Take it from this one: Most music journalists are not secretly very talented musicians, toiling away in writers’ clothes. Most emcees, of course, are not Rocky Rivera — a San Francisco-born rapper whose love of hip-hop first took the form of a journalism career, including covering the Bay Area’s hip-hop scene for this very publication, Rolling Stone, and others.
In 2008, “trading her Moleskines for microphones,” as she puts it, she became Rocky Rivera, cribbing her stage name from a fellow Filipina-American heroine in the 1996 novel Gangster of Love, by SF author Jessica Hagedorn. The book now also shares a title with Rivera’s second full-length album, which dropped in October 2013.
It’s an album that commands hip-hop fans to sit up and take notice — sharp but not overproduced, lyrical and gutteral, with beats that both pay homage to the ’80s and ’90s (when Rivera was a teenager going to Balboa High School, then SFSU, listening to Queen Latifah, Salt n’ Pepa, and MC Lyte) and showcase the emcee’s lightning-quick tongue and take-no-BS feminist message. Her devotees range from hardcore rap fans across the country to the East Oakland kids who are part of the after-school programs she helps coordinate in, yes, her other other life as a teacher. Suffice it to say, she’s a busy woman.
What were your inspirations for this record?
The new album was inspired by all the happenings in the world since my first album in 2010. So much had transpired politically across the globe, from the Arab Spring, to Oscar Grant, Pussy Riot — all of that affected my need to write something as a soundtrack to an uprising. I also got a ton of inspiration from reading the Hunger Games trilogy, which made me want to create something that would be a drumbeat to political and social change and have the perfect amount of agitation and aggression.
I also have the fun songs in there. “Jockin’ Me” was one where I just told my best friends and bandmates, DJ Roza, and Irie Eyez, to drink a bunch of whiskey and hop in the booth and talk shit.
What are you most proud of so far as a musician?
Providing people an alternative to the kind of hip-hop music that is damaging to the human psyche. There is no more introspection or social analysis in music anymore, and every song I write is a personal way to connect to my fans. I found myself complaining about the lack of this and that and saw it was more constructive to create what I found missing in hip-hop, not just as a woman, but as a progressive person of color who is proud of her history and of growing up in San Francisco.
Weirdest thing that’s happened at a show?
Someone heckled me about Breaking Bad not being progressive or something. They obviously have no idea what the hell they’re talking about. I almost kicked her out for not respecting the legacy of Walter White.
Bay Area food item you couldn’t (metaphorically) live without?