From headphones to the streets: a revolutionary goes back to Hip Hop’s roots to end all incarceration

an interview with ATL abolitionist and hip hop artist Nikos

By LJ Dawsonn

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

You couldn’t find Nikos, an Atlanta based artist and self-titled revolutionary, in the studio making music after May 29, 2020. Since protests popped off, he’s gone to where the people are to deliver his message. But before the masses of young people took to the streets, he met the youth where they were — in their headphones

“I’m thoroughly passionate about making change happen specifically for the Black community in America, but more broadly for oppressed people all over the world,” Nikos said. Since 2015 he’s used Hip Hop as a tool to reach young people and turn them on to ideas that subvert the system. 

“Peace is about liberation, about establishing sovereignty. And it’s about raising the revolutionary consciousness of young people,” he said. Nikos sticks out among Hip Hop artists due to his centering of prison abolition. While more and more artists are weaving in protest and revolutionary thought into their music this summer, they haven’t centered incarceration and the justice system. Nikos has been rapping about the justice system and prisons for years. 

What does he hope young minds get from his music? 

Primarily:  “The machine of oppression, the wicked empire that has played a role in genocide not just here in America but all over the world and is actively involved in supporting the system that is destroying our ecosystem as we speak, that this system is artificial, impermanent and can be torn down.”

Beyond that: “I want young people to understand that they are powerful beyond their own imagination. We the people are powerful beyond our own imagination, and that fearlessness is real.”

Hip Hop grew up as a catalyst for revolution — it manifested in resistance. But as the ‘90s turned the decade, the music lost its revolutionary message and evolved mostly into ego-driven materialism. Nikos says that he himself didn’t start creating revolutionary music until five years ago. After backpacking for months in Europe, he returned to Atlanta with the clarity that losing and finding yourself delivers. He’s been making revolutionary trap music since then.

Music is a way for him to introduce young minds to big revolutionary concepts they might otherwise ignore. And Hip Hop, well it’s the default channel. It is divine in its original form, he said: its power comes strictly from it being Black music from the souls of the ancestors.  

“The purest of art forms that come from the bottom where we reside here in America — the ones that are unable to abide materialism — are the ones that are untouched by industry: those are going to be the ones that speak the loudest truths,” he said.

He’s chosen it as an art form to deliver his message because of its ability to move young people’s imagination. “Music is probably one of the primary world view shaping forces that young people come into contact with prior to life experience,” he said.

It can invert the narrative: “Hip Hop is actually a tool for projecting the kind of ideas that might help a young person imagine themselves as being more powerful than the oppressor, more powerful than those things that strike fear into their heart.” 

Nikos has taken the same message of his music to the protests in an attempt to elevate the “political imagination” of his peers. 

“I don’t think any group of people should have to fight for ‘matter.’ I think that’s absolutely ridiculous. It pains me that that’s the banner under which this movement is moving because mattering is the minimum. We’re fighting to matter. There is so much more that we actually ought to be fighting for,” he said. 

If the people on the street are risking their lives, jail-time, felonies and thousands of dollars in defense expenses, Nikos wants to turn them onto more than “matter.”

“If you’re risking all of that just to matter then let me put you on to some game because what you are owed is far more than ‘matter’.” Still, it is a pivotal moment to organize in resistance.”

“We have to stand on mattering because if we don’t fight for mattering then nothing will stop the oppressive force from continuing its oppression. Just as they used prison as a weaponized tool against us, they will continue to do that, and they’ll turn our communities into open air prisons,” he said.

Nikos believes this generation has a responsibility to defend “our communities.” If not, “the carceral state will continue to creep into our sovereignty or whatever illusion of sovereignty that we have,” he said. Part of toppling the system is rebuilding a society. That is where abolition comes in, and abolition means freeing the people in prison. 

“I’m a firm believer that Black people will get our freedom. I believe that we will become the sovereign nation that we are. But I don’t believe that we’ll be able to do that in any meaningful way without our brothers and sisters who are locked in the dungeons of America,” he said. 

“They have been wronged generationally. And the system is illegitimate and impermanent, meaning that it is artificial, meaning that we should shake those bars loose until all injustices are atoned,” he said. Meaning that people are freed. 

The way protesters have been treated this summer by police is just an out spilling of the violent abuse the system has executed upon people inside prisons for centuries. 

“It’s important for me to understand that what’s happening in the prisons does affect us because those are the same tactics and the strategies and message-framing that they are deploying against us in the streets right now. The same way that people are being surveilled in prisons, the same way that repression is used against those people who speak up and blow the whistle in prison, is the same way that activists and organizers are being treated today,” Nikos said.

“People ought to pay attention to how the carceral state operates in the dungeons because that is the true character of America and anything else is a façade.”

“If they think for even a second that we’re looking at isolated incidents of injustice, that’s crazy because you can go sit with anybody who’s been to prison and they’ll tell you exactly how racist and exactly how oppressive and classist the system actually is and has been for generations. What we’re seeing in the streets now is that brutality is leaking out into every facet of society because it had always existed at the root of the tree, its poisonous tree.” 

Nikos is currently constructing an album from the summer of upheaval in his mind, but his main efforts are going towards building a platform to host revolutionary thoughts, Free World Radio. Listen to him here. For other Hip Hop artists making a movement, Nikos says to check out Raury.

*This feature was first published in the fall of 2020.


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Founder of The Des and freelance criminal justice reporter based in Washington, D.C.