I first saw Swam perform on stage with SoLilliquists of Sound before I ever officially met him in person. I was blown away by his performance for three reasons. 1. I didn’t know any sort of Hip Hop scene existed in Orlando and that me and my friends were capable of stumbling upon it. 2. I had never seen a show with so much energy. Not the jumping around, throwing equipment, we’re crazy kind of energy; but a thoughtful, listen to our message, we care about the world moxie. And finally 3. I wondered how Swam could pack so many eloquent words into one rhyming session without (a) stopping to take a breath and (b) mumbling. I could hear every pronunciation of each carefully chosen word, which seems nearly impossible to me considering I can’t help but run all my words together when in normal conversation, nevertheless when I’m excited and attempting to proclaim a message.
After that concert, every time I went downtown to places like Bar-B-Que Bar, The Social and Eye Spy, I saw Swam. He’d carry a backpack, dreads, dirty, long ones that hung down his back, and a smile, while self-promoting and selling CDs. I bought one, but not just because I enjoyed his music, I gravitated towards his passion.
Just recently, I ran into Swam at The City Factory Arts building on a third-Thursday. Years later (that’s many, many nights downtown, living in my twenties), we are friends; at least “Hey, how are you doing? How’s the tour? What’s your next project?” friends. Unlike me, a potential buyer of art, he was creating art on the couch right underneath his own showings on the wall. It had never occured to me that he could be as talented on canvas as he was on stage but he is. In fact, he told me later he received a college scholarship to Columbia where he studied art for four years. I wanted more Swam. So, I hit hit him up for an interview.
On my way to the interview at his shop, the Culture Mart, I looked up in time to see him speaking to a friend outside. The eavesdropper in me had hoped he wouldn’t stop talking on my account and he didn’t. However, I wasn’t prepared for the next 45 minute lesson, session, on life. As Swam spoke to his friend, T-Rex, about Hip Hop, life, skateboarding, violence in America, hope and other current events, I wanted to bust out my recorder. Because truth be told, that alone would have made for an interesting read. Swam doesn’t need someone to ask him questions; he already has a lot to say. Then just as I was becoming hypnotized by the rythmic flow of Swam and T-Rex’s rap of life, Swam turned to me and said, “You ready?” And I was ready—ready to take on the world.
Jana: How does one get a name like Swamburger?
Swamburger: My cousins couldn’t pronounce my real name Asaan. So it started a as Swan and then it changed to San and then eventually Swam. Swam was the one that stuck. It’s been my nickname since I was 4-years-old. Later, I made it stand for an acronym which was Survival With A Mind.
Then once I got to my college years and right around the time I became a vegetarian, one of my best friends, Miguel Arizola gave me the name Swamburger. The way I remember the story—and now I don’t know if it’s complete—but I was coming home from school and when I walked in [the house] there he was eatin’ this burger. The way he was eating this burger, juice was all coming down his chin. I was like, “Man, what are you eatin?”
He was always teasin’ me for becoming a vegetarian. So he looked up at me and said, “A Swamburger,” and we just started laughing. [Laughs] Them basically it elevated to a point where we thought: how great would it be to make it in the industry with a name like Swamburger?
Nice! I had hoped it had something to do with a delicious cheeseburger.
[Laughs] Yeah. So now what I’m trying to do with the name is employ it to Crooked Bayou’s veggie Philly, and then with that win best burger next year. That’s my plan.
What’s your plan? To make the veggie Philly the new cheeseburger?
Yeah! That’d be hot!
Explain veganism to me.
It’s basically no meat and no dairy.
Wouldn’t that make it hard to eat out?
Ah, hell no! It’s easier to eat at places that cater to it, but it’s not hard to eat out at all. Think of all your side dishes and that pretty much covers it. No butter, but here are vegan substitutes. I don’t know if you know this but margarines are often made vegan.
I didn’t know that. How did you become vegan?
I started out as a vegetarian. This girl named Ms. Anna, who was an emcee in college as well, was raised vegan and having troubles. She was having troubles with schooling, she was smoking a hell-of-a-lot of weed, she just was having troubles but just as much troubles as anyone else would have. I took it upon myself to still care into it. That’s just me—my name means giver.
I got inquisitive as to what was troubling her. Basically—for a year and a half—we talked through all her problems. She dumped her man, she picked up her grades and she eventually started stickin’ up for herself. You know? She got stronger and stronger as a being and as a person. She thought I had done so much for her and wanted to return the favor. So she asked me to stop eating meat, and I did.
Wait. I don’t understand. How is giving up meat a favor for her?
It was a favor for her because she wanted me to understand the things I had done for her, like broadening her life and giving her a different perspective to look at. I listened. Granting her the favor is me empowering the word, especially in our day and age when people don’t give you the benefit of the doubt unless you’re a super star.
At that time I was like, “Yo, wow, thank you!” I met up with her years afterwards and told her I was still a vegetarian and she was like, “Oh my God!” [Laughs] I let people know, especially when I’m talking to them or doing my music, that the power of the word is just as much as you want to give it. Now, I totally understand what she wanted me to get and how she feels about how someone can do something for you. You feel me?
I feel you. [Laughs] I just don’t know that I’d be able to give up meat.
It’s only as attached to yo as you allow it to be. She knew exactly where I was coming from. She knew I wouldn’t be like, “Yo, why are you trying to make me stop eating meat?” I looked at it like, “damn, she might have some knowledge that I don’t have.” Now, I have that knowledge. I’m just glad I went along with it and trusted her with my life, my well being and my essence.
The Culture Mart, your store, is that where one can find culture?
Yes! The Culture Mart is definitely where you come to buy culture, and also to get more involved within the culture or cultures that are happening. You know? It’s basically going to be as cultural as the culture in Orlando will allow it to be. So come through all the time.
But how are we supposed to know how to get here? I didn’t see any signs out front.
[Laughs] I had it out before but it started raining. My other sign was stolen. But that’s exactly what culture is. The culture is no going to be advertised, you just find out about it. You feel me? If you’re looking for spots you’re gonna find it.
How long have you been running the shop?
What sells the most?
My shirts but that’s usually because I go downtown [and into the bars] to sell them myself.
That’s true! I see you out all the time. You are the hardest working, self-promoting entrepreneur I know.
[Laughs] In Orlando, you have to be. Where I’m from originally, in Chicago, you don’t have to so much.
I noticed that when you use pen and canvas when you start a visual work of art. Where did you learn to do that?
I always had teachers that were like, “If you mess it up, dress it up.” I was using pencil and then painting over it in the beginning, and I found myself not using the eraser a lot. Eventually, I wasn’t using it at all. The pen has a better flow to it on any kind of canvas.
There’s something to starting with ink on canvas…
Yes, it definitely helps you commit. The thought changes, it’s like, I’m a great artist, not this person who is trying to create great art. It definitely helped change my mind frame.
You seem to be influenced by your Chicago roots. Would you agree?
Definitely. Chicago, to me, is the “City of Angels,” rather than what they call Los Angeles. While I was living there, I always felt like I was being surrounded by spirits, great spirits, but also history. I was exposed to bad and good, beneficial, non-beneficial, struggle, hustle, victory, success. I was exposed to famous people all the way to homeless people. I got to experience everything just from that one city. If it were a book, it’s probably be the greatest book I’ve ever read to prepare you for what you’re gone experience in life. So it definitely has presence in my art work, and so does Hip Hop.
What is Hip Hop to you?
Hip Hop, to me, is something that has been handed down from past generations of African History. It’s different than what you hear on the radio. That’s why I’m always out there working as hard as I am. I actually have a real passion for communicating and making a connection bigger than the one we would have meeting each other in public. Like, “Oh hey, yeah. How you doin’?”
It’s trying to give you something that I have been given. That’s what my music is. People will get it over time. Hip Hop is evolving so much. I get involved with the shape it takes on and how it moves and acts in society. When I see something that doesn’t necessarily represent Hip Hop, or it doesn’t give me the feeling Hip Hop gave me before, it irks me. You know? It makes it less worthwhile. I feel like I really have to put out what Hip Hop is, to me, and what it will always be.
And what is that?
It’s straight up love, yo. It’s unity. It’s a community that is going to look out for each other. It’s a progressive community that knows the difference between non-beneficial and beneficial.
At this point, do you feel Hip Hop is at a breaking point?
Yeah, but I also feel that it’s due to the fact that life is at a breaking point. I mean, here we are in the middle of war and nobody gives a shit. People are worried about how much beer cost and if they can get in free to a club. Our value is devalued by our own selves. In turn, it makes music act the same way. Hip Hop was giving something for these people to give a shit about. Now, it’s been watered down so much, to a point that, you don’t get that from the majority of Hip Hop. And if the majority is not working together, what you’re going to get is fragmented politics, fragmented lifestyles and fragmented reasoning.
What do you want people to feel when they come to see one of your shows?
Love, dawg. Straight love. You know? Pure love. If they’re hopeless I want them to have a sense of hope, and even beyond that. I believe that Hip Hop is a reaffirmation and/or affirmation of all those great things that can be accomplished. It’s the new messiah. It is God—everything you hold high. It’s trying to act out those greats in life.
Do you write music to inspire those around you?
I feel like if I do it for myself, others will be inspired by it. If I can talk to myself in a manner where I’m truthful and honest, it will translate to any and everybody else. You feelin’ me? Some people might look at that as elements of narcissism. Some people look at it as self-righteous, but I don’t know anybody that takes care of themselves well and doesn’t have the need to care for other people.
How are you able to translate your feelings into words and lyrics?
I just have them. It’s the same way I hear a sound. Words to me are vibrations. The feeling to me, at first, is translated as a vibration. You know what I’m sayin’? Let’s say I have a feeling, but the feeling is caused by a startling sound. Then my word for that might be STARK. Not just because of it’s meaning, but because going into it [he makes heavy pronunciations of each sound] it’s ‘Sss’ almost silent, but then it has a harsh ending, ‘KAH!” So it’s STARK! By expressing the R more than the A, it has a definition to it. People probably don’t necessarily think about that, so it might sound weird on tape. [Laughs] But that’s exactly what goes into it.
So it’s more than a word and its meaning, it’s a feeling and …
Yeah, it’s an intention. There’s intention behind it. Like, when I shake someone’s hand, I’m not just shaking their hand because they’re cool to me. It’s because I’m also trying to preserve what ever it is that is flowing from me.
Recently your group, SoLillquists of Sound, opened up for The Roots at the House of Blues. Was that your biggest show?
Maybe feeling wise, but nah, I think one of our greatest shows, or feats we had overcome, was playing at Missoula, Montana. We went there for the first time and it was a pretty big crowd. Then we went there for the second time and it was damn near sold out. Going to a different spot where no one knows you and then going a second time and it’s a sold out crowd—that’s amazing. I felt like something was accomplished on both parties. And they were screaming so loud we couldn’t hear the beats coming out of the speakers. It caused us to tear up, you know, cry. It’s like wow, here you are making these songs out of the comfort of your own home and you see it translate from one thing to the next — everyone in the crowd is singing your lyrics.
Where does your spirituality lie?
In life itself. Not being satisfied when I look at my fingers and say, “Ok, they’re just fingers.”
Practicing religion means practicing a program, and a way to pay respect to the things that you are learning. People are able to go to church over and over again, but they’re just turning their wheels if they’re not moving anywhere with this information. To me, you don’t need a church. It’s what you choose to be your temple. Let’s say you truly are looking at yourself as a temple and you’re building by what comes into you. What would you put in your temple? Good things or bad things? Both? What kind of balance are you trying to create?
What would you put in your temple?
Straight up good things. [Laughs] Lessons learned, you know? I think I’d be a spittin’ image of the world or maybe another planet. Then people could live on my planet.
… The Planet of Swamburger?
Yeah! Exactly. [Laughs]