Ed. note – this week's music feature is all about emcee-producer Saafir, the Saucee Nomad. The wheelchair-bound associate of Hobo Junction and Digital Underground (and actor in 'Menace II Society') opened up to Guardian music writer Garrett Caples about his recent health struggles, making music, and what's keeping him in check. Here's the extended interview we couldn't fit in the print edition:
San Francisco Bay Guardian Did you have any idea [Digital Underground leader] Shock-G was going to post about you on Davey-D’s blog?
Saafir Actually I had no idea that he was going to put that out. Shock had came and saw me one time and I didn’t really tell nobody that I was in a wheelchair as far as the DU crew. I wasn’t really in contact with anybody. Nobody really stayed in contact with me. If you ain’t really hollerin’ at me, I’m not just gonna call you and be like, “Hey bruh, what’s up? I’m in a wheelchair.”
But I had ran into Money B and he told Shock, and Shock came by and saw me in that wheelchair and it kinda hurt him. He was like, “We really need to do something for you, man. We gotta try to bust a move and do something to make this shit right.” I told him I was down for whatever.
As far as [Shock’s] article is concerned, I’m not really gonna go into it. [Laughs] I’m just gonna say that. The focus is to try to get some awareness up with my condition and my situation. My situation is that I’ll have to have surgery to get my shit corrected. So I’m trying to raise awareness and get as much assistance with it as possible just to make it happen. But shout out to Shock-G for his effort in getting the word out and letting people know about my condition. His way of doing it is unconventional but it’s appreciated.
SFBG But is your condition the result of back injuries or the tumor you had to have removed?
Saafir My back wasn’t really the problem, it was moreso internal. I had a cancerous tumor in my spinal cord and they had to get it out as soon as possible. That was around '05. The timeline was based off of Shock’s own memories and some of the details got mixed up. I had to have the surgery to get the tumor out. The doctor told me that if I didn’t take it out, by the time I was in my later 40s I would probably be paralyzed. And it’s ironic because I did the surgery and I’m still kinda in that situation. I’m not a paraplegic; my legs are still active and whatnot, it’s just getting the right kind of treatment to spark what needs to be sparked in order to get my legs to work.
I have insurance but insurance only covers so much so I’m trying to make sure I’m able to fully meet the criteria so I can step back into the position I need to be in.
But moreso than that, you have to have a stable environment to even complete the things you need to do with the doctor as far as transportation and living situation. I’ve been out here doing this on my own, but I’m trying to get reestablished into a stable enough situation where I can do the things that need to be done in succession. You have to have a foundation in order to do that so that’s what I’m really focusing on right now, trying to establish that foundation, so that I can complete that.
SFBG Why did you wait so long to reach out to anyone about your condition?
Saafir I didn’t really go into telling people I was in a wheelchair or disabled because a lot of people don’t want to be bothered with it. They pretend like they do but in reality they don’t really want to deal with that shit. And I understand that. I don’t take it personally. So to avoid any harsh feelings or bitterness towards either party, I just keep it to myself and just deal with it. I don’t have a problem with asking anybody for help or allowing people to help me or whatnot but people have their own agenda, people have their own lives. And I need a bit of assistance just to do the basic things, getting into the bathtub, that’s like a marathon for me. And alone it’s damn near impossible. There’s not a lot of people there so I just try to stay concrete and just try to tread through it.
SFBG Why couldn’t they help you at the laser surgery clinic in Arizona that Shock had taken you to?
Saafir At the time I felt that what may have been stopping me from being able to walk was scar tissue surrounding the spinal cord and creating pressure to where my legs wasn’t responding. I had saw that on TV one night on a commercial so I called them. The guy I initially talked to led me to believe that I had action, that it could be done.
My first surgery was like, seven or eight or hours. They split me open. I had to heal for like, 10 months. I was like, “I can’t go through that again.” If I have to I will, but if I don’t have to, I really don’t want to. So I thought the laser surgery would be a good alternative.
Shock helped me get the money together to do the surgery because it’s a private practice. So we get out there and they do a checkup on me and they basically say they didn’t have the facility to do the kind of surgery I needed. I thought that was bullshit. I guess it was more of a situation where they didn’t want to take a chance on messing up something more than what it was, so they just decided, “We don’t really know what was there prior so we don’t want to go in and mess anything up.” And I’m like, man, if you’re afraid to do the surgery, say that. Don’t tell me you don’t have the facility; you just afraid to do the surgery. You know how it is, a lot of them practices are just there to take your money. So we had to come home.
SFBG What’s your prognosis now?
Saafir I got back in touch with the doctor who did the initial surgery. He asked me, “Why you didn’t tell me your legs were going out?” And I was like, “I left messages for you, man, to let you know what was going on with my condition.” I never got a call back so I figured that he couldn’t really do anything for me. And I left multiple messages. But we got past it.
He said, “I think I can get you back walking, we just have to figure out what is the 'cause of the decline.” So that’s what we’re trying to do now. I gotta take a few more MRIs. And from the MRIs they should be able to spot exactly what the decline is and they should be able to work back from there. But again, that shit costs money so I’m trying to raise funds to be able to get that all done.
I keep missing my appointments because I don’t have a car. I try to take the bus to BART but I need assistance getting on the bus. I need to raise funds so I can get back and forth to these appointments and just to help with the basic shit I need every day.
I can’t really move at the capacity I was moving at before. I’m a hustler. I go out and get it on my own, you feel me? But you really don’t understand the blessing you have to be healthy and have access to all your limbs and all your faculties. Don’t take it for granted.
SFBG Have you still been making music at this time?
Saafir I’m trying to get a place where I can complete an album but right now I’m just writing songs and doing little stuff. But I’m definitely writing about my experience, how I’m dealing with it and going through it. A lot of people look at my shit from the ’90s and think I’m going to do the exact same shit now and that’s just not reality. I’ve evolved as a person.
At that time I was a young man and mentally I was in a young frame of mind. Now I’m a grown ass man and I done been through a lot. Life has shown me a lot more shit than it had at the time when I was doing what I was doing. I tried to be innovative and poetic about what I was doing and at the time that was the flavor.
Now, I don’t even feel like that level of dedication or creativity would even be appreciated. That’s not saying that I’m not going to try to do it. It wouldn’t be a situation where it’s a street record or a hip-hop record. I just call it reality rap. I don’t particularly rap like I did in the '90s anymore. I’m more focused on substance and content as opposed to how I swing a rhyme. But I’m always going to swing a rhyme with flavor. My rhythm has never been a problem. I understand the rhythm and the beat so it’s nothing for me to do it.
For the full story, see: Injured Player in the Game.