Sole: This Moment Calls for Nuance and Poetry
by Kyle Harris, via the Denver Westword
When I learned that the anarchist rapper Sole was having a kid, I reached out and asked if he wanted my child’s old crib. I confess: It was a ploy. I wanted to learn more of what Tim Holland was thinking these days.
He came over to the house to pick up the crib, and we spent two hours in my garden talking about music, politics, Roque Dalton’s revolutionary poetry and urban farming. My kid slid down a dirt pile, and the rapper’s dogs ran around the yard, yapping with mine.
That was the first time I had met Holland in person. I had followed his political rants on Twitter; had listened to Solecast, his anarchist podcast; had seen him perform a couple of times; and, more often, had watched him raise hell at Occupy Denver and anti-police-brutality rallies where I was reporting.
His red hair and beard stick out, as does his crusty, joyful personality. He’s quick to rev up a crowd, whether he’s on stage or at a demonstration. With more than twenty years working as an independent rapper — he came up in the ’90s underground hip-hop scene alongside the much wider-known Atmosphere and Sage Francis — Holland knows how to play to an audience’s emotions.
That garden conversation happened in the spring of 2017. Since then, Trump’s presidency has continued to rattle on, Denver’s conversations about gentrification and the displacement of artists have ramped up, and the local activist scene dominated by Queen Phoenix and her Community for Unity movement has flamed and fizzled. As for Holland, he’s stepped back from local organizing, focusing his energy on recording a new album, launching an international anarchist media project and raising his kid.
The week after the 2018 Women’s March, we’re sitting at his kitchen table. He’s waxing about his backyard pond; how his new album, Let Them Eat Sand, which he’s releasing at the Marquis Theater on February 2, takes inspiration from Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Gucci Mane; the rise of authoritarianism in U.S. politics; and the fractured Denver activist scene he says has failed to rise to the occasion and organize effectively against much of anything at all. (He’s still proud that activists shut down I-25 during an anti-Trump protest a year ago, even if it didn’t exactly stop the administration.)
As Holland tells it, there’s a ton in this broken world to fix, fight or abandon and replace. But few activists are actually accomplishing anything, and it’s not just nationally that they’re failing, he says. It’s also locally — against the developer-friendly policies of Governor John Hickenlooper, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Chief of Police Robert White, all of whom Holland credits for displacing working people “at a dang near genocidal rate.”
Far beyond Sole, members of Denver’s hip-hop scene have shaken up civic life in the city in recent months. Wheelchair Sports Camp MC Kalyn Heffernan has gone after Councilman Albus Brooks and Senator Cory Gardner. Rapper Ill Seven has facilitated implicit-bias workshops between cops and kids. And hip-hop promoter Ru Johnson, without ever intending to find herself in a political squabble, tweeted a photo of an Ink! Coffee sign that made light of gentrification, sparking a political conversation about economic development and the displacement of long-term Denver residents and people of color.
Over the past two years, musicians nationwide have taken to the mic with Democratic partisan jingoism (look no further than Le Tigre’s awkward “I’m With Her” for an example). Few musicians make their way through an interview without griping about Trump — whether they know anything about his policies or not. Even fewer put their music to work for concrete social change.
Amid the music scene’s political activism — and posturing — Holland is shifting his strategy from on-the-nose anarchist propaganda to literary precision. Sure, he still describes his music as “revolutionary,” but it’s poetic. He takes inspiration from the Situationists, Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee — all proponents of various stripes of high-theory, bold, militant anti-authoritarianism that challenges how everyday people relate to the capitalist economy, the state, and what Guy Debord refers to as “the society of the spectacle.”
“I’m trying to be less slogany with my shit and more poetic,” Holland says. “I feel like that’s what the moment calls for: nuance and poetry.”
One example of the kind of phrase he’s now avoiding: “Smash the state.”
“We can fight the state,” he muses. “It’s a pretty abstract thing to smash.”
Holland has a nuanced read on capitalism, a system he opposes but depends on to make a living. Since he started making music, Holland has run a stridently independent operation, touring aggressively, producing, selling and packaging his own records. In 1998, he was one of seven musicians who formed Anticon, a collectively run indie record label. He left that outfit in 2010 to build a one-man media empire, replete with music videos, recordings and the Solecast podcast. But to do so, he’s depended on capitalism: most recently, Bandcamp, a site he admires for its grassroots promise, and Patreon, a crowdsourcing site he employs to keep himself afloat in the wake of the record industry’s demise.
He has used his media projects to shine a light on environmental catastrophe and greed, and in recent months joined forces with podcasters behind Sub Media, Final Straw Radio and It’s Going Down to launch the Channel Zero Anarchist Podcast Network.
On his podcast and in songs, Holland shares an unflinchingly bleak vision of the world.
“Global warming is a done deal,” he says. The activist scene is run by cults who let “Identity Politics 101” get in the way of liberating oppressed communities, the Mile High City’s radical organizers have been priced out, and nobody has filled their shoes in holding the system accountable, he adds. By the time his kid turns eighty, he predicts, “Miami will be under water and Denver will be a desert.”
He makes raw noise-infused hip-hop about all of this. In a song he wrote about fascism and borders, he raps: “Does my unborn baby dream of barbed wire? All they’re promising is barbed wire. The future is barbed wire. It’s okay, we’ve got wire cutters — wire cutters.”
Although the world may be headed down the toilet for his kid, Holland sees a way out. “How can we build our own institutions outside of the state?” he asks.
As examples, he points to anarchist squats in Greece, the collectively run Finney Farm in Washington, and Tarnac, a medieval village turned anarchist utopian community in France that has opened its doors to Syrian refugees. He also says independent record labels model radical infrastructure — including his own experimental Black Box Tapes, which has released albums by bands like Echo Beds and Church Fire, along with his own projects.
For Holland, building infrastructure means surviving as an artist and having time for activism and his child, a vision he continues to fulfill, even as he hits forty. “I feel so blessed and lucky that I get to eke out an existence in art.”
As Holland tells it, art is a critical component in the struggle for social change, noting that many activists were drawn toward radical politics through music, whether that be through punk, hip-hop or folk songs.
He’s quick to praise Woody Guthrie and is working on a remix of the leftist folksinger’s song “Bound to Lose,” an anti-fascist anthem.
Guthrie’s political-poetic tradition is the mode to which Holland has dedicated himself, noting that “music is a real radicalizing force for people.” But art isn’t enough to survive what’s coming, he warns. “I’m a doomsday prepper at heart,” he says — and part of that means being ready for the worst, facing crises head-on and knowing how to survive.
Unlike right-wing preppers, however, Holland’s philosophy is not each-man-for-himself libertarianism. Holland wants people to engage in “collective liberation” from what he describes as “apocalyptic” capitalism.
His latest album tackles social issues. He raps about how punks and artists are “the foot soldiers of gentrification,” why he’d rather instigate revolution than be a journalist, the death of the DIY space Rhinoceropolis, the rise of fascism, and his disdain for borders.