The house is silent and calm, except for the noise of the occasional vehicle roaring past the window or the faint chirps of birds enjoying the day. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the sounds of raw base lines and melodies emanate from television speakers, filling the house with music yet to be tamed. Rapper and beat maker Keith Jones is using his toes to skillfully manipulate an iPad, using audio editing software to bring the sounds of each beat into check.
Jones, AKA Fezo Da Mad One, has cerebral palsy, meaning that his brain has difficulty controlling his muscles. As a result, he has little control over his arms, so he must use his feet for writing, typing, changing his daughters’ diapers, making beats and other daily tasks. He also uses a wheelchair when traveling distances because the muscles in his legs are affected as well.
Jones never let his disability stop him from pursuing his dreams of becoming an MC. “People would always say, ‘Oh my God, he’s kind of nice for a guy in a wheelchair!’ The wheelchair doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that I’m hot,” Jones said. “It just means I can roll up on your ass quicker.”
For over 30 years, Jones has been using his feet and toes to sculpt music. He raps over most of his beats and talks about his life experiences and anything else that interests him. He is also not afraid to mention—or even rap about—his disability. In the song, “Clap Ya Handz,” Jones describes himself as “the black disabled Confucius who’s more than a cut above.”
“If you think about it, it’s an amazing marking ploy. This is a dude who’s rapping and making beats with his feet,” Jones said.
Along with making rhythms for himself, Jones also creates them for—and raps with—Krip Hop Nation, an international network of disabled musicians, poets and other artists who use their music for social justice work. Specifically, they aim to raise awareness and promote the disabled community. The group helps get his music out to the world and allowed him to release a CD in 2015 called Vocal Tai Chi, Vol 1.
The group was founded by in 2007 by Jones, Leroy Moore (AKA the Black Kripple), and Rob “Da Noize” Temple. They wanted to form a collective of disabled individuals to advocate for disability rights, inclusion and other issues through the use of music.
“When you do Krip Hop, people look at you and say, ‘You rap?” Jones said. “Hip-Hop doesn’t say, ‘If you don’t have a disability.’ It’s Hip-Hop.”
Based out of Oakland, Krip Hop Nation has worked with over 300 artists from all over the world. The group itself is a loose network, which allows musicians to choose when to work with them. They say they’re the opposite of a label. “It’s not like you’re getting branded as a Krip Hop artist and can’t go anywhere,” said co-founder Moore, who is also a spoken word poet.
Members living all over the globe, from London to Spain to South Africa, stay in contact with Moore by using Facebook and Twitter. When their music is ready, they send it in to be featured on compilations, anniversary albums or other upcoming Krip Hop CDs.
They promote their CDs by word of mouth, social media and having them available at Krip Hop events, like speeches, workshops and performances. The group’s music used to only be sold on CDs. But now, for more exposure, they put songs and albums online to be bought or just listened to. Krip Hop Nation also funds its projects with donations from supporters.
Ultimately, Krip Hop Nation members want to show that disabled artists as well as the larger disabled community should be treated like everyone else. “Krip Hop is so utterly important,” Jones said. “It’s to get people to stop looking past you if you’re not making them feel better about themselves.”
Moore originally started the group because of his love for music. He had been around it his entire life. “My dad had this huge record collection,” Moore said. “When I went down in my parents’ basement, I saw blind blues artists, disabled soul singers and I was like, ‘Wow, these people look like me.’”
But he and the other co-founders also saw that there are many disabled artists who aren’t getting a chance to show their talents simply because of their disability. Disabled artists often face discrimination in both their daily lives and the performing world. They are made fun of, called derogatory names, ignored, and they struggle to get signed to labels.
Jones has struggled with discrimination most of his life. When he was 21, Jones and his non-disabled rapping partner were offered a record deal for a little under a half million dollars. The two were more than eager to sign the contract, but then the label changed the offer, wanting Jones to only make the beats from behind the scenes. “The next time we came back, all of a sudden I was ‘too crippled,’” he said. “All of a sudden my music wasn’t marketable enough.”
Many of the songs and poems put out by Krip Hop Nation serve to combat this discrimination. Moore embodies the frustration felt by many disabled people in his spoken word piece called “The Black Kripple,” which goes:
“I’m an open sore in the black community, cup in hands, leaning against the wall, [people] passing by, just don’t want to understand!”
Co-founder Rob Da’ Noize Temple also uses his lyrics to address disability inequalities in his songs like “Tales from the Crip.”
“You hear our story but you never really get it.
You feel our pain, but you really ain’t up in it.
You think we’re different, but we’re all really the same.
How would you like to be in a world you couldn’t see
or hear the birds in the trees singing in harmony?
If you were me could you handle hostility?”
Along with making music and writing poems, the group hosts events to further educate people about their mission. Using workshops, seminars, conferences and various other events, Krip Hop Nation has tackled many controversial topics— disability, gender equality and sexuality—by simply discussing them. For example, in 2009, the group hosted a conference at UC Berkeley called “Diversify Hip-Hop and Homo Hop.” It brought together both disabled hip hop artists and queer hip hop artists to discuss discrimination and other issues. “It just blew people away,” Moore said, “It really changed how people think about the two communities in hip hop.”
Members regularly travel to different states and countries putting on performances and seminars. Since 1998, Moore has been going to colleges all across the United States to teach his craft to new generations. “We do workshops on Krip Hop, you know, what is it, the history of it all,” he said. “Sometimes we have artists that make songs right there, after they learn about disability justice and disability rights and the lingo of disabilities.”
Some workshops are multimedia-driven, in which artists’ videos and songs are featured. In some cases, artists from other countries join discussions via Skype to tell about themselves and their career. Students are also given CDs and merchandise to help get the word out and give the artists featured on the albums more exposure.
Some Krip Hop members are also helping young people with disabilities here in Oakland.
The joyful yells of playing children, waiting at the F.M. Smith Recreation Center for their parents to pick them up, overpower the bustling streets of downtown. The kids run wild playing hop-scotch and kickball, carefully weaving in and out among the other children. Suddenly, the festivities come to an abrupt halt and a sea of little faces erupts into big grins as they see their after-school teacher, Joy Elan, walk out of the center.
Oakland and Berkeley native Elan is a teacher, author and spoken word poet who works with Krip Hop Nation. She has a hearing loss that hasn’t left her completely deaf, but she still needs hearing aids. Elan received a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and master’s degree in education from Stanford. She works with the city’s Parks and Recreation department, where she oversees their summer camp and after-school programs. She also works with young adults with disabilities, ages 18 to 22, and teaches them life skills.
“I love what I do, because now I’m able to go back to these kids in Oakland and Berkeley or wherever from the hood and say, ‘I’m from here, I’m from Oakland. I did this and I have a disability there’s no reason why you can’t,’” Elan said.
Elan is also a prolific poet and spoken word artist, who has published six books, including a novel and several books of poems. “Being an author, to me, is so important because when I leave this Earth my book, my ideas will be here forever,” Elan said. “I would like my books to be used in English classes eighth grade and up.”
To promote her poetry and books, she frequently performs spoken word at open mic nights around the Bay Area. That’s where Leroy Moore noticed her. Elan joined Krip Hop Nation in 2013 and went on tour with them, performing in San Francisco, Oakland and in other surrounding cities.
Her poems cover issues from gentrification to her personal experiences with discrimination, like being picked on for wearing hearing aids or being underestimated because of her disability. As she wrote in her poem, “Silently Outnumbered”:
“Look at me.
Without my hearing aids I look like you right?
You wouldn’t know if there something is wrong with me,
but that’s the thing, there isn’t anything wrong with me.
You treat me like I’m dumb.
I smile to set out to prove you wrong.”
After doing a few tours with Krip Hop Nation, Elan focused more on writing books, but she remains a member of the group. “We also educate and work together through interviews on the radio and writing publications to get out there, so we can reach audiences in another way that we wouldn’t be able to just performing,” she said.
Moore mainly runs the Krip Hop Nation network by staying in contact with as many artists as possible, and brainstorming with them to figure out what projects to pursue next. “The 10th Anniversary EP will hopefully come out in January, then my blues EP, and we’re working on an all-women’s CD,” he said. “Krip Hop has been dying to do this for years.”
Moore’s upcoming Crip Blues Story EP is going to be filled with poems about blues artists with disabilities. The anniversary EP will feature the group’s greatest hits so far.
On top of the new music, Moore is also writing a book about Krip Hop, which he hopes will be finished sometime in 2018. He is currently in South Africa meeting with Krip Hop artists, spreading the word about their group and disability rights to disabled and non-disabled music lovers alike.
“Seeing that Krip Hop is being held in South Africa, in the UK, in Canada—I can’t ask for anything more,” Moore said.