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The Exchange: Tajai and Ivan Ussach discuss human waste recycling and creative tension in socially conscious artists.

The Arts and Sciences used to share much of the same intellectual space. Only recently have they diverged to the degree that they seem diametrically opposed. The Exchange is our attempt to rekindle some of the dialogue that occurred between the two fields.

In this installment, we’ve brought together Tajai and Ivan Ussach.

Tajai is one of the four founding members of the Oakland, California-based underground hip hop group Souls of Mischief and, with Souls of Mischief, a part of the eight-person, alternative hip hop collective Hieroglyphics. He is also one half of the hip hop duo Rap Noir.

Ivan Ussach is the Executive Director of the Rich Earth Institute. With a background in environmental toxicology, he has led and co-led several non profit organizations working to protect watersheds and forests, including the Millers River Watershed Council. As a co-founder of the Rainforest Alliance, Ivan created the Smart Wood Certification Program and was a founding member of the Forest Stewardship Council. He earned his M.P.H. degree in Environmental Sciences from the Columbia University School of Public Health.

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Tajai. (CREDIT: Artist)

Tajai: Is there a way to make our solid and liquid waste (yes, human feces and urine) into a useful/reusable product? Or at least have less of an environmental impact as far as disposal?

Ivan Ussach: Many people might be surprised to learn that human waste, like nearly all organic matter, can be used for productive purposes. Typically this means producing some sort of fertilizer product. For millennia, people around the world have applied their urine and feces to local crops to provide valuable nutrients. With proper care to destroy pathogens, recycling our waste makes intrinsic sense, especially given the alternative of purchasing energy-intensive fertilizer made from fossil fuels and flushing human waste into clean, potable water.

Human urine is high in the critical plant nutrients Nitrogen and Phosphorus, and also includes many valuable trace elements. Separation of urine at the source also keeps these nutrients out of the wastestream. That saves precious water from being used for flushing, keeps those same nutrients from becoming pollutants in receiving waterways (think toxic algal blooms), and allows the nutrients to be used as an agricultural resource.

One innovative approach to reclaiming human waste for productive use and closing the “nutrient cycle” has been the work of the Rich Earth Institute in southern Vermont in the U.S., which since 2012 has operated the first and largest urine nutrient recycling program in the country. People use simple technology to divert their pee from the waste-stream. Rich Earth then collects and processes it to remove pathogens before safely applying it on local farms. 

This community-scale model has huge global potential. The main challenge is regulatory, as the rules for applying processed urine for productive use are highly restrictive and vary widely–a situation Rich Earth is working with others to address. In the meantime, anyone with a garden can safely and effectively use diluted urine fertilizer at the home scale. 

The practical use and application of human feces is also receiving significant attention from scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs, in addition to the many home practitioners producing “humanure” around the world. A wide range of compost toilets are already available on the market. Additionally, new building-level technology to capture and process “blackwater” is under development and approaching commercial scale. Such technology bodes well for a future in which the toilet is viewed as a resource recovery unit rather than a waste conveyor.

For a full breakdown of the wide range of methods for diverting urine, as well as treatment and application on farms or gardens,  see/download the Guide to Starting a Community-Scale Urine Diversion Program at

Ivan Ussach (CREDIT: Rich Earth Institute)

Ivan Ussach: As a socially conscious artist, you may wrestle with how art can shift peoples’ attitude about entrenched ideas. How does creative tension manifest in the way you deal with this as conscious or unconscious elements in your work? 

Tajai: I believe that one’s art should be a reflection of one’s spirit and emotion at the time of creating the art. Of course, it can also be a reflection of one’s overarching morals, values and philosophies, but I do not believe that this is always necessary or even healthy for an artist. As dynamic beings, we tend to be at different places mentally, spiritually, politically etc. at different times in our lives.

My goal when creating is to strive to be most authentic to that position/stance/location/character at the time the art is created – to let the art be a true reflection, unburdened by the fear that it will not “fit” in some sort of all-encompassing idea of “consciousness.” To me, this is truly being “conscious” with regard to creation- allowing yourself to be fully open and aware of your current state and then channeling that awareness into your art. 

I also think that this is what makes art so great – it captures, freezes and then disseminates (hopefully in a pleasing or thought-provoking way) the trials, tribulations, victories, losses and other experiences we all go through in life. 

As creators in a society, some of us do feel the need to be responsible about the messages we send out through our art.  I personally try to live my life in a manner that is congruent with my values, and make this lifestyle known through real interaction with the fans, critics and any others who may be affected by my creations.

However, I do not feel that I need to always inject my personal values into my artwork (though they will inevitably show up since I created the art). I am more inclined, as I said before, to allow my state at the time of creation to determine the direction in which creation flows.  This just feels better and more natural to me as an artist.  This allows me to role-play when I want, speak on a wider variety of topics and not be predictable or formulaic in my approach. 

I respect all artists who carry the mantle of being “conscious” or “positive” – but I would not consider myself one of those artists with regard to my artistry. I believe that we (Hieroglyphics) can sometimes be pigeonholed into occupying this space because we live lifestyles more congruent with the positive values espoused by many “conscious” artists.

However, if one was to listen to the majority of our music, I think one would find that we are a lot more varied and wide-ranging with the positions we take in our music, and do not always stay in line with what would be considered the “conscious” perspective.

So, to answer the question I will say this: I do not feel any need to try to shift anyone’s ideas about anything when I create. My goal is to paint a vivid, nuanced picture of whatever I choose to address, and for the listener to become so immersed in what I say that they can make their own decisions about whatever I am addressing based upon the veracity of the picture I have “painted.”  

If I do inject my own thoughts or feelings into the art it is to express how I and I only feel about the subject matter, (and even then, the “I” am playing in the music may not be the “I” who I am in real life) not to tell anyone who is listening how to feel. Now if a fan or journalist were to ask me about my feelings on a subject, I would hope that my answer would be true to my personal values and as constructive and positive as I could muster at the time.

But as far as my work – it is emotion distilled into audio format – and emotions change, so I just try to be true to the emotions evoked by the beat, and speak the product of said emotions into existence. My goal is to create a world of words that enhances and/or transcends the physical world, that inspires the listener to imagine, reimagine and further analyze the world we all share. My goal is to be thought-provoking, but to allow the listener to have enough space to move in any direction they wish with the art I have presented.   

In light of all that I have said, I finish with a quote from the great philosopher Kris Parker – “The moral of the story…is that there is no moral, you finish the story for me…”  

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