When Mike Scala was growing up in Queens, New York, he was surrounded by hip-hop. The Rosedale native would listen to progressive artists like Mos Def, Pharoahe Monch and more during his dollar van rides to high school in the 90s. Eventually, Scala starting penning his own rhymes and got so skilled as an emcee that Pizon was born. As Pizon, Scalaâ€™s following got so large that he caught the attention of hip-hop powerhouse Rawkus Records, and became one of Rawkusâ€™ 50 Most Important Hip-Hop Artists to have music digitally distributed by the iconic label.
Eventually, Scala discovered that making noise with just music wasnâ€™t enough. He started getting more involved in politics and decided that he would use his voice to get more young people to vote as a way to affect wider change for a larger scope of people. Scala, who is passionate about education and equality, joined President Obamaâ€™s election campaign in 2008, which inspired him to move full force with a political career.
The recent Brooklyn Law School graduate is currently running for New Yorkâ€™s 5th Congressional District and heâ€™s gearing up for the New York primaries on Tuesday, June 26. We caught up with him to chat about why heâ€™s passionate about making changes and how his hip-hop background gives him an edge over the competition.
Hit the jump for the interview.
You were one of the Rawkus 50, which was a huge deal in 90s and early to mid 2000s. Talk about your background and how you went from hip-hop to politics.
Iâ€™m from Rosedale, Queens. I went to Cardozo High School and hip-hop was very prevalent in my high school, especially in the early 90s, and I graduated in 2000 so that really was the era for Rawkus. Some saw Rawkus as the alternative to quote unquote, the shiny suit era, so it was a really big deal where I was. As far as my transition to politics I was just fed up like many people from Queens. I felt disenfranchised. I felt like what we did didnâ€™t matter or we had no say in the matter and that no matter what happens in Washington, or politics it really wouldnâ€™t affect us one way or the other. That was until President Bush got into office and I started to see that it really does matter because the one person that was in office didnâ€™t really win the election in the first place, and if we let something like that happen it could really have direct consequences on us, on the people. I tried to vote for John Kerry and I tried to exercise my democratic right to vote and I got a notice saying that my vote wasnâ€™t counted, so that disenfranchised me more and pushed me away from it but I just realized that the people have to take things like this into our own hands instead of complaining about it.
The Obama campaign really inspired me because heâ€™s someone who didnâ€™t come from a background of privilege, just like myself. And I worked his campaign in 2008 down in Virginia because Virginia was a swing state and it had been a republican state since 1964 but it went the other way in 2008, and I helped get people to come vote. A lot of students had class on Election Day and it was hard for them to come vote so we were able to get them to come vote beforehand, so I helped the Obama campaign with that. In part to some of those efforts, Virginia voted for a democratic candidate for the first time since 1964, so I started to see that when the people come together we can make a difference, so thatâ€™s when I decided to get more directly involved in politics. I felt if Barack Obama can do it then I can do it too and so I decided to make a difference myself. I enrolled in Brooklyn Law in 2009 and now Iâ€™m graduating in couple of days [Editorâ€™s note: He has graduated]. I worked for the legal department of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and I helped cases for people that were facing discrimination in many cases. It was very rewarding and I saw that this is what I wanted to do and I figured that if I can help society in many ways then I will and Iâ€™m not gonna put myself in a box just because Iâ€™m a hip-hop artist.
You remind me of when Kevin Powell was running for congress. He got a lot of flack from his opponents who said that he was too young, not experienced and tried to bring up his hip-hop background as a negative. Iâ€™m assuming that type of opposition has happened in your case or it will, so whatâ€™s your response to that sentiment?
I actually followed Kevin Powell when he was running for congress; that inspired me. Obviously, I disagree with people who feel that a background in hip-hop can be a contradiction. I hope that he helped change peopleâ€™s minds. I hope that people saw what he was able to do and I hope that times have changed in positive ways. As far as Iâ€™m concerned, I hope people look at my entire background and see, so what, yeah Iâ€™m a hip-hop artist but look at my lyrics. Iâ€™m not a gangster rapper or anything like that. Just because I have a background in hip-hop doesnâ€™t mean I canâ€™t make a positive contribution. Ultimately, I have a college degree as well and Iâ€™m a Juris Doctor, so I think I know what Iâ€™m talking about.
Youâ€™re very passionate about education.
I think cutting education is in the economy that weâ€™re in is one of the worst things we can do and thatâ€™s exactly what we saw. They eliminated subsidized student loans, which made it harder for people to receive education. I think thatâ€™s disastrous. My platform is centered around the idea that we shouldnâ€™t be cutting programs that every day people rely on. They need social security, they need Medicare, we canâ€™t cut that and at the same time, the wealthy isnâ€™t paying their fair share of taxes, so theyâ€™re making all these reckless cuts on programs that every day people rely on. Thatâ€™s what president Obama wants to do and I want to help him do that. Unfortunately, congress dropped the ball on that because the democrats havenâ€™t been strong enough. The republicans have been very obstructive and we know thereâ€™s division, so I think we need more democratic voices to stand up to the people, and I think in order to achieve that we need regular people who have frustrations to get into congress, because right now I think the people in congress donâ€™t have those frustrations because theyâ€™re so far removed from everything. Iâ€™m in the grind. Iâ€™m in the community. I think itâ€™s important that we have frustrated voices that are stepping up. We need people who are not gonna back down no matter what the political landscape of Washington is.
Does your hip-hop background give you an edge over your competition?
In some ways it does. One of the problems is that the younger generation doesnâ€™t vote as much as the older generation and in democracy your supposed to have everyoneâ€™s voice represented, but unfortunately when you have only older people voting, what you end up getting is representatives whose only interests are the elderly. I definitely want to preserve Medicare and look out for the elderly but I think everyone should have a voice, especially because the younger generation has a lot at stake right now. The older generation is retired, or theyâ€™re not as bad off as us younger people. We have to do something to change it because who knows if weâ€™ll be able to retire? Who knows if weâ€™ll be eligible for Medicare or programs that we need, especially if weâ€™re cutting them now? So, I think the hip-hop background can ultimately inspire some people to get involved and say, â€œLook, this guy is one of us. Heâ€™s a young guy we can relate to him and heâ€™s looking out for our interests as well.â€ So hopefully Iâ€™ll inspire the people.
A lot of times when we think of elections we think of the obvious ones like Presidential, Gubernatorial or Mayoral so, whatâ€™s the importance of voting for congressional leaders?
The mayor and the presidentâ€”those positions are executive branch, which means they execute the law. They can also veto a law but itâ€™s also up to the legislative branch to present that bill on the presidentâ€™s desk. So, the legislative branch, ie congress, is the branch of government that actually writes and votes on the law. President Obama is pushing for healthcare reform and heâ€™s pushing for tax reform so, whatever his agenda is, us at congress have to deliver the bill so the president can pass the law. So, thatâ€™s what we do, we write it then vote it into law. Itâ€™s crucially important that we donâ€™t neglect our congressional races.
Visit www.ScalaForCongress.com for more information.