Bridging the Gap: An interview with Foci
by Jason Kordich
Golden Era, classic, and underground are just some of the labels that have been used so much, and often inappropriately, that when an artist is deserving of such a label, it seems almost dangerous because it limits the expectations of the listener.
Artists tend to be categorized to such an extent that a tremendous gap is created between their music and the message that they are seeking to communicate. Nas’ declaration that Hip-Hop was dead was accompanied with the track “Bridging the Gap,” which created a lyrical road map that connected the dots that existed between blues and Hip-Hop in attempt to eliminate the distance that had been created over the years.
While there have been numerous artists to come out and offer their own unique sentiment on this issue of musical connection, an MC from Pasadena, California arguably has done the best job of addressing this issue of separation. On his latest effort, The Achievement Gap (Feb 28), Foci’s songs are true narratives expressed through rhyme. Like any great storyteller, he does not provide all of the details, but instead, he crafts his songs in a way that allow the listener to dig deeper into them as a way of trying to unearth the deeper message.
The Achievement Gap is a concept album of sorts that discusses betrayal, loss, and frustration in such a honest and relatable way that rarely occurs in hip-hop; however, one of the most interesting aspects about this album is that despite him creating narratives about his controversial firing from the school where he taught, relationships, loss of a best friend, and other political and social issues, not once does he use profanity.
“By nature, I have a very aggressive tone, so I don’t think that I need to swear to get my point across,” Foci explained. “I started writing poetry at a young age, so I always try to be as descriptive with my words as possible, and that can become really limited if you are just using vulgarities in your rhymes. I have older fans who listen to my music because they can relate to the subject matter and the introspective nature of it, and they are drawn to it due in part because of the absence of the foul language.”
It isn’t as though Foci hasn’t gone through things that would warrant him to swear in his music. Foci (Kay Wilson), was a teacher at Blair High School in Pasadena. As an educator who had to deal with controversy, he all too well understands how the politics that exists in education are invariable to the politics that exist in hip-hop.
“If you speak out at against the status quo, you will end up in trouble, and I did that my final year of teaching. I couldn’t take it anymore,” Foci said. “Just the same as why I can’t stand a lot of the rap music that is out there. In education, you can only do so much before you raise the attention of others and you get laid off. With music there is a bit more freedom.
“I have been doing it for years now, and no one is really doing it like I am from the ground up and all of the acknowledgements that I have received from legendary artists, I choose not to rely on that support,” Foci added. “I need to create my own political party of support. I want to be surrounded by people who are interested in creating change.
“It isn’t just about my sole input; it is a collective group of people. In the world of education like in many other fields, people stay inline because they need that financial security, and the same is true for the music industry where you have people making music that makes no sense and despite that it is being promoted to the masses due to what I see as an ongoing agenda. I believe this agenda has been established to keep a certain type of people in their place. Music, pop culture, and even education can be used in ways that prevent people from opening their minds, which will prevent them from ever being in control to prevent progress and acknowledging true knowledge of self. If you build your own empire on your own terms, it is possible to achieve anything and everything. I want to make it acceptable to be brilliant. No one should be chastised for being knowledgeable. I feel that what is being projected to the youth today is that you are not supposed to, or allowed to be smart; you are supposed to be a misogynistic hoodlum.”
At the end of “Devil in Disguise,” there is a sample that stresses the importance of living by principle. For Foci, this sample embodies his focus as an artist.
“I would like my music to be most remembered for its brutal honesty,” Foci admitted. “That song was written as a chronological account that explored my final year teaching at the district’s worst performing high school, John Muir. That campus did not represent a learning community; it was the negation of that. There was no sense of order. Students would misbehave, and there would be no real consequences. Teachers knowingly pass kids on to no longer have to deal with them. It is the same school that employed a teacher who later killed my best friend. These are just a few of the issues that are going on unrecognized. The song speaks on the lack of integrity that many people in the education system have as a whole.
“It is one of my favorite songs I have ever written: ‘They lied, they lied, I don’t even know why I tried.’ These students were like my children, but now some are in jail, some have passed away, some kids are raising kids, gang banging on the block, street prostitution, etc. These children are constantly victimized and have nothing nor anyone to turn to and I feel that if they were given a real shot at education and they had people that would inspire them, they could have had a real chance in this world.”
Even though Foci no longer teaches, the impact that he has had on his students remain. The album features voicemails from former students expressing their thoughts on what he meant to them
“I feel more pressure than ever before. It has taken three years to put this album together and it became such a struggle that I reached a point where I didn’t even want to put it out anymore. I was just over it; specifically the drama that ensued with the creation of the album. It wasn’t until the students reached out to me that I felt obligated to tell my side of the story of what happened to me over the course of the last few years.
“I put a post on all my social media sites asking all of my former students to call a designated number to speak freely on how they felt about me as a teacher. I never coached them,” Foci explained. “Good or bad, I just wanted to know. It was emotional for me to hear them say all these good things. When you’re in the classroom with them they, by in large, don’t want to give you any credit for trying to help them, but later down the road they realize that you were doing everything you could to give them the skills they would need in order to be successful. To hear that and be able to put that in an album was tremendous. I had no idea that I meant that much to my community. I truly doubted my abilities and myself as a teacher after what transpired. If I had included all of the calls from the students for the outro, it would have ended up its own album. It was amazing to hear that.”
Everything that Foci experienced bleeds through The Achievement Gap. “Motion Picture” opens with “I do not live for drama, but they always cast me.” Foci stresses that the schools that he had worked for did everything that they could to break him.
“I felt like I was nothing. I felt like a piece of shit to be blunt. I felt like I wasn’t worth anything. Here I was doing everything I could for these kids, working 8 hours on one campus and then another 3+ hours on another for my after school music production program only to end up with someone at the district telling me at the end of the school year ‘we can’t find a place for you to work anymore, goodbye.’ After everything I had done professionally over the past 6+ years it floored me.”
Instead of breaking him, these experiences would help him to reach places that he had never been able to reach previously.
“I would not be the artist I am today had I not gone through everything that I went through over the time it took to create this album,” Foci explained. “To address the issues the way that I do is very therapeutic for me. Maybe the reason why I keep going through these experiences is because someone has to tell the story that no one else is willing to tell. No one.”
Foci stresses that by putting his own experiences into song, he has been able to offer students something that they could turn to when things become difficult for them. “I have former students who tell me that the last project that I put out three years ago helped them get through college,” he said.
Even though Foci’s music is deeply personal, so personal that he stresses that he “puts things in songs that even my closest friends do not know about.” He is an artist who has shared the stage with Hip Hop’s most prominent names: The Rza, DJ Premier, E-40, Mobb Deep, WC, and Jay Electronica and won Urban Underground Performer of the Year for 2012 and 2011 for his excellent live shows. Considering the subject matter and the dense nature of his music, Foci reveals his strategy for being able to rock a crowd without having to dumb anything down.
“I have incredible production from Diverse, Jansport J, Nathan Allen, Emani, and Science, incredible vocals from Christine Ariya, who also was a former student of mine and my good friend Annie Elliott combining that with the call and response portion of my set and being able to write a really great hook it helps me to really get fans involved,” Foci explained. “I put together a very energetic set where everyone is given a chance to shine.”
Like an artist who is concerned with staying two steps ahead, Foci is already looking ahead to what is coming next. Coming off of an album without any guest lyricists, fans can expect him to have at least one collaboration on a future project with Brooklyn’s Skyzoo. Given that Skyzoo’s most recent project is titled A Dream Deferred, this seems like a natural pairing between two very like-minded artists.
“It never crossed my mind to have features. I didn’t think it would be attainable. Thanks to my manager Annette (Aka Rhymefanatic) we were able to build my running into him at Atlanta’s A3C into booking him to headline a show at the Airliner in L.A. Skyzoo just a few days after being on 106&Park came to my house in Pasadena to get ready for the show that we had together. Over time we have forged a lot of great relationships that are going to propel my music into a whole new direction. It is a new day for the Foci brand. The Achievement Gap captured my soul. Just know that I will continue to push it to a whole other level on each project that I do.”
(Check out music by Foci here: http://music.iamfoci.com/album/the-achievement-gap.)