Introducing: Ceschi’s “Middle Earth”

Ceschi talks to friend and collaborator Sammus about earning her PhD, opening for Bikini Kill, and shooting their new music video, premiering here.

Ceschi: Going to just put this out there. You are easily one of my favorite people to tour with, always bring a level of professionalism, support & positivity that is rare in hip hop. Thank you for being such a gem.

Sammus: You know I’m a cry-baby, so thank God this conversation is taking place via email. Thank you for providing me with so much support over the years and so much inspiration on the stage and through your grind. I still remember when we first met in Ithaca in 2013, and I was opening for you. I remember being blown away by your energy, and that after the show you told me I was going to be a big deal someday (or something to that effect). I never forgot that. It’s been an honor to work with you and tour with you, and see just how much you give of yourself to your fans and fellow artists. It’s a constant reminder to me that being kind, thoughtful, and fiercely independent are important values to maintain in a world that tells us the opposite in every way possible.

Ceschi: In a world of endless trash male rappers claiming to be “the best,” how does it feel to actually be so damn skilled at your craft and sometimes get overlooked by losers because of your gender?

Sammus: Hah, it def feels pretty shitty but not as shitty as it used to feel! As you know, I deal with quite a bit of imposter syndrome, so for a while there I used to think, oh, maybe I’m not “further ahead” (whatever that means) because I’m actually not as dope as I think I am sometimes or the homies say I am. But after touring across the country for the past few years, hearing what folks have to say about my music and its impact in their lives, and really stepping back to take a good look at the music industry, I now don’t take it as personally when some trash ass rapper dude is widely considered to be the pinnacle of creative genius, while so many amazing women, queer, trans, and non-binary artists languish on the DIY side of things. That’s the way it’s been forever and ever and ever. What I have chosen instead to do is find (and create) communities that prioritize dope ass emcees and musicians, who talk about things I care about, and prioritize artistry that pushes boundaries.

Ceschi: I have to say that you are on a very short list of my favorite hip hop performers ever. Your ability to command any audience, technical abilities as a rapper/producer & dynamic range emotions are undeniable and rare. You’re one of the very few artists I know that actually pours her soul into each and every performance. Do shows take a toll on you? What does each show give back to you ?

Sammus: You’re on my teeny-tiny short-list too! I feel like you and I push each other so much during tour to perform with no limits, which is what makes touring with you so fun. I think what enables me to give so much (and probably what drives you too) is the daily recognition that life is short and that it’s a privilege to be on any stage. With those two thoughts in mind, it’s like how can you not do your best, and give what you have every single time? But yes, shows definitely take a toll on me. I think because my performances require such a high level of vulnerability, when I get home I find that I have to zone out or shut-off my feels to a certain extent. That means I’m often not a very good friend because I spend so much time repairing myself, physically and emotionally, after a show, and definitely after a tour. But shows also offer me lots in return. They offer me a moment to cosplay as somebody that I struggle very much to be in my “real life.” I wish that in my every day existence I could be the shit-talking, swag-dripping superhero that I envision myself to be whenever I’m on the mic but the reality is I’m too shy and self-conscious for all of that lol. During a show I feel the freedom to be my fullest self. It’s a 30-45 minute reprieve from the voices in my head that constantly tell me I’m not enough. Shows are also reminders of all the good people that exist in the world at a moment when we regularly have to think about the actual evil-doers who run this place. I mean, how special is it that people spend money, leave their houses, wait in the cold, and rain, and heat, just to hear us say some words to uplift or celebrate them? It’s an empowering thing to behold.

Ceschi: Was super happy to see that you completed your PhD & took a position at Brown. We both have family roots in academia. Mine are bit bittersweet. At some point I decided that it was not the path for me. Judging by your lyrics, it sounds like wasn’t always for you either — what kept you in that world? What kept you inspired to write?

Sammus: Thank you so much! Academia is a hot ass mess so I don’t blame you for turning away. Honestly, what kept me in the academic world for the most part was fear. I had always defined myself as a bookworm, and found that through achieving good grades and getting recognized at school, my parents would shower me with attention. Thus, like any good first-gen kid, I poured myself into school as an easy way to acquire instant praise. But I didn’t anticipate all that it would take to make it through a PhD. By the time I realized I wanted out, I was already halfway through and didn’t want to disappoint my family and friends. Up until this past year, when I really got moving on my dissertation, I basically felt trapped. I started working with a dissertation writing coach in September of last year named Dr. Deb Al-Najjar and she really pushed me to write daily and break down the dissertation into manageable chunks. I even began to find a tiny bit of joy in it towards the end lol. I think for me it became about finishing something that I started more than anything, and realizing how many people I had in my corner. Wanting to make them proud and show myself that I could finish a project of this size.

Ceschi: As a Bikini Kill & Le Tigre fan for a long time, I just am so psyched that you got to open the NYC reunion show. That’s nuts! You mentioned online that it was a life changer. Tell me a bit about it.

Sammus: I think it was life-changing because it enabled me to see that what I do, what you do, what we do on the more DIY side of things can actually scale. I’m sure that many DIY artists feel what I have felt in that it’s hard to envision what our shows might look like at massive festivals, or in big concert halls. For me the intimacy of a smaller room has been a critical part of my set — I need to know that when I drop the microphone and scream, you can hear me; that when I cringe or grimace or cry that you can see my face; that I can jump off the stage and hug and touch folks. Prior to this show I’d performed at only a few big shows and they were terrible experiences because I felt like I couldn’t connect with the audience. But this was the first time that I realized that it’s possible to create and maintain intimacy even amongst thousands of people, even when you can’t touch hands — it’s just a matter of being in front of the right audience. Because I was performing in front of thousands of feminists, they were committed to really hearing me as opposed to the drunk ass dude-bros I’ve performed in front of on other large stages. It inspired me to find my people, and continue building community with them because that will enable me to scale as big as I want to! Also Kathleen Hanna was incredibly kind, she bought a shirt, and she was really into our set. It’s always nice when meeting an icon is such a pleasant experience because we hear so many horror stories.

Ceschi: You were on TV for the first time recently with our friend Mike Eagle. That’s also pretty fucking crazy. How was the experience of filming ? Was there a different kind of pressure ?

Sammus: Filming was nuts — the team flew me in for a day and it was kind of a whirlwind. I was definitely scared, mostly because even though I think I’m pretty funny sometimes and I can be a pretty dramatic person, I’m not a comedian and I’m definitely not an actress. So it was nerve wracking trying to convey things through my face, and not knowing how the final edit was going to look. But we had great direction from Lance Bangs, and our mutual friend Video Dave was also there helping to guide me. Once it was done I didn’t really feel too stressed out about how it would be received because I knew that people I care about and who care about me were going to take care of the final product. If this had been some one-off thing with folks I’d never met before I would probably have been more nervous.

Ceschi: Finally, tell us the story of the shark attack during the Middle Earth video.

Sammus: Hah, I’m probably the worst person to tell the story because I didn’t even witness it! I was buried neck-deep in the sand at the time, facing away from the shore and suddenly everybody’s eyes got really big. And I think somebody may have asked, “Is that a shark?!” I wasn’t panicked because I wasn’t close enough to the shore for it to get me but I was pretty curious, and couldn’t turn around because sand, lol. After ya’ll determined that a tiny shark had indeed washed up on shore and you got some pics of it, a lifeguard (not sure) with a stick calmly jogged over, and prodded the baby shark back into the ocean. It was the strangest omen and I’m still not sure what it means. Maybe it was a prediction that that “Baby Shark” song was gonna be huge. Who knows? I was just happy to experience it with ya’ll :).

Ceschi’s music lives in some liminal space between left-field hip hop, folk punk, and indie rock. It’s hard to explain, so on planes he generally tells people that he sounds “something like Ed Sheeran,” and they nod. He has worked with Saskatchewan, Canadian producer Factor Chandelier for over a decade as they formed the backbone of their Fake Four Inc. record label. Their 2015 record, Broken Bone Ballads built a cult following within the indie rap and DIY punk communities. 2019’s Sad, Fat Luck is part eulogy to many lost friends, part breakup album, part US-born-Latino analysis of Trump’s America, and part ode to aging. Features guest vocals from Sammus & Astronautalis.