The Secret History of Those Radio Rahim Stickers
A few years ago it was virtually impossible to walk through one of D.C.'s commercial corridors and not see a Radio Rahim sticker–and quite a few are hanging around. As far as street visuals go, they're striking for their simplicity (white Cooper font text on a black background) as well as their apparent reference to Radio Raheem, one of the crucial characters in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. The sticker-bombing was the work of rapper and activist Radio Rahim, who was in the process of moving from Charleston, S.C., to the D.C. area and wanted to announce himself. While talking a few weeks ago about his latest album, In Full Effect, we detoured into the sticker campaign.
He cites the influence of Shepard Fairey (the Charleston-reared artist known for the "HOPE" portrait of President Obama, and Obey Giant) as well as Ishmael, whose graffiti came to prominence in the Carolinas. "I remember bein' in high school, and I'd be like, 'these cats are just fuckin' raw,'" says the 27-year-old Rahim (real name Ebrahim Mohseni), who now lives in Centreville, Va. "They didn't really care, and that's what I loved about it....Whatever kind of artist you were in Charleston, you were somehow influenced by that."
When Rahim decided that he'd had enough of Charleston and wanted to move back to D.C., where he had roots, he contacted a friend who had a sticker press. "I was like, 'Dog, this is what I need.' The black, the writing, I literally did it in like five minutes, I was like, 'Boom, make me 2,000 right now.' He couldn't make it right then, but he made me 2,000," Rahim says. It was early 2011, and he hadn't fully moved north yet, but whenever he came up to visit family, there would be stickering. "I'd roll up and just go for a walk, and in that walk I'd probably put up like 200 stickers." He also left hundreds with friends. "Specifically friends who had to go on the Metro, not friends who had cars, you know what I mean?"
There were unintended consequences, of course. "Next thing I know, there's this cat called Radio Rahim, and he's in New York City, and he's a boxing promoter. He would start sending me messages, and he was like, 'I was in Washington, D.C., and saw all these damn stickers, and you're ruining my game, man.' He was telling me to get rid of this name, Radio Rahim, but I didn't send him anything," Rahim says. "And then the funniest shit was, I started getting emails from boxers, their managers, saying, 'hey Radio Rahim, we're ready to go forward with the promotions you were talking about.' At first I was like, 'promotions?' I was offering different services at the time, including promotion services, but I was like, 'why is a boxer contacting me?' And so after four or five of those emails, I was like, 'you mean that cat up in New York.' We squashed the beef or whatever, we met in person, and everything's cool."
Rahim says that even though he's used the name for years, he still occasionally gets flak for being a white guy who took his stage name from a black character who dies at the hands of white cops. The name—and the stickers—definitely were created with the intention of honoring Lee's film and its message, Rahim says. (He's also written about a personal physical altercation with police.)
Lee "displayed it in a way where everybody, if you're watching the film, should say, racism only leads to destruction—of people, of communities. ... Racism is a threat to everyone, and the hatred it breeds is a threat to everyone, too. ... If there's injustice happening here, it doesn't matter to who, whether it's a white person, black person, a Muslim, an atheist, a lesbian, gay—it don't matter...It's a responsibility of any decent human, wherever you're from, to stand up and at least say 'no—I stand up against this injustice.'" Rahim says.
There are, of course, plenty of people who haven't seen the film, too. "In a bubble that I kind of live in, or associate with—the immigrant community from Africa and the Middle East—I run into cats all the time who think I run a radio station: 'Radio Rahim, that's a radio station, right?'"
Photos by Joe Warminsky