The anti-‘rappity rapper’
Local hip-hop artist Paul Willis uses his life lessons to rap with empathy
Local rapper Paul Willis wears several beaded necklaces around his neck. It’s not just a fashion accessory. Each one represents a different religion.
“It helps me to understand that you might be looking at one thing—you might view it one way, but the people around you might view the same situation differently,” Willis says. “So be mindful and treat each other with respect.”
On one hand, this is a window into Willis’ view of faith. He grew up in the church; his grandmother was a Catholic minister, and prior to that she was Greek Orthodox. As he got older, Willis explored other belief structures such as Buddhism and Hinduism. The more he looked at each religion, the more he could see their similarities.
He’s since applied this way of thinking to other areas in his life. For instance, Willis says, his educational work for the nonprofit City Year is about altering perspectives. He cringes when people describe his job as “saving kids.” (“There’s not a hero complex here.”) He’s there to guide and encourage.
When it comes to his music, he feels similarly compelled to open people’s eyes to what others’ lives might be like. His newest album, The Guardian, which releases on June 9, is about empathy.
“I view empathy as a skill and not necessarily a trait,” Willis says. “You can practice empathy. You just have to be willing to have some really difficult conversations.”
Willis understands the power of empathy. As a kid, he lived with his grandmother because his mother was addicted to drugs. As an adult, he learned that addiction is an illness, which challenged his long-held beliefs about his mother.
“I blamed her for a lot of things. I was angry and disappointed that she wasn’t there for us,” Willis says. “I was convinced that I knew how my mom was thinking and feeling. That was not the case.”
On the album, Willis allows the listener to feel empathy by writing songs from different characters’ perspectives. His tracks invite listeners to hear others’ struggles, without telling them how to feel. In “Self-Help,” he shares the story of a son and a daughter who’ve been dealing with neglect and abuse from their father. Nobody is purely good or evil in Willis’ songs, which can be unsettling but also enlightening.
“This is an exercise in seeing situations and people through the perspectives of them instead of through the perspective of you,” Willis says.
The beats backing Willis’ words are dense, hard-hitting and spun with a hyper, jazzy vibe. Willis keeps his verses straightforward, never getting lost in overly complex words or crazy multisyllabic patterns. Ever since he started rapping in high school, he’s approached hip-hop this way.
He refers to the rappers of that other style as “rappity rappers,” more concerned with cramming syllables into their verses than the content of what they are saying. Instead, he always wanted to be a storyteller. To tell a good story, he’s learned that you have to understand what’s going on in other people’s heads. It also happens to make you a better person.
“What brings us together is that recognition of humanity,” Willis says. “I just think we need more of it.”