Love List: Napoleon Maddox

The frontman of long-standing conscious local Hip Hop group ISWHAT?!, Napoleon Maddox speaks enthusiastically and deliberately during a recent meeting at Island Frydays on Short Vine.

Name: Napoleon Maddox

Age: “I’m a child of the ’70s.”

title: Artist/educator/musician

Hometown: Cincinnati

Why we love him:

For his creative efforts to reflect his globally minded, socially conscious perspective.

The frontman of long-standing conscious local Hip Hop group ISWHAT?!, Napoleon Maddox speaks enthusiastically and deliberately during a recent meeting at Island Frydays on Short Vine.

When he was just discovering Hip Hop as a young man, Maddox says, “I started hanging out at the Arts Consortium and learning about Jazz and how it was connected to that rebel music and of being socially aware. That cut my love for Roots Hip Hop, Roots Jazz, Free Jazz or spiritual avant-whatever.”

A pillar of positivity, Maddox got into Hip Hop in the first place because he was inspired by artists like Chuck D and KRS-One — lyricists who powerfully connect their music with a higher social function. So he writes lyrics in the vein of another one of his heroes, Jazz vocalist and civil rights activist Abbey Lincoln, an artist who created art as a tool for self-development. The idea of a “career” came secondary to her own development as a person, or “the main project,” as Maddox refers to it.

Although he has an international music reputation as a Hip Hop lyricist and for his human beatbox skills, Maddox is quite at home in Cincinnati. “I love that in Cincinnati you can afford to have character,” he says. “When you compare it to other places that I’ve been — of course New York, Paris and London have character — but it’s difficult to experience life there because you’re always scratching and scraping and clawing to survive.”

“I can serve in ways here that would be more difficult if I were living in a more expensive city,” he adds.

Whether he’s touring the United States or abroad on behalf of one of his “three and a half” current music ventures (ISWHAT?!; his collaboration with French Electro/Hip Hop musician Sorg, Sorg & Napoleon Maddox; and as sideman for Jazz musicians Roy Nathanson & Sotto Voce and Andrea Cefalo), studying for his degree in early childhood education or serving as a board member at Elementz community center in Over-the-Rhine, Maddox isn’t at a loss for inspiration.  

What aspects do you love about your job?  

I love in both cases [as a teacher and as an artist] the possibility to meet people, learn about people and where they’re coming from and thus learning about myself. There is a mutual space of vulnerability and me having the opportunity to give to them what people give me when I go to new places around the world.  

How do you define passion? How is passion different from love? What are you most passionate about? 

Passion is the drive that makes you lose sleep over something. It drives you to investigate and to invest beyond rationale. If you get passionate about something, no one can talk you out of it. People see love as an emotion, but I think it’s an understanding. Passion can come and go, but the way I see love, it’s a commitment, so even when the passion is down, your love of something will keep you going until that passion returns.

I think I’m really passionate about a lot of things but probably the most about honest expression in music. When I’m able to communicate through music and people can feel it even if it’s not as commercially successful as something that I’ve previously done, nothing turns me on more than putting out honest music and experiencing honest music from someone else.

Do you have a favorite place in Cincinnati? Why do you love it?

The Greenwich is a favorite place. Since at least probably the late ’90s one of the important relationships in my development as an artist was founded at The Greenwich. I met a lot of people there; it’s been a long time doing shows, being a presenter or promoter.  Our biggest great success there was hosting a meet and drink with William Parker and Roy Campbell, and I remember that it was right around the time of the killing of Amadou Diallo and Campbell had a song of that name on his album Ethnic Stew and Brew (2001), and Hamid Drake, his drummer, played 21 rimshots in succession to represent the 21 gun shots [that killed Diallo]. That was a big moment in any Jazz club and the place was full.

What’s the best lesson life has taught you about love?  

Give it space. Give it time and stay the course. It’s teaching me to do my best, to be honest, be vulnerable and that is more powerful than trying to fix someone or myself. ©

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