When you sit down with Junkyard Empire MC Brian “Brihanu” Lozenski, you’re likely to find yourself talking as much about politics as music. That’s not surprising, given that the members of the group consider Junkyard Empire to be equal parts organizing force and band. “For us, it’s more about the issues beyond the music,” says Brihanu. “If we’re able to become part of this larger social movement, to help others think more about the ways in which we act in the world and the way that we accept a lot of things, I think that would be just as big as having a lot of people hear our music.”
Currently, the hip-hop/jazz/rock band focuses more on playing protests, rallies and shows with a deeper meaning than simply entertainment, but finding a band that simply plays at issue-based concerts isn’t all that rare. Junkyard Empire has taken it a step further. They’ve played during a riot at the 2008 Republican National Convention. They’ve even played a small series of shows in Cuba. Now that is something that few bands can claim.
Junkyard Empire will headline a CD release show for the band’s fourth album, “Acts of Humanity Vol. 1&2,” on Saturday, June 25 at the 7th Street Entry. Also on the bill are some of the local hip-hop scene’s biggest up-and-comers: City on the Make, Toki Wright and Guante. While some music fans shy away from overtly political music, it’s a lineup that should interest any and all fans of independent hip-hop. And as political as Junkyard Empire may be, the complex rock, funk and jazz sounds of the new album should get even the most apolitical listeners on their feet.
Junkyard Empire was born in 2006 after Brihanu relocated to the Twin Cities from Philadelphia. He had been involved with the hip-hop scene there from a young age, but had no intentions of getting into the Twin Cities music world. That all changed when a friend from St. Paul’s highly regarded hip-hop crew the Abstract Pack let him know about a jazz ensemble looking for an MC. Brihanu got in touch with trombone/keyboard player Chris Cox, and the two clicked. “When Chris and I started to talk, it came out that we shared this passion for social justice and activism and organizing,” says Brihanu. “So the band started, and it grew into this hybrid of music and organizing together.”
The focus on music and organizing has remained consistent throughout the band’s history, even while the actual sound of the music has continued to evolve. “We started out in 2006 as a kind of acid jazz ensemble with hip-hop fusion,” says Brihanu. “What’s happened is we’ve had a lot of different musicians over the years. And just do to what people have brought, the elements they’ve added and the instrumentations they’ve chosen, we’ve become much more of a rock type of sound.”
The band’s trip to Cuba brought another element to the band’s sound that’s clearly evident on the new album. Two tracks contain Spanish lyrics, including one with Cuban band Obsesión – superstars in their home country. The band was able to arrange the trip by filming a documentary about it – traveling to Cuba is legal for research purposes. “We were happy to have our passports stamped. I’ve got my passport with a Cuba stamp,” says Brihanu with obvious excitement. “Chris Cox was looking for ways to get us to travel. He ran across a lawyer who does pro bono work. He helps American artists travel to Cuba and Cuban artist travel to the US. He thought our music would go over well in Cuba, so he connected us with the Cuban Ministry of Culture, who then connected us with the Cuban Rap Agency. That’s a state run agency dedicated to the dissemination and cultivation of hip-hop in Cuba. That’s really interesting in and of itself, the relationship the government has with hip-hop there.” The documentary, entitled “Rock El Imperio,” is currently in the editing process.
The CD release show will be one of the few chances to catch Junkyard Empire in the near future, at least in the Twin Cities. While the group has some show lined up in other parts of the country, their plan to focus on more meaningful shows fewer chances to catch them at home. “We decided to really focus in on just doing shows that were protests or rallies or benefits, show that could really raise attention to a specific issue,” says Brihanu. “That’s where we’ve really been concentrating lately. So our shows have been getting less frequent but much larger. Which I guess is good.”
Junkyard Empire plays at the 7th Street Entry on Saturday, June 25 with City on the Make, Toki Wright and Guante. Doors open at 8 p.m. $10.