Interview with Cedric Muhammad on 'My African Violet': "Too many of us are killing, negating or denying our true selves out of the fear of failure"

(Blogger's Note: Cedric Muhammad is a Former Wu Tang GM Turned Economist- Songwriter. He is a unique political, business and macroeconomist who has influenced the worlds of culture, electoral politics and finance. .

As President of CM Cap, he has advised a range of individuals and institutions from first-time entrepreneurs to international governmental bodies. He has been published or appeared in respected financial media such as Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg Financial News. 

I recently caught up with him to discuss significance of his newly released song "My African Violet" and more.)

Brother Jesse: Congrats on the release of "My African Violet". I must admit, you caught me off guard because I had no idea you had this type of musical repertoire. Who and what instilled in you a love for music? What is your musical background from your younger years?

Cedric Muhammad:  Thank You so much Brother Jesse, I caught me off guard too (Laughs)!  What I mean is that as I grew in other areas of life, I suppressed that part of my being and personality. To answer your question, much of my musical DNA comes from my Father – a jazz connoisseur from New York City– and my maternal Grandfather a Physician-Musician who began playing the alto saxophone, growing up in the Panama Canal Zone.  Dad would always break down the elements of records he played by artists like Thelonious Monk, Quincy Jones and Jimmy Smith.  And Grandpa put the first instrument in my hand as a young boy.  I recently came across an article written about how he married the practice of medicine and music in his life.  In it he talks about the sax like a scientist.  Both my Dad and Grandfather thought deeply about music in a conceptual and intellectual sense and I think I get that from them.  Our home was always filled with Jazz, Gospel, Soul and African music.  I ushered in Hip-Hop, of course. I have no formal training in music but I have studied the family record collection and liner notes – a university in and of itself.

Brother Jesse: Have you ever personally recorded and released your own song before? Do you have some secret-unreleased-Area 51-type mixtapes stored away in your basement of your musical genius that we should know about?

Cedric Muhammad: I co-executive produced a mixtape in 2004, with Eric Canada, “The Streets are Political” which won Source magazine mixtape of the month (http://www.blackelectorate.com/articles.asp?ID=1187 ) but this is my debut in terms of writing and producing music.  As for ‘Area 51-type projects’ I still have the old mixtapes of DJ Jay-Ski (https://twitter.com/DJJaySki) and myself from high school.  He and I started making beats in 9th grade on a Casio SK-5.  He went on to become one of the most successful on-air DJs in Hip-Hop and it’s hilarious to hear me at age 15 sounding like a young Mr. Magic. I used to send the cassettes to my friends in school on military bases all over the world. I’ll leak those tapes exclusively to you!

Brother Jesse: (Laughs!) You have built a serious reputation as an economic powerhouse on a national and global scale. Is that what caused you to put your music to the side? If so, did it ever bother you that you made that move instead of balancing both?

Cedric Muhammad: On a personal level that is the deepest question I have been asked. The answer is yes and yes but for different reasons. I gravitated to the business side of music as a teenager because I was genuinely more attracted to the deal-making and behind-the scenes elements of art.  I still am.  But at a certain point, after becoming proficient in that, I became dissatisfied.  You are doing so much critical and analytical thinking that you become imbalanced.  Then it gets worse because people tend to want to only deal with you on those terms. They categorize and stereotype you in their own minds – only seeking that part of you. You become incarcerated in what I call identity prison.  That’s why my closest friends are people who respect my accomplishments and work but who don’t equate me with that limited manifestation of who I am. We are more than our work.

I also reached a point of exhaustion with how I thought and what I allowed myself to express and just needed to become creative again, to find balance.  One of the most important persons who helped me through the transition was James Mtume.  What makes him unique is his emphasis that intellect is not separate from art, it is actually the highest form of it.  He told me that what I was doing as an economist was actually artistic expression and so he always related to me as an artist –telling me there was a musician inside of me that I just wasn't feeding.  I was starving the dude.  We talk to this day for hours about music theory; great artists in each generation; the contemporary sound; politics; current events, and it all flows, seamlessly.  He’s friend, mentor and now a godfather to me. 

Brother Jesse: Describe that critical moment when you decided to get back to the music and ultimately release 'My African Violet'. Did you have any apprehensions since the industry has changed in many ways? Or were you confident since you've kept up with the pulse of the industry?

Cedric Muhammad: A super-producer friend of mine finally convinced me that I was only going to get so far only managing artists.  The language of rhythm, melody, harmony, lyrics, verses, bpms and time signatures is often the only thing they understood.  I had to become what I was trying to influence. I wasn’t intimidated by changes in the industry because I stayed in tune with it through the lens of commerce and because I established the habit of listening to new music released each week, regardless of genre.  I did have some apprehension when it came to technology.  It’s a long way from arranging music on an SK-5 to using a Maschine Studio and Pro Tools.  And of course social media has almost totally changed how people perceive you.

Brother Jesse: You've always been a very spiritual man, even when you're writing Hip-Hop columns. As a young man, did you see the spiritual significance of the african violet when your mother gave it to you? What has studying it taught you about yourself?

Cedric Muhammad: I write from the head and from the heart to the head and to the heart, with layered meaning. I need big concepts that cause me to emote and I want the listener to feel the intensity and the subtlety of what is being expressed. I found all of that in reflecting on the first life I had the responsibility of caring for – given to me by the Woman who Allah (God) used to give me life, my Mother.  There are so many lessons I learned from unsuccessfully caring for this plant – the creative and destructive power of sunlight and water and the dynamics of soil.  At ten years old I was getting a preview of something I would read the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan teach on – the connection between reverence for Women and reverence for the Earth.  As a man I have fallen short of that view.  But even deeper than that – most women don’t make the connection.  That is why I wrote the lyric, “…can’t believe how much you’ve grown.’  I’m trying to convey to women and young girls that no matter what has happened to you; it can be redemptive and is beyond the power of any man to define for you, because most can’t comprehend it.

Brother Jesse: What do you want listeners to gain from playing 'My African Violet' in their headphones? What is the core message resonating through the lyrics and arrangements?

Cedric Muhammad:  In terms of sound, I want them to feel the tension created between the dark minor chords of an acoustic piano and the polyrhythm of African drums and then, how that can be released by the ‘sweetness’ of a kalimba and piano melody brought to crescendo.  There are simple and complex things you can do to bring out emotion through sound frequencies. The first time we raised the piano an octave in the chorus, I got goose bumps and tears formed.  The higher pitch made me feel something, and brought back a flood of memories.  For each person it may be different, in terms of what moves them. The core message of the song is how both nurture and neglect feed the growth of life.  In the East African remix, with Khaligraph (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8WRv95Fw6S8 ) – an incredible lyricist from Kenya, who rhymes in Swahili and English - it is more about celebration and maturity.

Brother Jesse: Do you plan to take 'My African Violet' on the road? Would you ultimately like to perform it in Africa on a stage set surrounded with violets? Well, maybe not exactly like that!

Cedric Muhammad: Absolutely! I want the right band to bring out the electronic, acoustic and African instrumentation.  And you know it Jesse – we have to have a minimum of 50 flowers on stage with perfect lighting.  There are so many shades to that color that can change with the lyrics and sound.  We’re gonna bring you in to consult, and then maybe Kanye.  I’d also like to produce a visual performance in fine art galleries that have captured the beauty of the flower.

Brother Jesse: What is the difference between 'Cedric The Artist'  and 'Cedric The Economist'? Can those two persons co-exist? Do they get along? (Laughs!)

Cedric Muhammad: Put it to you this way, I’d rather have ‘Cedric The Artist’ at my Super Bowl Party.  But I’m finding that the ‘Artist’ is making me an even better ‘Economist.’

Brother Jesse: It's clear from listening to the song and reading your write-up on why you wrote it, you have a deep love and passion for music. What advice would you give to people who may have put a passion to the side and wavering on picking it back up?

Cedric Muhammad: That is so important.  If my doing this encourages one person to return to a first love in artistic expression of any kind, that alone would be worth it.  Too many of us are killing, negating or denying our true selves out of the fear of failure or because we care too much about pleasing others or unsettling an image that has formed about us.  The other thing I would say to those of us with strong ideological or religious beliefs: don’t use knowledge, rituals and rules to shield the essence of who you are.  These are only meant to point you to a greater Unseen reality that lives on the inside of your Soul and that Force which created the Universe, Love. 

Through all of this, in a way I never expected I am understanding something Minister Farrakhan expressed on Twitter, recorded in the book you were blessed to compile, The Teachings 2.0 (http://store.finalcall.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=BK-TEACHINGINS ) “….music is a companion of Islam.  Both represent a universal language.  His words dovetail with what my Grandfather once said, “Learning music was part of my self-improvement.”

Brother Jesse: Thank you my brother!

(To purchase a copy of My African Violet, go to I-Tunes. To learn more about Cedric Muhammad, follow him @CedricMuhammad and visit his website cedricmuhammad.com)

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