Third Root. Credit: Courtesy / Artist

A cursory listen to Passion of the Poets, the new album from San Antonio-anchored hip-hop trio Third Root, might suggest that the lyrics were written with the past several weeks’ revolt and unrest in mind. The album, released on Juneteenth, consistently champions resistance and deals head-on with police brutality, systemic racism, and the lingering effects of colonialism.

However, the group’s music has always been steeped in references to the fight for social justice, to unity between Black and brown people, and to radical historical and political awareness. It’s been that way since the group’s debut album, 2012’s Stand For Something

By that point, the members of Third Root, all in their 40s now, already had their own decades-long relationships with hip-hop, as both listeners and practitioners. 

The trio’s name itself is a reference to the fusion of Black and brown cultures and the notion that the colonial onslaught left them similarly damaged.

Third Root comprises emcees Marco Cervantes (MexStep) and Charles Peters (Easy Lee) and beat-meister Jeff Henry (DJ Chicken George) and formed in San Antonio, though Peters currently lives in Atlanta and Henry in Austin. Its explicit intent is to promote “the unity and healing of black and brown communities,” as the liner notes to Stand For Something read. 

Education and empowerment

Cervantes is a Mexican American Studies professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Peters is an English teacher at an Atlanta high school. For each, there’s more than a little of the pedagogical position involved in their approach to Third Root. Chief among their stated goals are inspiration, education, and empowerment.

“Hip-hop can help to inspire, motivate, educate, bring awareness, and also to provide a voice that is relatable to many others that are working for social justice, fighting systemic racism, and fighting white supremacy,” Cervantes said.

“I think hip-hop has been a tool and can continue to be… if you look at the Black Lives Matter website, you can see that one of the inspirations is hip-hop.”

“Tt has been refreshing to see the growing consciousness of the need for Black and brown unity,” said Cervantes, noting that he has seen increased discussion of the concept on social media of late.

“Whatever small part we play, we have helped to push that consciousness and we want to keep doing that,” he said, adding that Latino communities still have work to do in challenging their own learned anti-Black biases. 

In Peters’ estimation, hip-hop is to be seen as “a reflection of culture and also a culture generator.”

He believes that “part of the movement we are seeing now, not just conversations but the actual movement, is due to the growth, the growing up of hip-hop and its effect on young people.”

As a reflection of the Black experience in America, “hip-hop was never meant to be a pretty art form or a perfect, politically safe art form,” Peters said, but it is “an art form that makes something from nothing and makes people with nothing feel like something … so it has been and will continue to be a part of the movement.”

Peters wants Third Root’s music be able to offer people empowerment, “an outlet and a voice when they might otherwise feel excluded.”

Henry points to hip-hop as a prime educational force in his own life. He knows that hip-hop can educate and empower because “it’s a musical form that I grew up with and it’s how I learned a lot of things about social issues. … It speaks to me in a way that I can relate to.

“It comes naturally to us to use hip-hop to teach and to speak our message.”

A sense of urgency

Though Passion of the Poets, Third Root’s fourth album, collects songs from Trill Pedagogy, a series of four EPs the group released during 2018 and 2019, group members remarked on the album’s cohesive feel and the serendipity of its content.

As soon as the George Floyd protests began to erupt, there was a sense that “this is urgent, we need to get this out immediately,” Cervantes said.

The album was produced by Grammy-nominated Adrian Quesada, Illfudge, and Corpus Christi beat master El Dusty. In lieu of live shows, the group plans to hold issues-centered roundtable discussions featuring, among others, the collaborators who helped make the album a reality. Updates on scheduling for these events will be available via Third Root’s social media.

Like the rest of the group’s catalog, the album is a sonic embodiment of Third Root’s ethos of Black and brown unity, mashing together Latin and African rhythms and sounds.

Its lyrics include calls for open revolt, as well as for education and unity for dispossessed communities. Cervantes wrote the words on the title track:

“Time to get together again / Break bread spread love with the message we send / To help you find that power within / To disrupt, push back, strike, and defend / The fight is real time to kick what you feel / I had my hands up now they’re wrapped around the steel.”

On MexStep 4 President, Cervantes drops lines that relate directly to current events.

“Take down every Confederate statue / set free every political prisoner.”

And, later in the song:

“Change the conditions for victims caught up in the system / Bring knowledge and wisdom.”

Cervantes said that one reason why the album’s lyrics, all written well over a year ago, seem so timely is because the issues they are addressing are not new, just newly in-focus.

“We could see the pressure building up and we were already writing about it,” he said.

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James Courtney

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.