Culture  Detroit’s finest

Invincible brings a little Motor City summer to Montreal’s winter

Toward the end of their Thursday show at La Sala Rossa, the rapper known only as Invincible introduced a track called “Keep Going” by asking the crowd what “keeps them going.” Answers ranged from the idealistic (“unity,” “sisterhood”) to the earthy (“sex,” “tacos”). Invincible knows how to put on a show: they’ve got an impressively complex flow and a killer vocabulary, not to mention a multitude of flashy images to project on a sheet at the back of the stage – everything from news footage to anime. Revolutionary-themed crowd participation instructions were eagerly followed by the portion of the crowd drunk enough to forget that they’re too cool for this shit. “Raise your sledgehammer” (fist)! Shout “love!” (“Love is the answer/but what the fuck is the question?”)

Though their pseudonym was originally given to them by a graffiti-artist friend who thought it would look cool as a tag, the moniker has grown up with the artist. These days, Invincible connects their name with something that might be considered the opposite of invincibility by hip hop’s mainstream.

“When you allow yourself to be vulnerable, and to be in tune with the parts of yourself that are vulnerable, then that’s how you strengthen them,” Invincible told The Daily earlier that day, clad in a keffiyeh and a Detroit baseball cap, clutching a mug of tea at Casa del Popolo. “Even in our communities, paying attention to the voices that are made most vulnerable at the intersections of the most impact of oppression, if we focus on that vulnerability, then that’s how we strengthen our collective whole.”

Invincible got an early start in hip hop, writing their first rhymes at the age of nine, and beginning to perform in their mid-teens. When asked for their early influences, Invincible drops a few names that you’ve probably heard of (Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, MC Lyte), but says their real inspiration comes from the Detroit scene. Rappers like Slum Village, Proof, Royce da 5’9’’, Black Milk, and eLZhi, who is often called “Detroit’s best kept secret.”

They moved to New York at 17 to join the anti-misogynist hip hop collective ANOMOLIES, home to “some of the best MCs to ever hold a mic,” according to Invincible. “The goal of ANOMOLIES is not just to critique the representation of women and gender in hip hop…but to develop the music we’d like to see and the images we’d like to see and the spaces we’d like to see.” Though they’re not as involved in ANOMOLIES as they used to be, Invincible still considers them family, and has featured them in the track  “Ransom Notes” on Invincible’s 2008 release Shapeshifters. “[The goal is] to not just ask for a seat at the table, but create our own, what I like to call ‘parallel universes’ where we can develop opportunities that aren’t legitimizing or reinforcing the current power structures,” they said.

It’s easy to see how these ideals might have influenced Invincible’s work as an organizer, particularly with Detroit Summer, a youth-led community–building organization. Detroit Summer was Invincible’s gateway to activism. They began attending protests in their early twenties, and would eventually move on to help coordinate the program, working on projects such as the creation of Detroit Future Youth, a network of youth leadership organizations.

It was hard to escape the feeling that Invincible was trying to save the world in a few too many ways. Throughout the night, songs were dedicated to the support of female and trans* rappers and Palestinian independence. Invincible proclaims that “we are the leaders that we’ve been waiting for,” and later follows it up with a derivative of everyone’s favourite change-related Gandhi quote. Invincible has some useful things to say, but are they getting lost in the beats? They’re obviously not the first rapper to grapple with the change-the-world-vs.-throw-a-party dilemma, but they may be the first to do so on so many fronts.

This is, after all, a show put on by the Howl! Arts Collective, which consists of “cultural workers, artists, and activists working for social justice via artistic expression.” Nobody can say that the audience was unfamiliar with social justice. The hipster/activist crowd was a bit too relaxed and amiable that night for hardcore revolutionizing, or perhaps they were taking a night off. The show opened with No Bad Sound, featuring teenage spoken word poetry filled with platitudes about uniting and rising up. Not the most polished or original, but passionate, and impossible to dislike. Next came the nigh un-Google-able A K U A, whose enjoyable one-woman show produced some low-key, mildly trippy R&B entirely devoid of politics.

In truth, there might be a bit of a disconnect between the performer onstage and their protest-happy Montreal audience.  “Protesting is different from doing revolutionary work,” Invincible told The Daily. “To me, protesting is one little part of things but some people confuse protesting for the whole thing.” And if Invincible can craft a show with a slightly more coherent message, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to recruit plenty more for the type of revolutionary organizing they’ve devoted their life to.