Open Mike Eagle on using Comedy as a healing art

Photo credit: Comedy Central

"Do you have many Street Food outlets in your city?" asks Open Mike Eagle at the tail end of a typically busy and community spirited Womamby Street. The LA based rapper is performing tonight in Cardiff for a European tour stop. He's famished but also aware that if he doesn't feed his audience this evening; he's starving them. "I try to leave bread crumbs in a way that can lead people to the conversation that I'm trying to have" he says in a low key backroom at The Welsh Club referring to his musical output. "Bringing solutions after that dialogue is the goal" he concludes.

This is our third interview to date and since our last time talking he's had a lot on his plate, most recently including a socially woken Stand-up Television series with comedian and actor Baron Vaughn. The controversially titled show, which was inspired by Philosopher Alaine Lock's book 'The New Negro', extends its philosophy under the name 'The New Negroes' and mixes Comedy with Hip Hop as a healing art. It sounds ballsy because it is, especially in 2019, a year in which it speaks for itself politically. Mike and Barron are shaping the history and direction of Television without having to abandon or reduce any parts of themselves to make anybody more comfortable. 

It is the type of seldom seen Black Comedy Central show that (similarly to Mike's music) chooses expression over recognition, yet commands attention for the way it uniquely uses expression to view the world as it is and could be. In an effort to navigate solutions, each episode unites Comedians and Rappers who explore a theme and hang on to hope out of using its sense of humour as a means to move things forward. Ahead of his show in Cardiff, I spoke to Mike about his latest project, which as well as being a nod to the Harlem Renaissance is also a salute to hip hop and its ability to transform issues into constructivism and disrupt popular culture. 

Photo credit: Mayor, Associated Minds

Most of your music isn't really about exposing a problem, but rather assuming that the listener knows about it and if its not in them, that listener has to fix it in themselves. How similar is your Comedy Central TV show in that you're not just exposing, you're about putting forward ideas about how we can change things?

The comedy central show is a lot about having conversations because we don't have a lot of time. We're a 20 to 25 minute show if you take into account commercial time. We have 3 stand up acts and we have a music video. There's not a lot of room to solve problems but we do want to start conversations that can hopefully solve problems. 

Has there been many, if any, creative habits or techniques that you've had to reject since your last EP ('What Happens When I Try To Relax') to be able to access different parts of yourself for the music in this show?

I actually made the music for the show before I made my last EP. All of it was done already. If anything, the EP was a response to the kind of music that I had found myself making for the show, which had to fit certain parameters, so I wanted to make a project for me that was just whatever the fuck I wanted it to be. That is literally me trying to relax.

How much do you credit comedy for shaping you into the person you are?

I think that comedically I'm always looking for the joke because to me the joke is usually something that points at something that you can't otherwise get to. Its a way of exposing how we think. I'm always observing what I'm saying; what people are saying, the choices they're making and why and trying to find a way to say those things that are most entertaining and that most entertaining way for me tends to be comedic.  

Do you find it hard to address those things in short hand, knowing how serious and big some of the issues are that you're talking about?

Yeah, that's why I try to be very punchline orientated. Since I don't have a lot of time, I need to make a big impact, so for me it's about finding the craziest way to say something. That's how I try to come at it. It's the eternal problem and the same problem we ran into making the show. There's so much we want to say, we just don't have time.  

You mentioned recording the music for this show before your last EP. Was collaborating with MF DOOM for 'Police Myself' an afterthought or planned in advance?

DOOM was like pie in the sky when I wrote it. Having a sense of how I believed him to think, made me think it would be so ill if he could follow the concept. 

One of my favourite songs and video's in the show is the Phonte assisted 'Woke As Me'. Do you think that being woke in 2019 has robbed many people of compassion and replaced it with more superiority and that more often the term is used to pit people against each other, rather than empower and educate each other?

I think that people who utilise wokeness in a negative way are more so people who just aren't really sympathetic to begin with. I don't think that wokeness itself is what's separating them from sympathy. I think that these are just people who are already looking to condescend, judge and correct other people and they find a way to use conversations around wokeness as a weapon. I don't think that wokeness in itself takes that away from people.

Photo credit: Comedy Central

For the first episodes music video, 'Unfiltered', yourself and Danny Brown both capture to mind bending effect how cathartic and consequential it can be to let your co-workers know how you feel is. Visually it’s a version of a world that we know but it’s also just twisted and wonky enough to have a science fiction feel to it. What was the inspiration behind it?

There's a lot in our music about double consciousness and I'm interested in how people present themselves versus what their inner realities might be. I thought a great way to use the energy dynamic between me and Danny Brown would be from the approach of "what if we're just the same person but 2 different sides of a coin". It's a song about wanting to explore how one person can have those 2 extremes. 

Can you talk about the duality of recording your own songs and how the process has been different than recording songs for this show?

The process with this show was that I had to have the hook and my verse written for each episode because we were building each episode around a specific theme, so the music had to be figured out already. Everything else under that same heading was going to happen in the episode and we all needed to know where we were going. The song with Meth for instance was crafted in the writers room with us beating this concept to death, trying to figure out how we do it. Relentless energy! By the time Meth gets the track, there's fucking 4 people who have worked on the song. When I'm writing music for myself I don't have to show nobody no lyrics. With the show I had to run the lyrics by the execs. I had to accept notes on the lyrics. I had to go back and re-write, you know what I mean? Re-write, re-write, re-write!

Were there any you clashed on?

I wouldn't say clashed. There's 2 that could happen: 1. They could be like "Hey, we're not sure what this part means" and that could be me not being clear enough or 2. They just don't know what I'm talking about. If I felt it was on me I would re-write. If I felt it was on them I would push forward.

Were there many ideas that you weren't able to execute for any of the videos because of their complexities?

There was so much more we wanted to say about every topic and so many more topics we wanted to cover. We were just trying to figure out what we could speak most clearly on, what threads could we pull, knowing that we didn't have time to help clean up the mess for anybody. In every episode there was so much more to say.

How much was the show made to empower other artists to start their own movements in music with comedy as a means to express deeper issues to audiences as universal as Comedy Centrals?

I certainly wanted to make sure that all of the rappers that we had involved in the show had a chance to see what it felt like to do something comedic. I knew with everybody who was involved from their music that they had some of those leanings anyway. To me, it is kind of about showing people that you can take these skills of writing raps and if you turn them slightly in this other direction, suddenly you have this whole other kind of product. Also as a visual aid in these music videos you have these opportunities to do acting and shit that can really help your career because people see that you have those things in your tool kit.

Was there anybody who refused to collaborate because they weren't as vulnerable and as comedically inclined as the artists who are a part of these songs and show were?

There's definitely people who I thought of that I wasn't sure if they would be ready to not look super all the way cool. Part of comedy is kind of looking uncomfortable and being vulnerable. There were people who I would have liked to have worked with but I wasn't sure if they were wanting to expose themselves like that.

How versed are you on Comedy outside of America, particularly comedy in the United Kingdom?

ot very at all. Not from lack of interest, just haven't really dug in. There was a Scottish guy I grew up loving, Billy Connolly. I fucking loved Billy Connolly!

How influential was Def Jam Comedy and its model on the show?

Def Comedy Jam was influential. The Chapelle show was influential. In Living Colour was influential. A lot of Black Sitcoms were influential. A lot of it is really about expressing ourselves as part of a creative community. 

How have giants in comedy like Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks influenced the comedy within your artistry?

I think that those are 2 dudes who really understood the power of the position that they had. Not only the power of the job of stand up itself but the power of being a popular figure within stand up where you get a lot of room to say a lot of shit that people may not be ready to have other people say, like you get to be on the forefront and if you can find a way to make something funny you can say whatever the fuck you want! Those guys, along with guys like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin understood that they had the power to move things forward if they could find a way to make it funny.

What are the biggest differences in forging a creative bond with a comedian compared to collaborating with an artist?

Comedians are mean to each other. They really are! They talk shit all day to each other, so that was weird because I'm not used to that shit. That's how they get down but they're great people. Well, there's some assholes but mostly cool. 

Mostly? Have you ever had any bad experiences with comedians?

I can't really say bad. There's some comics who if you meet and interact with in the comedy world, they're so full of themselves that they just can't fucking see outside of the bubble and see how they're being. It’s just because it’s such an egotistical thing to do in the first place that if you get successful at it , it can really put yourself in a massive ego position. Some of the guys and girls have mastered how to balance that and some have a lot of trouble with that. 

There's a bigger discussion to be had with relation to this and how Humour and psychosis overlap with each other, isn't there? Comedians have an exceptional amount in common with people with schizophrenia and manic depression - and that could be exactly what makes them funny

Yes! We all have those dark times. We all have those issues we have to work through and figure out "is there something I can express in my art? Is there something I have to hide? Is there something I have to overcompensate in some way or another?" There's a lot to try and navigate. 

Photo credit: Comedy Central

Do you ever feel that your expectations of yourself and your responsibility be political compete too much with your happiness and sense of humour?

Nah. My willingness or expectation of myself to be political is based on my value system, so no matter how I'm feeling personally I will notice if there's some shit happening in Society that's fucked. That's not to say that I'm aware or super woke of everything but when I see certain facts of certain occurrence's when certain things happen, it's going to make me feel some kind of way. I'm going to talk about that shit. My struggle is how much of myself do I put in the shit because how much is it about me? Who gives a shit? We all have shit. In one sense I always feel this duty to be saying something and understanding that everything is so much bigger than me, but then I do want to make sure I'm being present in my work too, though. That's the balance that I'm always trying to hit. 

Do you think that you've been able to strike a clearer clarity with the themes you're talking about in these songs without losing yourself in the process?

I think that with those songs you just had to. There was no room for me saying anything because it sounds cool. There was no room for that. Every moment that a piece of this music video is on screen in our Television show we had to cut that out of peoples stand up routines. It was a puzzle. We were shooting 30 to 40 minutes of material for an episode and all the comics knew that they were going to get cut down to 5, but they did 8 to 9 minutes. I have to make sure that what I'm doing justifies taking these away from stand up comics on Comedy Central, which is a network for them. I had to make sure that I was delivering.

Is a second series on the cards?

If they want one, yeah, but in this business there's no way to really know until they tell us, you know what I mean? I'm trying to be in a position where I can keep making shit for a living. I want to make all kinds of shit, making music, making TV shows, making movies, writing books, making podcasts, I want to be able to do whatever I can think to do and I'm pretty close to that. 

The New Negroes soundtrack featuring all the original songs from season 1 is available now to stream via Spotify and Apple Music.

by Luke 'Menace' Bailey