While planning his first solo album, Mass Instructions, hip-hop artist Kokayi imagined creating a sort of sonic guide of words to live by. What he wound up with was more of a manual for self-repair.
“I had this lofty idea to provide instructions for the masses on how to live their lives,” says Kokayi, aka Northeast resident Carl Walker. “But what ended up happening is I realized I needed to tell myself how to live my own stinkin’ life. In the end, I decided my ass needs some therapy.”
To that end, the married father of two uses the album to wrestle with the ups and downs of marriage (“ArgYou!”), father-son relationships (“SonSunDun”), and what it means to be a hip-hop artist in a city with a complicated relationship to the genre (“Know Us Mayne,” “DCB”). Since the mid-’90s, Kokayi has enjoyed success overseas with the hip-hop fusion group Opus Akoben, which was signed to BMG France and toured heavily in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. But he was comfortable keeping the focus local for a few tracks on the new album. “I’ve traveled from coast to coast, country to country, and now I feel like, Why not celebrate home? Who knows when I’ll have this chance again?”
The approach makes sense, given that Washington itself helped make the album happen: Mass Instructions was financed with the help of a $2,500 Hip Hop Community Arts Initiative grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities. “I received the grant confirmation this summer, and they wanted me to have [the album] done by October,” he says. “I was like, ‘C’mon, what?’ It literally took a month and a half to put it together.” Working fast meant working pretty much alone: With the exception of a couple of guest spots, a hook written by his wife, Seshat, and some background vocals from his children, Walker completed Mass Instructions by himself. “It was scary for me,” he says. “But I liked it. It proved things to myself—that I can have a solid project, do something consistent and contiguous and work within certain confines.” That said, he’s not in a rush to work on another solo disc; he’s now working on a mixtape, and an album with Opus Akoben side project ThayloBleu. (He’ll also perform at RNR Bar & Lounge on Dec. 20.) He feels that the themes on Mass Instructions don’t need revisiting. “I feel closure,” he says. “I feel like I talked about these things and I never have to make songs about them again.”
Though the album underwent a thematic switch from “heal the world” to “heal thyself,” Kokayi was still set on calling the disc Mass Instructions. “Even though it’s introspective and not so much telling people what they need to do, people will catch the lessons,” he says. “Just from me saying it’s about me, people will say, ‘Well cool—you’re an example.’ Then they’ll say, ‘You got how many kids? And a wife? Damn! And you’re still rappin’?’”