I’m on the phone with Paul Wall, and he has lots to say about the world he lives in.
I originally called the People's Champ to speak to him about the free grill pieces he and his partner Johnny Dang have offered Olympic gold medalists to congratulate them on their success in Rio, but there’s something bigger at play.
Paul is still only hours removed from a rash of fan comments he says have attacked his family and questioned his patriotism for supporting San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protest through an Instagram post. It’s a protest that has divided the nation.
If you’re an artist with half a million followers, like Paul, it’ll divide your fans as well.
Regardless of where you sit, it’s difficult to make the argument that Paul doesn’t love his country and the military service members who fight for the U.S. Paul has made seven trips to dangerous war zones and done dozens of free shows for the troops (like the one in 2012 shown above), performances he says he refused payment for. The USO's per diem checks remain uncashed.
“My way of supporting military is going to Afghanistan and [doing] 100 free shows for the troops,” Paul says. “When I left a week later, the same place I performed at was bombed and is no longer there. The week I was there was the deadliest month for American soldiers since the start of the war. That’s my way of being patriotic. My way of being patriotic is going over there to the actual war zone and giving back, encouraging troops, talking to the troops, talking to the troops’ families. That’s my way of giving back.”
Another form of patriotism is giving expensive grill pieces to Team USA's gold medalists at no cost to them. Some may say it’s a publicity stunt to generate more business, but Paul won’t give me any names of Olympic athletes who have taken him up on his offer, though gymnast Simone Biles has publically expressed that she wants one. There are no obligations by the recipients to take any promotional Instagram pictures with piece grill in hand or mouth.
“We appreciate the publicity, but the purpose, really, is to congratulate the winners and celebrate with them,” he says.
The exchange of grill piece from Paul to athlete is to remain private, unless the Olympian says otherwise. So far, there’s no otherwise.
Paul told me he’s not trying to create controversy for the athletes, like when his customer Ryan Lochte wore one on the medal stand in 2012 despite being advised not to, setting off a firestorm of opinions on whether grills belong in a medals ceremony. Wall just wants to congratulate them and create a sincere gesture that becomes tradition in the same light that teams who win championships visit the White House.
“Some of [the medalists] are minors or in college and some have certain NCAA regulations [to consider],” the rapper says. “The last thing we want is any harm to come to their image. So far, we’ve had a great response. We plan on doing this for the next Olympics and the Olympics after that. As long as we’ve got good business going on where we can afford to do this and give back, we plan on doing it.”
You can disagree with Paul about Colin Kaepernick, but calling him unpatriotic seems far-fetched.
When you look at the people who support Kaepernick and those who don’t, the visuals the media offers of people making a stand on the issue are of white men on one side of the argument and black men on the other. That doesn’t mean that observation is representative of reality, but if it does, Paul breaks the mold.
He’s a transcendent figure in hip-hop and in life, who brings a unique dynamic to the divisiveness we’re seeing. As a Texas hip-hop legend who is synonymous with the slang and culture that has bled into the mainstream hip-hop of today, Wall's relationships span a broad range of people of different races, social statuses, economic standings, and political preferences.
He’s also a white male who speaks with ownership over the fight for equal rights, which introduces a dynamic that’s thought provoking in a time when it just feels like the color of one’s skin can predict a stance on someone like Kaepernick.
“You feel a sense of burden to make a change,” he says. “Am I going to turn the other way and let this happen? Or am I going to say something about this oppression [happening] on a daily basis? Or am I going to speak out even if that means it may cost me some financial burden, loss of sponsorship or loss of fans or sales. It’s a burden God put on my heart to where I can’t turn the other cheek. I got to speak out.”
They call Paul the “People’s Champ,” which becomes evident in our conversation: He cares about a lot more than himself. His observation about why people support the Black Lives Matter movement or not is that it comes down to proximity. If you’re close to police violence toward the black community and see it every day, then you understand Kaepernick’s protest. If you aren’t, then you don’t.
“Our country is so misinformed,” he says. “Our country is so misled. It can get you down to be constantly battling people just for equal rights. I accept the challenge and the role. God put me on this earth for many reasons, and it’s not just to make music.”
“The Black Lives Matter movement is an equal rights movement,” he continues. “Black Lives Matter is not anti-police at all. It’s anti-police brutality, which everyone should support, including the police. It’s a call for change in our system.”
Paul is taking the charge to deliver the call at the request of Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, he says. A few months ago, Paul and Houston’s most influential rappers opened bank accounts at Texas’ only black-owned bank, Unity, making national headlines. Prior to that event, he sat down with the mayor in a roundtable discussion who asked him and his fellow rappers to serve as leaders of the community and to help bridge the divide between police and the people of Houston.
“He called on us to be leaders to the youth, to send messages of peace and to make a change,” Paul said. “What we call on him to do is to hold the police accountable.”
Accountability. It’s a word we use loosely and at our convenience, isn’t it? We hold our celebrities accountable when we want them to speak up on social issues and when they don’t, we hold them accountable. It depends on whether they agree with us, doesn’t it? Kaepernick is experiencing that, and so is Paul by supporting him.
He made a fascinating analysis of his fan base, saying you can’t choose your fans. He recalled making the first pitch at a Houston Astros game recently. He said that by attending that game he may have sat next to racist people, but they are all there because they support the same team for different reasons, whether that be the players or hometown pride.
It’s the same with his fan base. Some like him because he’s white, he says, or because of his Vietnamese business partner, Johnny Dang, or his Hispanic road manager “Gu,” or because they like his cars or music, but none of that is necessarily tied to his belief system.
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When the belief system comes to the forefront, as it did with his Instagram post, and disagreement ensues, the reasons fans originally followed him take a backseat. While some disagree through civil discourse, it’s mostly uncivil. Everything that can be disrespectful and inhumane about people finds a way to rear its ugly head.
We’re living in a racially charged time and whether you are a business owner with a 1,000 Facebook friends or a musician with half a million, you run the risk of losing business, friends or fans because of your political views – even if you’re sitting on the side of an issue that has historically won or been deemed right.
That takes courage. Paul has that. It’s undisputed. He’s the “People’s Champ,” and no one’s taking the belt away from him.
Paul Wall and The Suffers perform a free concert from 6-9 p.m. Friday, September 2 at Midtown's Bagby Park (415 Gray) to celebrate Saturday's UH-Oklahoma matchup in the 2016 AdvoCare Texas Kickoff. The game is 11 a.m. Saturday at NRG Stadium; see advocaretexaskickoff.com for more details.