Hip Hop Samurai: Talking Villainy with Toussaint Morrison

Hey ya’ll. This article is the first in my Minnesota Person of Interest series, profiling cool people around the Twin Cities. I’m really excited to kick things off with an interview with Morrison, one of my favorite local rappers. 

Toussaint Morrison Interview

I spent most of last year staring at Toussaint Morrison’s face, but I’m still surprised by how good-looking he is in person – black curls artfully coiffed in a GQ-ready taper, biceps with serious curves, and a superhero t-shirt that’s tight enough to show he’s a man but loose enough to show he’s a bro. I’m not sure what I’m more impressed by – his organic good looks or the impeccable grooming. It’s like sitting across the table from a People’s Man of the Year commemorative figurine.

One Angry Man

I’ve never spoken to Morrison before, but I spent 2014 working on a video series he stars in and becoming monotonously familiar with his mug. At some point along the way, I discovered he’s a rapper as well as an actor. A talented rapper.

And a prolific one. He’s put out five mixtapes in the past three years: Toussaint Morrison Is Not My Homeboy, Makin’ Mistakes and Feelin’ Great, Toussaint Morrison Is Not My Boyfriend, Fast Times at Trillmont High, and, most recently, Edo. You should start with Edo if you’re going to listen to him. It’s a sound kaleidoscope largely inspired by Japanese culture, richly textured and bristling with rage at those who might dare to dismiss him. Listening to it is like falling into a rock tumbler full of semi-precious stones. You emerge dazzled and a bit battered – perhaps questioning the value of what just battered you.

Toussaint Morrison is Not My Boyfriend feels lighter and brighter, leavened with songs about college parties and chance encounters at coffee shops and liquor stores. The rage (a core element in Morrison’s music) here is directed against the racial disparities of the public school system Morrison graduated from and worked in. The final track is titled “The Lynchings in Duluth.” You can imagine the subject matter. In it, Morrison maps racial injustice in Minnesota all the way from a decades-old hate crime to modern problems in the local education system, crooning a chorus of “this shit still ain’t right” as he goes. It’s a powerful song. I listened to it on loop after the Walter Scott shooting, both as an expression of my sadness and a reminder that I couldn’t continue to ignore or excuse the racial violence happening in America.

Boyfriend isn’t pure heaviness, though. Morrison relishes rehashing his teenagerhood throughout, evoking memories I wish I had. He sings about summer bike rides with his high school best friend, and I swear I can hear tires whining on blacktop and feel rust flaking off handlebars into sweaty palms. “Dense” is a good word to describe the tape – dense with images, dense with nostalgia, dense with political commentary.

Don’t Give a Damn ‘Bout My Reputation

Morrison has been making music, among other things, in the Twin Cities since the early 2000s. The other things I’m referring to mainly boil down to trouble. In 2013, Morrison was dismissed from a teaching position in Minneapolis for inciting student uproar with a blunt poem about racial disparity. And he’d be the first to admit (as he does in some of his songs) that the recognition he’s received as an emcee comes paired with discomfort inspired by his undisguised dislike of the Twin Cities. He hasn’t been signed, despite his obvious talent and work ethic.

To me, this weird aura of resentment, coupled with his eagerness to put race issues on the table, made him one of most interesting rappers in the Twin Cities. I couldn’t get a bead on him. I knew I loved his music, but I couldn’t understand where the intersection lay between his curmudgeon/angry boy rep in the local music community and the smart political rhetoric I responded to in his lyrics. Hence, an interview.

A Rationale for the Rage

Cut to Morrison and I sitting at a small table in Peace Coffee, him sipping a tall mug of coffee, me attempting to enjoy matcha.

I start the conversation with a question about his artistic drive, and he brings up the omnipresent anger in his work almost immediately. “I write with a deliberate kind of rage,” he says. “…Almost half the time. There’s a point to be made.”

I don’t ask whether the point relates to his own perceived neglect as a rapper or to the racial disparities he sees. Instead, I ask if he thinks resentment motivates his music as much as rage. He’s doubtful. “In certain acting classes, you learn that anger isn’t an actual emotion, it’s a derivative OF an emotion. You’re angry because you’re sad, you’re angry because you’re depressed. [Sadness and depression] are actual emotions. Resentment, I don’t think, is a real thing. I wouldn’t say ‘resentment.’ I could say ‘disdain.’”

It’s a confusing answer because resentment doesn’t seem like a derivative emotion. It seems like an original emotion, a response to perceived lacks that exist outside a person. And even if resentment is a derivative emotion, it’s not clear why that excludes it from motivating his art.

He goes on. “I’ve always empathized with villains because there’s nobody that’s…a villain without a story. There’s nobody that woke up just like, ‘I’m gonna kill everybody.’ There were good intentions in the beginning. And they still have those intentions. In the process of discovering who they are, they may not fit with the system. And that system may call them criminal.”

He leans forward. The superhero on his shirt disappears in wrinkles. “I empathize with [the villain] because there’s certain choices and ways that I’ve felt about things that don’t really work with the system.”

Morrison’s music makes much of his identity as an outsider. In “Tokugawa Nights,” the second song on Edo, he compares “the system” to both the feudal Japanese Empire and the more explicitly evil Empire immortalized in Star Wars. Then he explains to an imagined Storm Trooper (or state-funded samurai, whichever metaphor you choose to pursue) that his choice not to respond to insults is an act of forgiveness. “My blade sings like an unholy choir,” he raps, punctuating the verse with a villain’s stylized bark of triumphant laughter.

I eye him across the table, wondering if he has a reproduction samurai sword at home. I’d lay money on the answer being yes. Men who see themselves as ronin often do.

Systems of Injustice

“I don’t want to work with the system,” he says. As he continues to talk, it finally it becomes clear which system he’s talking about: Minneapolis schools. “I’ll tell teachers point-blank, if I had a brown kid – a child of mine – I wouldn’t bring him to their school.” He describes an interview with a successful MSP school, outlining their claim to fame – the highest academic achievement rate in the city. The claim came with a caveat: “the race thing is tricky.”

“Of course,” he says. “The Twin Cities are number one [in the country] for racial disparity. I [asked them] what the numbers [were]. They said ninety percent of the white students were at achievement level or above. What about the black students? Twenty-six percent.”

The statistics aren’t surprising. Minneapolis high school graduation rates fall at sixty percent. (The national average is eighty.) The graduation rate for African American students in the MSP system is less than half. The graduation rate for white students is over seventy-five percent.

“That’s outright unacceptable,” Morrison says. There’s no anger in his voice now, but he speaks with firmness of moral certainty. “I [told them] I couldn’t bring my kid here. A one-in-four shot? That’s not a fair shake. Where can you get a fair shake?”

He pauses. “I don’t think I need to answer that question, people have to figure it out for themselves. But I think them understanding that there’s not a fair shake, them understanding stratification, that’s my main goal.”

“Academia does no service for people of color,” he says bluntly.

It’s a bold statement, flat as a corpse’s EKG. “It’s not built for a person of color to succeed. If I have a room where ninety-five percent of white students leave having learned something and twenty-six percent of black students leave having learned something, my room inherently favors one demographic over the other. Something happens where [black students] are being failed.”

“You have to recognize that the people who are teaching the kids can’t teach them. They’ve been successful in school and they’re dealing with people that haven’t been successful in school. You can’t break down a master’s house using a master’s tools. If I’ve graduated college, how the fuck am I going to talk to someone who doesn’t care about college or isn’t academically sound for college?”

“[The system] is cracked from the start,” he says. “[If it doesn’t work], it needs to go.”

Color in the Land of Sky-Blue Waters

It’s the demolition-crew point of view – if the structure isn’t functional, raze it and start over. A save-no-bridges, give-no-fucks attitude, exactly what you’d expect from a grown man who offers “no hall pass for life” as a credo. The thing is, though…I think he’s right.

He knows these school systems. Graduated from them, worked in them as a paraprofessional. I’ve seen plenty of them myself as a tutor in an urban community college. In general, they don’t work, and the after-school programs and initiatives we use as damage control aren’t reversing the sickness that is institutionalized racism (often exacerbated by conscious or subconscious racism from individuals in the system).

The Atlantic recently ran an article describing the Twin Cities as a sort of ice-bound utopia for Millennials – rent is cheap here and jobs are plentiful. It’s a good place to live if you’re just starting out, a fact I can attest to. But the article missed the racial disparities that lie beneath the happy statisticss about air quality and employment rates. Minnesotan people of color are less likely than Caucasians to graduate from high school or own their own home. They’re much more likely to live in poverty and suffer from chronic illnesses. They’re also more likely to be stopped by the police or – as in the case of Fong Lee – shot eight times for reasons that are dubious at best.

I’m white, and I can’t speak to the experiences of people of color in the Twin Cities. But I’ve seen enough overt racism to know this state isn’t always Minnesota Nice to people who don’t look like me. (A lot of that racism emanates from the suburbs and country outside the Twin Cities, where you can easily go weeks without encountering someone with skin darker than a Werther’s lozenge.) But we don’t talk about it. Because we don’t have to talk about it. Eighty percent of us are white, and it’s easier to talk about the fucking weather than it is to talk about the fact being not-white and walking down the street can get you killed.

Samurai Against the System

It’s Morrison’s honesty about these facts, his willingness to criticize the system without any attempt to soften the blow, which drew me to his music in the first place. He may speak from a place of anger, but his reasoning is level-headed. His facts may be dramatic, but they are unavoidably true.

In a way, Morrison’s bombast functions as a proof of his truth-speaking. He’s so confident in his own mythologies that he’s unafraid to alienate those who would author him new ones. I’m still not sure I buy the superhero t-shirt, but I’m willing to trust the word of a man with nothing to lose.

We shake hands at the end of the interview. He’s got a good handshake. As I walk away, I wish I had asked him what he’ll write about when the rage finally dries up or seeps away. Then I think about MSP graduation stats and the fact that Jason Anderson is still patrolling, and I realize that’s one problem Morrison won’t have. A ronin’s work is never done.

Looking for more? Check out my second Minnesota Person of Interest profile on urbex king turned Minnesota CSA farmer, Gabe Sehr. Spoiler: it involves more mayonnaise than you might expect.

More local hiphop stuff here:
Prof — Liability Review
Dansvidios — “Lo Dicho 1/2” Review
Toussaint Morrison — “Can’t Relive the Party”

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