Dallas has produced its share of groundbreaking artists in the field of hip-hop and R&B, including MC 900 Foot Jesus as well as the reigning queen of soul, Erykah Badu. To that list we can now add the name Bhakti--a hip-hop project featuring 23-year-old Reggie Shaw that has caused an international sensation by creating a new subgenre of rap. Call it "transcendental hip-hop" (as Shaw prefers), or call it "Krishna Rap," as last month's issue of Vibe magazine proclaimed. Call it whatever you want, but there's no denying that Bhakti is droppin' some of the most unique and innovative rap lyrics of all time.
In fact, Bhakti (a Sanskrit word meaning "devotion") is so far out in George Clinton and Sun Ra territory as to receive coverage on the TV show "Strange Universe," which aired recently, showing a recent performance at the Hindu festival Janmastami (the birthday of Krishna), where Shaw--an African-American--rapped before a crowd of about 1,500 Hindus. Add to that the interest expressed by BBC World Service, as well as by producers and record labels across the nation--including Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, who is hoping to sign Bhakti to his label. DJ Zero--who did MC 900 Foot Jesus' first album--has now signed on to produce Bhakti, as well.
A former monk who is just finishing up his doctoral degree in theology at Dallas' American Institute of Holistic Theology, Shaw draws his inspiration primarily from Hindu holy texts known as the Vedas, but also borrows from the Bible--including the apocryphal books--and the Koran. His rhymes are mostly in English, but occasionally drift off into verses in Hebrew and Sanskrit, and are as accessible as they are challenging, resulting in a strange hybrid of urban slang and theological terminology.
"For a long time, I was involved in metaphysics, then when I moved into a new apartment, there was a brand-new copy of the Bhagavad-Gita in the closet," recalls Shaw, a smiling and radiantly warm person. His head is shaved, and he alternates between wearing African tunics and normal Western clothing. "After I read [the Gita], I called up the Hare Krishna temple and arranged to go to a program. The first day I went there, I never left. My roommate was like, 'Where did that guy go?' Then about four or five days later, he saw me downtown with the Krishnas, dressed up like one of them, playing cartals [finger cymbals] with the devotees and chanting 'Hare Krishna'--he totally tripped out!"
Shaw spent the next two years in the local temple's ashram studying Krishna consciousness, and became extremely well versed in Hindu teachings as well as in meditation. Yet something else was on his mind other than the swamis' morning lectures, the chanting, and the prayer regimen that begins daily at 4:30 a.m.
"I would sit there and listen to the lectures," he says. "And I would start makin' up these rhymes in my head, using the things I was learning." Shaw advanced so quickly that he was soon teaching others; in an effort to reach people in a way they could relate to, he began using hip-hop to impart Hindu scriptures.
"I was giving a lecture at the temple in San Diego, California, on 'The seers of the Truth have concluded that the material body has no endurance and the eternal soul has no change,'" Shaw says, citing the text in Sanskrit. "It's a Bhagavad-Gita verse, and I was giving some examples, reading the Sanskrit verses. There was a tape ready behind the curtains, and all of a sudden I got up and started bustin' out [starts to rap] 'Everybody clap ya hands! Uhh-In this human life there's a quest for identity/But searching out the answer is fear of insanity...' and everyone was just like, 'whoa!'"
After that, Shaw devoted much of his time to his doctoral studies, as well as to his new wife, Yarusha. He moved out of the ashram and into an apartment in Irving, but still attended the temple kirtans (dancing and singing celebrations) and performed periodically under the name Bhakti. Shaw first began setting tracks down for the EP Quest for Identity last December, then worked with P-Nut of Phenomena Sounds, a local producer who did mixes for Erykah Badu in the early days. Shaw also began working with another devotee named Avatar Das, who did backup harmonies.
Bhakti once performed with Erykah Badu before she was picked up by Kedar Massenburg and transformed into Soul Sistah Number One. When Badu heard Shaw's deeply spiritual rhymes, he says, "She just went stone cold and said, 'Ooooh!'"
Since the release of Quest for Identity, a three-song EP on Fort Worth's Twin Bhudda [sic] Records, Shaw and Badu have stayed in touch, and Bhakti has aroused interest from Badu's parent label, Universal Records--thanks in part to her endorsement.
Right now, Shaw is working with DJ Zero to complete a full-length album that he hopes will be released by November. The album will be a serious landmark: Although Krishna rap has been alluded to--by KRS-One, for example--it has never been fully explored and mastered as a viable form of hip-hop until now. Thus Bhakti's work constitutes a musical contribution not unlike George Harrison's early experiments fusing Western rock and Indian sounds, or the band Shelter's pioneering efforts in the Straight Edge Punk scene.
Check out some of the lyrics to "Beyond Illusion." Against a backdrop of cosmic hip-hop beats, Shaw delivers--in a deep, James Earl Jones-ish voice--"You have to cease the wild beast/By taking your mind East/Then you can attain supreme peace/And then you go beyond the human anatomy/And set your mind free from the body psychology/Living with this truth will take you back to the spiritual sky/That's your true home/Where you belong...Transcendental equanimity/It's from eternity." The lyrics are punctuated by the occasional "Word!" and phrases in Sanskrit.
"I don't make it sectarian when I'm talkin' to a person," Shaw maintains. "I try to let them know about spiritual paths--in particular, how to realize their identity." What he's referring to is the fundamental tenet of Hinduism and Buddhism that states that the soul is transcendental and appears again and again through reincarnation. The goal of life is then to identify yourself as a soul and end the cycle of birth and death.
"There are many different roads a person can choose to do that," Shaw says. "That's why I'm comin' from a universal perspective, and that's why I say in one of my songs, 'We are descending from a higher plane of consciousness in order to infuse wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to help with the planetary transformation.'"
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The biggest question facing Bhakti is whether people who are accustomed to a standard diet of gang-banging hip-hop are ready or willing to listen to a message that is completely different. Shaw points to inspirations including Badu, Digable Planets, Jamiroquai, and the Jungle Brothers as success stories, but Bhakti's music is on a whole new level--one that might be too high for the average person to handle.
"Right now, the evolution is in people's consciousness--not only in the populace in general, but even the hip-hop field," Shaw says. "They're moving over to a realm, you could say, that's metaphysical. Not only that, but holistic science has become intrinsic in society today, more than it has ever been. We're approaching a new millennium, and people's consciousness is changing and they're wanting to know a little more about what's out there."
But Bhakti doesn't end with just music. In conjunction with the concerts, Shaw plans to hold lectures on metaphysical topics. "It'll be real cool vibe, you know, with incense and everything. You gotta have incense. When I'm on my way to do the recordings, I light up some incense in my car and drive and do some verbal meditation before I go into the studio."
Look out MC Solaar, Justin Warfield, and De La Soul--you got competition.