F.Stokes gets around. The 31-year-old rapper grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Then his mother relocated the family to Madison, Wisconsin, when he was a kid. Now he's in New York City, where he's lived since he was 19. “Back then I was in my Malcolm X phase,” he says. “So I had to go to Harlem. I had to go to New York City and feel all that energy.”
He began rapping in Madison. An uncle started a record label to release Stokes's first single when he was 14, and then he and his friends created a label of their own. “I'd sell tapes to my classmates,” says Stokes. “I learned the importance of building and cultivating a fan base very early on in my career.”
On Monday, F.Stokes released his first full-length album, the Kickstarter-funded 'Fearless Beauty' (purchase on iTunes). He also has some big shows lined up for this summer, including sets at the Essence Festival, in New Orleans, and at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, where he'll share the stage with Pusha T, Redman and EPMD. But first: Stokes has a Fourth of July gig in Bayonne, France, as the opening act for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.
We caught up with F.Stokes on the phone to talk about his new album.
Why did you decide to fund 'Fearless Beauty' via Kickstarter?
I was broke. I had the option to go with some independent labels that could've put money behind it, but then I would've had to compromise, and wait a little longer to release it. But this is an urgent album, so I had to put it out my way. I knew my fans would support it, and that I could raise the money, so I did it. I was honest with my fans, and I told them the reason I hadn't put out music in a year was because I couldn't afford to do so.
What does this album say about where you are right now as an artist?
It says I'm growing. I think it's a great chart of my successes, and it shows I have the power to unite people. I can make complete albums ― this album has a story. And it shows that I'm a strong defender of the South Side of Chicago. The city is having a hard time now, with all the murders there, and I really want to talk to all those kids and let them know I'm still here for them.
I'm trying to live my life completely fearless, and without being afraid of the consequences of making music that has a strong social message. And not being afraid of the financial consequences of making a record that doesn't have hit singles.
'Shaka Zulu' is a particularly political song. What's it all about?
That song was inspired by 2 Chainz. I was in Paris, and I went to one of his concerts, and he was killing it. The way he did his verse on that Kanye song 'Mercy'... I was just in awe with what he did with that beat. I was trying to have a musical conversation with 2 Chainz on that song.
I was also listening to a lot of Chief Keef at the time. Keef, to me, is like listening to the news talk about what's going on in my old neighborhood in Chicago. I realized that Keef's 'Don't Like' and 'Mercy' were on the same wave length sonically. Really, 'Shaka Zulu' is a combination of 2 Chainz and Chief Keef.
But Keef is the main character on 'Shaka Zulu,' which is all about unifying the people. It has a tribal feel to it. The South Side of Chicago is still very Afrocentric, and that tribal feeling is still there ― there's a feeling of togetherness and unity.
There's a man talking at the beginning of the song '1954' about moving to Chicago in that same year. Whose voice is that?
That's my godfather's voice, and that's the year he moved to Chicago from Arkansas. My family was part of the great migration of blacks from the South to the North. They went looking for better jobs and education.
I wanted to make a song that connected the story of my godfather making that move, to me making the move from Chicago to New York. When he went to Chicago, he kinda lost his Southern accent and became a different person. When I would return back home to Chicago after living in New York, I dressed differently, and I grew and I changed.
What does the phrase 'Fearless Beauty' mean to you?
I'm trying to live my life completely fearless, and without being afraid of the consequences of making music that has a strong social message. And not being afraid of the financial consequences of making a record that doesn't have hit singles. I'm happy about taking these chances. Whatever comes from our souls, our hearts, and our core ― as long as it's honest ― is beautiful by default. Even if you don't agree with the message, if it comes from the heart, it's beautiful.