By Paul Willis, City Year Boston '10 ‘11 and City Year Sacramento '12 alumnus
For years, music has been a catalyst for connecting people around the world and sparking discussion on important issues. Hip Hop, in particular, merges beats and rhythm with lyrics that speak to the hard realities of our world. In the past two decades, we have witnessed the rise of conscious rappers who use their music as a form of social activism. Paul Willis, a City Year Boston '10 ‘11 and City Year Sacramento '12 alumnus, plays a major role in that movement with his unique style of social justice-oriented hip hop.
Paul Willis' story began in Boston where he and his five siblings were raised by his grandma. Paul was exposed to the hard realities of life at a young age as he watched his mother cope with drug and alcohol addiction. Artistic talent runs in his family as his brother was also a poet and taught him about different forms of writing. Starting in middle school, Paul merged hip hop and education by rapping about literature and material he was learning in the classroom. He took direction from mentors such as Father Campbell, a teacher in his middle school, who taught him about word choice and the positive influence that music can have. He also looked to artists such as Def Jam poets, Kanye West, Common, Lupe, Mos Def as a source of inspiration.
His love of education and commitment to service led him to City Year, after finishing college, where he served at his former school (Hennigan Elementary School) and recorded his first album with a fellow City Year Boston AmeriCorps member, Zach Gerg. Upon completing his first year, he decided to return as a Team Leader in Sacramento where he continued to pursue his music while mentoring students. Serving in Sacramento was an exciting experience for Paul because he had the opportunity to step outside his comfort zone and build relationships on behalf of City Year in the Sacramento school system. It was also his first taste of the California hip hop/spoken word scene.
For Paul, the message behind the music has always been the most important aspect of his work. Engaging youth and using music as a tool to inspire and educate has been at the forefront of his career. Collectives like Zero Forbidden Goals, gave him a space and a community to showcase his talents and form a coalition to shift the mindset around hip hop. Within this group, he helped put on pop up shows throughout Sacramento, lead conversations around social justice issues and artistry, change legislature around busking (street performances) and local artistic expression, and empower communities and youth. It’s a wonder that he still had time to produce another album, The Guardian, where he gives the listener an inside look into his life and journey and tackles issues such as Black Lives Matter, politics, race and religion. Through this album, he says he hopes to spread the message of empathy and the importance of viewing the world and other people’s experience through multiple lenses because at the end of the day: “what brings us together is that recognition of humanity.”
Interested in learning more about his music? Check out one his winning “Idealism Rocks” song!