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Hip-hop culture has always intersected with youth activism for Santa Ana-based rapper Illoheem. His interest in rhyming grew as he started taking part in organizing the historic 2006 pro-immigrant high-school walkouts in OC. Now in his early 20s, Illoheem is a published author, speaker and performer. His lyrics remain as pensive, passionate and political as ever, giving hip-hop a new dimension as the language of the undocumented and unheard.
OC Weekly: When did you first get into hip-hop culture?
Illoheem: I was about 11 years old. I had a cousin, and he would hang out with some friends who would just sit down at night and bust cyphers. Everybody would take turns around the circle and rhyme. They would ask me, "Okay, what do you have to say; what do you feel?" I did like hip-hop music, but that was my first experience of trying to rhyme myself.
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You became a published author under the first Barrio Writers program in Santa Ana. How did that experience shape how you approach writing rhymes?
Around that time, I had left UC Irvine because I couldn't pay for it anymore. I found myself back at Santa Ana College; [people at the school] reached out to me to be part of the program. I was able to interact with local youth and hear their inspirational stories. It shaped the way I wrote because I was able to express myself to a whole different audience. I was talking about being undocumented and the civil-rights movement that we're still fighting for. As an undocumented person, to put myself out there, that was a really powerful experience.
Speaking of which, DREAM activism has shaped a lot of your work. Tell us more about a newer song of yours, "Joaquin Luna: (Death of a Dream)," about an undocumented Texas teen who committed suicide last year.
Man, that week in November, when I saw the article in the LA Times, it hit me hard. I stayed in my room all weekend, contemplating what this youth went through. It resonated a lot with me because when I left school, to me, it was dropping out of school. I didn't know I was going to go back to school. I myself have been in a situation in which I became depressed to the point [that] I thought about suicide. It's an issue that no one likes to talk about. "Joaquin Luna" was an expression of that—and not the only one, as there have been many who have taken that step because of circumstances and social pressures. Feeling like I had been in that situation, I began to write as if I were him. It was a real emotional experience to write that piece. Now that I've shared it a couple of times, a lot of undocumented students have begun to talk about creating support circles and talking about those issues.
You give workshops on hip-hop as a culture of resistance. How does hip-hop function for you in that manner?
In the workshops, we have been going to high schools in the summer, talking about what oppressions we're facing and how our words are powerful enough to convey our stories. I've talked to youth in junior high school, and within two hours, they were sharing and creating poems about the oppression and obstacles they face. To have that type of engagement in a classroom setting is very powerful. That's how I've been able to [teach them] that hip-hop is not only a tool that is used to convey a message of struggling all over the world, but also a way to convey our message, organize and relate to one another at the local level.
What does 2012 hold for you? Are you looking to put out an EP or formalize some of the tracks you've been working on this year?
I've been recording a set of pieces under the title "Ill Eagle." I have another set that talks about different things, such as war and recruitment in high schools. I'm going to be working on different music, sometimes anonymously and sometimes under my rap name "Illoheem." I'm looking to collaborate with local groups to put out music. Definitely this year, I've been recording more music than any other year. Hopefully, all these projects get off the ground.
This column appeared in print as "Illoheem’s DREAM."