My whole life I have spoken about creating an internal world that can be manifested around me and encouraged others to do the same. That is what Freetown is to me. The idea that who you are could be in direct opposition to what is “normal” is madness.

—Muhammad Muwakil, Freetown Collective

Freetown was a place in Trinidad. Before emancipation in 1843, it was known that anyone who could get there would be free. This is Muhammad Muwakil’s hometown and the base of operations for the band Freetown Collective, which was founded in 2010. Though the town’s name was changed to Belmont long before any of us were born, the band’s mission statement remains rooted in this history: the belief that each person has the capacity to be a “free town,” a person who inhabits their space in a way that allows them to function as an individual, free from needing validation. By realizing this potential, a person can agitate the space around them and inspire the creation of more “free towns.” This concept is paramount to our music and has fostered an audience base extending from the ghetto to the suburbs. In our Freetown there are no fans, only residents.

Birthright

Do you know how it feels / to be fighting an ungodly war and still be at peace?

—“Sons of the King” (2011)

What if my ambition is nothing like the Caribbean norms we came and met here? Immediately it feels like I’m importing my ambitions from somewhere else, right? That’s Lou Lyons. Within Freetown, Muwakil is the call to arms, but Lyons provides the anchoring strategy. His voice has the tenor-baritone rasp of the blues, and he has found a way to express his lyrical message with the strum of his guitar. Muwakil provides the vocal theatrics (usually tinged with a tonal Arabic flair) that color Lyons’s sustaining notes. To me realities like ‘Caribbean’ and ‘Third World’ come with certain facts. We don’t make the phones we use, we don’t design the cars we drive, we don’t produce the shows we watch, we own very little real estate of our globally shared reality,Lyons continues.That can f**k with you—your conceptions of possibilities, your ceilings of ambition, your notions of worth.”

Muwakil and Lyons had bright, burgeoning careers in their respective fields. By the time they met, Muwakil was already a celebrity on the spoken-word scene and Lyons was a promising law-degree candidate. Muwakil subscribes to Islam, while Lyons belongs to the Bobo Shanti sect of the Rastafari faith. For many a pairing between the two, especially a musical one, would seem unlikely. Bobo Shanti has strict codes of conduct, and Islam has a complex view on the use of music and instruments. Yet these men have been able to merge into a musical movement that to date has toured the Caribbean and Europe, provided soundtracks for award-winning films, and graced stages with major artists like Chronixx and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley. How did they do it? Simply put, they found their way to Freetown—both the band and the movement—and created a clarion call that has only gotten louder as they expanded their musical portfolio.

The duo formed the band Freetown Collective, and together they began making their way around the open-mic circuit armed with only two songs. Their success is even more impressive when you consider that at the start of their career Muwakil, known as “Mudd” to his friends, was by no means a vocalist and Lyons was still learning guitar. One of their earliest offerings, “Sons of the King” (2011), takes a look at the psyches of two Afro-Caribbean youths with a tangible need to claim their purpose. But in this world, it is mass statistics and lemming behavior that allow corporate control of the people and earn billions. The tone of their lyrics is strained: I’m sending a message / Loud and clear to the Philistines / They been fighting way too long / Killing our dreams.” It reflects a firm resolve within the two to manifest their chosen realities rather than fall into the “comply then complain” nature adopted by canceled artists who allow executives to determine their career trajectories. The duo has gained a reputation for not acquiescing to industry demands. This isn’t about money or gaining fans; this is a group working toward salvation. Within Freetown the only validation necessary is moving toward a clearer version of yourself.

Tribe

Well gimme something new and gimme something fresh / Gimme something that you never give nobody yet.

—“Born Soldier” (2016, featuring Bunji Garlin)

TRIBE

Well gimme something new and gimme something fresh / Gimme something that you never give nobody yet.

—“Born Soldier” (2016, featuring Bunji Garlin)

It’s time for rehearsal, and the group assembles in Lyons’s studio, ready to work on the set for an upcoming show. Muwakil brings the words, while Lyons brings the strum. To ask which inspires is as inane as the great chicken-or-the-egg mystery. I’m Willie Nelson and he’s 2 Chainz, Mudd laughs, referring to their musical dichotomy. Their process reflects the Trinidadian collaborative adage “Bring ting and come.” In fact, many of their major breaks have emerged from this spirit. In 2011 the pair met Damian Marcano and Alexa Bailey of the Blue Cinamon Group, a relationship that resulted in a goody bag of blessings, including Freetown’s first mixtape, Blacks and White (produced with Tobagonian producer Q Major), film roles, and a soundtrack credit on the internationally acclaimed movie God Loves the Fighter. It led to multiple collaborations and a major music video for “Good Swimma,” a track Mudd didn’t like at first.

“I didn’t like the version that was done because I’m not a great fan of EDM. I’m a kinda purist, and I felt like I had written this one beautiful little song and here comes all this other stuff LOL. I came around, though.”  The track was mysteriously pulled from YouTube for “copyright infringements,” something that baffles Muwakil and Lyons to this day. It was only a week after the track’s release, at which time it had already gained 250,000 views. For two young dreamers this catastrophe could have destroyed everything, but instead they began pushing harder.

Sun go down fill the night stars

I write these verse by the light of stars

Mind drifting and I dreaming far

Can’t steel my hope don’t know who you are.

                                                                    —“D.O.A. ‘Dead or Alive’” (2011)

Since its release, “Good Swimma” has become a Freetown anthem. It has also been reproduced by Major Lazer into the smash hit “Believer,” making it easy to wonder at the predictive and bolstering energy of the song’s refrain, When the valley couldn’t hold me / They throw me in the river / Thinking I would drown / But man a good swimmer oye!”

As Lyons plays and Muwakil sings, three women sit toying with tones, keys, and harmonic structure. Initially brought on for a single show, the women’s voices—my own included—have become so integral to the quality of the sound that Freetown has officially become a five-member unit. Dubbed “The Trinity” by the band’s following, the ladies are sought after by photographers, stylists, and designers who wish to have our work seen on the international circuit. Malene and Shanna Joseph provide a soprano and alto scale—running from operatic to calypso-esque—that book-ends my harmonic, self-described “craziness.” For Muwakil and Lyons, our addition signalled a new phase in their music.  

“Carrying the songs became easier. They’re soft when necessary and harsh when necessary. We have the core of us. I feel like the five of us could take any stage in the world,says Muwakil.

WALKING LIGHT


“A blur, but steady” is how Muwakil describes the work thus far. He and Lyons have persevered to produce a portfolio of work that has brought them to the attention of major producers in the world-music industry, but the moments that make them feel truly validated are often removed from the limelight.

“Seeing Damian Marcano jump off a little dinghy with a camera worth tens of thousands of dollars during the filming of ‘Sons of the King’ because he believes in what we are trying to do and is dedicated to making it manifest— That makes me feel like we’re onto something,says Lyons, who also speaks proudly of the band’s purchase of a prestigious Taylor guitar as another proud moment for him. “I never thought I would own one,” he added.

For Muwakil, the pride comes from seeing what his music is capable of. He speaks with wonder of the first mixtape and the realization that their work could be found transcendental enough to be on soundtracks and tell universal stories. He recalls writing “Born Soldier” and immediately thinking of Soul Train award winner Bunji Garlin. “He came to my house and sat with us, and we made it happen,” Muwakil says. “There was always a strong-rooted belief that we were doing something positive, but these things give us confirmation we’re doing something on a wider scale.”

The group members continue to work on personal projects that take them closer to realizing their individual dreams. Lyons has since become a producer in his own right with an in-house studio and is currently producing the soundtrack to a series on a popular U.S. cable network. Muwakil recently published his first book of poetry. At this point they are finishing their highly anticipated album and fielding talks with big industry players, who are clamoring for a piece of the movement. It’s no surprise. To arrive at Freetown is to suddenly realize what is and isn’t necessary, how desperately you wish to fly, and how little anyone else’s belief in your ability to do so matters. After all, as Muwakil and Lyons put it:

If they won’t open the door / We won’t come knocking, not anymore / We’re sons of the King.

—“Sons of the King” (2011)