes Apoplectic, a Follower’s Prayer.” And, man, can he rap. Words either hobble out of his slack jaw, or they storm the gates of our ears. Rhys’ delivery is teeming with conviction and understated swagger. He isn’t the Poet Laureate of the living room for nothing.
I could write another thousand words here, but let me leave you with this: The music is good. Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: When did writing as a medium first come into your life?
Rhys Langston: I remember as early as elementary school, writing stories. A lot of kids do that, and then they stop, but that never stopped with me. I could attribute it to my parents. Though [they] never went to college, they would always pull out words I hadn’t heard before. They still do that. My dad, he’s a writer, and that was the foundation… That was a daily encouragement not to stop [writing].
What about music?
My parents tried to get me into music early, and I wasn’t having it. I didn’t like music at all. My mom tried to get me to do piano lessons at five—always trying to give me stuff she wasn’t fortunate enough to have. The house always had cool, eclectic music. Parents are separated, but both have good taste. There was always a free environment of music, but I never took to making music—[I] didn’t like it at all. Rapping was an entry point. Being a mixed Black person, I resonated with [rapping] more because I was focused on writing, and then, there was this way I could do both at the same time.
I didn’t get instruments, but that was a long-winded journey. I needed to have all these little entry points to it because when I was 18 or 19, I started to wanna make music. I was making my production because I hated YouTube beats. Everyone’s stuff was too normal for me. I started to pick up instruments and self-teach. The seeds of [music] were [planted] early, but I disregarded it until, maybe 19. I wasn’t even a fan of music consciously until 17.
Your debut album is called Language Arts Unit; when did you realize you were obsessed with words?
There was a process of redefinition as I was going into college. I remember they flew me out—I went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut—for their “Student of Color” weekend. They paid for the flight and everything, and there was this showcase that happened. I saw all these dudes go up on stage and do some half-way raps. Part of me was like, “That’s amazing. I wanna do that!” Another part of me was saying, “Damn, I could do that better.” So, it was a combination of me having all this pent up energy, then seeing people do something I didn’t know I wanted to do that much, and the ambitious part of me wanting to do it better. In 2012, there was intention. There was passion here.
Being half-Black and half-Jewish, how do you parse the spheres of identity you occupy?
I always had this skepticism in me of the way identities were confining, and people don’t understand that two, three, four things could be happening at once. I understood that innately, early. Only when I had a fuller vocabulary in my late teens and 20s did I have the [capacity] to say what I had been thinking the whole time. I don’t get along with a lot of people who can’t be okay with the indeterminate and not having a clear answer. I always found a bit of comfort in the fact that things don’t have to be completely spelled out. I ran into trouble with people trying to find an easy answer: Why do I look the way I look? Why do I talk the way I talk? Why are you not making the most sense to me?
Obviously, there [are] the growing pains of wanting to have an easy answer, but not. Some people dive into overcompensating. Which I also did—trying to dress or talk a certain way, and be one thing more than another. If I was already being interrogated—which, it wasn’t always that, it’s not a tragic case, really—why not just be weird as fuck, all the time? I’m just gonna be weird as fuck because you guys are not gonna get it anyway, so what’s the point?
What you’re saying is, you’re privileging your humanity over what people prescribe you to be.
Totally. You have to take back your sanity a little bit. Control is a myth, but try and believe in that myth.
I am merely Jewish, but I believe our collective cultural strife lends itself to the arts, if you could speak to that.
Collective strife, being able to have humor about it, and being able to balance the genuine with the humorous… Things are the way they are right now because people don’t realize you can be funny without meaning to be sarcastic. That’s what Jewish culture has been an example of: The ability to look at the darkness of things and make light of them while also taking them seriously. Sarcasm is overstretched, and there’s a way to be funny that doesn’t involve not taking things seriously.
I can similarly see Black identity, too. You are everything that got you here. Paying homage to that pain; giving space for that; acknowledging that—in ceremonial ways and everyday ways—is very important.
The penultimate track on the album, “I Could Rap Forever,” is about being heard. What’s the benefit of doing something forever? What’s the con?
The benefit of doing something forever is you know what’s to come. You have something to look forward to or rely on. You become a model of persistence. The con of it is you’re doing it for forever. When you can make something that, otherwise is invigorating, become mundane, it can slip into habit. You can get locked into doing something the same way, which is the double bind there. It’s great to have a calling card, but are you going to redefine yourself?
As an artist, how do you beat the mundane?
That is really difficult. Naturally, I’m afraid. There’s some strange paranoia in me that… Either I’m gonna lose it all and just become an uncreative husk of a person, or I’m gonna do the same thing over and over again. There’s that inner fire in me. But actively choosing, every time I think about creating something, trying to do something different.