Mexstep Informs Rap Music with a Scholar’s Cultural Consciousness

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Rapper Mexstep performs at his Resistir Vinyl Release Party.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Rapper Mexstep, aka Marco Cervantes, performs at the vinyl release party for his Resistir album.

Assumptions tend to get made about people who pursue advanced academic careers. Other, quite different assumptions tend to get made about people who pursue rap careers. Marco Antonio Cervantes has a firm footing in both worlds.

Cervantes is the interim chair of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Department of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He holds a doctorate and is an associate professor who has led workshops, lectured at conferences, and taught university courses on topics ranging from composition, literary criticism, and American literature to Mexican American studies, Black and Brown cultural overlap, and cultures of the Southwest.

He’s also an emcee and songwriter who has been rapping and making hip-hop music since his middle school and high school days back in Houston.

Under the stage name Mexican StepGrandfather or Mexstep, 43-year-old Cervantes has released 13 recorded projects, solo and as a part of groups (most notably Third Root), including albums, EPs, and mixtapes.

“Some people [in academia] told me, of course, ‘don’t rap’ or ‘don’t write about rap,’” he said, “but now I’m at a place where I can contribute by continuing to make way for artists and organizers into institutional spaces … To really bring communities authentically into the education process.”

Last Saturday, Cervantes celebrated the vinyl release of his third solo album, Resistir, with an in-store show at Friends of Sound Records in Beacon Hill.

It’s easy to imagine Cervantes as some sort of Batman figure, playing by different rules in the daytime than in the night. With him, however, there seems a remarkable continuity between these two aspects of his life.

Far from keeping the two realms of his life compartmentalized, competing for dominance, Cervantes said his passion for hip-hop has fed his academic ambitions and pursuits.

“In reading a lot of African-American and Mexican-American literature, I was really moved to push what I was learning in my classes into what I articulated in my music,” he said.

“I especially love the urgency of the poetry from black and brown movements, which really affected the way I looked at writing.”

Rapper Mexstep stands for a portrait at Friends of Sound.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Rapper Mexstep, shown here at Friends of Sound Records, is an associate professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he is interim chair of the Department of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

In his music, as in his teaching and scholarly work, Cervantes looks to tell untold stories, to offer counter-narratives to those dominated by a colonial mindset, to foster discussions and analysis around social justice issues, and to spotlight underrepresented communities.

He has had numerous articles published in peer-reviewed journals on subjects including Chicana/o arts-based pedagogy, hip-hop in the classroom, and local conjunto artist Esteban Jordan.

Despite some naysaying among the academic old guard, Cervantes found encouragement to continue his explorations in hip-hop from his closest advisors at UTSA, among them Norma Cantú and Ben Olguín, both esteemed writers and scholars.

“More and more teachers are part of the movement [for social justice and critical consciousness] in music as well, especially hip-hop with the younger generation of educators,” Cervantes says of his experience in the academic setting.

“It makes sense, though. If you grow up in the culture, it is how you identify, and of course it shows up in your profession. And the kids love hip-hop music, so it’s a way to reach them, too.”

Cervantes’ new album features rapping from Cervantes as well as guest spots by several other local emcees and production by Grammy-nominated Adrian Quesada. It’s hard-hitting politically, aptly described on the Mexstep Bandcamp page as calling for “resistance against injustice” and signaling “the power of ancestral knowledge, indigenous spirituality, and cultural memory in the face of militarized border violence, racial profiling, and drug wars.”

Drawing music from such deep subject matter, Cervantes prefers to be seen as a scholar rather than a professor/rapper. But not in the way the word is most commonly understood today.

Apaso, a local rapper, and DJ Soul Nova, a local DJ, both performed at Saturday’s vinyl release party. Cervantes cited them as examples of the broad and inclusive manner in which he means the word scholar, offering a vision for education that sees hierarchies and academic titles as sources of division.

“What does a scholar mean? What is a scholar’s role? Traditionally it’s someone who’s an expert, who’s in the academy, in the ivory tower,” Cervantes said. “… But if we can flip that and look at Apaso as a scholar as well or DJ Nova Soul …

“They curated an experience and created an exhibit for us. We just really gotta change what that word means and value all types of scholarship, whether it be in a journal or in graffiti we see on the West Side.”

Cervantes credits early hip-hop influences like Public Enemy, X Clan, and Poor Righteous Professors as helping him see how purposeful rap can be and for teaching him important histories.

“A lot of the hip-hop I was listening to back then was giving me a lot of history on black civil rights movements and black struggles for social justice,” he said.

Discussing the role that the music has played in his life, Cervantes reveals hip-hop to be as much therapy or a leveling device as artistic pursuit.

“Hip-hop was a way that I could express my identity, a way that I could feel like I belonged to a group,” he said.

“Every step of the way in my life I feel like hip-hop has always been that touchstone, that place I could go back to and feel better about myself through whatever problems I may have been facing.”

His album, which came six years after his previous solo release, is out on vinyl now after hitting streaming platforms back in December, and Cervantes has plans to release a music video this summer. He’ll also be continuing to work with Third Root, which has kept him busy over the past several years.

Of his goals and his perspective as he continues to navigate the academic landscape, Cervantes doesn’t mince words.

“This is all a game. It’s all a way to get access,” he said. “I have to keep that in mind and not let this academic identity take over. My career gives me that seat at the table where I can question and challenge how education is being put forth to our young people.”

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