The last time I spoke with Chali 2na, for the first edition of Against The Current, he was in the midst of a European tour with his Jurassic 5 group-mates. However, while most artists who venture across the Atlantic to rock crowds are eager to get back stateside at the conclusion of their tour, 2na had different plans. He remained in Amsterdam for a week after his performances were over, as he so often does. The Dutch epicenter is somewhat of a home away from home for 2na, a place where he can relax, create, find inspiration, and feel a type of freedom that evades him in America.
“The first time I came to Amsterdam was in 1999 with Ozomatli,” says 2na between hearty bites of sausage. “I remember thinking ‘I could probably live here’ because I had so much fun. But it wasn’t about the weed or the prostitutes or none of that stuff. To me it’s about the attitude. I don’t feel obligated to follow any particular political or social ideas. I’m able to create, get my head clear, and just feel immune to almost everything.”
Since that first trip 16 years ago, 2na has returned to Amsterdam every year, a tradition that he is intent on continuing. When I spoke to him via FaceTime for this interview, he was over at a good friend’s house enjoying a self-described “feast,” wearing a noticeably more jubilant and carefree demeanor than in any of our previous interactions. The freedom he spoke about was shining through.
“The mentality of America is ‘in and out,’ like the burger. They want you in, they want you out. It’s not like that here,” explains 2na. “Everybody is free, whether it’s their sexual preference, religious preference… whatever it is, it doesn’t come first before the fact that you’re a human being, and I think that is true freedom.”
2na enjoys hanging out in Amsterdam’s Leidseplein district the most, because of its central location and accessibility. “The biggest music venue in Amsterdam central is Paradiso, and that place is right there [in Leidseplein]. Melkweg is a smaller one that’s right there. All of the coffee shops are there, good food is there. The movie theaters, shopping, everything. It’s just a dope area. You get a really good taste of the culture and how everything is built. There’s lots of old stuff around there too, if you’re sightseeing. The Van Gogh and the Rembrandt Museums are both there,” 2na explains, as if he himself were a Dutch native.
The revered MC is preparing the release of his first art book, entitled Against The Current, which is without a release date as-of-yet but will be coming before the end of the year. The book will chronicle 2na’s life journey in a variety of different artistic mediums, including graffiti, photographs, and oil paintings, the latter of which he picked up from exploring Amsterdam’s Vincent Van Gogh Museum.
“His paintings are almost 200 years old and they’re still preserved,” says 2na in awe about the 19th century Dutch painter. “I’m doing the math in the museum like, ‘How old is this?! It’s lasted this long?!’ Okay, I’m going home and applying every knowledgeable trick that I know about painting to this canvas.”
Coming up in Chicago as a graffiti writer in the early 1980s, 2na didn’t always know how to preserve his work. “As a graffiti artist, you have to swallow the fact that when you put up a painting it’s not gonna be there for much longer. You gotta bring your camera, take a good picture, and just know that you’re bombin’ for right now. Whoever sees it, sees it. But be prepared for it to be gone, because somebody will either paint over it, wash it off, or it will naturally wear off because acrylic cracks after a while,” he says.
Nevertheless, 2na is an artist through-and-through. He still loves to get busy with the spray can when the time is right, as he recently did on a collaborative mural in Oslo, Norway, seen below.
“I hooked up with this dude named Poker, and he had this very strong face that was all serious, like many of the people in Oslo have. So I’m thinking this dude was going to be some monster but he was mad cool, man,” says 2na about the experience. “As far as graffiti goes, I don’t ever want to lose that part of me because that’s what got me into hip-hop in the first place.”
Followers of Chali 2na on social media might have noticed another one of his artistic quirks: his love for action figures. His collection began about 14 years ago, after linking up with some Japanese toy makers in Tokyo while on tour with Jurassic 5. “I get clowned, man. People always say I play with dolls,” says 2na with a laugh.
After keeping his word and bringing the toy makers to a J5 show, they sent him the box of action figures that would stimulate his collection. “The box had a Neo [from The Matrix] action figure, Christopher Walken from King of New York, and two Andy Warhol action figures,” 2na recollects. “It kickstarted my passion for it, and after that I was like, ‘okay, it’s really going down.’ I started studying how much things cost, how much they’re worth, so on and so forth. My collection is crazy now… When I get home from Amsterdam I got that young Scottie Pippen waitin’ on me woooooo!!”
Between rhyming, painting, drawing, photography, and looking for that next hot piece to add to his toy collection, Chali 2na has a lot on his plate. It’s a good thing Amsterdam exists.
For more information on when and how to obtain a copy of ‘Against The Current’ this fall, download JamFeed for free, follow Chali 2na, and stay tuned for the release announcement. A push notification will be sent straight to your phone as soon as the book is ready. You can also follow Chali on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.