Hip-hop, social change and an album a month
By Jeff Simms
Sitting down for a conversation with Hudson Valley hip-hop artist Decora Sandiford, a couple of things jump out right away.
Although a seasoned performer, he’s surprisingly soft-spoken. He’s been climbing on and off stage—where he saunters about smoothly, moving at times so effortlessly that it looks like he’s barely working—for half of his life. But in person, his eyes dart here and there as he speaks, his words are measured and the volume is turned down significantly.
The second thing I notice is the language itself. Almost like prose, he answers questions succinctly, expressing himself much like he moves on stage: “We speak in iambic pentameter,” he says, describing how words with music reach inside to touch us, resonating with the listener where language alone fails. “There’s a rhythm within us, even if you say you don’t listen to music.”
The idea that music has the power to touch people, bring them together and effect change isn’t new, especially in the Hudson Valley. That was why Pete Seeger brought his banjo everywhere. And though folk and hip-hop may have little in common, on the surface at least, that’s been Decora’s thinking as well.
“Transcend,” the first song on Decora’s first release of 2019, a five-track collection called Better, empathizes with the listener, observing in its opening verse that “[t]he devil is going to test you. You might feel like you’ve had enough, like you gonna quit, and trust me, the best do.”
But by the time the minimalist electro-rap track reaches its chorus, the Beacon resident reassures anyone listening (and perhaps himself, too) over and over that “[y]ou gonna make it.”
The song carries with it a “message of possibility,” the thread that he says connects all of his music, from a handful of EPs to his debut full-length album—2015’s Bread and Oats—to Oscillate, his most recent offering.
“Music got into me; I didn’t get into it”
Born in Texas, Decora, 36, spent just a year there before his family moved to Brooklyn in 1984. It was there, he says, that he grew up—long before Williamsburg became hip—in “one of the worst places in the world, at least on the East Coast,” surrounded by drugs, violence and broken families.
That environment would heavily influence his writing a decade or more later, but in a positive way: “That wasn’t the story that needed to be glorified. It needed to be told but not glorified. The glorification is how someone can come out of that. That’s the element that’s missing a lot of times in rap.”
In fourth grade, Decora moved with his father to Delhi, New York, where his dad returned to college to study engineering. From there, they would go to Puerto Rico to care for Decora’s ailing grandmother before returning stateside, this time landing in the Bronx.
In all, he’s moved 26 times (number 27 will have happened by the time you read this article), yet he’s clear when he says he considers the Hudson Valley his home.
“It’s so close to New York City, which is really the heartbeat of all things good and bad for music, art and entertainment,” he says. Decora came to the region in 2001, eventually settling in Newburgh, where in 2008 he would create an urban farming initiative to provide low-income residents with organic produce, before moving to Beacon four years ago. “Being an hour away from New York City but still being able to be in the woods is very appealing. It’s the best of both worlds.”
It was due to those many moves that at age 13 he began to write poems, which became lyrics, which eventually became songs. “I didn’t know it at the time,” he says, but the songs he was writing helped him cope with his transient family life. “Music got into me; I didn’t get into it.”
“Hip-hop and poetry saved my life”
In school at Orange County Community College, Decora studied Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, a criticism of IQs and other standardized ways of measuring one’s mental acumen. Decora and four partners co-opted Gardner’s philosophy, added some beats and created “Hip Hop and Poetry Saved My Life,” a confidence-building, affirmation-based workshop.
The endeavor was remarkably successful; he was tapped by the New York State Education Department to take the workshop on the road, first throughout New York and then the country. By 2012, he had led more than 200 sessions, initially teaching kids, and then coaching teachers and administrators on how to better communicate with at-risk kids.
Wherever he went, he says, kids from diverse backgrounds took to the music-centric seminars. “There’s so many similarities in people you would think would be different. But from the Appalachians to Oakland to Austin, I found so many similarities in the youth.”
“Hip Hop and Poetry” paid dividends in Decora’s musical career, too. A 2010 workshop at Clearwater in Beacon led to a performance that year at the organization’s Great Hudson River Revival.
The workshops were effective because they connected with audiences through music, he posits. “When you speak to somebody through music, you’re helping to ignite that innate calling within them. Then, when you match it with words that are similar to their experience, you have a connection that’s impenetrable.
“Music is like water. It penetrates in every place. You can’t stop it.”
An album each month
In 2017, Decora played 94 shows, touring nationwide and into Canada on bills with headliners like Van Jones (the CNN political commentator who took to the road to discuss social change on the “We Rise” tour), DJ Khalid and T.I., among others. Last year he squeezed in 50 shows, but 2018 was marked more importantly by the birth in January of his second child, a daughter—an event Decora says forced him to focus on better connecting his music life with his family life.
For 2019, however, Decora took on his most ambitious challenge yet when he set out to release mini-albums of a half-dozen or so songs each month for the entire year. The monthly collections—Better was released in January, followed by Relationships in February, Wolves in March and Oscillate in April—are being offered digitally at first, with a best-of set planned for vinyl at year’s end.
Available on Amazon, Spotify, iTunes, Google Music and all other standard platforms, Decora is hoping for 300,000 streams by the end of 2019.
The challenge to release so much material was “sent to me,” he says, by the universe. “Some call it God; others call it Allah. I call it the universe.”
But whatever name one gives the messenger, “We’re just vessels,” Decora continues. “We’re just the mailmen and mailwomen of society. All artists are. None of this is my work.
“We all get messages: ‘Wash your car,’ ‘Call your dad,’ ‘Leave your job,’” he says. “Most times people don’t follow them, but sometimes we do. It’s not a mental thing, and it’s completely separated from ego and pride.”
In other words, we can’t avoid life’s ups and downs, nor should we try to. There’s something authentic about pushing forward despite hardships.
Remember: “You gonna make it.”
For more information about Decora and upcoming shows, visit iamdecora.com. █