With J Dilla’s Help, Rapper SETI X Launches a New Music Program for SF Youth
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen I connect with rapper SETI X on Zoom, heâs proudly wearing his Punjabi turban, and he still has his teacher background from his audio production class at the June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco. From the jump, heâs unlike any Bay Area rapper Iâve ever seen.
Itâs not just his appearance or his day job as a public school educator that sets him apart from most U.S. lyricists. Itâs his ideologies, his spiritual zeal and his commitment to universal human progressâfrom his hometown in Los Angeles to his parentâs homeland in Indiaâthat resonate with me, his students and fans worldwide.
âMy sound is a direct connection to the extraterrestrial universe,â the artist, real name Mandeep Sethi, says. âIt pushes me far away from the materialistic world thatâs governed by institutions and patriarchal systems, and brings me closer to the human child that lives within planetary people, and helps me connect with anyone, any place, any time.â
Those arenât the typical bars youâd hear on the radio, especially coming from a California-raised South Asian Sikh. But after sharing stages with hip-hop legends like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Lateef the Truthspeaker and Wu Tangâs RZA throughout his careerâand dropping multiple albums since 2009âSETI X has established himself in the game. More importantly, he hopes to provide similar pathways for underserved and underrepresented youth in San Francisco.
In 2021, Sethiâs work reached an apex when he received the Save the Music Foundationâs most prestigious award: a J Dilla Music Technology Grant. The program launched in 2019 with the support of MTV, Pharrell Williams and Arizona State University, and aims to âfund electronic music creation, recording and production training for public high school studentsâ throughout a 10-year period of financial and professional support. Itâs a big deal for students in the San Francisco Unified School District, where no such program with extensive resources currently exists, especially for the cityâs most civically neglected neighborhoods on the south side of downtownâs skyscrapers.
Though Sethi says he doesnât receive âa single pennyâ for his efforts, the school will receive a generous amount of funding for music technology equipment over the span of a decade. Itâs a blessing that encapsulates Sethiâs lifelong mission to inspire those around him and dismantle systemic barriers that exist in his communities.
Itâs serendipitous that the spirit of J Dilla is a catalyst. Many in the hip-hop universe consider the late producer from Detroit, Michigan to be among the greatest of all time. And although Dilla passed away in 2006, his motherâopera singer Maureen Yancey, more famously known as Ma Dukesâhas become an advocate and spokeswoman for the program. âI know what music can do,â she said in a 2019 interview with MTV. âIt can propel you to whatever you want to do education-wise. We have to empower our young people.â
In many ways, Yanceyâs philosophyâpaired with J Dillaâs legacy and Sethiâs educational workâis everything hip-hop has embodied since the emergence of Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and Hieroglyphics, and continued with contemporary artists like Noname and Kendrick Lamar. The end goal has always been the same: giving voice to the voiceless by shaking things up with bass, treble and a dope message.
[dropcap]D[/dropcap]uring our conversation, Sethi self-medicates, a meditative practice that is a part of a Sikh âsaint soldierâ tradition dating back millennia, before telling me about his time spent living in Punjab. Back then, in 2012, he launched a collective known as SlumGods to teach Indian youth about the four elements of hip-hop. He also tells me about his work in Los Angeles with students in juvenile detention, where he provided instrumental production and music writing courses until the program lost its funding.
Sethi is genuinely a man of the people, someone who has put in his hustle as a working-class son of immigrants, and who knows firsthand musicâs ability to transform and uplift communities.
âThis is the essence of who I am,â he says. âItâs a lifelong journey to break the borders in our mind and just flow. Thatâs why hip-hop is the love of my life.â
As the recipient of the J Dilla Music Tech Grant, Sethi will be able to pass along his energy and skills to the next wave of Bay Area talentâmuch like Dilla did to previous generations during his time. Sethi is particularly excited about bringing this program to the Excelsior neighborhood, where he says the students are diverse, have resisted displacement and are fighting against aggressive gentrification.
The program will only be available to students at the June Jordan School for Equity, and will be offered to any 9th-12th grader who is enrolled by the fall. Students can expect brand new recording equipment, professional mentorships and access to paid internships to prepare them for a professional music career.
Since debuting, the J Dilla Music Tech Grant has partnered with various districts in underserved communities throughout the U.S., and has featured lessons and appearances from world renowned figures like Wyclef Jean, Questlove and Pusha T. In many ways, the program represents more than just âsaving the musicââitâs also about preserving culture, creating spaces for neglected populations and leveling the playing field in our capitalistic society. Itâs something Sethi himself is familiar with.
Having lost his brother Jusdeep Sethi at an early age, SETI X was reborn as a messenger with a purpose to reach and inspire listeners, particularly young people. He dedicates his success and good fortune to his brother. But he also gives major credit to the Bay Area for transforming him into a warrior.
SETI X hosting an event in India circa 2012. (Courtesy of SETI X)
Though he has been around the globe, rocking at an illegal street show in Tokyo with Japanese hip-hop crew IllEffects and performing in Mumbai, Sethi acknowledges the important role of Bay culture in shaping him into a critical, socially aware artist who strives to give back.
After graduating high school early at 17 and enrolling at San Francisco State University, where he soaked up his game in ethnic and Africana studies, he began to develop a sense of political engagement that he says didnât exist for him as an adolescent growing up in Los Angeles.
âThe Bay Area, and the rappers and scholars here, helped me understand knowledge of self. I thought I knew who I was, then I moved here and really started to learn,â he says. âI was studying with OGs about the Black Panthers and Third World Liberation Movements and in the streets with it. L.A. made me, but the Bay raised me.â
The J Dilla Music Tech grant, he tells me, is just his way of giving back and saying thank you.
Itâs a model of reciprocity thatâs uncommon. Often, one moves into an area to benefit from whatâs there, but is never expected to provide those same resources in return. Sethi is an example of what happens when that process is reversed. I call it de-gentrification.
Before we get off our call, I remind Sethi that Tupac Shakur once moved to the Bay Area from Baltimore as a teenager, where he linked up with the recently passed Shock G and other local rappers and producers. They saw something in young Pac and mentored him. Pac eventually went on to re-write rap history for himself, and brought others along with him.
Not everyone who attends this new SFUSD program in the fall will become the next Tupac. Thatâs hella unrealistic, nor should it be expected. But Sethi says heâll be infinitely grateful if his students can touch â1%â of the growth artists like Pac, and so many others, have achieved here while studying the game and respecting the community.
After all, we might as well make music and vibe out while weâre cosmically connected on this planet together. Because, like SETI X raps, this is âwhere [our] people stay.â
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