Yoli Zapata of Public Offenders: Our Stories Matter, Our Lives Matter

Interview by Arlene Mejorado and Ash Hicks.

AM: How do you read the current hip-hop scene here in Austin with the city growing and undergoing heavy gentrification with residents coming from the outside?

YZ: I am glad you said it before me. I have been getting a lot of slack lately for a few statements I made recently but I think that just like Austin is being gentrified, same thing with our hip-hop. Just like there was once a gold rush to California for that gold, there is a music rush to Austin. Who is going to be next to be put on? I use the crabs in a bucket analogy. I ask, who put the crabs in the bucket? I am definitely excited because now Austin has its own hip-hop festival. It’s definitely evolving and moving forward. I love the fact that hip-hop is being more accepted. I just would love to see more of the Austin artists who have been grinding here shine.

AH: How do you feel about re-integrating yourself into a hip-hop scene with a lot of newcomers as artists that are actually from Austin?

YZ: We have been involved in the scene and behind the scene, organizing, bringing people together, and when we were not here, we were in other places learning their struggles. Some people do recognize true spoken words when it comes to hip hop. A lot of people in Austin try to delude their own sound and take the Houston sound but I think here in Austin we have our own sound.

AM: How would you describe some of the sounds of Austin hip-hop? You say people try to emulate rap from other places. What makes Austin hip-hop distinctly from Austin?

YZ: Austin is a very weird city. We have such a hippie movement and then outside forces. The gentrification has not only been going on now, but for decades. I would describe it like the coffee beans of Jamaica. They grow differently because of the air and sun. The way we grew up, we have a story to tell. And sometimes people think “its lil ol’ Austin. Its not as big as Dallas or Houston” But still our stories matter, our lives matter. Its funky, psychedelic, hippie hip-hop. We have that melting pot. We have reggae, rock n roll, blues.

AM: You are the only woman in your group. What is that like?

YZ: Public offenders were one of the first groups in Austin to incorporate a female. It didn’t happen right when Nicki Minaj happened. It was awesome when it did happen because I got love from Lady Legacy. I see a lot of new females now and I would love it if they would say “Lets hop on a track together, lets do this” A lot of guys try to pit females together. And a lot of females make excuses like “I don’t write in the studio.” I tell them I write in the studio and at home. I don’t have ghostwriters. And I ask “What’s good? Lets get it in.” I want to be that voice and let women know that you can speak for yourself and from your heart. Biggie tried to tell Kim “don’t be so rough” but you can be rough if you want. You can be street or whatever you want to be. We have spoken on domestic violence. I am a survivor of that myself.

AM: Have you received a lot of input from men as to how you should perform, act and look?

YZ: My group has never been like that and I can thank the creator. If they did, I don’t know what I would do. I have met with artists that have met Grammies and they have told me “You are good but you need to lose about 10 more pounds.” But I write from my experiences and from the heart. I really want people to listen to my lyrics. I want it to make a difference in your life.

AH: Can you tell me more about the after school program and how it started?

I lost my best friend on school campus. She was murdered. She was stabbed to death by a person I ran track with my whole life. They were 15. Then this angel came into my life. Her name is Shannon and is like a mother to me. She came in as a grief counselor. She saw that through music, there could be a big influence of positive change. And we want to use hip-hop for that. She watched a documentary called The Hip-Hop Project. He started a hip hop program in new york and they carried on and got studio funding. Bruce Wilis and Queen Latifah got involved. Shannon flew out to New York and said “Look there’s these kids I am inspired by and I want to do something on this level where we have leadership and mentorship. I want them to learn the ins and outs of music and have somewhere to go and have something to eat. The Cypher is born. We become the mentors. Yader, who is no longer with us, was chosen to be the main teacher. That was a great time for us. It went on for 7 years.

AM: Can you share more about your heritage and experience as a multiracial person?

YZ: I grew up with my grandparents. My grandpa spoke all Spanish and my grandmother was mixed with Black. She could speak English and Spanish. My family got a lot of slack for that because at that time in Lockhart, my uncles would literally have to go and fight all the time. It’s a small town so they could identify you and say “You are a Zapata kid.” Why? Because there’s nobody else in this town that has your complexion and your kind of hair. It was great growing up knowing a part of me that is always going to be lost for the trade. But knowing the deep roots of the Zapata and knowing about the Zapatistas and that they represent how the land belongs to those that work it, and that movement, that is what I want to live and breath. I am an Afro-Mex.

AM: There are more Latin Americans moving to the south. There are more African Americans moving back to the south. There are more Afro-Latinos moving into the south as well. What is it like growing up in the South and Texas as an Afro-Mex?

YZ: There were literally cotton fields right down the street. Everytime I would go see my grandfather I would pass the cotton fields. My grandmother dropped out of school in the forth grade and one day I found her cotton-picking card. It hasn’t even been 100 years since people were still picking cotton in the south.

AH: When did you become aware of your racial identity? And have you found an Afro-Mexican community here in Austin?

YZ: My mom was already here. She went back to Lockhart to have me and I was raised there. Then I moved back with my mom but I was molested by my brother’s dad so I had to move back and ended up living in a shelter. In high school I ended up being abused.

AH: So you had other things to worry about outside of your racial identity?

YZ: Exactly. But yes, growing up my hair was different. My grandmother always treated me a bit more special. Some uncles were with white women. Some were with white women. I have all kinds of mixed up cousins but because my mother was with a black man and because my grandmother had faced so much, she took favor to me. She told me “don’t worry you mija you are beautiful the way you are. Love your skin.” At the time kids would ask me why I spoke Spanish but was dark. Kids are really mean. I was put in an all-Spanish class (ESL) and my mom didn’t like that. I was being picked on for being black. I was hurt. I am still trying to find myself to this day and figure out my identity. I am very passionate about that. Don’t ever tell yourself you are done learning.

AM: Has coming from such a complex background influenced you as an artist and has creating served as a therapy?

YZ: Yes. When Drop Jewels came out a lot of women came to me and were surprised I was able to escape my abusive situation so young. Some said I gave them the strength. I want to open up a bunch of community centers. I want to leave an impact like that. Bring these issues to the forefront. Like 2Pac said: “Im not saying I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.”

Qué Viva la Botánica!
Black Excellence: Visual Artist Beth Consetta Rubel

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