Building Community in Conscious Rap 

Jada Imani strives to reflect her inner dreams in her recorded work.

click to enlarge “I’ve been practicing,” Imani said. “I’ve been a student of it.”

Photo by Chiara Bercu

“I’ve been practicing,” Imani said. “I’ve been a student of it.”

Jada Imani has been writing songs since she was five years old. At 21, she is committed to forging her own way as a rapper, writer, emcee, and youth organizer in the Bay Area. Since dropping out of high school, she has dedicated her time to supporting "conscious" music and creative expression, both in her own life and in the lives of young artists who surround her. 

This past September Imani released Blend, a five-track album produced by San Francisco artist Baghead. With lo-fi and often jazzy beats, Imani's songs tend to elevate her verses, which chart a range of smooth and emphatic sounds across the album. As the two artists describe on Bandcamp, Blend offers "a common ground where listeners can feel seen, be pushed to reflect, and find restoration." Tracks like "Sometimes I Feel Like" evoke the tone and flow of rapper Sampa the Great, while other songs bear the influence of her love for Erykah Badu.

In the first track on Blend, Imani ad-libs over a looped beat, introducing herself and her intention for the album — a prelude that gives voice to a broader ambition in her music. She describes having inherited a world made to "work against us," one held in place by the ideas "planted in our minds." Imani sees her music as a challenge to the ideas propagating that world, and an invitation to make "a new one."

Before her family moved to south Berkeley in 2008, Imani spent most of her upbringing in East St. Louis, Illinois and Columbia, Missouri. She was born the middle of two siblings, and remains extremely close with both her young sister, Dominique Carter, and older brother Maleik Dion — who she tributes in her single "Family Over Everything," a track she recorded with her cousin Jaleel Carter last year.

Imani's parents introduced her to a wide range of musical influences, including Fela Kuti, Rage Against the Machine, Common, and Jill Scott. Despite having been surrounded by music from a young age, however — and drawn to create her own — it took Imani until the end of eighth grade before she felt comfortable sharing her passion for it. Imani said her family was relatively "stoic," and she struggled to appreciate the emotionality that fueled her songwriting. Yet with the support of her brother and her mentors in the Bay-based organization Youth Speaks, Imani has gained confidence in her voice and sensitivities as an artist. "I feel now like what comes to me, to my mind and my spirit, only belongs to me for a quick moment," she said, "so that it can pass through and be delivered to somebody else." While she once felt "buried" in her inner world, she now sees transparency as a vital part of her creative work. "As I lean into that and trust it, it relieves me of doubt, and more comes to me."

Imani jump-started her music career at the age of 15, alongside her brother Maleik and her best friend Stoney Creation. Imani met Stoney while she was still in school, during a low period in her life. When the two of them got lunch together one day, "I laughed so much with her, I couldn't stop," Imani said. "It was the type of deep belly laugh, the kind I didn't have often." Her connections with Stoney and Maleik empowered her to move forward and follow her passion for music. "I have to figure out how to enjoy my life and live with meaning," she said. "My soul needs it — it needs substance every day."

Once Imani left school, she began to collaborate on music with Stoney and Maleik, and eventually founded the group Tatu Vision with the two of them in 2015. Imani and Stoney had only one song recorded when they landed a First Friday show for Tatu Vision. Their track "Insanity Illusion" caught the attention of Alan Blueford Center for Justice's Mollie Costello, who appreciated the song's admonishment of police terror. With the center's support, Imani, Stoney, and Maleik held First Friday shows and frequent open mics. They saw Tatu as a way to support "intentional community-building" for young people. "We worked hard to build an infrastructure and a steady, consistent platform for artists," Imani said. "And it really worked." 

Looking back, Imani credits the community she forged with Tatu for launching her music career and the careers of other artists involved. When Maleik took a job as manager of the UC Theater, and Stoney began to explore her music independently, Imani took charge of Tatu Vision on her own. Since then, she has transitioned to hosting weekly open mics at The Well, an event met by local artists such as Moses (Lil Mungo) and Camille Schmitt. 

Emceeing has informed Imani's skills as a facilitator, as well. Alongside her endeavors with music, she has held seminars on creative arts, personal growth, and spirituality at events across the state — including the Bioneers Conference and Permaculture Convergence — and has featured in episodes for podcasts such as RaceConvo. As an advisor of the Aspen Institute's Creative Young Leaders Alliance and mentor at Youth Speaks, Imani has learned how to "create and shift culture" within a given classroom or workshop environment. Her many years at Youth Speaks have helped her acquire the skills she needs to "intentionally hold people" in difficult conversations — whether about race, self-discovery, systemic change, or music. "I've been practicing," she said, "I've been a student of it." 

Presently, Imani teaches weekly writing workshops at Street Academy and Mission High School, where she builds curricula around whatever it is she sees the students grappling with. In the past, her classes have focused on topics such as self-esteem and the history of hip-hop. "It's February, so we're talking about love," Imani said. "Self-love, love of humanity, what love is and what isn't." Though Imani believes the school system is "built to fail," she's inspired by the potential she sees in her students. "It's tiring in a way that still feels purposeful," she said. 

Imani has a few musical projects in the works, including an upcoming collaboration with Stoney. After taking time with independent creative endeavors, the two of them are excited to produce an album celebrating a "second chapter of their relationship." Imani is also finalizing a four-part mixtape with DJ Basta, which will be imminently released on 45 RPM vinyl and on Bandcamp. This week, she'll be hosting her own stage at the Black Joy Parade and attending a screening in LA — where a mini-documentary about her has just been accepted to University of Southern California's F.R.O. Fest. 

"My outer world is starting to reflect my inner dreams, my creative whims, my impulses," Imani said. As her artistic career unfolds, she continues to draw inspiration from "the dream" that has forever fueled her passion for making music. "It's so vivid and it's always been there," she said. Her hope for her art is that it carries insight and clarity from a place beyond herself, from "somebody who can see our way through this," Imani said. "I want to bring a message from that place."

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