Eco-Hip Hop Pioneer Promotes Healthy Living and Urban Farming

Photo by Jan Mangan

Ietef Vita, also known as DJ Cavem, is a pioneering hip hop artist using his craft as a platform to make social change and encourage healthy living. Influenced by his grandfather’s experiences as a Black Panther in the 1960s, his mother’s dedication to healthy food, and the Rastafarian concept of living off the land, he’s developed a record label and created his own seed company that supplies urban farmers. Vita coined the popular term “eco-hip hop” in 2007 to describe the interdependence of spoken word and progressive activism, and it’s sprouted into a global movement.

In this interview with Arty Mangan, Bioneers Restorative Food Systems Program Director, Ietef Vita discusses his journey toward healing — both collectively and personally — through artistic expression and food justice activism.

Ietef Vita

ARTY: What have you learned from your grandfather about his experiences as a Black Panther?

IETEF: My grandfather was born on a plantation in Arkansas. At age 17, he was a part of the Great Migration. He became an artist and lived in Harlem up the block from Miles Davis and was good friends with Dizzy Gillespie. That influenced me to be more out of the box.

He was involved with the Panthers and the culture that was happening around and during the birth of my mother in 1968. My mother was born when Dr. King was assassinated. In Oakland, California there was the rise of the Black Panther Party. They were adopting ideas about food, clothing, shelter, cooperative economics and having protection for your family. The Black Panther Party was running a breakfast program. I completely understand all that. That ingrained in me the importance of community development. It’s important to feed the community, which is why my record label, while not completely influenced by the Black Panthers, respectfully reveres where they come from and their efforts to create the community engagement around the nation that was so powerful.

ARTY: When you were younger, you went to Africa with your mother. How did that experience shape you?

IETEF: I first went to Africa when I was a teenager. I went to Senegal. At that age, I didn’t really understand the difference between living in America with racism and having to deal with fascism on the other side of the world. Like straight up, there it’s not about skin color; it’s about how much money you have. Walking through Gorey Island kind of transformed me. Going through the House of Slaves immediately struck me hard. I don’t think I cried like that since I was a kid. I was kind of a tough teenager, but that had a great impact on me. It was so impactful that I gave up gang-banging on the spot. So, experiencing Africa helped me understand what I needed to do when I came back to the States.

I also went to Uganda and studied indigenous agriculture and agronomy and taught at three different primary schools in Kampala, Uganda. The impact of hip hop brought me to the Motherland to teach waste diversion, composting, and how we can give back through art and culture. 

Traveling was an educational project for me. It wasn’t like most people when they go to the other side of the world to try to enjoy life and take pictures. For me, it was really hard walking through the slums. I ran out of money by the time I entered the slum because I had given it to the first kid who asked. It transformed my idea of what a ghetto is and how fortunate I was living in America instead of living there.

I’ve been to Africa multiple times since my youth, and I definitely will continue to go back to my Motherland in the west part of the continent as a deep repatriation.

ARTY: How has racism impacted your life?

IETEF: Growing up in the inner city of Denver — the wild, wild West — I’ve been bumped a couple of times as a teenage high school kid just trying to make it through to adulthood. Most of the time, the police would mess with me. I didn’t grow up being chased by Ku Klux Klan like my grandfather did; my grandfather on my mother’s side had a cross burned on his property. 

But when I think about living in Colorado, there’s a lot of cellular memory that I have to heal and do some past-life regression. I understand the deeper part of my personal anger has to deal with fighting for freedom. At the same time, I realize that there’s a mental perspective. You can be free in your mind at any time. That’s why I’ve been working so much on internal healing by doing yoga and gardening for my mental issues of dealing with racism because it’s not going to stop. You’ve just got to learn to heal yourself from within. 

Black, brown and Indigenous people in America have to live within the chaos of this country. It’s not holding our tongue; it’s healing ourselves after battle and dealing with toxicity. 

Have I been indulging in metaphysical healing because of racism? Yes, I have. I feel like the best way to battle it is on an internal level because you can’t just sit and live with the concept. Just look up the word black in the dictionary; do you want to live with that? So yeah, man, I’m going to leave it at that.

ARTY: You coined the word eco-hip hop. How did that come about and where has it taken you? 

IETEF: Environmental hip hop was a concept that was birthed from conversations that were happening in hip hop but weren’t consistent. For example, there was a song called Green Eggs and Ham by A Tribe Called Quest; there was Be Healthy by Dead Prez. But when it came down to consistently talking about food justice and environmental justice, I didn’t feel like there was a platform or a genre for me to categorize myself. 

I was not only thinking about how to utilize hip hop to support the community to create waste diversion programs and green and black cooperative economics, but also how to utilize hip hop to redefine wealth. The way I’ve been doing that is working with friends and family in the culture for the past 15 years developing a record label that distributes seeds as albums. We’re the first certified USDA organic hip hop record label. Plant Based Records is the home of environmental hip hop. Our goal is to show people how to grow food and also to be a part of nature. So, the music reflects that conversation, that lifestyle. We try to keep our music videos as ethically and environmentally responsible as possible.

Eco-hip hop stands for higher inner peace helping other people. It’s about how to stop gang violence and create art for social change. Of course, hip hop is being utilized to market sex, drugs and violence, but we can easily utilize it to promote beets, kale and arugula. 

ARTY: What does food justice mean to you?

IETEF: Food justice is a dream. We’re still trying to get that. We’re working on food sovereignty. Justice hasn’t happened yet. What food justice looks like, what it feels like to me is a grow-oasis where people have a traceable source to their food, where we have fresh water to harvest, where there is community trade to supply resources, and we need to re-invigorate saving seeds in our community not only through art, but also from a perspective of how it really impacts life. 

I’m plant-based. I think there needs to be a conversation about appropriation and neo-colonial veganism needs to step out of the way. 

ARTY: What do you mean by neo-colonial veganism?

IETEF: I’ve been a vegan for 20 years. I feel like there is a style of what that is. Like, I was introduced to a plant-based lifestyle through Ital and the concept of the Rastafari’s eating off the land. I didn’t even know the word vegan. I was just going to the farmers’ market and the Asian market trying to find tempeh and produce.

I understand that there is a difference between eating a plant-based diet and eating high-processed, chemical, GMOs. Let’s go ahead and separate the two. There’s plant-based and there’s vegan. You know what I’m saying? 

 Association with the word vegan is no different than the way that urban culture associates with sustainability. It doesn’t really look like a thing people of color can really assimilate or make economic value off of. I think there is an aspect of veganism that no one is down to address yet, which is there’s some elitism in the vegan world. 

People in the hood want solar panels. Can they get them? Not all the time. That doesn’t mean that they don’t want to support the industry? You’ve just got to think about readily available access; you’ve got to think about the concept of economic development, and why that plays a big factor into redlining communities. 

Gentrification sometimes impacts a community in a way that doesn’t really show that community renewed in the way that it should be. You get farmers’ markets and yoga parlors, and the liquor store turns into a wine cellar. Everything changes when a community is gentrified. Urban communities that have historical references, lose their tone, touch, feel and look overnight to developers. 

That’s no different from what happens in the food industry when white bread is pushed regardless of it’s nutrient qualities. I think it’s really important to address how to decolonize our kitchen, and remember the indigeneity of how to stay in biomimicry with the Earth. I’m taking this to the hood, because ain’t nobody got time to play gentrify, especially when the inner city’s trying to garden. 

ARTY: What is the Culinary Climate Action Initiative? 

IETEF: Culinary Climate Action is the concept at the forefront of Recipes for Resistance, which is a workshop that started in Oakland, California with my brother, Bryant Terry. I’ve been producing workshops nationally to show people how to go to the farmers’ market, make yourself some food, and store it and potentially propagate it. I showcase how you can use the alkalinity and the electricity of plugging copper wires into fruits and vegetables and making beets and then performing lyrics on top of that. That is a concept that was pretty much put together with my brother Detour Thomas Evans. It was the beginning of Plant Based Records. It started off by making beats out of beets. And from there, we were like, “Yo, we need to drop seeds and drop albums.” And here we are.

Recipes for Resistance is a project that brings the music into the schools and puts it in the hands of the people who I feel are in decline. It’s about making fruits and vegetables more available to our brothers and sisters. At Inner city corner stores, all you can find is processed food. It sucks, but we see it all the time. So, it’s about creating farmers and normalizing the idea of eating locally grown food, which is weird and sad that we even have to do so.

I think that the best way to tackle it is to sequester carbon in urban atmospheres by growing food and harvesting the nutrients. The soil in cities is not being turned all the time like the plowed field that gets turned like 25 times a year for growing corn and soy or whatever. 

I think it’s important to show the patience of growing food. That’s what we’re trying to do with the young people. And they’re really vibing with that. 

The next thing that’s really happening is my wife and I just started a non-profit organization called Vita Earth Foundation. Our goal is to seed urban farmers. We’ve been working to seed BIPOC communities with organic seeds.

 It’s been so weird, Bro. This COVID-19 thing was such a weird thing. We were expecting to go on tour. Started our first show out on tour with Xiuhtezcatl. We played the Mercury Lounge, played in Montreal, played Montana, and then rocked Berkeley, California. Got out of town right on time before they shut us down. We played at the Cornerstone and got out. 

I thought I was going to be on tour giving out seeds from the previous album, Biomimicz, which is the album dedicated to biomimicry. Our goal was to go on tour and hit up the nation and just seed the whole city. Well, not only did we have the pandemic, but then we had civil unrest. I sat down and watched through the screen people burning down their grocery stores. I’m like, “Yo, how are they going to get food?” 

Luckily, months before the pandemic, we shipped seeds to Minneapolis to some urban farmers. They had kale in the ground in spring and were able to start feeding the community in mid-June during the George Floyd riots. I’m talking about the impact of the record label being able to feed the community and supplying food to the co-ops during times like that. The conversation gave birth to our foundation’s first campaign, which was to Seed Urban Farms. So far, we’ve given out around ten thousand packets from Chicago to Cincinnati to Minneapolis, all the way down to Virginia. We’re a black-owned seed company/record label. It’s kind of a weird collage, but people get it. 

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.