MC Yogi pairs yoga and hip-hop to deliver a positive message.
Sanskrit mantras and the legends of Hindu deities might seem unlikely fodder for a rap album, but when vinyasa yoga teacher and hip-hop artist Nicholas Giacomini (aka MC Yogi) set lyrics like "Hanuman G, there's nobody is greater/but sometimes, homie, you have weird behavior" to a funky beat on his album, Elephant Power (which samples Krishna Das and Jai Uttal, among other kirtan [chanting] wallahs), he made a sensation in the yoga community. These days, MC Yogi spends his time teaching at Yoga Toes, the studio he owns with his wife, Amanda, in Point Reyes Station, California; touring internationally; and working on a new album for 2010.
How did you first come to yoga? I was in a group-home program in high school. I was not interested in the curriculum at all and got involved with drugs and troubled kids. When I was 18, I graduated from that program and started doing yoga. My dad had been practicing Mysore-style Ashtanga Yoga, and he had built this small room in the back of his store in Point Reyes, where he practiced with a tiny group. One day, he invited me. It was really hard at first; I was really struggling. But when my feet landed on the mat, I had this coming-home experience.
And what about hip-hop? I grew up in the hip-hop generation, so I was listening to hip-hop when I was six and seven years old. The first two records I had were the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill and Run-DMC's Raising Hell. That was the soundtrack of my youth.
So, how did the two come together for you? There was a converted factory in the town of Sonoma, California, and the owner sectioned off a portion of it and turned it into a teen center called The Shop. When I was in my early 20s, I knew this group of young graffiti artists, break dancers, DJs, poets, and musicians, and we started putting together drug-, alcohol-, and violence-free events for high school kids at The Shop. We put on shows that were positive, conscious hip-hop. It was the first place I started to experiment with bringing yogic wisdom and ancient myths into the hip-hop format.
You reference a lot of Indian gods in your music, like Shiva and Ganesh. where did you learn about them? I grew up reading a lot of comic books, and at some point, I got hold of some Indian comic books, and there was something about the Indian myths that was so much fun and so colorful and so profound.
Who are the teachers who have influenced you most? I took my first trip to India in 2001 and studied with Pattabhi Jois in Mysore. Also, Larry Schultz, who used to go on tour with the Grateful Dead; Tim Miller; and Richard Freeman. When I was just getting started with yoga, I was in my late teens, early 20s, and I came from a reform school, so Ashtanga worked really well for me. It gave me the discipline I needed. More recently I hooked up with [Jivamukti Yoga founders] Sharon Gannon and David Life. Sharon has been such an amazing fairy godmother to me.
What's the main message you want to put out to the world in your music? Peace. Joy. Living from inside your heart instead of inside your head. It's the same teachings as yoga—it's just coming in a different way, through the music. Yoga totally transformed me, and I just want to pay it forward and speak to the youth in a way they are going to understand.