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Raised in Boston, MA and now a resident of Sacramento, CA, Paul Willis is a rapper/spoken word artist/educator/activist whose art reflects his life and his values. Paul has been writing rhymes for 14 years and strives to create thematic pieces that give vivid descriptions of events based on his life experiences. He is also working to release 3 mixtapes and an album in the 2013 calendar year. Visit his music at bandcamp and soundcloud and follow him on twitter.

I write spoken word and hip-hop music because I’m an idealist. I grew up in the hood, and, like all my friends, dreamed of making it. My grandmother raised me from when I was 3 days old with the expectation that I would have to work hard to get my education, go to college and get a good job. And even though we didn’t have much, she also reinforced that once I was successful, I couldn’t be selfish. I would have to give back to others in my community and help others rise above their economic hardships. As early as the 7th grade I began to realize that by telling my story through hip-hop, I could affect others’ lives in a really powerful way. My brother wrote extremely intricate and complex poetry in high school. Watching him write and listening to him speak created this spark in me, because I loved to write creatively but performing non-fiction short stories was not that entertaining.

I first believed that I could be a writer in the 4th grade. I used to write short stories about the cartoons I would watch for fun. I would create alternative endings to episodes and include myself as a character. In school, I was first exposed non-fiction writing in the 6th grade. My social studies teacher would have the class write about current events and we would have to read the newspaper and pick a local or global event to write about. I took those assignments pretty seriously as I began to understand my place in the world around me. Then in the 8th grade, my English teacher gave my class a project which was to write a memoir. My memoir ended up being 28 hand-written pages.

When I started writing hip-hop music, I had been in love with the culture for years. My sisters, who were in high school when I was in elementary school, first exposed me to hip hop. We had so much fun listening to the beats and breaking down the meaning of Lauryn Hill’s words. I would go to my older sister’s room and rap along with Puff Daddy and Ma$e. I couldn’t break dance but I would watch Aaliyah and TLC videos and be mesmerized by the dance moves. I had to wear my caps to school every day, and once I was there I would beat-boxing unconsciously in class. I thought I was so cool, but in reality I was a hip-hop nerd. And I was proud of it. I was drawn to the energy, the movements and the pride of seeing black and brown people, who look just like me and my siblings, create music, art and dance. The culture was hypnotic before Biggie wrote “Hypnotize” and I was a child of the golden era of hip hop.

Writing raps was the next serious step in my love affair with hip-hop. When I first put the pen to paper I was writing about nonsense (my eyes popping when I see a girl, the characters in books I was reading, battling and killing people like I had heard in Biggie and Eminem songs). I’ve even had a journal or two confiscated by my teachers because they would look over my shoulder see that that I was writing really ignorant, violent and profanity-laced lyrics. One of my teachers, Fr. William Campbell, saw that I loved this music so much and he sat me down to explain to me the power of word choice and how even some of the best rappers have half of their lyrics censored on the radio. He advised that I write about something meaningful, while also reminding me that that kind of language is also not tolerated in school. It wasn’t long after that conversation that I found my message, and I’m extremely grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to thank him and my other teachers publicly for believing in me and making a difference in my life.

My grandmother was diagnosed with diabetes when I was 12 and needed to receive special treatment that we could not provide at home. The courts ordered that my brothers and sisters live with my mother – who had been battling with alcohol and drug addiction for my entire life. It was a struggle to cope with not having my grandmother there every day in my life. Witnessing my mother’s lifestyle as an addict. Going to a private school and seeing the extreme economic and achievement gap first hand. Experiencing all of these issues from the outer world and having my own personal issues of identity, anger and abandonment shaped my perspective as a young, black male. My writing started as a release, and because of my ambition to be a positive change agent, my writing is also a responsibility. I must speak my truth and share it openly. Being honest about my challenges and describing the journey I’ve taken and connecting those with the world around me is what my music is all about. I hope to inspire others to find their passions by sharing my own.

This week, Truth Bomb Trails is exploring Music + Social Justice: Building Community through Sound. Look forward to posts on the ways that musicians and artists provide public service, the perspective of Paul Willis (hear his music at bandcamp, soundcloud, reflections on music from childhood and a look at the role music helps to shape and define emerging cultures.

Enjoy the tunes that helped inspire the week!