Interview With KARLO

By Nate Whitsell

IG: @SDLovesHipHop

KARLO is purposeful with his. In his world, hip hop is not a luxury. It is a necessity. Hip hop is a tool for survival, in both the inner and outer worlds in which he dwells. Whether KARLO is sorting out his thoughts and emotions or employing methods to cope with those musings and feelings, KARLO is utilizing his craft as a means to an end. While that “end” is yet to be fully defined, the means are: take all that life, as an Afghan, Mexican, American (in a city/country where 2/3 of you is not fully accepted), throws at you. Unravel it through pen strokes on a page, share it as recorded music and live edutainment; and, as a result, grow. Repeat. I was blessed to touch base with KARLO just after his return from performing in New York, and in the middle of the process described above. Take a minute from the hustle and bustle of life, and enjoy a glimpse into KARLO’s past, present and process.

Nate Whitsell: Who is KARLOakakarlo?

KARLO: Karlo is an ethnically mixed individual who is living out his passions in the United States of America using what his Afghan dad and Mexican mom taught him. Spending lots of time at the mosque and just as much time in Tijuana B.C. Mexico. I try to be vocal about the oppressed and try to improve myself daily by learning from the people around me.

NW: Can you tell us a story about how hip hop has changed your life?

KARLO: During high school, after 9/11, I felt a lot of pressure from society and felt I was walking on egg shells. Instead of reacting to the world, I turned to a pen/paper and hip hop. I remember Immortal Technique making me feel sane and grounded with his political perspectives that helped me make sense of these crazy times post 9/11. I also remember writing out all my anger and confusion on to NAS beats.  Hip hop was my outlet and the place where my anger towards the unjust world was accepted.

NW: Thank you for that. Can you tell us another story? The story of the moment when you decided that you had to rap.

KARLO: I tell everyone the same story about being in my bro KILLcREY‘s studio with him, and us partaking in some adult activities. We were listening to beats he was going to use for his next album. He stepped out of the room for a minute I began freestyling my thoughts over the beat. I guess I was a bit louder than I thought because he asked me if I normally freestyle like that. I told him normally in the shower or when I am really drunk (yes, I am one of those rappers). We began talking about music, and I explained how rapping has always been something I do, but in private. Chris convinced me to try writing something to a beat – he had to see what I would come up with. After that day, I started putting together my first EP, Sayed Padsha.

NW: So you made the decision to start rapping, and I am sure that you encountered numerous setbacks, as everyone pursuing a passion does. Can you tell us the story of one of those trying moments when you were on the brink of giving up?

KARLO: One thing I have a hard time doing, is leaving home for more than a day. I worry a lot about leaving my wife and my pets. I get severely homesick. I normally retreat and Facetime them constantly when I am in another city. I left on tour for four days once which was very difficult. I am having a hard time thinking about my tour coming up that will be two weeks and hit seven cities. I also have an opportunity to do a tour in Mexico that will be like 2-3 weeks. I seriously go back and forth with my career as more opportunities present themselves with longer times away from home. I value my time with my wife and pets and feel guilty being away from them to fulfill a passion. My wife encourages me to continue my music because, despite missing home, I always come back happy, knowing I am fulfilling a passion I have had since I was a kid.

NW: While struggling to find a balance between home life and art, I am sure there have been some pretty amazing moments that keep you in that beautiful tension. Can you tell us about a high point in your journey?

KARLO: One of my high points was my performance in San Francisco. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to pull my weight as an artist. When I showed up, I saw about 25 people I knew who went to see me. The venue was packed. That was the first time I performed outside of my city, and it felt like home. I remember being on stage and focusing on them throughout my performance, feeling inspired to make it a great show. That moment was inspiring.

NW: As you traverse the inherent highs and lows in creating art, what keeps you motivated? What is your “why”?

KARLO: My music is an internal process of reflection and digestion of the world around me. My motivations come from life around me, so my motivation changes depending on the season of life I am living. My music is highly political, considering just being me in America is political enough. Since music is how I process my life, I feel like the motivation changes, but at its core, it’s a multicultural perspective on the USA.

NW: Alright, now let’s dip into the music. Reader X has never heard of KARLO; what track should he/she listen to first to get a good grasp on the type of artist you are?   

KARLO: I think my track and video for “I’m an Amerikan” is a great song to start with – shows off the mixed points of view and blends them together in a stiff cocktail of a video.

NW: I was introduced to you by a mutual friend, Kahlee. He put me up on the release of your video for “Practice Smiling.“ Can you share a bit about the track, the visuals, and a bit about what inspired that song?

KARLO: “Practice Smiling” was a track produced by Digital Martyrs and the video was shot by Mighty Muds. I wrote that song as a personal reminder that being happy is something that we work on daily.  With my background in counseling/psychology, I also put a bit of neuroscience into the song by talking about how the act of smiling releases neurotransmitters: dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. These neurotransmitters make you happy, which is a really easy way to improve your mood. Being a person who suffers from PTSD and depression this simple task of smiling can be the difference between a sh**ty day and a productive one. “Practice Smiling” is me being transparent about struggling with staying happy, providing a solution, and practicing it.

NW: Now, I was introduced to you via a very positive song, which also has a heavier backdrop now that you gave us some insight. When I got to see you perform a set opening up for Pigeon John, I got to see another side of you, an angrier side. Where does the anger come from?

KARLO: My anger comes from being a non-white person, living in a conservative city in the United States of America. My anger comes from my dad’s bloodline that has been at war for generations. My anger comes from the prejudice my Mexican mom experienced right in front of me while I was a kid. My anger comes from the injustices I read about on a daily basis. My music helps me organize my anger and execute it in a productive manner.

NW: In all of that, one form of therapy (on top of helping you to organize and execute), I imagine, is creating music. You are currently working on an album, correct? Can you tell us a bit about what we can expect to hear on Flor?

KARLO: On my album Flor, you will hear different parts of my personality. You will see some of my political views, my party side, my love side, and I even experiment with some new themes that I will leave as a surprise. I have the first single/video out which you mentioned already “Practice Smiling,” which I did with a homie you also mentioned, Kahlee. I have another single named “Anyone Listening” dropping next month as well. This album is set to drop September 2017.

NW: Coming at your music from a different angle, a question that I find myself drawn to more and more, is, what is success? For you, what is a point, or the point, when you will feel like you have reached the level of success you had hoped to reach?

KARLO: To me, success is being able to create the art I feel best expresses my current sentiment. If we put it in financial terms, I am building my value as an artist and feel I am moving in the right direction. Overall, I am all about experiences, so one thing I want to experience is opening for an artist like Immortal Technique.

NW: That leads us nicely into the next question. Who in your life, or in the public eye, is sort of at that place you’d like to be at? In other words, who can you look to for some measure of guidance as you pursue your success?

KARLO: I would like to be at Immortal Technique’s level of success someday. I want to be able to tour and come out the other side with some money in my pocket. As for advice, I normally hit up my amigo Kahlee for help. He is a wealth of knowledge that is helping me move forward as an artist.

(If you would like to tap into Kahlee’s knowledge, a good place to start is his STATUS ESCALATE Podcast.)

NW: How important is it to you to make sure that you are giving guidance to those coming up after you?

KARLO: I feel too young in the scene to be giving out advice, but once I get to a place where I can help others, I feel it’s important to always give back.

NW: With everything going on in American society in 2016, how/why is hip hop culture important? Does hip hop have the ability to make a meaningful difference? Earlier I asked you to share about how the art and culture have changed your life; now, I’m going to ask something much more difficult of you – can you share an instance where you have seen your music make an impact on another’s life?

KARLO: One thing that moves me is how many military veterans I have been able to reach with my music. Being Middle Eastern and Mexican makes it hard to believe I could reach military veterans, let alone using hip hop as a way to do it.   I have a couple of highly political songs which connect with a lot of veterans who see the injustices our government has produced. I have had several of them even buy me a drink and explain how they “don’t normally listen to hip hop, but they connected to my lyrics.” I have many of them also talk to me about their time in the Middle East and how it changed them. This has had a great impact on me because I feel this proves that the majority of us have very similar views.

Thank you for that. I know that sharing things like that is difficult because it almost feels like self-worship, but I believe in the power of this culture, and want readers, near and far, to feel what I already feel.

NW: What’s something you’d like to share with San Diego’s hip hop scene?

KARLO: I would like to share a mixed and complex point of view of San Diego, and of the United States. I want to create music that shares the struggle of my parents and of the countries they come from. This what I would like to share with the San Diego hip hop scene.

NW: One emphasis of these interviews is to see a heightened level of unity in the San Diego Hip Hop community. Can you point to some other artists who you see as comrades and who you also see as helping to progress the scene?

KARLO: The FRESHstate is one group that has seen me grow in the scene, and I rely on them for guidance and support when making artistic decisions. I see them as family. I also respect and work with my homie PlainSight, who helped me with my first album. Overall, I feel lucky that the majority of San Diego artists I have met have been welcoming, supportive, and positive towards me.

NW: Finally, where should readers go to connect with you?

KARLO: Best place to find all my social media links is to visit my website if not you can use my handle @karloakakarlo for any social media site.