Tef Poe: The quantum leap for art

Tef PoeThe rapper Tef Poe combines art and activism, two fields that allow him to express his most authentic self. He'll be performing April 28 during ARTS FIRST at Harvard. 

By Truelian Lee '21

It had been a busy week for Tef Poe, the rapper and activist. He was on the road touring when we talked by phone.

The musicisn, whose stage name is short for Teflon Poetix -- his real name is Kareem Jackson -- has consistently blended art and activism during his career. He co-founded the Hands Up United movement, which embraces a mission of self determination and political education for black and brown people. This year, Poe is working as the Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellow at Harvard.

He will be performing a free set at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, April 28 at the Cambridge Queen’s Head Pub during ARTS FIRST (April 26-29), Harvard’s annual festival that celebrates the art of students, faculty and affiliates. (Download the festival Guide here for the entire Tef Poe FBPerformance Fair schedule. )

So yes, Poe is busy.

But he’s also excited to perform in ARTS FIRST because he wants to build on Harvard’s “legacy of art.”

“There are so many different dynamic people who have done pretty awesome things. I’m really big on trying to expand my thumbprint on the culture of Harvard right now,” he said.

The day we were on the phone, Poe had found a few minutes to answer some questions before he had to perform another show. Our conversation, which follows, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How has your music reflected the balance of art and activism in your career?
I’ve always just tried to use the music to address what’s really going on in the world. Until recently, I didn’t realize that people actually classify hip-hop as talking about issues, and more specifically, about political issues. I just thought the responsibility of the artist in general was to reflect the times. The meshing of these two worlds, arts and activism, is where I can find some freedom. I am able to be unconventional. I am able to play different roles. I am an organizer, but I am also a full-fledged working rapper. As an artist, I can bring more emotion to my activism. As an artist, I’m always interested in the human empathy aspect of a story.

You mentioned authenticity as a major aspect of your art. Could you elaborate on the process of cultivating authenticity and what that brings you in both art and activism?
I’m pretty confident and pretty assertive, but channeling authenticity is a process that we all go through. And I still acknowledge the fact that I’m constantly growing every day. The person I am today is not necessarily the person I’ll be tomorrow or five years later. Art has provided me a space for self-critique, and in the activism world, we spend so much time pointing fingers at other people – even if it’s justified sometimes ­– we don’t take the time to slow down and realize that we can’t change the world for the better if we don’t fix ourselves and reflect on how we contribute to those problems. Being an artist has given me a space where I can be less judgmental and understand that even if I don’t agree with people, we’re all humans. Granted, there are some people that are just terrible people,

Tef and Sic
Tef Poe (right) met up with music industry pro Sickamore in April at the Hiphop Archive & Research Institute at Harvard University.
but I also understand they’re terrible because they’ve been raised in a culture where it’s permitted to be terrible. It goes a lot deeper than individualistic hate for one specific person or one specific people, and this is something I’ve been constantly thinking about.

What is your artistic process like?
For one, I don’t overthink it. I get out of my own way, and I work very quickly. People are sometimes freaked out by how quickly I can work on a record. I go with my first thought a lot. I very seldom re-record; it is what it is at that moment of time. A lot of artists, for what it’s worth, have themselves and an artistic version of themselves that they present to the listeners. I like to think that, “Yeah, I do have an artistic persona, but I’m also constantly chipping away at that persona to get to the core of who I actually am and what my message is.” I’m not trying to craft a more righteous version of myself. I’m trying to be who I really am.

What would you like listeners to take away from your music?
I just want people to feel me. They may not always be able to relate to my music, they may not come from where I come from, they may not have seen what I’ve seen, but you can feel good music, and you can feel when a person is real, no matter what the genre is. So it’s my hope to put the energy out there and it hit the audience. I do a very high-energy show. It’s like I step out of myself and transform on stage. Sometimes I don’t even know what happens. It’s like a quantum leap or something. I put everything I have into it. I don’t have any space for reservation.