Transcription of David Thete and Isaiah Taylor for the show Community Connectors #288

Lisa Belisle: Today is my great pleasure to have with me David Thete who was born in the Congo and graduated from Cheverus High School. He has taken classes at the University of Southern Maine and is the founder of Kesho Wazo, a youth art collective in Portland. Kesho Wazo means “tomorrow’s ideas” in Swahili. With David, I have Isiah Taylor, who is a Portland-based musician. Thanks so much for coming in.
David Thete: Thank you for having us.
Isaiah Taylor: Thanks.
Lisa Belisle: You’re doing good things here in Portland, both of you.
David Thete: Yeah, you could say that.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah?
David Thete: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: You come highly recommended from Adam Burke and other members of the community. Obviously the work you’re doing with Kesho Wazo… am I pronouncing that correctly?
David Thete: Yeah, you’re pronouncing it correctly. Adam is, he’s a good mentor of mine. He works with teen TED Talks. Actually, he reached out to me after the visual we had and he took me, we had coffee, and we talked about just my life and my high school and how I started Kesho Wazo, and he’s really surrounded me with the right people. Like this, he really, he connected me with Paul, and it’s given me a lot of opportunities, so yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Why is art so important? Why do something like what you’ve done with Kesho Wazo?
David Thete: Art wasn’t always important to me. It wasn’t always my first priority. In high school I was mainly focused on basketball, and I didn’t really see myself in the arts, but although arts was in my family. My mom is a fashion designer. Her dad was a painter, and art is in my family, but I saw myself doing other things, and because basketball wasn’t really the path I wanted to go down, and just seeing that I liked fashion, I like clothes, and I wanted to bring something that kids can come and be creative, not just with art but with themselves. Art was something that I found I could express myself with so I was like, “All right, I want to do this. I want to make this platform for everybody to come do everything that they want to do.”
I feel like art, here especially, we have a culture. We have the right culture to do it. We have a diverse culture. There’s a lot of kids that are multi-talented and stuff like that, and so why not the arts?
Isaiah Taylor: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Isaiah, is that how you know David?
Isaiah Taylor: I actually knew him through basketball.
David Thete: Yeah.
Isaiah Taylor: After three or four years, once I saw him start getting involved, it was just kind of natural. He just did, he was doing everything by himself and….
David Thete: There’s actually a funny story behind that. He’s not going to tell it, but we grew up, when I was growing up in high school, he was a senior when I was a freshman. I used to hang out with him and his friends. I was the youngest one. I was the youngest one, and they all used to pick on me, but he was kind of like my big brother. He would mentor me. He’d be like, do this, do that. After he graduated we didn’t really lose contact but we stopped seeing each other. He was in New York and stuff like that, but after the visual we had in July, this summer I had a visual and there was a, the paper came out, Portland Press Herald, and I was on the cover. The first person to call me in the morning was Isaiah. He was like, “Oh.” He called me. He’s like, “Yo.” I missed his call. I didn’t pick up his call and he called me. He’s like, “Oh, so you’re answering now? You think you Hollywood now or something?” I was like, “No, I just, I couldn’t answer.”
After that we met up and he’s just like, “I see what you’re doing and I want to help you. I want to mentor you.” I feel like that’s the story behind it.
Isaiah Taylor: Yeah, better told by him.
David Thete: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: From what I understand from David, you are a superstar.
David Thete: Yeah.
Isaiah Taylor: I’m trying to get there. Working my way there.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about your music.
Isaiah Taylor: I’ve been rapping for probably five, six years. Started in high school. It’s always been natural. I’ve been just surrounded by music my whole life. My mom was a singer. Yeah, I was kind of, when I was in high school I was kind of the only one doing my own music, independently recording myself, singing, rapping, whatever it was, making beats or whatever. It’s kind of my position within this whole thing with Kesho Wazo. Even though I’m not, I try to stay away from decision-making, I try to let him make most of the decisions, but when it comes to music I have, I just add a certain touch because I’ve been traveling for a little while in Boston and New York, or in Florida and things like that doing shows. I have other experiences that I feel like I can bring back to Portland and show and then educate the youth about, and about how… because music is art at the end of the day. It’s all about perception, and we have different perceptions on art and music, even though they are kind of similar and the same type of thing.
David Thete: When I think of music in Portland, I think of, my first person that comes to mind is him because in high school I remember all my friends being like, “Oh, did you hear Isaiah’s new song,” blah blah blah. I’m like, “Yo, I heard it 30 days before you. I already heard it before you.” Just in terms of Kesho Wazo, Kesho Wazo is, it’s everything in the sense that it’s everything that’s influential. Music right now is probably the most influential thing for young people. We want to change how music is viewed, particularly how black men are viewed through music. We have a different story to tell, and we want to tell that story about Portland through our music. It’s really hard. I feel like we’re isolated in a way, because people look at Maine like oh, there’s not really many artists from Maine. There’s not many really people that do rhythm and poetry from Maine, like rap in Maine. They’re out-casted. Even locally people will be like, “Well….” They wouldn’t particularly listen to a local artist.
That’s where his mentorship is helping me express…. He’s helping me grow with my music, but also helping the other people understand that we’re not just local artists. We’re not just local musicians. We have a story to tell. We want to tell the story about men.
Lisa Belisle: What is your story?
David Thete: That’s crazy. That’s a deep question. It depends on where you want to start. Where do you want to start with that? What is my story?
Lisa Belisle: You can take it however you want to.
David Thete: My story is, I immigrated to this country when I was two years old with my mother and my two sisters, and growing up I never really had a father figure in my life. I was that outcast, weird kid who was always doing what he wasn’t supposed to do. Kids were playing basketball and I was doing taekwondo. Kids were playing soccer and I was skateboarding with my white friends. I was always a misfit, kind of. I feel like that, it developed my mind to like, I really feel like I’m an individual. I think for myself. Peer pressure is not something that I had to deal with. I feel like people were mostly peer pressured into doing things that I wanted to do. My friends were always trying to do what I wanted to do. I didn’t really understand that up until high school, understand that hey, you can be influential in a way that’s positive. I don’t want to be popular for picking on people. I don’t want to be popular for that.
I want to be, I want to use what I have to tell the story, and my story right now is developing in a way that I can help other people’s story be told through Kesho Wazo. Growing up was really hard for me without having that outlet of a male figure, but my mom really was strong and she, like without her I wouldn’t where I am right now. I went off topic with that question, so that’s good. I’m going to stop right there, but yeah. I guess my story is just I’m a young indigo trying to, I’m searching for energy, to give energy and just spread peaceful vibes, I guess.
Lisa Belisle: What do you think is the view of young black men in music? You referenced that.
David Thete: Yeah, because he’s a artist I want…. I’m an artist, too, but I want to hear what you have to say and then I’m going to second that, because….
Isaiah Taylor: The views of young, black men?
Lisa Belisle: Just, I think what David was saying is that there is a perception.
Isaiah Taylor: Perception.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah. What is the perception that you’re working with?
Isaiah Taylor: For me, what I noticed is black or white. Not color, but it’s kind of you’re either here or here. It’s like you’re representing negative, I don’t know, negative actions and things that we’re trying to get away from, or you have to be completely all the way conscious and all the way, maybe even pop-type music, things that everybody’s trying to forget about this stuff, so you have to make music that’s completely opposite of that. You either have to be talking about it and bringing attention to it, or just dismissing it altogether.
Besides that, it’s just, in our community as well, it’s not only in the outside community. In our own community is just like, we have these certain expectations that it has to be, you have to fit in to one type of box. That’s why me and him coming together is better because I’m more on an artist side, or a musician side, and he’s more on a creative, fashion type of thing, but that is not really, not accepted, but it’s not really normal in this side of music. That’s why it’s even just me and him collaborating and connecting and sharing our ideas and talking through conversation and energy or whatever, we’re making each other better.
Me as an artist, I’m being able to lean more in the middle now. I’m actually getting pieces from this side, pieces from this side. I understand how these people live. I understand how these people live, and why they think these people live wrong. I’m trying to bridge the gap myself and he’s helping me do that. I don’t know. We’re just trying to break down the barriers.
David Thete: I see that. To me, I feel like as a young, black, we said rapper, right? As a rapper they want, not they want you, but it’s not…. For me, I haven’t released any of my music. He hasn’t not, he hasn’t let me, but it’s not the right time for me to release music right now because it’s too much for people. People will be like, “Well, why you trying to do everything?” They wouldn’t understand what I’m saying, not even what I’m saying, but it would just be too much. It’d be like, “Oh, he’s trying to rap now, too.” I’m doing fashion, all this stuff. People are going to be like, “Well, he’s trying to be like, he’s trying to be Kanye West.”
They’re not going to understand. They’re not going to listen to the words that I’m saying, especially because I’m not swearing. I’m not using. I’m not your typical…. I’m not talking about stuff that I don’t do. I’m saying real life stuff. I’m saying stuff that I truly believe is real, and if you’re not playing to people’s ears sometimes, you’re going to be out-casted. My voice is not going to be held to that standard. They’re going to be like, “Well, he’s not playing the role that we expected him to, so we’re not going to, it’s not the time for him to release music.”
That’s something that I really want to change, because I feel like it has nothing to do with the people who…. It has everything to do with the people before me. I respect all the artists that came before me, but they made it hard for me to do what I have to do. They made it hard for me to bring up that platform of my music. It’s even hard around my friends bringing up that I make music, because they’re like, “Man, again? Something new?” It’s like, no, music has always been a part of me.
I remember from kindergarten on up I’ve always played the drums and how I got into music, I always liked freestyling. I was always the one when the beat would come on, I’d freestyle blah blah blah, and then it’s crazy when the first time he picked me up after the visual, I was really, really excited to show him that I can sing, I can make music. I was like, “Listen.” I played a beat for him and I remember I sang the whole thing. I rapped it for him. He’s like, “Wow. You have a lot of potential,” blah blah blah. That’s not something you hear off the rip from people. People will be like, “Well …” It’s mostly negative first. It was just positive, and I feel like it has to be like that. It has to be positive feedback first.
Isaiah Taylor: Yeah, I remember.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about Kesho Wazo. It means tomorrow’s ideas in Swahili, right?
David Thete: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: What are you thinking, what are tomorrow’s ideas, and are they things that you have yourself, or they have things that you’re gathering for people who are involved?
David Thete: Kesho Wazo developed around this time last year when I was a senior in high school. Like I said, basketball I thought would be my passion. I thought it’d be the area that I’d pursue. That didn’t really work out because playing time and certain situations that just didn’t fall my way. I was going through a rough time just figuring out what can I do with my life. I literally thought I was going to the NBA and that reality, that hit me. I could literally end up on the news, be another stat. How can I make my life positive? I developed in my mind what I like. I like being with my friends, I like being with a collective group of people, but how can I create a platform for kids to do positive things? I asked my mom how to say tomorrow’s ideas in Swahili and she was just like, “Kesho Wazo.” I was like wow, I can run with that. I really, I can go with that.
Kesho Wazo, it first developed as a high school thing. I asked a couple kids in my school who I kind of felt like were outcasts, too, or misfits, like not a lot of people understand them, and we made a poster symbolizing black history month. It was, I wanted the poster to be black to symbolize black history month, but I wanted to put different facts about the whole world on it, like it’s a month to just educate yourself, not just about certain particular race. You should educate yourself on everything, all the stuff that’s happening. That’s the first project we worked on.
Kesho Wazo, it’s a group of 25 kids that, it’s an art collective… I call it a group of super heroes, because we are tomorrow’s generation, and we have ideas to offer to the world to grow and just to make this world a better place. There’s a lot of band things going on and kids don’t really have a good platform to express themselves and say, “No, these are the things that I want to change.” Usually it’s adults who are in charge of these groups who are giving the rules, “Okay, we’re doing this today,” and Kesho Wazo is a place where kids can just be like, “Okay, I have this idea. How can we make it come to reality?” Kesho Wazo is the youth’s imagination meeting reality. That’s how I would describe it.
Lisa Belisle: What do you think, Isaiah? What do you think about all of this? Does it seem like there’s a lot of energy and a lot of creativity going into something that’s still in its early stages of being formed?
Isaiah Taylor: Yeah, definitely. One of the main focuses were just trying to find ways to stay busy in Portland. He’s been doing way more art walks that he’ll give himself credit for and fashion shows and releasing different, like making his clothes and then releasing them with his logo on them or from scratch with his mom’s help. Those things are getting people interested and getting the community to start being involved. He’s starting to have real influence in the community, and whenever he, like he threw a party New Year’s.
David Thete: Yeah, that was crazy.
Isaiah Taylor: It was a New Year’s party and it was over 600 people. 200 people lined up outside. It was just like…. But they all came for Kesho Wazo, to come to the Kesho Wazo event. People know what Kesho Wazo stands for. They know it means tomorrow’s ideas, and they know the history of it and they know the background. Like all right, our peers, they know what it’s really about. It’s just getting them to stand on the front lines.
David Thete: Engaged, yeah.
Isaiah Taylor: Engaged, yeah.
David Thete: It’s hard because it’s a mindset. It changes everyday. It develops everyday. I didn’t understand what type of influence I had up until that party. I remember, we were driving up to the party. The party started at 10:00, and I get there at 9:30 something and there’s a line going around the corner. I look at him and I’m like- I was just like, “What is going on?” I didn’t understand. I didn’t think that many people would come. That made me realize there’s a need for this in this city. This city in particular, not anywhere else. This city is so diverse and has so much culture to it, and this mindset, Kesho Wazo, is needed for kids to understand that. Even if you’re not in Kesho Wazo, you still are tomorrow’s idea, because you are young and you have ideas. You can do anything you want.
That’s what I want kids to understand, is even if you’re not affiliated with us, you’re not with us, that just because you don’t have a platform, you can create your own. In the mission statement it says, if you don’t like the books, the clothes, and the sports you have, create your own. You can do anything you want. That’s not what they’re telling us at school. There’s not many teachers that told me my potential.
The article that came out in the Portland Press Herald, I failed four classes my first year at Cheverus. Four classes. I couldn’t play basketball anymore. I failed many more after that, too, but by the grace of God I’m here having this interview talking about something that…. This is my dreams, my dreams are coming true right now. This is that…. I’m enjoying life right now. I want every kid to feel this. I want every kid to feel like they’re not isolated, they’re not in that box. That’s Kesho Wazo. It’s really, it’s hard for me at time because I don’t realize what I have, what resources I have.
That’s where this relationship helps me so much, because he’ll be like, “No,” because he’s older and he’s lived longer than me and he’s an artist in himself so he knows how to deal with certain situations. It’s like, “You can’t go to this party and hang out with your friends on a Friday night because you have to work on this event coming up.” That’s things that I wasn’t used to. Now it’s like, okay, like I said, I have a calendar. I have a schedule. I have to do certain things to get to where I want to be because I feel like we haven’t, we’re just getting started.
Isaiah Taylor: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Is it interesting to try to figure out your own life versus being at Cheverus, or really any school where somebody says, “You do this, and then you do this, and then you do this.”” Now you’re in a situation, like Isaiah, you’ve been in the past four years, where if you’re an artist, you have to be self-motivated to create and to promote and to organize. What is that transition like? I guess either one of you can answer that question relatively.
Isaiah Taylor: You want to start?
David Thete: Yeah, I guess I’ll start. Honestly, that’s something that that was the biggest change, having so much control on my day-to-day life and the people I surround myself with and organizing and promoting. That is, it’s a lot of power that you have inside and you just have to find it, like you said, the self-motivation part. That’s really hard to be self-motivated, and the thing that keeps me grounded is, just remember the vision, remember that. Sometimes I’ll get really depressed. I’ll be like, “Wow, these kids aren’t seeing what I’m trying to do. The group is not listening,” blah blah blah, but it’s like, it’s going to take time, and the vision, not everyone understands the vision when it’s right there in their face. Maybe it’s going to take me to go away, you know what I mean?
It’s going to take time for people to understand and just managing myself at…. I was 17 when all of this started. I had no idea how to answer emails and PR team and Tweet and all that stuff. It’s all stuff that I had to learn and I feel like that’s, it was awesome. I went to USM for the first semester and I feel like I’m getting, in just these past six months, I’ve gotten so much experience that’s going to help me down the line forever.
One of my favorite things that I’ve ever worked on was I got to collab with this artist from Detroit, who, he goes by the name of Yourself and we worked on a project on gentrification in Portland, because there’s a huge housing gentrification crisis and I live on Munjoy Hill, and so we collabed. I took some photos of areas that are being gentrified and we made a visual installation at space gallery. That to me is when I saw, I was like wow, I’m not even in art school. I’m not even…. there’s kids right across the street at MECA who would go their whole lives for this and I have this opportunity to do this. That’s when I realized I got to stop playing around. We got to go harder from here. I have to be on top of emails. I have to be on top of every message and just learning that, it’s really hard, but I’m lucky I have the right people around me to help me and keep me motivated. Yeah, I guess that’s it.
Isaiah Taylor: I just think I was always a believer that education never stopped once you leave the classroom. It’s like, I made a conscious decision to not go to college when I graduated, because I knew I had been studying music and pursuing music for two years before that. My mom eventually understood that I could really just, if I’m in this field of music, rapping, engineering music, producing music, and things like that, it’s experience. It’s not going and sitting down and having somebody even in a classroom with a professor that studies music, because I’ve been in certain studios and certain places where people will sit me down and be like, “Yeah, I understand what you’re trying to do, but I don’t think you should go to school for that.”
People literally me. I went to American, I think it’s AI, I forget what’s the actual name of it, but it’s a college for music. I went to visit there and was thinking about a scholarship and things like that, but I just realize, I’m never really going to make progress until I learn how to do it on my own. School will help you how to test your own limits and teach you what you yourself can handle. After school is just, you already know these things. You already know yourself. You’re already comfortable in your own skin, or whatever it is. It just takes time to develop an actual schedule, an actual workload that you’re going to attack at a certain time and things like that. You have to stay on schedule, stay, make sure if you’re… If you’re not, if you don’t have a system behind you and making sure you do these things, make sure you have monthly goals, six month goals, three month goals, daily goals, things like that. Things like that helped me to just stay busy and to just stay productive.
David Thete: I think and one of the biggest things that I feel like has helped me is networking, just really putting yourself out there. A lot of people are like, when they’re in opportunities, say they’re at an art event or something, they’ll just sit and look at art. If I don’t meet at least 10 people or get at least some business cards or something or tell people, “Hey listen, this is Kesho Wazo, this is what I’m doing,” then I feel like there’s no point going to the event if you’re not sharing what you are. That’s how most opportunities come.
That’s how I met Erin. She came to an event that we had and was like, “Hey, I want to work on a project on gentrification in Portland. This is what I’m doing. Can we do that?” Then it developed into a documentary that she’s filming of Kesho Wazo for one year. That would have never happened if I was sheltered like, ah Kesho Wazo. No. I try to really articulate and talk to people as much as I can, even if it’s uncomfortable for me. I feel like that’s the only way I can grow. It’s really hard sometimes because nowadays… I used to be able to go and skate down Congress Street and just no one knows me. I’m not saying I’m a celebrity or anything, but it’s hard to go places now and have to talk to everybody when I’m trying to, say I’m just trying to be with my friends and eat something, people will try to talk and do whatnot. It’s like man, I was not used to that. That’s the hardest thing to get used to, just always being ready and respectful to people, but I enjoy it.
Lisa Belisle: You’re talking about Erin. Erin’s been in the studio listening. She’s been filming.
David Thete: Yeah, Erin’s in the studio, yeah. She’s a professor at Colby College and she’s done lots of filming herself and I think through this film I’ve grown to just seeing how the people… just how we got to the point where someone is documenting this, because I always, like, the future’s going to be televised. The future’s going to be televised, but now it’s, this is literally, it’s being televised. I know we’re on the right track if, once Erin came along, I’m like, “All right, we’re good. We got this.”
Lisa Belisle: If people who are interested in watching this documentary someday, Erin’s last name is?
David Thete: Erin Murphy. Erin Murphy. I think we’re going to, we work closely with SPACE Gallery, so the film will probably be shown there, or whatever Erin wants to do. It’s up to Erin. Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: I appreciate the time that I’ve had to spend with both of you. I’ve been speaking with David Thete, who is the founder of Kesho Wazo, and also with Isaiah Taylor who is a Portland-based musician. Although, I’m kind of thinking you’re probably going to go beyond the Portland base, someday bigger.
David Thete: Yeah, yeah.
Isaiah Taylor: Yeah, hopefully.
Lisa Belisle: I think bigger things are in store for both of you. I really appreciate you’re taking the time to come in.
David Thete: Thank you.
Isaiah Taylor: We appreciate it.
David Thete: Thank you so much for giving us this opportunity. Thank you for Maine Magazine and thank you for this opportunity. I’m really thankful for it.
Isaiah Taylor: Appreciate it, definitely.