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Invincible in Two Worlds

"Every A&R's worst nightmare" carves out her own path in hip-hop.

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Detroit rapper Invincible (née Ilana Weaver) had her chance to get on ten years ago, but she purposely passed it up. The Israeli-born émigrée came up right alongside a certain white rapper who subsequently attained international fame — making every other white rapper from Detroit seem like a potential cash cow. Invincible said multiple labels were on her jock by the time she turned sixteen, in 1997. "Many people were trying to sign me because they saw me as a female version of him," the emcee recalled. She said that one day she got a call from someone representing the indie label Web, which had produced Eminem's 1996 album Infinite, a few years before he signed to Aftermath. "They offered me a million dollars over the phone," she said.

Naturally, the emcee was skeptical of anyone who equated her with Eminem, since their lyrical content was so different. Moreover, she was skeptical of anyone who wouldn't allow her to control her own publishing, or own the rights to her masters. "Actually the most hilarious thing was when I moved back to Michigan, XXL had wrote a five-page article calling me 'every A&R's worst nightmare,'" the emcee said. (She disliked the article, but apparently liked the epithet enough to include it in her bio.) "So I started getting a reputation for turning down deals. More labels started trying to sign me at that point."

Invincible had always been a rabble-rouser. Born in Israel — or Palestine, as she puts it, but inside Israel's 1948 border — she moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1988 and learned English by listening to hip-hop records. Besides Cat in the Hat and ESL classes, Invincible said her first interaction with the language was "writing down other people's rhymes, and looking up the words." Within two years, she'd started composing her own lyrics in English. By age ten, she'd stopped speaking Hebrew altogether. Her first album purchase, appropriately enough, was Paris' provocative 1992 joint, Sleeping with the Enemy. In fact, the title was prophetic.

The neighborhoods surrounding Detroit, where Invincible hung out as a teenager, were heavily populated by Arab Americans. As she got older and started making ties in the Arab community, the young artist began questioning — or in her words "unlearning" — the Zionist narrative she'd grown up with in Israel. Naturally, her parents were aghast. "Most of my family in Israel refuses to speak to me," the artist said, adding that she's since managed to open up dialogue with her parents, but her extended family skews more conservative. "Recently my mom took a trip back home and her sister kicked her out of the house for protesting the Wall. At least my parents will stay engaged in the conversation — the rest of the family pretty much cut me off for my views."

By age fifteen, Invincible was rocking open mics in the Detroit area, many of them hosted by the famed D12 rapper Proof (who helped jump-start Eminem's career but was shot dead in 2006, before ever getting his due). She battled other emcees occasionally but quickly got bored of it, wanting instead to write her lyrics — often laboring over them for months, even years, to get the phrasing exactly right. After deciding not to go the major label route, she hooked up with the all-female hip-hop crew the Anomalies — whose members include emcees Helixx, Big Tara, and Pri the Honeydark, along with DJ Kuttin Kandy — and resettled in New York for three years. From that point on, the emcee carved out a path that would relegate her to the indie world, but also allow her to sustain total creative control over her music. Her canniness around industry bigwigs is probably the reason she has real staying power.

Upon returning to Detroit, Invincible found an apartment in the mostly-Latino southwest section of the city. She also got back into community organizing, including with the US Palestine Youth Solidarity Network. Her political views — about gentrification in Detroit, about artistic integrity in hip-hop, and, most compellingly, about ending Israel's occupation of the West Bank — had always been the linchpin of her music, but she got better at researching and articulating them. Her language has a real writerly quality, such that the verses sound like a well-crafted poem. Her writing process usually begins with listening to a beat, scatting flow patterns, and coming up with a cadence that sometimes inspires a visual concept for the song. The idea that animates one of her most powerful tracks, "Locusts," sparked because the beat — DJ House Shoes' thinly orchestrated mix of kick, snare, and flute, with weird, apocalyptic buzz in the background — sounds, in her words, "like locusts swarming at you."

"Locusts," which inspired a music video/documentary with commentary from housing activists and teenagers about changes in the neighborhood, is an incisive critique of the current efforts to beautify downtown Detroit. In her rap, Invincible swaps metaphors for gentrification and large-scale colonization: Locusts and buzzards circle and hover above the/Abandoned houses, shattered window with the crooked shutter/Across the street constructing cookie-cutter condominiums/Sign of Woodward is the Prime Meridian. The condo development she's referencing is a dramatic redevelopment of Detroit's metro area. Woodward Street is the main artery that splits Detroit into an east and west side, running all the way from the downtown to the tony northern suburbs — hence the "Prime Meridian" analogy (its proper analogue in the East Bay would be Broadway).

Depending on your viewpoint, Invincible is either the most ethical or the most politically strident emcee to emerge in recent years. Rather than sign to a major she ultimately formed her own fair-trade hip-hop label, Emergence Music, through which she recently dropped the solo album Shapeshifters. She's allegedly turned down more million-dollar deals, snubbed the glossies, and laughed in the face of A&R scouts — but probably saved herself the anguish of being a flash in the pan. Looking back, she doesn't regret the decision. "For me it was like the more I stuck to my guns, the more doors opened up," said the emcee. "Opportunities were created by me refusing wack opportunities."

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