Pigeon John claims to be an average Joe, the kind of Taco Bell-eating, Xbox-playing guy that only John McCain couldn't relate to at least a little bit. He's got a gift for language, pop hooks and wisecracks that brings together people who might never interact otherwise.
This art of building community has a lot to do with his personal history. Born to a mixed-race couple in lily-white Omaha, Neb., the underground rapper felt like "the blackest thing around" until he moved to blacker-than-black Inglewood, Calif. during elementary school. There, to his dismay, he caught flak for being the whitest.
This struggle led him to music and poetry as he found his own way of being in the world, one that acknowledges life's harsh realities yet comes off as positive - even hilarious.
"I think that humor in this life is our blood," he says. "We can't live without it. We think we can sometimes, but as soon as humor leaves, everything becomes stale and very unrealistic."
The Beatles and the Beach Boys both appealed to him early on, in part because they "had great wit about them," he says. So did brainy, socially conscious hip-hop artists such as KRS-One, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. Then, in the early '90s, his interest in freestyle rhyme drew him to the open-mike night at L.A.'s Good Life Cafe, the venue that launched the careers of Jurassic 5, the Freestyle Fellowship and the Pharcyde.
"That's when I quickly learned that writing and performing what's written are two hugely different beasts," he says.
For a long time, audiences simply knew him as the skinny, geeky kid who toted an acoustic guitar around the hip-hop clubs and dressed like a member of the Buena Vista Social Club. He eventually won people's respect - and avoided more than a few shiners - with his smartass sense of humor. But the wisecracks are about more than just being funny. They're Pigeon John's treatise on how to survive in a broken world by being yourself.
This blend of wit, gloom and nerdy charm - plus the pure energy of his live performances - led Lyrics Born to sign Pigeon John to his Quanuum label in 2006. It's also what brings Pigeon John to Madison this week as he promotes his Quanuum debut, And the Summertime Pool Party, and his 2007 independent release, Pigeon John Featuring Pigeon John 2.
The show, which falls the day after the election, should be a memorable one for both Pigeon John and the audience - and a testament to the power of community and hope amid hardship.
"We will see the real America stand up, see her for what she is," he says. "I'm hoping that she will be new, bright and young."