Chali 2na might be best known for his music career as part of the legendary alt hip hop group Jurassic 5 and Grammy award-winning band Ozomatli, but that was never his biggest dream.
"I never thought I'd be a musician," Chali 2na, whose given name is Charles Stewart, says. "I thought I'd go to art school and try to (be an artist)."
Turns out, he's managed to do both. Stewart ramped up his artistic pursuits this year, landing his first solo exhibit in L.A. in February and launching a fan-funded project called Against the Current, which will include five EPs spanning different genres along with an art book filled with his paintings and photography.
"I figured people's attention span has shortened in a lot of ways," he says. "I'd rather give you doses of music, five- six-song EPs here and there with different genres of music that have influenced my life... The end result is that this music is used as a commercial that points toward the fact that I'm a visual artist, a painter."
His art runs the gamut from portraits to whimsical scenes and his signature fish, stylistically stemming from his beginnings as a graffiti writer. But it was actually his love of art that led him to hip hop in the first place.
"I was four or five years old drawing and doing things of that nature when I met this guy who moved to Chicago from New York around the time hip hop was emerging, before it spread across the world. I got a sneak peak into it. When hip hop came, it was a chance for me to do my own thing in a city that was chasing a certain (electronic) sound. I felt like an outcast, but I had my own identity," he says.
Years later, in the early 90s, he and a group of friends formed Jurassic 5, which disbanded in 2007 and reformed earlier this year for a string of festival stops, including the Squamish Valley Music Festival. In between, he pursued his solo career, became one of the founding members of Latin-funk group Ozomatli and leant his powerful baritone to a whole host of collaboration projects.
He admits he's let passion rather than a shrewd business sense dictate his decisions over the years. "I do it based on what I like, not necessarily what's the best choice for me at the time," he says. "Maybe that's why I'm not more famous than I am, but I feel like the reason I do music in the first place is because I love music... I do it from a passionate perspective of a person trying to get out something that can't be described in words."
His latest creative endeavour has been photography and sharing images from his tour adventures over Instagram. "The pursuit of it all, it just keeps me juiced," he says. "What's crazy is I've been taking pictures on this whole journey since disposable cameras have been out, but it hasn't been, 'Oh let's take scenic pictures.' It's been more trying to document our journey. It's cool now to be able to have an outlet like Instagram and social networks."
Jurassic 5 formed just before the Internet boom began to shake up the music industry. For Stewart, it's been a love-hate relationship. "It was crazy with all the file sharing that became an issue," he says. "Really, it helped with the awareness of Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli and Chali 2na. It got my name to places I wouldn't have been able to get on my own. I appreciate it because of that. But it also depreciated the value of everything. You can't sell records anymore. Because of that you have to be creative in other ways."
One example is the limited VIP tickets he'll be selling on his upcoming Canadian tour. The tickets will offer fans a chance to hang out in person, snag a print of one of his paintings and get a download of the first EP from his ongoing series, among other perks.
He's testing out the concept in Canada before trying it in his home country, he says. "Since Jurassic 5 has been back together I haven't been able to do an extensive tour until now," he says. "We decided to try it out to see if it works."
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