ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There's a constant theme running through the music of the Grammy-nominated singer Kelis - food.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MILKSHAKE")
KELIS: (Rapping) My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and they're like, it's better than yours. D*** right, it's better than yours. I can teach you, but I have to charge.
SHAPIRO: Of course, there's her 2003 hit "Milkshake," but she also has songs called "Midnight Snacks" and "Jerk Ribs" and an entire album called "Food." The gastronomic focus is not accidental. Kelis graduated from Le Cordon Bleu. She has published her own cookbook, and she recently bought a farm in Temecula, Calif., where she lives with her family and some unruly roosters.
KELIS: They're very aggressive, so we ate three of them.
RON FINLEY: (Laughter) You ate your roosters?
KELIS: We had to. They were so mean.
SHAPIRO: That's Kelis talking with Ron Finley, an urban farming activist from Los Angeles who has earned the nickname The Gangsta Gardener.
FINLEY: You can't get no more gangsta than being a gardener or a farmer. This has everything to do with survival of our species and of our culture.
SHAPIRO: To celebrate Black History Month, our friends at NPR Music arranged for Finley and Kelis to chat - her from her farm, him from his garden - about the joys of growing your own food and the roots of Black agriculture in America.
FINLEY: What made you decide, oh, yeah, I'm going to get a farm?
KELIS: I think the first thing, initially, was really space, right? The first thing was just wanting more space and wanting more freedom to be able to do the things that I wanted to do, you know, wanting to be able to say, like, I know exactly what's in this. I know exactly how long it took. I know that there's nothing funky that I can't pronounce or that I don't want to say or that I don't want my kids to have - just all that stuff and just wanting to have some more power, some more control and some real legacy that I can leave my little people.
FINLEY: Well, we basically got into it for the same reason. To me, gardens represent freedom. I wanted to walk out and smell jasmine, and, you know, I wanted hummingbirds and - to fly on my shoulders and butterflies kissing me in the ears. And so that's what I planted.
Then it turned to the food, and I wanted to share this. I wanted everybody - we should know about this. How did we get so far away from this?
KELIS: From my perspective, the first thing is really the education about what our actual history is, and it's not just slavery. We were agricultural experts, and we were growing things and how we were growing them - that's what made them say, we want these people to come over because we are going to force them to do it for us. That's how the whole thing started. So just understanding that the land was ours and that there is something really beautiful and powerful in not allowing someone to dictate to you what the scope of your lifespan and your health should be and how you eat and how you are able to process everything - I think that's the first thing.
FINLEY: I think the whole thing, Kelis, is a value thing. People don't see themselves - kids don't see themselves as being valuable, and that's why - I'll kill you over a pair of tennis shoes. I'll kill you over a PlayStation - a game, you know, a gaming console, you know, so - because they think these things give them value. And they don't really realize that we are the soil. You know, that's where we come from. We're carbon-based. How do we show these kids something other than things, is, to me, is what this is about.
KELIS: Somewhere along the line, this became unsexy to people, right? But to me, the sexiest thing in the world - like, this is the flyest thing I can do right now. I didn't become a different person. I didn't like - I don't not care about fashion. I don't not care about my hair. I care about all those things still. And so there's something really - to me, like, I want people to see the sexiness of it because I think it was so purposefully taken away.
And I think especially as young Black people, that is the best thing you can do. It's sexy because it's power, right? And they're not seeing it as power because you're right. It's bigger than just the food. We have to know what's happening, what's being done because we can't fight - we're not equipped to fight it if we don't even know what's happening. Like, people don't know what's happening. They have no idea.
FINLEY: Because we've been trained to live the life that's been designed for us and not design our own lives. It's up to us to change that.
KELIS: What's your next step? Like, what do you want to do?
FINLEY: I think the magic is to get a group of people in that soil and watch them be seduced by it, because that's literally what soil would - it's the garden seduces you and, you know, you go out to check on something and you got your robe and your, you know, your bath - your pajamas on and you're outside because it's 5 in the morning.
FINLEY: And the next thing, it's like 11:00, 12 - and you haven't eaten. You haven't done nothing, and you still in the damn garden.
KELIS: It happens all the time. Well, I want to welcome you out here because I've been - honestly, I think about it all the time. I watch everything you're doing. If you ever feel like you just want to get out of the city and put your feet in some country dirt (laughter). I'm going to them both (ph) to work. I'll be like, Ron, you know what you're doing.
FINLEY: All right (laughter).
KELIS: Enjoy (laughter).
FINLEY: I would love it. I would love it.
(SOUNDBITE OF KELIS SONG, "JERK RIBS")
SHAPIRO: That's the singer Kelis and urban farmer Ron Finley. You can watch an extended version of their conversation along with the rest of NPR Music's coverage of Black History Month at npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JERK RIBS")
KELIS: (Singing) And this moment, well, I can't breathe. You can't control something that's getting free. And the rhythm's exciting. Oh, when I start this road full of streets...
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