Ric Wilson is a self-proclaimed artist and prison abolitionist.
“I think people need to hear some different stuff because hearing the word ‘activist’ isn’t specific enough for people,” says the rapper, who turned 20-years-old today (April 17), during an exclusive interview with HipHopDX.
The title of abolitionist, who released his Penny Raps mixtape April 1, comes from the Chicago rapper’s desire to stop the systemic oppression that comes from prison.
“I don’t believe in prison and I don’t believe in the culture, the culture that it brings to our society, anything that’s attached to like the menial purpose of having a prison exactly and what a prison culture is,” he says. “A prison culture is a culture that revolves around capitalism. In a world where prisons, people are literally making profits off prisons or people are making profits off targeting certain people to put in prison, a world where like we basically we spend a majority of our tax dollars towards prisons other than education or even health. I call myself a prison abolitionist because I want to dismantle that system.”
He can rattle off facts about how America spends more money on the military than education or healthcare. He says that the United States has a quarter of the world’s prison population, but has far less than that in percentage to overall population.
“How can we imprison more people than India who has a population of a billion people and we only have 300 million?” he asks. “That’s crazy. That’s really mind-blowing when we really think about these numbers, these statistics and where do certain people fall into place.”
Wilson is passionate about justice because of his own personal experiences with racism. He grew up with cousins in jail and was confronted with racism at a young age.
“I remember an encounter where my first crush when I was like what maybe 7, called me a nigger,” he says. “Stuff like that. Experiencing that at a young age traumatizes you enough to think that that’s how the world should be.”
His perspective changed when, at the age of 15, he became involved with the Chicago Freedom School. This is a local movement based on programs in the Civil Rights era that educated the youth on Black history, leadership and social justice. Wilson read books such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Pedagogy of the Oppressed as part of his curriculum.
“It basically opened my eyes up to a lot of things,” he says.
Ric Wilson Traveled To The UN With We Charge Genocide
The rapper does more than just talk about these issues. He works with local organizations to bring awareness of injustice. Last year, he traveled to Geneva, Switzerland with an organization called We Charge Genocide. They presented a case to the United Nations charging the Chicago Police Department with torture. We Charge Genocide was founded last year after 23-year-old Dominique Franklin was tazed to death in Chicago by a police officer. They seek to give a voice to those who are victims to police brutality.
He says that the group brought something new to the UN’s Committee Against Torture because they were speaking for themselves.
“Usually it’s always a bunch of like old White men who go and present on behalf of people who’ve been tortured,” he says. “There’s never actually people who’ve experienced racism firsthand or literally have friends who have died or cousins who have been shot or tortured by police. But we were that.”
After their presentation, the United Nations made a report that met the three objectives We Charge Genocide tried to accomplish: charging the Chicago Police Department with torture, calling for an investigation into the department and asking for reparations for the victims.
However, the work is not over, as Wilson has yet to see the demands of the report fulfilled. To his knowledge, there still hasn’t been an investigation and reparations have not been made.
“Of course it wasn’t gonna happen with a snap of a finger,” Wilson says. “But still, that’s that feeling that there still needs to be work.”
How he continues to seek justice is through his music. He recently was a featured artist at Chicago’s annual Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam and remains active in the community. He often catches his listener’s attention by using wordplay.
“Welcome to the system, cops love you so they take you with them,” he says on his single “Ride.”
“I’m from the murder cap, where a wrong crook of the cap could get you capped, You can’t outrun that like Colin Kaep,” he raps on Penny Raps cut “For a Cause.” The mixtape is available for stream below.
J. Wells & Orlando Jones Back Ric Wilson
Wilson says he started rapping around the end of his freshman year of high school. It started from writing poetry and grew from there. Two people who have encouraged him in his music career are his cousin and producer J. Wells and actor Orlando Jones.
As a student at Clark Atlanta University, Wilson linked up with other Atlanta artists in the collective VLTR. He found that his passion was not in his studies, but in his music.
“I literally was hanging out with them so much that I wasn’t even going to class anymore,” he says. “I was in the studio so much and VLTR that essentially became my family down there in Atlanta.”
Eventually, Wilson dropped out of school for financial reasons, but he frequently travels back-and-forth from the Windy City to ATL to maintain his musical network. It was with VLTR that he had his first experience with Autotune, on “Ride,” one of his early favorite tracks.
“Folks would down-talk Auto-Tune all the time,” he says. “So I was like, ‘I’m gonna put some Auto-Tune on my voice.’ So they was like, ‘OK cool, go ahead, do it.’ So I put Autotune on my voice and it came out so cool I was like ‘Oh shit.’ I was like, ‘Damn, I think I like Auto-Tune. I think I might start singing a little bit more on these tracks.’ So that’s when I started coming up with harmonies.”
This led to his other singles “If I Was White,” and the track that really gave his musical career life, “Lone Pool.” The latter is a song that Wilson never thought would be heard by anyone but himself. He took the beat off of The Social Experiment producer Nate Fox’s SoundCloud and wrote a sort of diary entry over it.
“When I wrote the song,” Wilson says, “I was literally at a point where I had just got out of school. I wanted to do music, but I literally had no coverage. I would drop tracks and the most I would get out of a track would be like 300 plays. Folks didn’t really want to hear me. At the same time, I had just broke up with my girlfriend. I was feeling really low.”
A friend of his knew Nate Fox and told him about Wilson’s song. The producer listened to it and enjoyed it. He reached out to Wilson.
“When one of my favorite producers said that he liked that song,” Wilson says, “and he wanted to continue working with me, that was like a turning point on like, ‘Yes, I think I can, this can possibly happen. I can do music. This is really gonna happen.’ It really gave me a lot of confidence.”
As the song gained traction, Wilson was really encouraged by people’s responses to his vulnerability.
“I really was surprised at the reaction from people listening to the song,” he says, “‘Cause it literally was just like a diary for me when I wrote that song and everyone was like feeling it. So now, it was sorta like that ok cool, people like when you rap about your experiences, so I’m gonna continue rapping about my experiences.”
Ric Wilson's Penny Raps Features GLC
This helped lead to Wilson’s debut mixtape, Penny Raps, which came out April 1. J. Wells and Nate Fox produced a handful of songs and Wilson got features from Kanye West collaborator GLC and “Sunday Candy” singer Jamila Woods. It is his personal story of going to college, working with We Charge Genocide and trying to make it in the music industry.
“The whole tape’s about me rapping about being broke until now and I’m still broke,” Wilson says with a laugh. “Rappers always want to rap about a fantasy life a lot of times. Penny Raps is me rapping literally about my real life situation.”
Right now, Wilson is a one-man show. He is hoping this mixtape will draw enough interest to get more people on his team. What he values most is people who believe in him and his mission.
“Being an artist, you have to bite your tongue so much to get where you gotta be,” he says. “I don’t wanna bite my tongue to get where I gotta be. I’m just gonna really be me. If people don’t appreciate or don’t wanna rock with me because of what I do, then we shouldn’t be friends in the first place. I don’t wanna be friends with people and then come out later and say I’m an activist and all this. I wanna really just be me at the start of this business until the end of it and get real friends and get real people who really wanna work and collaborate and vibe off each other.”
Penny Raps is available for stream as follows: