The German term “die wurzel” translates into English as “the root.” The root of the African-American experience is what emcee and producer Neak sought when creating his new album, “Die Wurzel.” The Chicago native delivered a soulful and introspective look into black life through a solemn lens.
Die Wurzel is produced by Neak, Rashid Hadee, and Karlton Sellers. The 13-track album features appearances by Add-2, Elisa Latrice, Cam Be, IAMTHELIVING, Peter Jericho, Nola Ade, and Philmore Greene.
The Real Hip-Hop spoke to Neak about the cause and cure for black-on-black crime, ways to reform the church, and his new album, Die Wurzel.
TRHH: What’s the meaning behind the title of the new album, Die Wurzel?
Neak: The album meaning of itself, it just means “the root.” It translates out of the German language, which means the root. The focus for that title was just about the root cause of everything I was talking about dealing with the deeper meaning behind why we do what we do, especially from an African American context and just how we operate in American Society. So, that’s just kind of like the context and the meaning of the album.
TRHH: What was your mindset when making Die Wurzel?
Neak: I started actually making the album a little bit into 2020. So, around that time I started feeling a heavy identity crisis in terms of culture about our place as African Americans in this country. I started really digging deeper into why I believe what I believe, why do I think the way I think, why do I have these particular core principles and values, kind of just from a societal context. Obviously, with COVID-19 and through 2020 it made us all question a lot of things. So, I started really digging deeper into who I was as a man and as a black man. Taking it a step further than some of the symptomatic issues that we see. We see killings, we see drug dealing, we see all of these neighborhood symptomatic things, but I wanted to get to the root. I kind of wanted to just take a deeper dive conceptually into why I was thinking the way I was and believe what I believe.
TRHH: The speech excerpts stood out to me on Die Wurzel. Did you have those in mind before you made the songs and who is the person speaking about falling for the set up?
Neak: I didn’t have those in mind when I made the album. I made every other song before that. That was the last thing I actually made. Typically, when I was working on a intro I was like, “Okay, what kind of intro can I make to really make it dope and make it creative?” But I wanted to do something different than what I’m normally used to doing. So, I was like, let me create a collage of excerpts to give context to the album. To your point as far as being in the setup, I believe that you’re referring to doctor Amos Wilson, who was the last person to speak. He started talking about society and how it was a made-up construct, and society in and of itself can’t exist without people who design society and design the construct.
I think that was important because I wanted people as I took them on a journey through these songs and what I was talking about, I wanted them to understand that it’s really about how people engage with people. Obviously, as African Americans a lot of stuff that we even thought about in terms of how we live life has always been through a system. How we’re being held down politically, economically, spiritually, whatever you want to call it, but understanding that in those constructs and in those systems, it’s ran by people. So, a construct doesn’t exist unless people tap into it and actually adhere to it. It’s kind of setting the stage up for that excerpt to be stated while people were journeying through songs.
TRHH: On the creative side, “Out of Habit” is a song that stood out to me, not only because of the theme, but the sound. What made you pull out Funky Drummer for this particular song?
Neak: [Laughs] Funky Drummer, I didn’t have it in mind per se. A lot of times when I’m producing records I’ll start with the sample and break it down. I wanted to pick a nice rhythm, kind of more fast-paced, but also slow at the same time. Funky Drummer kind of came to my head so I was kind of messing with it a little bit. I was putting it together and chopping it up and it fit perfectly. It was kind of like an afterthought as I was already thinking about how it could fit under this record — the tone, the type of vibe I wanted to create. I wanted to create something that was really kind of fun on the surface but really serious in content. Funky Drummer kind of brings that out. Clyde Stubblefield/James Brown, it’s a no-brainer when you’re talking about having that funk and that groove along with the jazz.
TRHH: How did producing Rita J’s album The High Priestess help you in your craft?
Neak: Producing Rita J’s album helped me because it allowed me to see from a different perspective. A lot of times as an artist when I go in I kind of got in my mind what I want to do. As I’m making records I start to pull out concepts from me personally, but it helped me be able to think objectively about somebody else’s vision, somebody else’s goal, somebody else’s idea around a song. I felt more of an instrument than the actual head artist, the lead person on the project. I kind of felt like a tool like, okay, however Rita J needed me and however she needed me to be to bring out the best in her, that’s what my focus was. My intention was kind of having conversations about what she’s dealing with, what she’s going through, what she’s feeling, what she’s being inspired by. Because that set the tone for me to be able to understand how I can approach producing the records. I had to take me out of it. I would give my opinion or my feedback, but ultimately it was about what she wanted, and I needed to show up and serve her the best way I could.
TRHH: The song “Church Hurt” covers a lot of issues regarding religion. Do you believe there is a way to reform religion in order to better serve the people?
Neak: Absolutely. First and foremost, I think that we should understand what it’s all for — the intent. Religion can be a system like anything else, so if you get caught up in the systematic way of church then you can kind of lose sight of what we’re there for to begin with, which is to have a better relationship with God, and to commune with one another, and build relationship together, so we can take what we learn in church out into the world and serve other people. I think that it starts with number one, what are you doing it for? What is the purpose of you even being here to begin with and that is number one to strengthen your relationship with other believers and with God.
I think also there’s been bad theology being permeated in church, so I think that you have to have healthy whole teachers that teach the gospel in a way where people can see the value in it. A lot of times you have people who are not ideologically proven who knows the scripture, who knows the word, who can be able to translate that into everyday life, everyday principle. So, what ends up happening is they end up having these conversations about what God is saying or what biblical individuals are saying within scripture and then they’re projecting their own life experience on to that. So, if you’re not healed then you’re gonna be putting your unhealed opinion into those scriptures. So, being healthy and whole and being theologically sound, also that can help.
I think also, too, that we have to think about people in our community and “religion” quote un quote, I’m just using this for context, that we’re human beings. So, we won’t get everything right, we will make mistakes, we will hurt people. So, we have to take the God complex out of the people that are in church, and that are running institutions, and that are called to lead in these institutions, and see them as human beings. That way that when they do make a mistake or when they do fall short you have grace for it. You won’t take it so personal, or you can hold these leaders to a level of accountability and still love them despite. I think that those are kind of like the main points that I feel like can help us in religion in the context of church, especially in Christian religion, to be able to love and serve each other better.
TRHH: What’s the cutoff for a leader who sins? I think everyone has a line about what they deem acceptable or not. Based on what you’re saying you’re saying view them as people who make mistakes, but if you’re in that position it’s kind of tough. What’s the line? What can that person do to be forgiven or not forgiven?
Neak: It’s tricky. I don’t think forgiveness is for us to have the barometer on to be able to say what can be forgiven and what cannot. But what you’re speaking to and I think that is important, is also to have boundaries. Just because I forgive you for said act or said action doesn’t mean that you therefore keep and remain the same access. I could forgive you and still have a boundary and I think that people get those two things mixed up and they think that forgiveness means access and it means that I condone what you’ve done, it means that what you’ve done is okay. It can not be okay. I can still love you and still hold you accountable. You could be held accountable, still be given love, and still have a boundary. That doesn’t mean that you still get access. I think it’s personal. I think that we all have limits, we all have a capacity, so it’s up to us to determine and to decide what that is for us.
I can’t tell you what your limits are and you can’t tell me, so we have to spend time doing the personal work to know that this is what I need, this is kind of where my cutoff is, and be honest about the reason for it. Not just to hold a grudge and to say I’m going to get you back because you got me, because the one thing about unforgiveness is the only person that’s held in prison is you. That person will go on living their life, doing their thing, while you’re still holding on to the resentment, the anger, the frustration. Forgiveness is really not about the perpetrator, it’s about you giving yourself freedom and then having a boundary to say, “because of the wisdom that I learned from this situation I know how to move in the next situation like this moving forward.”
TRHH: So true. “Black on Black Black on Blue” sounds like so many people I know – we’re fed up. What do you think needs to be done to help these people who are prone to violence see that their brother is not their real enemy?
Neak: It’s a great question, man. I think the first place you have to start is with yourself. I can only give you what I give myself. If you don’t love yourself you can’t love other people well because, we only can give people what we give ourselves. But we have to learn and be taught how to love ourselves. I think a lot of times when you grow up in certain areas and you have certain experiences where you live in a survival mode all the time, you’re living in a space where all you’re doing every day is just making it, that builds a hard heart, that builds a level of callous around the heart, it builds distrust.
You have people that are supposed to be parents, leaders in your family in the community, that don’t even have the adequate capacity to sow into you well because they’re in survival mode. So, everybody is just in a place where they gotta get it. They gotta protect themselves, they gotta do what they need to do to make sure that they thrive and survive. So, at that point it is no boundaries for anybody. There’s no love for anybody, because I don’t even have love for me. So, I think that’s the first place we need to start. I think that with black on black and black on blue we have to see those as two separate problems and situations.
One thing that I really dislike is when something happens where a cop illegally does something to somebody, we call them out on it and then they say, “well y’all do that to y’all selves all the time.” No, that’s two separate issues. You can’t mix one or the other. That one there is a systematic issue within the United States, the other one is an issue that we have been living through for centuries, not dealing with generational issues over time that have manifested into that. Those are two separate things, so I get frustrated when people try to mix the two and try to excuse one because this is happening, and that’s not cool.
One thing we do know is we can’t make anybody lookout for us the way in which we can look out for ourselves, so we have to start with us. We have to start with how we see ourselves and how we show up in love. If we show up in love and sow that seed of love, you have to trust that you’ll get it back. You just have to show up being what you want to see. You can’t show up hostile, angry, upset, and then expect love in return. You’re going to get what you’re putting out. That’s kind of where I think that we need to start, with how we see and love ourselves.
TRHH: Going back to that argument about people saying “Oh, you do this to yourselves,” I think the key thing there is if I shoot you I’m probably going to jail, right?
Neak: Oh yeah, you going.
TRHH: [Laughs] I’m going. If a cop shoots you he’s probably gonna skate more than likely. Nothing’s gonna happen. You could be a perfectly innocent person who has committed no crime, a cop can kill you and nothing will happen. That’s the point of this all! This is a system where they can kill you and get away with it. That’s the problem! Why are people missing that? Most people that commit crimes in poor neighborhoods go to jail. We’re okay with that for the most part, right? We could go off into that.
Neak: That’s facts. I mean, the prison system shows that.
TRHH: I don’t even know how they conflate the two things, but we know what it is.
Neak: I don’t think they miss it, I think that it’s just they conveniently mix the two because it makes it easier for them to get away with. If you call it what it is now there has to be a level of accountability around it and that’s what they’re skating, accountability. Because if I admit to something and I say, “you know what, yeah, that is true that more cops more often than not are getting off,” then the next question becomes “what are you going to do about it?” and that’s what they don’t want to deal with. Because now you have to put a level of action to your words instead of just saying it for a political sound bite or whatever the case may be. It’s about accountability, man, and that’s where black people I think have been frustrated the most, is that no one is held accountable.
I don’t mean to go off on a tangent, but it’s really funny when I even think about the concept of reparations. When I was growing up I thought that reparations was a joke. I thought it was like, “oh, we’re lazy, we want handouts, we want people to take care of us,” but in reality the reason why that is being taught that way is because if there’s a level of accountability about how slavery was one of the most, if not the most efficient economic engines that got this country to where it is, then who’s gonna pay for that? Who’s gonna pay for my ancestors and your ancestors who worked diligently and slaved for X amount of days, X amount of years, for free, with no compensation? All profit! Who’s gonna pay for that? So, that’s why to your point and going back to me, it just comes back to accountability, because the minute they admit that something’s wrong they got to do something about it. And that’s what they don’t want to do. So, I agree with you.
TRHH: You said something else that made me think. You just spoke about how so many of us don’t love ourselves and it made me think of Minister Farrakhan when he said, “How can you love God who you can’t see, but hate your brother who you see every day?” It made me think about the Nation of Islam as a whole. They are very demonized and I can be critical of this or that with them, whatever. But what they do is make black people love themselves, period.
Neak: Oh yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. Without a doubt.
TRHH: And that’s why they demonize him. That’s why they’ve been demonizing them forever. What they do is important. They change lives. Why do so many people go to jail and become Muslim? It works! They make you feel like somebody, they make you love yourself. What’s wrong with that? Why is that a bad thing?
Neak: It’s not a bad thing, but I think it’s a twist to basically kind of cover up white guilt, if you will. I think white fragility is a real thing. Because if we say we love ourselves and we’re proud of who we are, what does that say about them and what we’ve had to come up against for centuries on end? That means that we’re kind of retracting and we’re re-orchestrating how we see ourselves. Because we’ve been taught for so many centuries that black is ugly, black is sub-human, black is 3/5 human, you’re not equal to white in intellect, you’re not equal to white in moral code, stature, in any of that. So, when I say I love myself as a way to basically build up my own self-esteem and my identity that’s a very direct hit against the white patriarchal system in this country. So, that’s why it’s a problem because now I have to combat that with, “Oh, you’re teaching hate. You’re teaching black supremacy.” We can’t be supremacists because we don’t own and run anything constructively in this country. So, we can’t oppress and be racist.
By definition black people cannot be racist. We can be prejudiced, but we can’t be racist because racism is a system. It’s built on color, but the real culture of racism is just a disguise to make sure that one half of 1% of the country maintains the wealth gap and contains the majority of the wealth in this country. We know that, but race is just a system. That’s why it’s an issue and I think that’s why it’s a problem because now you have to talk about well why have we been taught to hate ourselves? Why is the standard of beauty always from a European context? If you look up the definition of “black” why is it ugly, evil, vile, all of these other words attached to it? So, yeah, I mean to your point, that’s why, because you’re going to have to go against the very same structure that designed it for us to be property to begin with. We were never meant to be equal, human. We were never meant to be that, so what do you do with millions of people who are now “human” quote un quote? You gotta subjugate them in order to maintain the status quo. So, that’s why it’s a problem.
TRHH: The last couple questions your answers have been consistent with getting to the root. The root of why. Why some people commit violent acts, why the church is the way it is, why people demonize Minister Farrakhan, you got to the root. Do you feel like you got to the root with Die Wurzel?
Neak: Yes, I did, I feel like I got to the root. Once again, I wrote it thinking about myself in mind in a societal context about why I’ve been moving and operating in a system the way I’ve been. When I say system, I’m talking about America and its political, economic, context – spiritual, social as well. This album was really a journey for me to extract a lot of my emotions and feelings and really question. I feel like because I didn’t just write just to write, I wrote with an intent to basically put on the table and on wax, on audio, whatever you want to call it, what I was thinking and why I was thinking it, I think that that’s what the album did for me. I think I was able to get to the root of what I was feeling, what I was going through, and what I was operating through. I tried my best to write it in a way where others can identify as well. So, even though this is my experience, I felt like I wasn’t alone.
So, a lot of the ways in which I wrote the songs and conceptualized the songs, my goal is “I’m feeling this, I’m sure you’re feeling this as well” and we’re not alone because we’re experiencing the same thing. Probably from different points of views or different experiential ways to go about that route, more than likely so, because we are humans and we all have our different experiences and different upbringings. But at the end, we’re all navigating through the same system and it’s ultimately trying to get us all to the same point — to keep us in a place where we don’t love ourselves. Keep us in a place where we don’t see the value in our life, and to keep us in a place where we don’t question why we believe what we believe and what’s actually going on behind the scenes. Because that is a direct hit against the system that’s in place. A system is in place for a reason [laughs]. It’s to control, and if you know and if you’re aware you’re coming to a level of self-awareness, you can’t control. So, I feel like it did get me to the root.
Purchase: Neak – Die Wurzel