This 'Eco Hip-Hop' Pioneer Wants to Bring Healthy Eating to the 'Harlem of the West'
"How many rappers will get in the garden with me so we can get these kids growing?"
Over the years, many hip-hop stars have died far too young from health causes: Phife Dawg aka “the funky diabetic” from Type 1 diabetes; Big Pun from a heart attack; and Craig Mack from heart failure. According to studies, Black Americans are almost twice as likely to get diabetes as non-hispanic whites. And while there are endless structural reasons why health outcomes might differ across racial lines, Dr. Ietef “DJ Cavem” Vita is a rapper, chef, and gardener trying to make a dent in them. Vita makes what he calls eco hip-hop, which addresses sustainability, food justice, and climate change through a hip-hop lens. To him, “it's no different to being a gangster—we just repping the hood a different way.”
Vita is from the historic Five Points district, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Denver. In the early 1900s, the area became predominantly Black and was known for its jazz scene. It was often referred to as “Harlem of the West.” Vita’s mom, Ashara Ekundayo, was a community activist and co-founder of a spoken word showcase called Cafe Nuba. As a kid, Vita recalls being surrounded by poets like Amiri Baraka, Oscar Brown Jr., and Sonia Sanchez. He tells MUNCHIES, “I was raised by the whole community of poets and artists, while my mom was on stage.”
Vita says fresh fruits and vegetables were scarce in Five Points. “I grew up in a food desert. The freshest thing you can find was a lemon [at] a liquor store.” He started cooking for himself at age five, received his first set of turntables at age ten, and spent time at a youth recording studio at a nearby community center. At 13, he was expelled from school and went to Africa, which he cites as a turning point in his life. While there, he noticed what he describes as a parallel between enslaved Africans in America and caged, branded animals, which led him to veganism and began what would be his vocation in fighting for food justice, and addressing obesity and sugar as joint epidemics in lower-income communities.
In 2007, Vita released his first eco hip-hop song, “Wheatgrass” with fellow vegan rapper stic.man of Dead Prez. The song’s lyrics include I got a job with some teens teaching hip-hop history and how to grow greens.
After “Wheatgrass,” Vita continued to develop his sound; he released the albumThe Teachers Lounge in 2010. At the time, he was teaching African studies to high school students and working to create an indoor farm and food education center in Denver called The GrowHaus.
In 2012, he returned to Africa, where he studied indigenous agriculture and agronomy at the Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. That same year, he created the award-winning curriculum and album The Produce Section, which includes lessons on organic farming, plant-based recipes, alternative uses of energy, and regenerative agriculture. Songs include names like “Roots, Beans, & Greens” and “Artichoke Heart Chakra.” He remembers, “I felt it would be dope to educate. You think [of] teaching the same way they can sell drugs, how they can sell collard greens and kale and be on a farmer's market poppin' the culture with something brand new.”
Vita’s passion for food and climate justice inspired him to create Keep It Fresh Day, a holiday promotes wellness, farming, environmental awareness, and plant-based culinary arts. In the spring of 2015, Vita and his wife and collaborator Arasia "Alkemia" Earth were invited to perform a culinary concert—a vegan cooking show combined with eco hip-hop—at the White House by Michelle Obama for her “Let’s Move” campaign. “I got a chance to kick it with her and Barry,” he says. “They let me use their VitaMix so I could do a culinary concert on the lawn with all the top chefs… we closed that baby out.”
Vita and Alkemia continue to tour the world educating the public using eco hip-hop. Now, they host Recipes for Resistance workshops, where they teach families how to use local, sustainable food. During International Compost Week (May 5–11), Vita will release his latest EP (titled BIOMIMICZ) as an album/seed pack. “I'm dropping the EP on packs of seeds, so people can grow food all year long, and then they're gonna have the recipes that come with those at the end of the year...I have kale, arugula, and beets and I'm working with Botanical Interest to be able to do my packaging and production.” He’s planning to release the full length album—along with recipes for the produce grown from the EP’s pack of seeds—by this year’s harvest moon on September 14th.
Though he’s proud to have accomplished all that he has so far, he knows he can’t do it alone. Vita encourages the hip-hop community to join him. “Everybody was wearing a hat backwards when a rapper did it. So how many rappers will get in the garden with me so we can get these kids growing? That's what I want to know.”