A conversation with Rivan Calderin about BIPOC exhaustion, safety and music as a platform for consciousness.
This is the third installment of Homegoings, a special series from Brave Little State that features conversations with musicians of color who live in Vermont. Follow the series here as we release new episodes weekly through June 15.
Note: These transcripts are provided for accessibility and reference. If you are able, we strongly recommend listening to this episode here. Please check the audio before quoting in print, as the transcript may contain minor errors.
Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Nas, Jay-Z, Lauryn Hill.
Do you know these names?
These are just some of the founding kings and queens of hip-hop music.
You’ve likely done some dancing to some of these artists, and if you enjoy your hip-hop, you know that it’s not just music — it’s a whole mood.
It was also a whole movement. In the 1970s, hip-hop began to form in the Bronx, New York City. It focused on emceeing (or rapping) to a DJ or a beat at house parties and neighborhood block party events. This movement was, no doubt, incredibly urban.
So, Vermont. I’ll ask again...DO you know these names? Maybe so. Maybe some. But one thing’s for sure.
Rivan Calderin? Is gonna make sure you know his.
[Rivan Calderin] What I have to offer to the world is my music. Like, that's my home, and I want to open it up to anyone who wants to come inside and welcome themselves.
Welcome back to Homegoings, a special series from Brave Little State. I’m Myra Flynn. Every week we’re sharing conversations with Vermont musicians of color, and taking a deep listen to one of their songs.
In our last two episodes, I spoke with Bobby Hackney Jr. from Rough Francis about Black grief, and Senayit Tomlinson about art as a way through. Today I talk with Rivan Calderin, a hip-hop artist, about using music as a platform for conscious conversation.
[Rivan Calderin] Did you know that George Floyd made rap music? It's awesome. I've listened to some of it, it's like, sort of chopped and screwed like Pimp C. “South” stuff. It's pretty cool.
[Myra Flynn] I did not know that. Oh my goodness. Now yeah, I'm gonna have to go and find some, that’s amazing.
I found it.
And listening gave me some amazing insight into Geroge Floyd the man, and the artist. That he was so much more than his murder. I could go on about this forever, but we have to get back to Rivan.
Rivan Calderin is 20, but he dropped all sorts of musical knowledge on me during this interview. And that’s because he knows his stuff.
As a multi-racial, Afro-Cuban-Caucasian hip-hop artist born and raised in Vermont, he has his work cut out for him. He says he had to intentionally seek out his craft.
Hip-hop isn’t just growing on maple trees.
[Rivan Calderin] It's interesting, because I make hip-hop music, which is something very rare to Vermont… So I'm always watching other people's stories and sort of just using it as motivation for myself, but it is a bit challenging. Being hip-hop artists in Vermont, especially a person of color for that matter, just because a lot of the people a lot of the music people I work with on a day to day basis are white people. Just because that's what Vermont has to offer. It's a majority-white state.
Rivan notes that he knows plenty of Vermonters who like hip-hop. But he worries, with lyrics about Black Panther history, riots and slavery… are people really getting it?
[Rivan Calderin] Like I have tons of friends that are in folk bands, and you know, tons of friends that make jazz music, and I really like all that type of music. But some of the content that I try and talk about isn't really other people's interests in this area.
This “area,” Vermont, which is super rural, and white, is often viewed as a really welcoming place. But it does not reflect the surroundings from which hip-hop, an urban movement, was born.
So I had to ask Rivan: In a state that does not have a deeply rooted cultural context for this specific genre of music, is hip-hop really welcome here?
[Myra Flynn] But how do you think hip-hop hits Vermonters? Do you think it's valued and appreciated? As an art form, as a genre in general?
[Rivan Calderin] I want to say yes, but honestly, I have to say no, to some extent. I mean, this is, Burlington, Vermont is a college town, like a majority of my audience that I'm trying to sell my art to, are college students, which is a pretty stupid population of people trying to market to. Like, I mean, I can only comfortably say that because I myself am a college student. I know lots of people that love hip-hop, but it doesn't really hit them. The same way that I'm sure people in other cities are impacted by hip-hop. I don't know, I think college students, like they're here to have a fun time, which is completely understandable.
Fun. Oh yeah, that thing. Fun — is a thing.
I’ve been back in Vermont for three months now, since relocating my Black family from Los Angeles. And I have to say, I am so tired! And it’s not just the new job here at VPR, or the new baby and her current teething situation (which is crazy hard, don’t get me wrong) or even that I’m still singing nights while working days during all of this…
It’s the inability to take a break from my Blackness that exhausts me. It’s the inability to be seen as Myra, first, and a Black woman somewhere down the line. It’s the lack of anonymity, and the constant reminder that here, I am other.
Are you tired yet?
Because I haven’t even touched on the unspoken responsibility that comes with being othered. The code-switching. The act of being calm in the face of blatant racism. The expectation that all of the above will be met with patience and grace and even a teachable moment.
And sure, a lot of people are grappling with this stuff for the first time. Because of the fallout from George Floyd’s murder. But that reckoning, for BIPOC folks, comes with a heavy lift.
I had to ask Rivan: How do you set it down?
How do you get back to having fun?
Rivan says it’s hard.
[Rivan Calderin] So I would, I would be working on music. And I would be constantly thinking about like, Black Lives Matter and all these issues that, “Oh, how am I going to solve them.” And it was just exhausting. And I wasn't really having much fun with the music that I was making.
Last summer, during what Rivan calls “the peak of George Floyd”, he got involved in some social justice work. He says he felt like he was trying to fight the fight on behalf of all people of color, while working a part-time job and being a junior in college at UVM.
[Rivan Calderin] I was just in a class earlier. My policy class, and my teacher was saying, “We all need to make an effort to help save the world.” But you have to put on your own oxygen mask first when the plane is crashing, which I mean, the plane is always crashing, it's never not crashing.
[Mayday to Pilot music]:
It’s the half blind pilot
Violet turning violet
A ticking time bomb with the middle name tyrant
Powerful impact, boom goes the cannon
1000 foot fall but I stick the landing
[Rivan Calderin] I don't know, I think making music that's like, more the type of music that I want to make. It's just a way of me putting on my own oxygen mask.
I heard and felt this deeply from Rivan in a conversation we had pre-interview. And I told him, dude… that’s the story right there. Because not only do Black Lives Matter, but Black joy, Black leisure, and Black FUN matters equally. So if you want me to feature a song by you where you are simply having fun, I’ll do that! Happily.
But Rivan sent me his song of choice very aptly titled: “Mayday to Pilot.”
[Mayday to Pilot music]:
Mayday to pilot, im not gonna crash in the crowd
But I might just clash with the sound.
It’s for sure a fun song, but if you take a deep listen, which we’ll do at the end of this episode, Rivan makes it pretty clear: You’re gonna learn somethin’, too.
[Mayday to Pilot music]:
Like fu-- all of that
You want me to sing and dance like I’m a sambo
You want me to rap about sipping lean and whipping lambos
You want me to be black and beautiful until it hurts you
But guess what bit--? I don’t need to fu--ing serve you
I’m the king of my conscious, the leader of my people, the one who won’t rest until we’re treated equal
Don’t need to be anyone else, but who I am
I am what I am and thats a brown man
When we come back, we’ll hear more from Rivan about his artistic responsibility.
[Mayday to Pilot music]:
Thats why im, im bringing it back, bringing it back uh,
Thats why im spitting the facts and swinging my axe
“Mayday to Pilot” is off the 2020 EP igotthejuice, Rivan Calderin wrote and emcee’d the record.
Like Rivan, I know my way around a recording studio or 20. So it was fun for us to almost commiserate around creating art during a time when there is a built in expectation for artists to use their platforms for social change.
Like what happened to just making music… man?
And that led to a strange conversation about cake and vegetables. Stick with me, I promise it will all make sense soon.
[Myra Flynn] ...I had one producer like yank me away and be like, I need you to stop shoving your intelligence down my throat. Yeah. And your lyrics, like I need a break. And I get it. People need a break. But I also think personally, you do a really great job of doing what I call slipping in the vegetables with the cake. Yeah, you're definitely giving, giving folks a message that they need to hear. And subtly.
[Rivan Calderin] Slipping in the vegetables. I like that. ...I think that I've been able to successfully both entertain and then also remain conscious within my lyrics, which is something that I've had to work very hard for.
And why can’t consciousness be fun? Does it always have to be such hard work?
Or as Rivan suspects, do we still just have too far to go?
[Rivan Calderin] ... I'd like to be positive. And think that everything is going to be OK for people of color…I'm sure white people all over the country were like, we're yipping and drinking with joy when Chauvin was guilty, like, and “Oh, we did it like George Floyd, we we got his justice.” But I mean, it's hard for me to not look like, OK, we wrap that one up. And then Daunte Wright, literally, is just the next George Floyd. And that happened literally moments after like, one chapter closes, and then the other begins.
But Rivan says, almost in spite of the atrocities surrounding him, he still makes music.
[Rivan Calderin] I can't live my life with dread, and fearing the future of what will happen for people of color, you know, You don't have to fear it. You just have to be knowledgeable of it. So when it comes, we're able to deal with it. But in the meantime, we have to live our lives. Just how any normal happy white person would.
This is the third episode of Homegoings, and I’m hearing some common themes in my interviews. A big one is that for most of the BIPOC people I speak with, their own mortality is top of mind.
Even for Rivan, and he’s only 20.
[Rivan Calderin]...I've told tons of my friends this, like, after I pass away, I don't see any reason why I shouldn't just have all of my music be available to the public…(having all my art out there so folks can consume it) I think is like, a really strong way to preserve someone's legacy. ….Just because I feel like what I have to offer to the world is my music. Like, that's my home, and I want to open it up to anyone who wants to come inside and welcome themselves.
And there’s that word. Home.
If you've been following this series, Homegoings, you’ll know that I talk a lot of about a house, framed by four pillars of Black response in a post-Floyd era: Grief, rage, joy and healing.
But I think I forgot a crucial one.
Without a safe foundation, you can’t build your house.
And Rivan says when he’s not thinking about his artistic responsibility and legacy, he’s thinking about his own safety.
You begin to realize what a miracle it is that he makes time for fun at all.
[Rivan Calderin] I was driving through Plattsburgh with my girlfriend a few weeks ago. She was driving. And I asked her, “What would you do? If I was, we were to get pulled over right now,” she was driving, I was like, “What would you do if we were to get pulled over right now? And they were to ask for my ID.” And she was, she began doing what any sensible sort of white person would do, which is like, “Well, I would tell the police officer that you don't have to give them your ID, and that you have your rights.” And I was like, “Let me stop you right there, although that’s the perfect thing to do in a happy normal world, that’s not even close to what we are dealing with right now... If I’m to get pulled over by cops, I am safer to be thrown in jail than have to deal one on one with a police officer that's attempting to arrest me.” And she started to cry, because like, that was hard for her to realize she was like, “I wouldn't want anything ever bad to happen to you.” And I'm like, “Of course you wouldn't. I don't want to either.” And it's super sad. And it's just a crappy thing to think about. But like, I go on with my life, making the music that I want to make, having fun with the people that I want to have fun with. Knowing that that's a possibility. But I think all people of color, sort of just need to look at it from that perspective. Live the life, live the fullest life that you can, while being smart about it and knowledgeable and prepared.
[Myra Flynn] How old are you again? 45?
[Rivan Calderin] I have, I have very smart parents that have taught me the ways I guess.
Rivan and I said goodbye, but not before he set up our listening session for his music in a sweet… and savory way.
[Rivan Calderin] This is the perfect cake, we have a veggie cake mix, you know, you're talking about, it's like a delicious slice of cake. But it's a carrot cake. You know, there's tons of carrots, jam packed in there.
Let’s listen to “Mayday to Pilot” by Rivan Calderin. And while you do, try to have some fun.
Thanks for listening to Homegoings, a special series from Brave Little State. We’re releasing the fourth installment next week, so keep an eye on your feeds.
If you have not seen the Homegoings art that our digital producer Elodie Reed made for this episode, I highly recommend you check it out here. We have original graphics that incorporate a photo of Rivan Calderin and a pretty rad series logo. You’ll also find the lyrics to today’s song, “Mayday to Pilot."
I produced this episode and composed the Homegoings theme music. Mix and sound design by Josh Crane and...me! The executive producer of Brave Little State is Angela Evancie.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. As always, our journalism is better when you’re a part of it:
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We’ll be back soon. Until then, remember: Be brave.
Homegoings is a special series from Brave Little State that features conversations with musicians of color who live in Vermont — about Black grief, resilience and music.
Follow the series here as we release new episodes weekly through June 15.