Anyone who knows local artist, musician and educator Jason Graham — aka Mosley Wotta, leader of the hip-hop band of the same name — knows that his relocation to Bend at age 9 from Chicago's north side has had a profound and longstanding effect on his worldview, and thus, his art.
Get Graham, 29, talking (not a difficult task at all), and you're likely to eventually hear about his experience as a mixed-race kid moving from an ultra-urban environment to the lily-white Bend of a decade ago. And he won't hesitate to point out that his own stereotypes about “the country" were as deeply entrenched as those he encountered in others.
The collision of race and culture is a subject Graham has always touched on in his music, going back to his time in the local rap collective Person People, up through his first solo album, 2010's “Wake."
But tonight, Graham will celebrate the release of the second Mosley Wotta album, “KinKonK," at the old PoetHouse Art space in Bend (see “If you go"), and at the same time, he'll unveil a more direct, more forceful and more thoughtful set of songs on the subject than he ever has before. It's also material that may surprise some of the folks who've come to love the Mosley Wotta band that, since winning Bend's inaugural Last Band Standing competition two years ago, has dominated local festival stages with its upbeat funk-hop and positive message of unity through music.
“I think I'm at the point in our relationship with the folks that are really committed and dedicated to what we do that I get to take a poop and Bend, Oregon, gets to brush their teeth, and we're in the same bathroom at the same time," Graham said earlier this week. “And that's love."
At 13 tracks and 39 minutes long, “KinKonk" is a concept album based loosely on the story in the 1933 film “King Kong." It begins with a sample from the movie and an overarching theme (“the information broke formation, an indication that the jungle lives on"), then follows along as the title character is discovered, captured and taken to civilization, where he escapes his cage, falls in love, scales the city and then falls to his death — but not before leaving his stamp on those left behind.
Along the way, Graham employs his usual dizzying wordplay to extrapolate the story into a deceptively frank discussion of race relations, cultures clashing, the birth of hip-hop (on the East Coast, where incoming slaves met Western life) and the transcendence of art.
“One way or another, it's actually leaked into my life, and I experienced that coming here, but (I) was both the savage and the city kid," Graham said. “There was this alien mystique that I had for a while (because I) looked different and was from somewhere different. Most of the kids I went to school with were from Bend ... and most of the outside stuff they got was from TV, not from the actual world.
“I got educated on black music by white kids in Oregon, which is the country, not the city," he said. “I got the fears removed by white kids here because I was scared of ... angry, scary black music."
Speaking of outside stuff, Graham is a voracious consumer of culture, both highbrow and pop. In conversation, he'll drop rapid-fire references to poet Buddy Wakefield, 20th-century novelist James Baldwin, comedian Reggie Watts, rappers Lil Wayne, Atmosphere and Macklemore, comic-book heroes Storm and Wolverine, ethnically diverse McDonald's ads and African-American icon Booker T. Washington, the namesake of Graham's third child, due early next year.
“I appreciate when (artists) are able to creatively, honestly talk about how they feel, their imagination, what is on their mind or just uncut, raw, 'This is my life' kind of things," he said. “Sometimes I think artists get caught up in (their) image and they start to lose the foundation. They get too high in the branches and lose touch with the roots."
For Graham, “KinKonK" is a risk, both in subject matter and musically. He sings well but imperfectly all over the album, and the songs' beats range from gnarly, grinding dubstep to soft, warm, jazzy jams. And thematically, he's no doubt working to stay in touch with those roots he mentioned earlier.
“I think it's much more vulnerable than anything I've done before," he said. “Before I was working off of a template based on what I'd seen other people do. (On) this one the template was a very clear but sort of intangible vision of what I wanted to do artistically, and I went for it, whether or not I felt comfortable with how my voice sounded singing ... (and) whether or not I was comfortable with the subject matter."
How it's received by Mosley Wotta's legions of fans remains to be seen. But artistically, it's a triumph. And if there's a backlash, Graham says, so be it.
“Eventually ... when the wound has scarred over, it's not only stronger, but that's what you talk about at the bar," he said. “You're like 'Check out my scar. Check out my scar.' And then there's actually more connection than there was before."