It starts out as a typical music video. A camera follows a rapper into an abandoned warehouse with urban hieroglyphs spray-painted on the walls. Inside, artists thrash their heads in time to a Richter-magnitude rock riff. A guitarist dressed like a skateboard punk leaps into the air as if performing a half-pipe aerial.
But this is no ordinary rap-metal group. Listen close and you'll hear the black M.C., Eric July, rapping about how taxes are theft: "They say, 'Who's going to build the roads?' without taxation / So you give them a reason to confiscate my payments / And that's exactly what the state needs / for you to think you need them."
This is Backwordz, a band that bills itself as "the libertarian Rage Against the Machine." The song in the aforementioned video is called "Statism," and it appears on the Dallas quartet's debut album, Veracity.
Backwordz recently signed to Stay Sick Recordings, the record label of Chris Fronzak, singer of the immensely popular metalcore band Attila. Fronz boosted Backwordz's profile by guesting on another single. The video for that one, titled "Self Ownership," depicts a disillusioned government employee telling protesters outside city hall that politicians won't save them. Other songs on the album, which sold more than 3,000 copies in its first week, rail against handouts and preach self-reliance. It's music that won't be showing up on the Bernie Sanders Spotify playlist anytime soon.
Last fall, Stephen Humphries talked to July about his intellectual journey from Obama supporter to advocate for liberty.
Reason: Tell me about your upbringing and how you wound up at the University of Memphis on a track and field scholarship.
July: It's just a typical story: Young black kid, no father around, ends up being a knucklehead. My mother was working two or three jobs at a time just for me. I was getting in trouble a lot. She put me in Mansfield Summit [secondary school in Arlington, Texas]. She gave me her car to drive me out there to go to a much better school. It's funny, because we [libertarians] talk about school choice. We had to go through back ways in order to get admitted into a school by using other people's addresses.
I was gangbanging. I never really got into the thing of selling drugs and wasn't around people that did all that. But I never turned down a fight. I was beefing on people because they were on another side of the city. It was that childish.
I saw a lot of people that I would hang around get shot and killed. The person I was dating…ended up getting put in harm's way. Some guys rolled up on us when I was just hanging out, and I thought, "If they start shooting at me or they jump me, she's right here with me." The reality really set in. It was a life-changing experience. During the latter half of my senior year…I wanted to make a change. I was a good track runner. Track and field was my ticket out of the boneheaded stuff I was doing in high school.
You campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008. What's your view him and the legacy he's left?
I look back at my photos of Barack shirts and it's so embarrassing! The thing that was attractive to me was the same thing that was attractive to a lot of young black folks in college—that he was a black guy. He had the swagger and he was one of us.
The legacy he left us is [bad] not just from an economic standpoint with precedents like Obamacare. He expanded government, expanded power, he was a warmonger, and he bombed more countries than [George W.] Bush. But because he was one of us, we didn't hammer him like we did Bush.
Tell me about how and when you became a libertarian.
I always credit economics. I had never heard the word libertarian until I went to college, [but] I wanted to know about black economists. I had a friend at the time, Bab, who was going through that same phase of getting interested in things outside of the box that we tend to fall in because we're black. He would say, "Have you heard of this guy Thomas Sowell?" In getting more knowledgeable about him and his ideas, I stumbled across Dr. Walter E. Williams.
It was Sowell's ability to break down the dangers of government in regards to the economy. He explained what economics is and why we economize. Walter Williams talks about how black communities struggle from an economic standpoint. How the minimum wage affects black people who are low-skilled. The history of the Davis-Bacon Act shows that was by design—to price minorities out of the market. South Africa used the minimum wage to price blacks out of the market.
How and when did Backwordz form?
The latter half of 2014. We had all left previous bands. My buddy Corey Brunnemann, who is recording our album, reached out to me and said, "There's a group of guys that want to try something new. They wanna do the metal kind of stuff you were doing with your previous band." The last song I dropped with my previous band was the first song where I implemented a straight rap in the song instead of just screaming the whole time. He said, "Let's try it out." We got in a studio and knew that it was about to be something special. With Backwordz, the guys had the opportunity to decide what direction we were going in. We laid down the foundation, not just from a financial standpoint, but what we were going to talk about from a lyrical standpoint.
Are you all libertarians?
We're like-minded. We have our disagreements but, for the most part, we want the same thing. The other vocalist [Alex Jones] helped me to better articulate my arguments and my stances. We have a great group of instrumentalists who cater to my style and to Alex's.
Backwordz has been described as the libertarian Rage Against the Machine. Are there areas of commonality with that band?
We don't really sound like Rage, but it's the default we get compared to because they are political and they mix rap with rock and metal. I don't rap like Rage. Musically we are more hardcore than Rage is. Those guys are [Noam] Chomsky types and that ain't us.
To his credit, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello has criticized Obama for "war crimes" and "drone murders" and has been vocal in his support of Edward Snowden.
There are things that we can absolutely say, "Hey man, we agree." But if you start talking about minimum wage… Tom was out there performing for $15 per hour. No. We don't need to raise it; we need to get rid of it.
Have you been able to persuade people through your lyrics?
Absolutely. I get messages all the time from people who have heard Backwordz. They knew nothing of me as a political commentator and the first thing they heard was a song like "Statism." And they were, like, "Dude, I wanted to look more into what it was you're talking about." Or, "This is very interesting, man. Can you expand on it and talk about it?"
If I can perform in front of 4,000 statists and even if one of those people turns around two months from now and says, "Man, I remember this loud, bearded black dude on stage saying all this stuff and now it's clicking," I feel like I won.
On the song "Utopias Don't Exist," you critique the Black Lives Matter movement. What's your take on BLM?
It's not a movement I would align myself with, mainly because of the collectivist aspect. To be fair, Black Lives Matter is not as centralized as most people like to think. It became more of a slogan. Most of the people that are hashtagging it and shouting it don't have anything to do with any chapter of this organization.
Say a black person gets shot by law enforcement. We start foaming at the mouth and we love the idea that we can talk about racism. We never ask which laws the police are enforcing. Like the Eric Garner situation—it was enforcing a cigarette tax that was the core issue. That's not to say that racism doesn't exist. But I often feel as if the media and activists point to the situations and say that it's race. It's very difficult to prove that racism is the motivation.
Cop apologists say that white people get shot more by the cops. Yeah, if you look at it from a numeric standpoint. But when you analyze it, blacks only represent 12 percent of the population. Whites represent 63 percent. It seems that blacks are getting shot more.
"Utopia's Don't Exist" includes the following lyric: "Get up in arms when a cop do it / but don't even bat an eye when one of us shooting and it's foolishness / What you're doing is proving that, not even our own kind truly value a life that's black." Can you expand on that idea?
That's one of my favorite things that I've ever thrown down in a lyric. Black homicide is a problem. It represents nearly half the homicides, but we are only 12 percent of the population. If you talk about the 990 people or so killed by law enforcement [in 2015], I believe only 300 or so were black. There are way more blacks having homicides [than police shootings] committed against them. You don't even have to look at it as a stat, just look at it as a cultural problem. Blacks seem to be aggressive toward each other. I've been jumped and shot at and there wasn't a white person doing it to me—it was a black person doing it to me. But people don't want to talk about it.
You supported Rand Paul a while back. He famously got flak for criticizing the Civil Rights Act. What was your response to that?
The beef I have with the Civil Rights Act is that it was telling people what to do with their private property. What people don't understand is the role that the government had [in segregation]. They think it was just a bunch of private businesses that didn't want to sell to black people. That can't be anything further from the truth. Consider the case Plessy v. Ferguson. There was a separate boxcar act in Louisiana that forced the railroad company that Plessy was on to buy separate boxcars. They didn't want to segregate black people from white. They opposed the law from an economic reason because it forced them to buy more boxcars.
I have a problem with forcing people to be segregated. I also have a problem [if] you're telling people what to do with their private property. [If I] don't want to sell to you because you're black, white, gay, straight, you have the right to do that. You gain property through voluntary exchange or through homesteading. If it's yours, I can't dictate what you can or can't do with it.
[The Civil Rights Act] means that racist private business owners gotta hide. Now I have to give you money because I don't know that you're a racist. I would much rather that he had a sign on the door that says, "We don't sell to blacks."
You've criticized liberals for viewing themselves as "superior to black people" and for believing black people need government programs for assistance. What makes you say that and what solutions would you propose?
It's a bigotry of low expectations because they think black people are too stupid to figure out themselves how to live peacefully or how to live without being poor. If people understood self-ownership, they would realize that they can better their own life. Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell have done a great job of highlighting that what the welfare state does is incentivize people to fail. If you get above that line, we take everything away from you. You stay below it, we'll pay for your housing, your food. Communities have no incentives to build their own solutions—market solutions—because the state is being mommy and daddy. The solutions have always been privatizing everything. Who better to know what to do about their individual situation than that individual? Who better to find solutions than the communities themselves?
People think, "You want people to starve and be poor." Actually, it's the complete opposite. That's why I'm opposed to the minimum wage. Why are you making it illegal to hire somebody whose value is below $7.25? Why are you making it illegal for them to work to gain skills to get a better job?
You're an anarcho-capitalist. How did you arrive at that position?
Before I had even picked up a [Murray] Rothbard book, even if I didn't know what anarcho-capitalism was as a term, I was one. Walter Williams says that anything that the government obtains is by coercion. I said, "Wait a minute, that's bad. Why do we even need a little bit of it?" I extended what they were saying to the logical conclusion. But I can appreciate what the minarchists have done for libertarianism. I can't deny what Ron Paul has done for libertarianism.
How does your Christianity inform your views on anarchy?
Who nailed Jesus to the cross? The state! We can argue that the people who feared Jesus used the state to get him killed. We're taught how Satan, the devil, went up on a mountaintop with Jesus and he said, "All this is mine." He was talking about all the kingdoms. I would argue that earthly government is the last thing I should be supporting as a Christian.
What does your mother make of your libertarian ideas?
I think my mama is a closet libertarian. We talk about things that she and I agree on, minimum wage being one of those. She's making money and she doesn't like taxation. Even when we wouldn't have much money, she refused to get on government assistance. She sees people mooching off of it and she doesn't like that.
A lot of black people who don't even know what libertarianism is—not even black people, just people in general—have libertarian bones in their body.
In your publicity photos, you wear a baseball hat that says, "Taxation is theft."
If I'm on stage, and people are looking at me, I might as well have something on that will make them think. If they don't know anything about my music and they can't hear what the hell I'm screaming about on stage, at least they can read—they know what the shirt is saying. Music is nothing more than a vehicle to drive home our message.
This interview has been edited for style, clarity, and length.