Example: Tariq currently teaches a course called FRAMES in the Media Literacy and Hip Hop program at Jeron X Grayson Community Center in the Hill District. In the course, he likes to share pieces of culture with his students — current events, philosophy, history — without any imposed narrative, without commentary, without telling them why it’s perceived as important. He’s always surprised by their responses. They always see it differently; they separate the signal from the noise. He calls it “spot on,” cutting straight to the heart of the problem, but has trouble describing exactly what that means, and what it means to lose it as you get older.
“You grow up — at some point, life kills your dreams,” Tariq laughs. He describes how responsibilities and distractions mount as you get older, and it gets harder and harder to stay focused on your passions. Working with youth — he doesn’t like to call them kids — reminds him of what an uncluttered perspective feels like.
Tariq is 29, not exactly AARP material, but the gap feels significant with his students, who range from middle school to high school age. When they found he used to hang out at Shadow Lounge, which closed in 2013, some started calling him an O.G. His response: “I haven’t even earned some of those stripes yet to get that title. I’m like, ‘I’m seasoned!’ I’ll go for that.”
O.G. or not, 2016 has marked a banner year for Tariq’s career. After a tumultuous three years that saw him dealing with a family member’s cancer diagnosis and treatment, a period of “near-homelessness,” and bouts with depression and suicidal thoughts, Tariq has emerged reenergized. In addition to his work with Pittsburgh youth, he’s the assistant creative director at 1Hood Media Academy, works as a freelance graphic designer and music producer, and was named one of AllHipHop.com’s top 25 underground artists in 2015. In September, Tariq released his 10th album which, like his course, is called FRAMES.
The roots of FRAMES date to a pair of broken glasses via his nephew hitting him in the face with a ball last year. The cost of new frames was steep, so he jury-rigged a temporary fix with some tape, and that was good enough for him. But when he traveled to visit his family in his hometown of Binghamton, N.Y., his mother thought differently.
“We’re going to Walmart. You’re getting new glasses,” she told him. The new glasses reminded him of that feeling of being a kid and the renewed sense of perception that came with a new set of lenses. It’s the same picture, but fresh details emerge.
“It was a whole new parallel for having a whole new perspective of looking at things, or if you already have a perspective, re-finding that just by updating your prescription,” says Tariq.
Part of Tariq’s focus on perspective comes from a sense of not fitting into any predetermined category. He’s biracial, Muslim, and was strongly influenced by his parents’ backgrounds in political science and mathematics. Identity and perception are baked into his outlook.
“I walk into most [neighborhoods] and don’t have an issue. I don’t know if that’s just cuz of my average, bland-ass-looking dress code, or just not looking for issues,” says Tariq. ”I don’t look like a tourist, but I don’t look like I belong, a lot of times.”
On first listen, FRAMES might sound old-school because of Tariq’s linear, political and personal lyricism. But it’s more accurate to say that it cherrypicks various qualities of hip hop from the past 25 years. There are choruses, not hooks. There’s almost as much singing as there is rapping. The 15 songs play like a radio broadcast, tuning across different channels, incorporating samples of dialogue.
Some might hear early Kanye West in Tariq’s use of soul samples, or The Roots in the way the songs are so fleshed-out instrumentally (or because he’s got some killer snares in the mix), or Talib Kweli in his contagious, unabashed lyricism. But at the heart of FRAMES is a guy who’s discovered something about the way we interpret the world and urgently wants you to recognize it. It’s about the pain of losing touch with yourself and the challenge of clawing back some sense of clarity.
“It’s like a magic trick; once you understand how the trick is, you lose the magic. We haven’t found a way to understand the trick but still keep the magic.”
Or to put it another way, as in the sample from civil-rights activist and cultural critic Dick Gregory that opens FRAMES: “What’s dangerous is when the universe picks you, and you put on the magic glasses, there’s rules that go with ’em. You can never take them off.”
FRAMES is out now. More information is available at www.idasatariq.com.