Gabriel Teodros Battles His Inner Demons on History Rhymes If It Doesn't Repeat (A Southend Healing Ritual)

Interviews, Local Music
11/19/2018
Owen Murphy
photo by Naomi Ishisaka
Transcription by Emily Harrop

On September 21st, local artist Gabriel Teodros dropped a new album out of the sky, or more appropriately from his heart and his soul. This brave new album is a touching document, deeply personal as he spotlights domestic abuse he has suffered, body-shaming, the changing landscape of a city he loves, and the difficulties of being introverted. I was lucky enough to spend an hour with this amazing KEXP DJ and was interested to learn how this album had to be personal for him to move forward as an artist, and as a person. It's all reflected in his fifth full-length History Rhymes if it Doesn’t Repeat (A Southend Healing Ritual).


KEXP: This record, I think, is deeply personal. 

Gabriel Teodros: It is. 

So, I start the question that way on purpose because I'm asking a large question: Who is Gabriel Teodros? Who are you? 

What a question! 

Right! Well it feels like there's a re-examination — struggle's not the right word — but a re-examination of who you are. And yeah, maybe a struggle to be who you are. 

Yeah. I don't even know how to answer that. Who am I to me? 

Yeah, and maybe in context with this album. 

Wow! What a hard question. It's like the simplest question, but the hardest question. 

Well, let's start here then. In one of the lines in one of the songs, you say you're still a refugee. 

Still a refugee's son. 

Oh! Refugee's son! Oh, I missed that part. That's different, then. Ok, so what does that sentence mean to you? It's really powerful and really interesting. 

I'm trying to remember what song that's on. It's either on the one with Essam, or the one with Meklit. But it's about home, and home not being stable, ever. My mom had to leave Ethiopia and the country changed three times since she left. I grew up here, in Seattle, and my neighborhood is constantly changing and shifting. We were homeless off and on growing up, and, you know, home has just never been stable. So that's kind of what that line is about. I'm a refugee's son, still. You know? Somewhere else on the album I said: "home is something you take with you". 

Yeah. I was going to save this til later, but we kind of jumped into it. If you could talk to the current White House about immigration, what would you say to them? 

Oh. I mean, if I could talk to the current White House, I don't even think they would hear me. You know? I don't even know if I would start with immigration, because these folks don't even seem human. Like I don't understand the egomania that's running this country right now, and the inability to feel another human being's suffering, or existence, or even seeing their existence, or even caring. It's beyond my level of comprehension. I don't know how I would connect with someone who's working for the United States administration right now. 

But, you know, you didn't answer the question. 

What would I say to them about immigration? 

Yeah, about your experience. Because it strikes me that, among other things, that experience is infused in your music. 

Oh, for sure! 100 percent. I mean, see people as human beings! We've got kids in cages right now. It's the most inhuman thing I can imagine — I mean, that's why it was hard for me to answer the question. Because of the level of inhumanity faced by immigrants, refugees, people who are just looking for a safe place to live and to sleep at night. They're being treated like criminals for trying to exist! It's so inhuman. I don't even know if I would be able to talk to anyone in the White House without just wanting to shake them. Like, "What's wrong with you?" It infuriates me. 

Does it surprise you? 

To the level that it's gotten? Yes. To the level that it's gotten, yes. And I've been through some things, but I've never been a kid inside of a cage, homie, or ripped from my mother's arms as a child. It's something else. There's something else that we're seeing right now, that I can say I have nothing inside my life to compare it to. Nothing else that I've ever seen happen in our lifetimes that I can compare it to. Unfortunately, the things it does make me think of are World War II. Nazi Germany. Or the way Indigenous people were treated when colonizers first came to this country. It's that level. Like Indigenous youth being ripped from their homes and being forced into boarding schools, you know, ripped away from the people that care about them, having their names changed, and their culture, and everything ripped away from them. That's what it reminds me of. And it's some of the most inhumane stuff ever. How do you even start that conversation with the people that at some level think that's OK. I don't know if they're human anymore. You know. I don't get how you could be so numb that you could turn a blind eye to children suffering. And they don't need to suffer. 

Well, from my perspective the conversations need to happen and constantly happen. And I think just changing one person's mind one at a time, for whatever that's worth. 

I feel that. I do. I guess the question comes down to — to rephrase your original question, "What would you say to the people in the White House?" — I guess where I get blocked with that question is: I feel like you have to make people feel, you know? And how do you make someone that numb, feel? A lot of times when I think of men inside of male-dominated society, white people inside of white supremacist culture — anyone who is of a dominant group in a culture of domination — there is a level of self-mutilation that I believe occurs to the person of the dominant culture's own sense of sensuality when you're not able to just feel another human being's suffering. I don't know how that disconnect happens all the way. Well, I guess I do but it's a struggle. 

It's weird. 

[Long pause.] 

Sorry, I got deep there, sorry. 

No! I got deep there, too! It's like, how do you get somebody who's gone through that process of self-mutilation to reclaim their own humanity? And realize that their humanity is intrinsically tied up with these other people that they've been conditioned, and told over and over again, that these people don't matter. It's almost like you've got to get people to understand, like, "Yo, your humanity, like YOU, your humanity is dying." You are suffering, actually, by not doing anything about these kids in cages. There's a part of you that is dying every time you see one of these images, and you just shrug it off like you don't care. And if you're a person in power that has the power to change this situation, and you don't? — I don't know. A shift has to happen. 

Yeah. OK, back to you and your record. Sorry, I took us down that road. 

No! Don't be sorry! 

photo by Naomi Ishisaka

 

Owen Murphy: Deeply personal record. You told me as we were walking into the studio here that you wrote it as you were making the record, which to me is incredible. I struggle I make music as well and I struggle with lyrics because I want them to be great. I mean, I'm sure the word count is in the five thousands

I have no idea. 

I don't know either! First off, tell me why you decided to make a deeply personal record. 

I'm always drawn to music that is deeply personal. I feel like the most powerful music comes from a place of vulnerability. I also feel like the deepest levels of growth happen in places of vulnerability, and that's always been the kind of music that I've wanted to make. It's been four years since my last album. In those four years, I got into a relationship that was really bad. It wasn't even long, it was like five months. I talk about it on the first song, and I needed to talk about it on the first song. I process everything in my music, I always have. But this was different because I was in a relationship where the other person harmed me, and it was no longer safe to talk. I also still care about this person, and I don't want any harm to come upon them. It became a very hard place for me to be able to write about what happened and how it affected me, without outing and without shaming them. I needed to write about what happened to be OK. Because I wasn't OK. In some ways, I'm probably still not OK. Specifically, in regards to the aftermath, the trauma, and my inability honestly to get into another relationship. I say that in the album too. There's trauma that came from that relationship that made me scared of physical intimacy. I'm not scared of emotional intimacy, but physical intimacy now, it's something else. It's deep. I tried writing about the relationship so many times. There's probably 10 or 15 songs about it that the world will never hear. For the different stages of grief, songs where I was just blaming her for stuff, which isn't healthy or productive to anything. And I'm so happy I didn't put out any of those songs or even commit to recording them. I just wrote them and put them away. But I was blocked. Not blocked in that I was unable to write, it's just that every time I tried to write a song I came back to this one subject, which was that relationship. Or if I wrote about something else I felt like the song was inauthentic. I felt like I wasn't being my whole self. What I did for the "First Cut" on the album I thought would have taken three or four songs to unpack. I knew the whole time this album was going to be about healing from that trauma.

So the other question was: Who's going to produce the album? Because I needed a producer that I trust, that I can be my full self with, who is prolific —  because I knew once I started I wasn't going to stop. And Moka Only was the perfect person. He's someone that I've worked with since I first started really making music. He's always been the most prolific artist I know. I've grown so much in my years of recording with him, and around the springtime of this year, I noticed on Instagram that he was selling beats, just to the public. So I hit up my cousin and said, "Let's do a project." And I actually started collecting beats then, about three months before I wrote a single lyric. So I had all the beats before I even started. There's also tons of features on the album, I think I'm only alone on one song. That was on purpose too, because all of those people, and more, are people that have helped me heal in the last several years. And society tells us you gotta go through it alone, especially men. You gotta face this thing alone and be strong and all this, and that's not how healing works. I truly think — and I think I said this on the album — healing is a collective journey. I wanted to demonstrate that. So I'm alone on the first song where I'm really delving deep into the trauma. And then after that, it's like all these different people are helping me mend my heart, and helping me mend my life back together, and hopefully vice versa. Hopefully, it's all a part of their healing as well. Because I think that's what healing is, a collective journey. But yeah, I forgot your original question at this point. 

Who cares? The answer so interesting, it doesn't matter. 

Yeah. I think the question was about the first song maybe. 

Yeah. And you gave a great answer actually. So, you talked about the producer, who is your cousin as well, which is fortuitous. 

Yeah, well, I call him my cousin. 

[Laughs

It's funny, because most people actually do think we're related, and I can see how there could be a family resemblance, but I met him when I was 19 or 20, and he became something like a mentor or a big brother to me. He started claiming me as his cousin then, so that's just what I've always called him. My cousin Moka Only. 

That's awesome! 

There is an artist on the album, Meklit, who is my actual, actual cousin. 

[Laughs]. So, this is a very musical album as well. 

Yes. 

It's not just beats. It's not just words and rhyme. It's musical. So you got the beats. Where did the music come in? How did you find all this music? How did you guys create it? Tell me about the whole process. It's beautiful! 

Thank you so much! I mean, I really have to attribute all that to Moka Only. He is the most prolific hip-hop artist I think maybe in history. And I'm not just saying that. 

He doesn't stop. 

I think he's released a hundred albums in his life. Literally. Over 100. And he produces all the music on all of them. You know, like today's a regular Tuesday for you and me. Today, Moka Only might be making ten beats, and recording vocals on four or five of them, and that could be a regular Tuesday to him if he's home. Moka's always just been someone who's really free in the studio. He follows his gut, he follows his intuition, and he just goes wherever the music takes him. You know, I wasn't in the room with him when he made these beats. These were beats that he made and I selected. He was sending me packs and packs of beats that he was working on, and I just picked different stuff that made me feel something. And I was trying to pick beats that also sounded different from each other. Just so I could have some variation and I could emotionally go different places. And also picking beats with other voices in mind — because I knew who I wanted to feature on the album before I featured them. Like, what beat would match Essam's voice? What beat would sound good with Mikaela Romero? Stuff like that. 

So, who are your musical heroes? 

Curtis Mayfield. 100 percent. He's my biggest musical hero. 

Why? 

His songwriting. Bob Marley is another musical hero, but I say Curtis Mayfield first because Bob Marley was trying to be the Curtis Mayfield of Jamaica when he started. Both of them really capture, to me, the essence of love. In their voices and in their songwriting. And it's not a passive kind of love. They'll be talking about revolution, and the liberation of Black people, but it's like every note is rooted in such a deep love. And Curtis Mayfield, there's a deep level of vulnerability in the way he sings. "The Makings of You" (the live version) is probably my favorite recorded piece of music by anyone. It's just so tender. And that type of tender, loving, full, but still strong vision of Black masculinity — we don't get enough of that in the media, we don't get enough of that in music, we don't always see enough of that in our lives. So it's something that's always been really deeply healing to me. 

And you talk about that on this record. About the different facades that males put on. 

Yes. 

And you're kind of by spotlighting that, kind of breaking rules, I think. 

I hope so. 

Which is cool. I think you know, vulnerable is a great word to use for this record, and that's kind of a rarity in music. How did it feel to make this first song? You pour your guts out, you finally get it right the way you want it to be. I guess then what happened next that allowed you to just go? 

Yeah, after that first song, it really did just come out of me. After committing to that first song, and being like, "Okay, I'm going to stand in my full truth, and there's no turning back from here." I didn't want to make another song that feels safe. That was a big thought. I don't want to make a song that — at least, content-wise — that goes back on something I've already talked about. If there's not something new about every song, I don't know why I'm doing it. So yeah, I just pushed myself from there. And it was such a release. Once I could honestly talk about what the song "First Cut" is about, it was like opening a floodgate. I felt like I could be more honest with everyone — outside of music — just in my friendships! My conversations with people seemed more honest because I wasn't carrying this burden anymore. It's a trip how so much of your life can be affected by trying to hide one thing. It's incredible. 

Here's a question I should have asked to start. 

Yeah. 

Who would you like people to think, or to know in their hearts, you are. Because you're poured over this record. It's all right there. So once you've done that, who are you to them? 

I mean, I hope I'm just a regular person to them. Again, that's a hard question. I don't think about who I am to anyone else. I'm me. You know? I'm imperfect. I'm broken. I'm figuring out how to heal, how to love better, how to be a better person in this world. I'm a product of South Seattle, a product of Ethiopia, a product of mixed ancestors that didn't always get along. Parents that didn't always get along. I'm a product of a lot of conflict, trying to find peace. And I'm not that different than everyone else, I think. 

There's this weird thing in society that I don't really like where a lot of times artists, and people in the public light, get put on these pedestals. And I think it's very dehumanizing. A lot of times artists, we play into it. Like, "You should care about me!" I actually don't care if you care about me. I hope you like the art that I made, but I'm just a regular person at the end of the day. I'm not any better or any worse than anyone else. 

You realize the irony here is because you've poured your guts out in this music it will probably make people care about you more. 

Word. I feel that. Man. I mean, that's love. But — sorry, just to finish that thought — I'm just talking about the construct of selling music and having to sell yourself, because I don't like the way the music industry has gotten. It's less about selling music now, and it's more about selling a whole identity. 

And it has to be about the music. 

Yeah! 

And it has to be about the art. 

But it's not! 

Well, it's not for them. It is for other people. Here it's about the art. 

But this is rare. It's so rare and young artists are growing up with that. It's really about getting "likes" more than — more than even getting listens! You know what I mean! And the concept of your brand is something that 12-year-olds are thinking about already. 

How stupid does that sound?! 

12-year-olds are out here on Instagram, Owen, talking about building their brands before they've even gotten to a studio or even gotten to a stage. You know, it's really about the art for me. But anyway, just to go back to the whole celebrity thing, there is this whole notion of celebrity, and having an artist on the pedestal that I inherently think is dehumanizing. I've gotten to a place where I don't know any other word for it, because when you put artists up on this pedestal you've placed them somewhere better or different than other humans. And when most people realize, "Oh. That person that I put on the pedestal is just a regular ass human being." They become less than human. Automatically. There's never a place in that construct where artists just get to be regular people. And artists most of the time feel like they're not regular people. So we play into it. 

Well, and the other more positive side of that is to make great art maybe you aren't a regular person. You're a little twisted. 

I agree with that. I'm definitely twisted. 

Yeah, but you don't see the world the same way, right? 

Yeah. Just by virtue of the craft, man. Like I don't sleep! 

Why don't you sleep? 

Because I'm up all night working! Like I don't have regular hours. I'm just kind of riffing off of you, not seeing the world the same way. Like, I literally don't see the world the same way —

Because it's dark outside! 

Exactly. 

[Laughs] It's dark outside, it's dark inside. 

Hey, I'm trying to find some light. 

OK. Last question and I could talk to you all day long artists make decisions on purpose when they title albums. 

Oh yeah. 

at KEXP in 2012 // photo by Dave Lichterman (view set)

 

You titled this History Rhymes If It Doesn't Repeat (A Southend Healing Ritual). Why? Why that phrase? And what does it mean to you? 

So, I knew I wanted to call the album "History Rhymes If It Doesn't Repeat" before I even recorded it. All my album titles tend to have multiple meanings. Once the album title has multiple meanings to me, then it's kind of like it's set in stone, like that's the title. So one is: I feel like it's a phrase that tells the story of this current moment in America. History rhymes if it doesn't repeat. But also I think one of the underlying themes in the whole album is forgiveness. Forgiving myself, forgiving my ex, forgiving people from generations before. And one way to forgiveness for me is in one of the song titles actually. It's in French. It's this statement that says: To understand everything is to forgive everything. It became easier for me to forgive people that harmed me once I realized that they've probably gone through that same type of harm, maybe even worse. And to have compassion for them. So "History Rhymes If It Doesn't Repeat" also means that. And there's a double entendre because it's hip-hop, you know, we rhyme. And I knew that if I didn't rhyme about my history there's a danger that I will repeat the harm that was done to me. So the whole thing was about excavating and exorcizing all my inner demons in a safe way. "Southend Healing Ritual" came second. After I did "First Cut" I was just ad-libbing and I said, "A Southend Healing Ritual" at the very start of the song. And I was like, "Damn! That should be the title of the album!" But I also say, "History rhymes if it doesn't repeat" in the lyrics to that same song. So I had this moment where I didn't know what to call it, before finally settling on both titles, because the album really is both ideas. 

How do you feel about the record now that it's done, out, and people are reacting? 

I'm glad I put it out. I didn't do any of the normal things that one should do to promote an album with this one. I didn't film a video, I didn't do a release party. It really was just about healing. I needed to get it out of me, and I needed to share it because sharing music has always been a part of my process too. It's not the same if I just make it and leave it on a hard drive, you know? 

Why is that? That's so interesting! Why... 

Because we all make music to connect. There's no other reason we do this other than to connect with other human beings. 

I'm conflicted here because I think we make music because we love the process of making music. 

That, too. But if nobody listened, I guess... Yeah, definitely there's a therapeutic part of just making music. Because I play keys, and I don't record it, and I don't play it for anyone. It just feels nice to play keys. 

Why don't you record it? 

I'm not that good at it. 

[Laughs] That hasn't stopped anyone, ever! 

Yeah, I don't really know what I'm doing. It's just fun. It just feels nice. But for me, for writing specifically, it's always been about connecting. So that's why. So to answer your question — 

Hang on a second  

Go ahead. 

So you released this. It's about connecting. What was the most impactful response you got? 

It's been a lot. It's been a lot of really personal responses from people in my life. Friends who said that the album is getting them through a hard time. Stuff that they're going through right now that I didn't know anything about. It's gotten people to call out their abusers, in ways that they didn't feel safe to before. Those have been the most impactful things. And another friend who is struggling with depression right now said the album has just been a balm. It's been something they listen to every day, and it's been helping them get through. So, you know, even as I say that my heart is kind of hurting for these folks because I love them so much. 

You're making their lives better, though. 

I'm trying, man. We're just all struggling. And I think that's the thing about it — another theme throughout the whole album is mental health. And none of us get through it alone, man. None of us do. And I felt such an urgency to release it, even though I didn't feel the same urgency to promote it. I know that might seem weird to people. 

No, that makes total sense to me. You are about the art, not about the rest of it. The rest of it is just kind of talk about a struggle. Feels like a waste of time sometimes. 

Yeah. 

You work at KEXP. You're a DJ here. 

I do work at KEXP. 

Coincidentally we're in KEXP. I also work here, it's the damnedest thing. 

Yeah, we work together. Look at that! 

I'm curious, has being a part of KEXP influenced the type of music you make and how you make music? 

I think it influenced me in one way, which is in the collecting the beats process, and imagining different voices on songs. It was a little similar to creating a playlist for me that I might play on a show. You know that's probably the only way it really influences me, though. My process is pretty much always been the same: to follow intuition and write the things that you don't hear anywhere else. I listen to a lot more music because I work KEXP. A lot of different genres, so I'm sure it influenced me, but I mean the album definitely sounds like the same person that made "Lovework". I don't think it's a leap in terms of the genre or anything like that. 


History Rhymes if it Doesn’t Repeat (A Southend Healing Ritual) is out now. You can hear Gabriel DJ'ing on the KEXP airwaves every Friday night/Saturday morning from 1 AM to 6 AM PST.

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