Fresh and Fly: Denver Rapper Teaches Kids to Be Gardeners Not Gangstas

For Ietef "DJ Cavem" Vita, HIP HOP is not just a form of music, it's a way of life—one he's using to teach kids about cultivating the earth and eating fresh veggies. This is Ietef's story.


I’m DJ Cavem and I am a HIP HOP artist, an organic gardener, and an educator. I come from a family of sharecroppers, activists, and organic farmers, but I was raised in the city. You could say I began farming at an early age. I planted my first crop at age four—two apricot trees in the backyard. So I had these different forces—my family roots and my urban neighborhood—coming together in my childhood and now in my music. I grew up in the Five Points neighborhood in Denver, Colorado, where just to get to school every day I had to walk past a youth penitentiary and a liquor store. But I was also always into nature as a youth. My mother, curator and community activist Ashara Ekundayo, kept me out of inner city drama by sending me to summer camps, and by exposing me to art and other forms of self-expression. She also took me on trips with her to Burkina Faso, Senegal and other countries. These trips really expanded my views on poverty and access. Growing up in the “hood”, I thought I had seen poverty. These experiences shattered that idea.

I believe that whatever you consume, whether it’s food or music, you should do it consciously. I’ve always had a deep love for hip hop, but I was drawn to alternative “HIP HOP” artists like Arrested Development and KRS ONE. These artists drove me to study the culture of HIP HOP and higher consciousness. A lot of artists are just rapping. Rappers have a lot to say but it’s all these guys with butter knives—they ain’t cuttin’ nothin. Young people listening to this music think that every day it’s a new pair of Jordans, every day it’s a new ride, new car, new women… that’s pretty much saturated the ideas of hip hop. It’s not how your inner peace is helping other people.

I believe that whatever you consume, whether it’s food or music, you should do it consciously.

I follow and teach the basis of HIP HOP culture: Higher Inner Peace, Helping Other People. In order to bring about the respect that HIP HOP deserves I share its history; that it was created by youth to cause positive change, to stop violence and provide an artistic outlet. When this is understood, it makes perfect sense as to why it works for my curriculum and as a teaching tool.

DJ Cavem at a Kale Demo Kwanzaa Event in 2012.

Photo courtesy of DJ Cavem.

HIP HOP is a gateway to our youth, particularly high school aged students. Music influences their decisions, what clothes they wear, what they want to be as an adult and even the food choices they make. I ask them, “What kind of music do you hear in commercials promoting fast food and soda?” The answer? Hip hop. I’ve always embodied all of the elements of hip hop—graffiti art, B-Boying, DJing and of course MCing—but now I connect this culture and art with my work for the community as an O.G. (Organic Gardener) and bring it into classrooms and summer camps. Together with my wife and partner Neambe, I write songs that teach environmental awareness and healthy living, all through a HIP HOP lens.

I ask them, “What kind of music do you hear in commercials promoting fast food and soda?” The answer? Hip hop.

I’m a student of the science of life. My focus has not been around the academic guidelines of science. When I’m talking about how to grow food, how to prepare food, what foods to consume, the realities of climate change, science is just organically a part of it all. “Roots, Beans and Greens” and “Home CookN” from my last album “The Produce Section: The Harvest,” hit on those topics and have a very powerful message. Through songs like these I can get kids excited, but also teach them something real about living a better life.

Another big part of our workshops are hands-on activities. We take inner city youth into environments that they are not familiar with like the forest, mountains, aquaponic centers, and recording studios. It is amazing to watch their eyes expand when they see a corner parking lot transformed into a garden. We build rapport and tell these youth the truth about their food, their health, their community, and their access to healthy resources. We empower them to see food as medicine, to grow their own food, to look at homeopathic holistic remedies to illness. I have taken this curriculum to various schools, college campuses, youth events, and summer programs.

DJ Cavem teaches students about healthy eating and organic food in the music video for the song “Wheatgrass.”

I try to make myself available to anyone who wants to learn more. I took a young man under my wing four years ago when he was 15 years old—the same age I was when I became a vegan. He would meet me on the weekends to learn how to turn soil, how to build compost; we would have conversations around diet, food as medicine, and why he shouldn’t drink soda. We planted seeds over the years and he is now a college student, a vegan, and he plans to start his own company turning lawns into food gardens. He is also a HIP HOP artist and a poet, and is on one of my tracks, “Gz Up Hoes Down,” from “The Produce Section: The Harvest.” An interesting thing is that this young man’s father taught me the foundations of HIP HOP when I was a youth, coming full circle.

It is amazing to watch their eyes expand when they see a corner parking lot transformed into a garden.

This foundation—my relationships with mentors, students, and family— it helps me to keep my message honest, to speak what I know to be true, so my message crosses class and race lines. Regardless of economic status, the realities of our environmental woes and industrialized food industry impact everyone. I struggle with connecting the classes, getting rich people and poor people in the same room. But I have had the privilege to perform for both audiences, from green elite fundraisers to gang intervention cook outs. The challenge is finding balance, appealing to everyone while remaining true to my art and myself.

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