Gangs to Gardens: Ietef Vita is the O.G. (Organic Gardener) of Eco Hip-Hop

Ietef Vita – “DJ Cavem”

The music video for the song “Wheat Grass opens with a young black man in basketball sweats entering a corner store. The obligatory advertisements for alcohol, cigarettes and wire transfers adorn the store’s exterior walls. Three young black men sit outside the corner store, gold chains around their necks, caps worn to the side, a boom box joining them like a fourth companion. One young man says, “Man, the cops been hot up on the block lately.” The video thus far is notable only for its urban ordinariness. “I’m about to roll up in here and get some chips,” he continues, pointing to the corner store. DJ Cavem waves a hand no: “You don’t need to do all that, man. Check this out.” When the song’s central refrain begins, the viewer realizes that this artist is taking hip-hop into unfamiliar territory. “We must cultivate the earth. Plant seeds, meditate and take it in.”

Ietef Vita is a culinary climate action activist—that’s the short version of his biography. A quick search for Ietef’s (pronounced EE-tef) work will reveal he also goes by a dizzying array of titles: educator, emcee, vegan/raw chef, organic gardener, yogi, father of Eco Hip-Hop, cultural Jedi, Afro drummer, street activist, beat teacher, B-boy, deejay, graffiti guru and midwife. I ask about his midwife experience, only because it sticks out in the extensive list. “I’m a proud father of three girls,” he explains, “all delivered at home by just their mother and me.” This is a man who revels in nature and the experiences native to our existence, but he isn’t from the green hills of Colorado. Ietef’s natural environment is Denver’s Five Points district.

Eco Hip-Hop

As a musician, Ietef’s work as DJ Cavem builds on the foundations of hip-hop. But through his experiences and lifestyle, he has a unique perspective he shares through his lyrics: “I’m on that raw food diet, have you checked the price of cancer—maybe you should try it?” Growing up green isn’t the usual result of a childhood spent in Denver’s Eastside communities, but fortunately for Ietef, his mother was politically active and her influence was strongly felt. His father taught him to draw. “I was raised around artists,” he shares. “My mother was a community activist and organizer. That shifted something for me as a young person, to become comfortable as a performer and activist. Being present on the frontlines of protests.”

The Produce Section

Ietef’s work is uniquely influenced by trips to Africa to complete studies in permaculture and agronomy. “I took gangster culture and marinated it with different things I had been learning,” he says. “From there, I asked myself how can I have a concept about my lifestyle. I was like, ‘Alright, I eat vegan—maybe I should do an album about that so I can lead people to the produce section.’ And that was the idea. I was like, ‘Great! I’ll call my album The Produce Section.’ That’s my vibe. I talk about growing organic food; I educate from farm to fridge to table, and all the way down. I show people the hustle. Not only [how] to save your seeds but also how to hustle kale chips and sauerkraut and put it back on the block. I’m now teaching people to garden in the communities where I grew up without access to healthy food, so they don’t have to go through that. My community had better access to crack cocaine than it did organic produce.”

Ietef Vita - "DJ Cavem"

Why Fresh Food Isn’t Reaching Poor Communities

Ietef’s mission to bring fresh, healthy food to poor communities faces many challenges; the billions spent on marketing junk food to children, the prohibitive cost of purchasing organic produce—if it’s even available. While proud of the culture of hip-hop, Ietef identified a pattern: “As the commercialization of hip-hop progressed into a multi-billion dollar industry, corporations began partnering with hip-hop to use it as a platform to market destructive ideas, imagery and, more importantly, bringing unhealthy food to communities.”

The majority of the food issues created by our current food systems present themselves most fully in areas populated by black and brown people. Access to fresh food is one such issue. Commonly known as food deserts, these areas often have no supermarket and most residents rely upon corner stores to purchase food. It’s much easier for a corner store to stock packaged goods than fresh produce, which include preservatives to keep food from spoiling longer. Consumers need to know how to use fresh food, which would then create a market­­­—your local corner store might start a small produce section to supply the demand.

The consequences of food deserts are many, but mostly manifest in diseases such as heart conditions and Type 2 Diabetes. “There’s a lot of hip-hop artists who’ve died from food-related illness,” says Ietef. “People I love, like Sean Price, Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest, Guru—I could go down the line. These are some gangster-ass artists, they talk about the hardest life. You would think police brutality or the gun would take them out, but it’s the plate. It’s ridiculous.”

Ietef Vita - "DJ Cavem"

Getting the Message Through

“I go into the hood, show the people how to grow the food, how to harvest the food, how to prepare it and then we show them how to hustle it.” Ietef took the idea of ‘Thug Life’ and created the hashtag #KaleLife. Everybody wants to be an O.G., and Ietef is no exception—only he’s an Organic Gardener. “We think about how we use arts and culture to reach young people . . . That’s our recipe for resistance. We’ve created drug dealers, now we’ve got to create organic gardeners, holistic practitioners, yogis and vegan chefs.”

“Cool to Live”—an autobiographical track about Ietef’s life—is also a great analogy for his work. He’s simply trying to make environmental food justice an issue that’s cool. Ietef takes a message we’ve all heard before, but brings it to us in a different package. Maybe that’s all the hippies who created the same message were missing—marketing and cool.

“It’s easy to educate when you make food from scratch,” he says. “It’s going to be really hard for me to bring a chicken into a classroom, let the children pet it, then be like, ‘Okay this is lunch.’ Kids are going to be crying. I can easily bring in a cabbage, chop the head off it—nobody’s going to feel nothing. It’s absurd that they’ll feed meat to kids but you can’t kill an animal in front of the child. It’s interesting the trauma they choose not to expose children to, but I’m all about the truth.”

It’s a benefit to us all for Ietef’s message to spread like seeds—to create green communities where now there are only food deserts. It’s cool to live a long and healthy life, don’t you know.

Ietef Vita - "DJ Cavem"


djcavem.com | Instagram: @ietef | Facebook: @VEGANCHEFIETEF


 

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