Pusha T is a man who needs no introduction to any reader of this publication. The Virginia rapper's musical legacy is the stuff of living legend, and based on the strength of his most recent output — 2018's masterful DAYTONA — he shows no sign of the middle-aged malaise settling in among more than a few of his peers.
But we are not here to discuss that. When he calls me in mid-June from his home in Virginia Beach, where he has been spending quarantine with his wife and newborn son, we commiserate over the importance and the heaviness of this era. Discussing rap beefs and album releases feels foreign to the point of being ludicrous when there are literal lives on the line fighting for our civic freedoms.
This is not a problem for Pusha, who has been consistently politically engaged for his entire life. One of the earliest and most dedicated figures in the hip-hop community to endorse Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential run, he has been steadfastly committed to increasing voter turnout in his native Hampton Roads region and has frequently turned out in support of the Democratic Party.
Yet Pusha is also the rare individual who acts in earnest for his local community, not at the whim of any political party. Even before his music career took off, he was someone who was continually finding ways of giving back — be it a campaign to provide new shoes for every child in the area to his recently completed Feed Your City challenge in Norfolk, Virginia, which found him offering fresh groceries and essential supplies to thousands of those in need.
Concurring that now, more than ever, is the time for us all to be using our platforms more consciously, Pusha agreed to a wide-ranging conversation on community activism, political engagement, and what we can all be doing to incite more actionable change.
Tell me a bit about the Feed Your City challenge. How did it go? How did you get involved?
The Feed Your City challenge was brought to me by a good friend of mine by the name of Tony Draper. He's a music executive responsible for the Suave House Records of the '90s and he had a guy by the name of Ricky Davis, [an] ex-NBA player — they did the Feed Your City challenge in Houston, where they're from. And I heard about it; I saw how many people they touched, and I was like, "Oh man, we have to bring that to Norfolk." And when I said that, he was like, "Aw it's nothing, we'll drive it up." And they had truckloads of food driven from Houston.
We got involved with the food bank locally, [and we shipped in] all types of essential items that are helpful during these times, as far as face masks and hand sanitizers and things like that. We set up at a popular local mall in the parking lot. And we brought the city out — we definitely brought the city. I mean, it's the Feed Your City challenge. We did it in Norfolk, but I would have to say, all seven cities of Hampton Roads benefited from this.
You have a rich history of being civically engaged. Are there any particular projects you've worked on that stand out to you?
In Virginia, I've always done something called "A Thousand Shoes, A Thousand Smiles." And when I got with adidas, they made that happen even bigger for me out here. Even going back to my school days, we would give shoes to any and everybody who needed them. I don't really keep track of it all; I just do it.
You know, that's the thing... Let me tell you something: Even A Thousand Shoes, A Thousand Smiles, that was something [I started doing] way before music. We used to go to the local shoe store, DTLR, and me and my friends would call it up and just buy a wall. We'd buy the whole wall of shoes and then give it to the kids. Who don't want fresh shoes? I don't know. There's been tons of things, man. We're feeding people, we're feeding the homeless. We do a lot of different things.
I was going to ask you which came first, but it sounds like you've always been organically working in the realm of community outreach, entirely separately from your music career?
Always, always. It never had anything to do with celebrity, or the record industry, or the business. It was always just about being in the community, being outside, being amongst the people, knowing what some people actually needed, and just going for it. Helping out where you can, and I'm trying to be... just, taking action. This doesn't take a lot of money — it takes a lot of sweat, but it doesn't necessarily take huge amounts of money to help out. And that was what we were trying to get across to them. Now, of course, with the sponsors and the reach that we have these days, we try to make things as big as we can. The bigger it is, the more people you'll reach.
And we don't do a lot of favor-asking, you know what I'm saying? [Now, it's like] every time we try to do something, it's trying to hit it out of the park, repeat the Food Challenge. We felt like we have got to take this as far as we can take it. And it's even better now. Ever since we did it in Norfolk, Amazon has reached out to me, Target has reached out to me, and they're like, "Oh my god, we could've given you gift cards when you're doing this next," and so on and so forth. So now we have all of those contacts, reaching out to those people like, "Hey, we're doing this nationally all over the place." And yes, we do need that now.
We're just going for it, man. People need things, people need help. This is a tough time. The point is just to lighten the load. I don't care what your tough time is, the Feed the City Challenge was simply to lighten the load on people who are going through things right now.
There's such a large portion of people who are feeling an extreme amount of righteous anger, but are powerless to do anything about it. What would you tell the people out there who are feeling too overwhelmed to get involved?
Right now, you just have to take a deep breath, stand back, and look at what's going on outside, and just attack one thing. Attack one thing that you can do.
People look at community services as so much heavy lifting, because they look at the world and they look at the community and they see so many different issues. You just have to chop away at what it is that you can do specifically and chop away brick by brick. You just have to chop away at it. That's how you start. And that takes a lot of the anxiety out of it, when you think about what it is you can do to help someone. Even when I started doing things, I never got bogged down in trying to think, "Oh man, well, if I do this over here, maybe someone else will be lacking," or, "This city won't have, or that city..." Man, you just have to move! You have to move and help who you can help.
For those who are really feeling the fire to get more involved, what could you recommend from your own experiences are ways for them to do so?
The most you can do is be informed. You can be informed and then take action on what is important to you. When I was asked to come to the White House and speak with [President] Obama, we just sat down and he's like, "Hey, what's important to you? What can we do?" And I was like, "Oh man, we have to fix the drug laws, we have to let people out of jail, we have to get into the mix of that." We talked about it, and that sort of bled into me.
And that sort of led into me jumping into the Hillary campaign . For the simple fact that, during that time, I felt she was instrumental. But when you looked at it from a larger scope... her words, her husband's words, the "super predator" talk and all of that — we had to correct that wrong. In dealing with her, and then dealing with that team, they were able to acknowledge it. And that was the the best way for me to get that done. To try to hold her feet to the fire, so to speak, to obtaining that.
Of course, she didn't win, but that was the mindset. As long as you have a mindset, and you have a direction, and you stick to what's important to you, you have to know that your vote counts. You have to know that your perspective counts, you have to know that your issues count, and you have to be active in addressing them.
On that note, I hear a lot of voices around me who persist in thinking a vote for Joe Biden is the same as a vote for Donald Trump. And I'm not sure they understand how dangerous it is to think that way — one is clearly worse than the other. What would you say to these people?
Super dangerous arguments! Those people have not realized the power of their voice. They're still thinking singularly, you know what I'm saying? It's like, "Oh man, I don't believe in a system, Hillary said some fucked up shit, so that's it."
And it's like, no! You have to push them to change, to correct their wrongs. You have to push them, to check them. You got to check Biden on his wrongs and make him earn your vote and so on and so forth. You have to make him actually know that you are vocal, and know that you have an issue, and your voice counts. And you have to do that collectively with your peers, so that he knows that you count. People who have that [lesser of two evils] argument are not thinking big picture, they're thinking too singularly. They're dismissing their own voice, honestly. And no, man, this is your life, this is your life and your livelihood.