Q&A with Propaganda
On writing his new album, using art as activism, and fighting cynicism
So goes the hook in the song “Andrew Mandela” on Propaganda’s new album, Crooked. The lines sums up much of what Jason Petty (aka Propaganda) seeks to do with his music.
Many people first heard of Propaganda in 2012 after he ruffled feathers with “Precious Puritans,” a song pointing out the moral failings of some of the American church’s most beloved theologians. On his 2014 album, Crimson Cord, he called out the failings of the U.S. education system with “Bored of Education.”
Crooked, Petty’s fifth full-length album as a solo artist, once again marries his rap roots with spoken word and social justice. The album addresses racism and systemic oppression, hypocrisy and the complexity of human nature. No sacred cows here.
We talked to Petty about the new album, art as activism, and staying sane and hopeful while fighting for change.
Tell me about your influences for this album. What shaped Crooked musically and lyrically? How was the process different from your past albums?
Musically, it was like a return to my native tongue. This is a hip-hop album. With the record before this, I was trying to be a little more experimental. I was pulling a lot from the Chvrches, Phantogram, synth-pop kind of things—that’s what I was into at the time. It was a deviation from the true-school boom bap I came from. I felt like for this one, I wanted to go back to that. I wanted it to be sort of like a classic hip-hop album sonically.
For content, I dug deep. It came from some real questions—real struggles and real hurts and real emotions that were tied to our political climate, our racial climate.
The genesis of the concept was when Nelson Mandela passed away. As far as I was concerned, he’s an international treasure. I’d never heard him spoken of in any other light. When he passed away, I saw this visceral response to his death as in, “Oh, he was a terrorist. He was an evil man. How could you consider this guy a hero?” I was blown away at the obtuse kind of binary understanding of humans. People saw the world as a comic book—that good guys were all good and bad guys were all bad. The truth is, it’s just not like that. We’re all both. And in that, we’re making our way and trying to make sense of the world around us.
I felt like there were such holes in the concept of what it means to be a flawed human. And that narrative was pressed so hard throughout the process of our last election that it just squeezed out of me this record.
On this record and on past albums, you talk about a lot of hard, heavy topics. What would you say is the role of art as activism in our world today? And how do you see yourself fitting into that?
I’m pulling for more like the Nina Simone, Bob Dylan thing, where you have to discern the time and capture the time. Music has this ability to sit above the fray and point at the fray. And we can see ourselves in that. Whether it’s an indictment or it’s a comfort, either way, culture has pushed us to a point where we can’t be neutral. No music is neutral anyway. Music makers are still just citizens. You have a responsibility with all that you do to make this culture better.Whether it’s an indictment or it’s a comfort, either way, culture has pushed us to a point where we can’t be neutral.
For myself, I pull from sort of the William Wilberforce, Clapham group ideal, where it’s like virtue sits upstream from politics and education and all that comes with the playing out of our lives. I believe that if I can make music that speaks to the virtue of what it means to be human, what it means to be American, then downstream, the rest of culture is affected.
You talk about how fixing the broken system won’t fix what’s broken in us—that activism isn’t an end in itself. How do you balance that reality of fighting for change, while also holding onto hope and keeping a broader perspective in mind?
The point I was making was when you’re part of an oppression, one can sometimes get the feeling as though, “I will be OK when the oppressor gets that they’re wrong and stops doing this.” So, for lack of a better comparison, it’s like me saying, “When white America stops being racist, then I’m going to be happy.”
But that puts even more power and authority in them to control not only my physical space in relation to the system but also my emotional and spiritual space. And that’s a bad place to be. I can’t place my happiness and my safety and my security on whether someone else is going to get it or not. I need to find my peace somewhere else, as far as my inner peace—which is totally separate from my work for standing for the other, or fights of justice. You fight for justice because that’s what you do. But that’s not going to satisfy my soul. My soul needs to be satisfied already.
I would say that comes from knowing my worth and value and personhood comes from Jesus and his work for me as an image-bearer. I have to come from a place that I’m already reconciled, I already have worth and value. I don’t need you to recognize that for me to have it.
Now, having said that, you need to recognize that I have value. So that’s the balance.
I would imagine that talking about controversial issues can get you a lot of pushback. How do you keep your sanity? Do you read comments sections? How do you try to have a dialogue that doesn’t just devolve into the viciousness of the internet?
Well, first of all, a dialogue is two-way. It’s easy to smoke out if this person is really just one-way, like if they’re really just trying to correct me. That’s not a dialogue. He just wants to hear himself. So then go ahead, talk away. I don’t need to participate in that. I’m free to completely unplug from it.
Another practice I do is I do unplug. I definitely limit my time on the internet or in the fight. You just can’t have your head in those things all the time.
And then I keep a close-knit group of people around me who actually know who I really am, know my real person. If I am sort of out of pocket, they know me well enough to call it. A person on the internet, they don’t know me. You have no authority over who I am and if I’m out of pocket or not because you don’t know me.
The song “Cynical” really struck me. I feel like a lot of people have been feeling cynical, especially in the political season we’re in. How do you fight cynicism? Or should we?
That’s probably my favorite song on the record. There’s an entire book in the Bible called Lamentations. There’s a space for this. There’s a space for being completely 100 about your emotions, your feelings, and where you are. If that never happens, how can we process through those things? I think cynicism is a necessary part—but I think it’s dangerous when you stay there and it becomes your blanket.like the last song on the album says—the crooked is going to be made straight. I know that my hope doesn’t rest in whether the system gets it or not.
I have been asked how I stay positive. And the truth is, I don’t. I have these real, real moments. I think a good practice is to allow yourself to have them, and allow yourself to know that, “If I stay here, it’s only gonna punish me. But I’m not gonna lie about where I am.” It’s like mourning a death. If you’re mourning the death of a loved one, you don’t skip the mourning process. That’s a part of it. You’re going to miss the person, you’re going to be sad, but at some point, life is going to go on.
As a Christian, I don’t lose hope because I know—like the last song on the album says—the crooked is going to be made straight. I know that my hope doesn’t rest in whether the system gets it or not.
What do you hope people take away from this album?
I wanted you to feel like you got dragged through the entirety of this thing. Hopefully that they found themselves in there, that they process with me, but then coming out at the other end that there is a sense of hope. That we’re struck down but not destroyed. We’re crushed but not abandoned. And that hopefully they would look at their neighbor and just be a little more sympathetic and desire to just be a better neighbor.
What’s the plan for release? When does the album officially drop?
The announcement goes out May 19 for the pre-order. And the record drops June 30. This is the first time we’ve done vinyl. I just listened to test press yesterday at the studio, and I got a little teary eyed, not gonna lie.This is the first time we’ve done vinyl. I just listened to the test press yesterday at the studio, and I got a little teary eyed, not gonna lie.
When I was a kid, my dad and my aunt had this collection of records from the ’60s and ’70s. Every Thursday, my father would break out one of those records and sometimes we’d dance. I just remember thinking, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever witnessed. This is just so dope. One day I gotta do something like this.
Join the club to get a limited, advanced release of Crooked, exclusively at Private Press