Tamil Identity, Nationalism and Imagination

The song Red Dot, about the old DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) flag, which belonged to a failed political movement of pan-Dravidian and/or Tamil nationalism is one that wonders what a Tamil nation state would have meant to Tamil peoples in the modern age.  Aside from a failed civil war for Tamil Eelam in Lanka, there have been no other Tamil nationalist movements that have lasted in the modern day.  Most Tamils living in the Diaspora ascribe their national identity to South Asian nations or to their adoptive homes.  Tamils who live in the Indian subcontinent, the islands of the Indian Ocean or South East Asia similarly identify themselves with pre-markers like Malaysian Tamil or Indian Tamil—the will for a pan-Tamil identity has all been lost.

As an artist of Tamil origin, living in the Diaspora, this identity became more real to me as I navigated my own consciousness and awareness around my identity in America.  The discovery of my late father’s loyalty to the DMK flag and what it represented only furthered the fuel of this fire.  This along with my own sensibilities around the injustices carried out toward my people in Lanka, created within me the imagination of a Tamil state.  It recalled the legend of Kumari Kandam, from which, it is believed Plato may have been inspired for Atlantis.  The lost Tamil continent that sank into the Indian Ocean.  The pseudo historical theories of the Tamil connection to the Mayans, the actual Tamil connections to East Africa and Yemen, and the journey of the Tamil, known as Damo, who established the Shao Lin Temple in China.  I wondered if I was such a global person because my Tamil identity was woven into the fabric of the world.

Then came the National Geographic documentary about the first genes out of Africa and lo and behold, the Tamil DNA marker shared the same markers as the Andamanese, the Papuans, and the Aboriginal peoples of Australia as the first out of Africa.  As I imagined the migration of my people over the water, I thought of my own spiritual connection to the sea and wondered if something deep in the fabric of my genetic make-up inspired my fascination.

Finally, there was the theory of the renowned linguist Susumu Ohno, who put forth the idea in the 1980’s that Japanese (held to be an Altaic language) was overwhelmingly influenced by Tamil, believing the connection to have happened over 2000 years ago in the Yayoi period of Japan.  Ohno was not the first to propose this connection, but as a linguistic scholar of Japanese he was by far the most qualified to make the claim.  Although Ohno is not without his detractors, his theory is backed by an sound argument that picks apart Japanese words and shows the Dravidian linguistic connection, grammatical overlap, relative pronouns, a likeness in word order, striking resemblance in the rhythm of each language and the presence of Tamil influence upon the Yamato kotoba, or words that existed in Japanese prior to the Chinese writing system.

In his book “Seeking the Origins of Japanese Language”, Ohno takes it further by looking at cultural development and influence on ancient Japanese customs such as those connecting with the harvest, religious ritual, and nuptial rites.  While Ohno’s ideas are compelling, they are not backed by sound archeological evidence, and rely on Ohno’s linguistic arguments alone.  As a Tamil, who has had great affinity for Japanese culture, I found his arguments compelling and again they tickled by imagination and I began to wonder, what if there were proof of this connection and influence.

I wrote Red Dot as a fictionalized narrative that begins with the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu sending ships to follow the nautical path of Damo; it flashes forward to Japanese imperial soldiers being slaughtered by a combination of saltwater crocodiles and the British Indian forces in Rangoon during World War II.  In this imagined narrative these Japanese soldiers were coming to rescue their Tamil brethren from British colonial rule.  The narrative also examines the Moorish connection to Tamil, the dead language of Arwi, a combination of Arabic and Tamil, the Moorish bloodlines that mixed with Tamils during the viable and long standing Indian ocean trade.  The East African connection to Tamils both by trade and genetics and finally the little known fact of Tamil coolies who were converted into the Atlantic Middle Passage Slave trade via South Africa, though they only account for a small percentage of that trade having numbered two thousand, that genetic story is also a part of the American Slave Trade epic.  All in all, the song explores all these strands and ends on a black banner, with a red dot, or disc fixed in the middle.  Ironically its similar to the Japanese flag in construction, save for the black taking place of the white, and it imagines a place that has never been allowed to exist by Indian, French, Dutch, British and Sinhala hegemony and that is a pan-Tamil state:

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In the world we live in Tamil nationalism is a footnote at best, but Tamil identity is very much alive and vibrant.  Linked to a language and culture that continues to thrive wherever it goes—from Trinidad to Toronto, for Johannesburg to Jaffna and from Malaysia to the Maldives, Tamils continue to have a profound impact.

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Rediscovering Malcolm X through the XFactor

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School is back in session as the boom box yearns the tape of yesteryear – Hip-Hop is surely back, whether is Kendrick Lamar’s latest masterpiece of Professor A.L.I. teaching again, using music as a tool to educate.  

by Yusuf Khan

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The XFactor by Professor A.L.I. is the titular track off of this curricular double album exploring the history of Hip-Hop as a cultural movement while also examining its controversial themes within the musical genre.  The song does not shy away from controversy as it delves into an examination of the impact made by Malcolm X upon Hip-Hop.

Malcom X

In the song, Professor A.L.I. refers to Malcolm X as the “placenta to Hip-Hop’s birth” and goes on to state that he was “so discarded, yet his knowledge provided nutrition for these artists.”  Initially it is unclear, which artists he was referring to—save a new generation disconnected from the roots of Hip-Hop and who don’t understand the ideological framing for much of the teaching that went on in earlier Hip-Hop.  Examples of this abound in the works of Paris, Public Enemy, X-Clan, KRS-One and Ice Cube, who in large part paid consistent homage to the persona of Malcolm X in their music. Hip-Hop’s reverence for Malcolm X can also be seen with Winley Records, a company that put out an album called Malcolm X “No Sell Out,” which contained a looped Hip-Hop break beat with samples from Malcolm’s speeches and was released in the early 1980’s.

MalcolmEliPromo It seems the Professor is simply continuing in the same traditions, while contrasting recent false representations of Malcolm X in the very culture that once venerated him.  In the song, Professor A.L.I. goes after a poster child of the so called “New Hip-Hop” era in Nikki Minaj, who so despicably tried to violate the legacy and memory of Malcolm for her own commercial purposes on one of her recent projects, in which she takes an iconic image of Malcolm with rifle in hand and diminishes it and him by labeling it with her following single title: “Looking A** N****.”  The outcry from the Hip-Hop community of what was being done, caused her pause—but the simple fact that it was considered a smart move in the first place was insulting.  Professor A.L.I. refers to her as a “toxic architect,” one who build deadly notions aimed to kill the consciousness of the youth.

MalcolmPromo5This song is heavily personal for Professor A.L.I., who was both friends with Malcolm X’s grandson, Malcolm Shabazz and one of the few selected to wash and shroud his body under Islamic principles after his brutal murder in Mexico a few years ago.  Young Malcolm (Malcolm Shabazz) would often tell Professor A.L.I. of his disdain for the disrespect on end and sheer ignorance of his grandfather on the other.  It seems that the Professor feels the same way as he not only goes after those who attack Malcolm X’s persona, but also reconstructs the history using the X as a variable for a retelling of what Malcolm had meant to both Hip-Hop and the greater movement of justice in the West.

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An intimate conversation between Professor A.L.I. and his late friend Malcolm Shabazz is also a part of this album, functioning as educational interludes, and harkening back to an era in Hip-Hop where knowledge not ignorance reigned supreme.

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The album is a key component of a Hip-Hop History course offered and taught by Professor A.L.I. as part of the BLEND-ED Consortium (Athenian, CPS, Lick Wilmerding, Marin Academy and Urban) of college preparatory schools as well as the U.C. Berkeley summer programs.  At a time where Kendrick Lamar is reminding us of a time where Hip-Hop left off in the early 1990’s, Professor A.L.I. is taking us back to school, channeling Chuck D and Brother J, and in the true West Coast traditions of Ice Cube and Paris, he gives us #XFactor.

Native Sun

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Native Sun by Professor A.L.I.

I remember when I first met Carter, five years ago; it was hard to miss him, since he stood out as much as I did amidst our new peers.  I see him in my mind vividly, standing awkwardly in the sunlight upon a beach as part of an in-coming student orientation; and I’m sure he visualizes me in similar fashion.  He a freshman and I the new teacher on campus at a unfamiliar school clearly feeling nervous about the community we were being enveloped in and showing it through our uncomfortable body language.  We clearly felt, then, like outsiders, like shadows cast in the light of the sun.

Four years later as the June sun beamed down upon our heads, Carter would walk across the stage; and in the Athenian School tradition he picked an instructor to give a one-minute graduation speech on his behalf.   Carter chose me and I chose to deliver the speech as a rap, sans beat; it seemed appropriate since Carter’s alter ego was the young, up and coming rapper “Captaincy” and I was, Professor A.L.I.

As Carter was nearing his impending graduation the elephant in the room, was a potential collaboration between the teacher and student, between a Professor and a young Captain.  Carter had joked with me about the possibility in years past, but, I had shook it off with banter for I rarely admitted to anyone on campus that I was ‘Professor A.L.I.’ and knew such a collab would’ve blown my identity out in into the sunlight.  For so long I’d kept my artistry hidden in the shadows of my professional world and seeing the two worlds collide was, at the time, unsettling.

Yet at the same time Carter represented everything I strove to be an educator for.  He was a brilliant young man with deep inner-reflections who also thought out of the box.  He was the laid back freshman who’d emerged from the shadows of obscurity to embrace the lamp of learning.  And to top it off, unlike many young people he possessed both knowledge and reverence for the true pioneers and “teachers” of Hip-Hop like Brand Nubian, Public Enemy & KRS-One.

So motivated by that realization, I showed Carter a song in which I sought to promote Hip-Hop as it once was, the art of expression of social/political issues that were relevant to the community at large.  The song had a natural intersection in the realm of equity and inclusion, a theme that was central to both Captaincy and Professor A.L.I.; it also spoke to our time at Athenian together, to community building and education.  We had embraced the light of our true selves on this campus, let down our guards, and allowed what we do as artists respectively to become a part of the landscape like the sun in the sky. It was the most appropriate intersection for a collab, and Captaincy laid the second verse on the song, and lo and behold, ‘Native Sun’ was born.

The song was born of a reverence for Richard Wright’s seminal work, Native Son, and the language of Hip-Hop with the elevation of self in the speak of the ‘Nation of Gods & Earths’ community; the same NGE community that gave Hip-Hop its slang and cadence.  Imbued with both “science & math”, the track is a metaphor of the passing of a torch; of a Professor taking his own light to elevate another, a student to become a “Sun”, to give off his own light, to embrace the highest expression of self, one that is celestial in nature.

The song’s journey is one that begins in the classroom, through the lecture of a Professor, sparking the imagination of students, and of one student in particular, Carter (Captaincy) who presents his own reality.  This should be the nature of any art, to spark more creativity, and to create more artists.  So like a sun that shines upon all and gives life meaning, by the light of the moon, its warmth and radiation, so too do the lyrics of the song, give life meaning by shedding light upon the importance of equity and point out societal inequities that we live and breath in on a daily basis.

Native Sun is a song off of the Emerald Manifesto album, and the beginning of a new movement for me as an artist.  Up until now, as Carter, my peers and many students will attest to, I’ve kept my artistic life and life as an educator separate.  However I now see the empowering role that Hip-Hop artistry and lyricism can play in education and also vice versa.   Merged together, Hip-Hop & Education shed light on issues that are not touched upon by popular media or given attention because they do not further the status quo.  It is the unexplored realm of voice, the subaltern, and as an educator I see the importance of the voice of the M.C.  After all, as I’ve said in the past, ‘a Professor has knowledge, but an M.C. has the audience.’

To that end, on Emerald Manifesto, I created songs that spoke to issues that didn’t see the light of day.  I spit verses about the social inequities of the Caste system still in practice in South Asia, the movement of permaculture, the genocide in Bahrain, the importance of localized spending and the similarities rather than the difference between people living in the Middle East.  All of these issues are rarely addressed, yet are issues relevant to our world and more importantly the world inherited by our children.  The sun diminishes darkness, vanishes obscurity, and makes all things erudite.  I was seeking to do the same as an artist; in the end I was seeking to become a sun.

At Athenian, both Carter and I had become suns; we found a supportive community, one that encouraged artistic expression and explored ways in which educators and students could be learners outside of the traditional classroom setting.  In four years the icy wall I had created between my artistry and role as educator had slowly melted.  The Google searches that easily reveal the presence of my alter ego and calls to recite spoken word and acapella poetry had blown my carefully constructed cover as a mild mannered educator along with my icy wall to bits.

When this happened I saw an immense swell of support and love from a community that stood by its own.  Carter saw that too, and as he started to take the lyrics from his notepad to the mic, he too found his strongest support coming from the Athenian campus family.  Artistry thrives when it is cultivated with love, and we both found that from our respective peers.  So we too began to shine in our own right.

We also discovered after five years at Athenian, that our initial reaction to being on the other side of the tunnel, in a city (Danville) that was really different from our respective homes of Union City & Oakland, was not what we expected.  In our time on campus we discovered we were not outsiders, but integral parts of the community as if we had always been there.  We felt like we were natives of that Mt. Diablo setting and at communicated in our body language that we had ascended to become part of what makes Athenian shine as a community, that we were “suns” in the NGE sense of the word. We were Native Suns.

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I am currently working on my new project entitled Das Ka Rebel, taking the exploration of Hip-Hop & Education to another level.  I will explore themes that make education truly innovative and experiential—while at the same time discovering all of what Hip-Hop could be.  Hip-Hop after all was born in the West African Griot, so I will seek to imbue the sprit of that oral historian as I weave the tales of our world as a testament to later generations, and like the griot, impart lessons that will help them preserve our values, while avoiding our mistakes.

I seek to shine like the Native Sun and give light to the ‘earths’ and their seeds–so that they flower with knowledge and grow to regenerate this planet and allow it to flourish with love.  In the words of Tupac Shakur, “I’m not saying I’m going to change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.”  I feel the same way, and I will seek to move through this world with Ollin Tonatiuh, with the movement of the Sun, riding the chariot in the sky of life like Apollo, facing its demons like Surya, for I am Ra in Kemet, I am the Native Sun.

Lamentation of the Hip-Hop Poet: Occupy Oakland & Free Bahrain

Lamentation of the Hip-Hop Poet: Occupy Oakland & Free Bahrain by Professor A.L.I.

The lamentation of the B-Boy, the MC, DJ, and Graffiti artist seem like they are now, at this moment, one in the same.  They lament in spite of and amidst the crocodile tears of mainstream media that Hip-Hop is dead.  The forefathers of Hip-Hop turn in their graves, while those who helped make it erudite become vengeful ghosts, not holograms.  “Hip Hop Is Dead” becomes an old slogan at a time where every minute there is a new trend.  Social media heads, the spinsters and tweeters prey upon that phrase like its a tired old saying, like it was printed on the back of faded stickers on rusty bumpers of dated hoopties and try to come up with even wittier new phrases like Hip-Hop has reincarnated or Hip-Hop has emigrated… to get a retweet or a like, to validate their egos, all the while, Hip-Hop lives.  Thats the lamentation.

The term Hip-Hop has been co-opted.  One can emulate and market the clothes, the beats, the samples, emulate the moves, and even instagram ones way into the latest trend with a picture of graffiti, but its all form, no substance.  The substance of hip-hop cannot be misappropriated because Hip-Hop is the shadow, it lives in basements and exists as an impression left by those who are voiceless in a world where oppression exists.  The independent artist, not the sensationalized “unsigned hype” that pays for ad space on Hip-Hop rags… but the true independent artist, the griot, continues to write in their pad, spit rhymes to the beats made in the environment, to the pulse of the earth.

It is my goal, as an artist to cultivate that energy, that genuine love for the art, hearkening back to the lost art of telling real stories–not to be gimmicky but to capture what is happening here and now for our own posterity in a voice that they will understand and with a passion, so that they understand our angst and help them revisit our hope that these events do not continue to cycle forward but that a solutions are presented so that the oppression that we document does not ever happen again in any way shape or form towards any person.

While I was making my latest album Emerald Manifesto, two events shook my life.  One half a world away, the other less than half an hour.  First was the genocide in Bahrain, and second was Occupy Oakland.

The genocide in Bahrain truly shook me, because I was watching live footage (I had to look for it of course, since Western media ignored it), of an actual genocide of a minority in Bahrain, an ally of ours, and all our government had to say the entire time was directed at Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.  Not even a footnote about Bahrain.  This from a nation that condemned the Holocaust.  Then again this was from a nation which perpetrated what many refer to as the Black Holocaust, i.e. the Middle Passage, and tolerated Black Codes, Jim Crow, lynchings and the like, all the while stealing the land from a people we actively exterminated.  Bahrain was Hip-Hop, its people, those being massacred needed to be acknowledged, their lives needed to mean something and like a modern day griot, the story I hoped to capture and disseminate with the help of my Boston based colleague Yusuf Abdul-Mateen, we created the following video and song to capture and spread the news of what was happening to audiences in the west:

The second was Occupy Oakland–I was not an active participant of Occupy Oakland, but I was out there on several occasions, including when the police first decided to round up everyone at 5 A.M. and kick people out of Frank Ogawa Plaza.  I was there when like a parade, officers from districts all the way from Fremont showed up, in new police vehicles, with, batons, tasters, guns, tear gas canisters, and riot gear.  I watched as University of California at Berkeley Police joined the ranks, and I watched and was pushed and prodded to the other side of Broadway.  Making my way on foot to a ride that was waiting for me, reflecting on the incident, I pulled out my iPhone and began to type away.

I began to write without a beat, and contacted Zumbi of Zion-I, a Bay Area based conscious M.C., and he agreed to participate and collar with the idea.  We documented the events of Occupy Oakland which at that time began to resemble a scene out of war torn Iraq.  Sadly, it was happening in the place I call home, the Bay Area.  Sadly, many even in the Bay moved through life like machines, driving past Oakland not realizing what was happening.  Thanks to friends and colleagues who lived in the area, my own visits to the Occupation and live tweets and words of encouragement from Boots Riley of the Coup… I was able to capture in verse my angst over what was happening and Zumbi and I were able to put together the following video of the events that transpired in our home:

I lament that these things are happening like my fellow MC’s, DJ’s, Graffiti artists, and B-Boys in this day and age, and create like they do to capture in art, in the voice that is Hip-Hop the story of what is happening, only to be told that “Hip Hop is Dead”.  Feel what you want about Hip-Hop but the lives of the human beings in Bahrain and Oakland, are connected in a way, because mainstream media did not and does not depict what is truly happening.  You want to be “hip” to what is really going on?  You want to be part of a movement?  Then, please “hop” on this grassroots train as it navigates through the shadows of a tunnel which leads towards the light of equity and equality, in a world of justice, balance and PEACE.

 

Are You Hip?

Are You Hip?

“Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”

When I mention those words to people these days they often wonder, as I did when I encountered the phrase, “Who said that?” in the back of their minds, with an inquisitive countenance.  The answers that float to one’s head differ from person to person but carry the same common thread.  Some wonder if it’s Gandhi, Plato or perhaps Einstein.  The beauty of the quote lies in the answer to that query.  One way to approach it is to ask them have they truly listened to “Purple Haze” by Jimi HendrixHendrix would not be considered by the masses to be a “thinking person” of the highest quality, but this simple fact belies the great lesson taught here.  If one’s mind is open to truly listening, then and only then can wisdom be gained by it.

Wisdom is needed more than ever in our time.  We live at a time where the whole world seems polarized in a black and white construct replete with a new age good guy “cowboys” and the dark skinned bad guys, or “Injuns”.  More than any other time in history we need dialogue, but most leaders instead speak these days with hands over their ears, never listening what the “other” side has to say.  People claim to have knowledge, what the world seems to need more than anything else is wisdom.  Wisdom to prevent wars and genocides from occurring unnoticed by mass media, wisdom to stop discrimination of all forms, and wisdom to help us to learn to truly understand each other.

Growing up in secular America, I came to accept two lies passed off as universal truths as true statements just like everyone else.  I accepted them as true knowledge, and dismissed any voice that said otherwise (yes with hands over my ears).  However something happened in two decades, I started to listen (my hands got tired) to the voices around me as incident after incident showcased to me that I really didn’t know anything; rather I was just good at memorizing the lies I was taught from a very young age.  I struggle now to scrutinize everything, to get at the truth behind what is presented, and that process begins just as Jimi so eloquently puts it with listening.

So I listened.  And perhaps I listened with the ear of a musician, or a person who yearns for the story to be more complex than a simple black and white explanation.  Either way, overtime as I listened, those two truths became elucidated as the lies they truly were.  The first universal truth of secular America is the following:  Religion is bad and is the root of all wars and suffering humanity has faced.  The number one case example that is often given to us is that of the Crusades.  ‘The Crusades’, my state stamped history teachers argued could have been prevented had it not been for one factor: religion.  This was corroborated by liberal media and conservatives who accepted the polarized worldview, and swallowed whole-heartedly by the masses around.  Liberals denounced religion. Conservatives on the other hand embraced religion as a truth that helped them identify their side in an ‘us against the’ world constructed as a Clash of Nations.

The oxymoronic nature of this is that there is more in common between the three Abrahamic traditions than they have different and the Crusades itself is not about religion inasmuch as it is about economics. I understood finally after pouring over primary source after primary source as a student of history and an instructor of it, listening to what the voices of the past that lived the Crusades were truly saying.   There were schisms in the Church, anti-Semitism in Europe, and a speech by Pope Urban of Claremont which for the first time seemed to justify violence via Christian religious argument, yet all the players in the grand game to follow were motivated by the universal evil, money.  The wisdom I received from these voices was that even this iconic event that the pundits blame on religion was more about the basic human evil of greed and economics than it ever was about faith.  Religion in many ways tempered what could have been even more horrendous of slaughter in instances.

Read Anna’s voice in the Alexiad, Solomon Bar Simson, the Fulchre of Chartes, and keep reading until you find Ibn Athir.  There are accounts upon accounts of atrocities, but it goes further back than the even the Battle of Manzikert, into Western Europe, where there simply was too much in fighting amongst the Franks and Normans because of one simple fact:  there was not enough land to go around.  The Crusades were about conquest and religion became the excuse and instead of challenging that notion throughout the ages, we have accepted it.

Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying the flip side isn’t true, that religion cannot be distorted as a truth without dialogue and used to justify in the minds of mindless adherents that violence is the key… but it’s not religion that is the problem, it’s the interpretation that people put upon it.  Religion itself would dismiss those arguments of those same interpreters, if people listened to the voices around them… for example; just take this universal truth in all religions: killing an innocent person is wrong.

The problem lies in the fact that we don’t listen to each other, the voices from the past or critically ask questions anymore.  In addition it’s difficult to engage in a conversation with those who had not read the same material, travelled to the same places, and only know what they’ve been told and believe it to be true because a state sponsored system of simplistic education which seeks to explain the world as one of opposition.  This black and white, polarized model certainly makes it easier for taxpayers to shell out money in support of cowboy like policies around our planet.  No Child Left Behind, unless of course it’s an “Injun”.

What I’m seeking to pose from this stream of consciousness is not an answer but the need for us to question.  This can often come across as an antagonistic approach so I turned to a means of communication that speaks to the human heart that explores these commonalities through sounds that human beings have embraced throughout the ages, in music.

More simply put I turned to Hip-Hop, the subaltern voice of the streets and language of the backpacks, basements and shadows.  I called up Shabazz the Disciple of the Sunz of Man, known for being able to take what was Biblical and put it to the mic, and gave him a beat that we birthed, with my man Ian Heung on the horns.  Our goal was to keep the song Abrahamic and showcase to the world that these traditions have more in common than they have differences.  So we came up with “Basic Instructions” which can be seen here:


This brings us to the second universal truth taught to us, which ultimately was just another lie; the lie that science and religion were/are mutually exclusive.  This is the greatest farce of the two lies.  Considering that all of the greatest thinkers, scientists and mathematicians have been people of faith, and have found their creator in the study of the creation around them is all too often missed by those who do not study their scholarship in context.  What has happened instead is their works have been simplified into highlighter versions and then those statements have been further repackaged for the masses to create a simplistic understanding of the world.  An understanding where a higher power is marginalized and the highest power/or supreme law of the land is manmade.  Isn’t it in the interest of a secular government to be the supreme authority in the minds of its citizens, instead of a higher being who they cannot control?

The song “Metaphysics” was the result of my process of engaging in that dialogue by bringing forth from the same subaltern lens, using boom-bap language that is hip-hop to the core and to delve into the minds of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes and great thinkers, mathematicians and scholars.  I meet them at the intersection of science and faith, exploring their mathematical proofs for the divine.  The video can be seen here:


I hope that in these efforts to use the language that speaks to listening and by inviting dialogue that we can at a grassroots level grow and cultivate true wisdom.  So let me end with the following consideration:  please listen and share, and by listening I hope you find wisdom in the process of questioning in a world which presents false truths as ultimate answers and subsequently as real knowledge.  I welcome dialogue with any and every one on both the issues here and beyond in hopes that by truly listening to each other we become wiser and the world around us becomes a better place for it.  RIP Jimi, and thanks for inspiring us, we’re still listening!

— Professor A.L.I.

Black Skin, White Masks: My Song with Lord Jamar

If any moment validated what I do as a poet and artist, it was speaking with Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian over the phone about the track I’d just sent him and my concept for it.   Anyone who knows me, knows that Brand Nubian, and in particular Lord J, with his lyrical content, voice, and spirituality had a profound influence on me as an artist and as a Muslim.  I remember playing Claimin’ I’m a Criminal on repeat, over and over again as a college student—Lord J’s and also Sadat X’s lyrics spoke to me on both an experiential and existential level.  Here were two black men, who embraced their identity and did not wear masks.

From time to time I’ll ‘check’ for Lord J, and I always appreciated how sincerely he ‘repped’ his faith and identity in all the forms of artistic expression.  It’s something I sought to do in my artistry as well, and found in Lord J a model to emulate.  So for all these reasons, talking to Lord J was a bit surreal for me.  However the conversation surprisingly flowed naturally between the Hip-Hop legend and me, the upcoming poet.  I showed him the respect he deserved which I think he appreciated.  We live in a time where many a young artists neglect the forefathers and forbearers of Hip-Hop, i.e. those who laid down the path that these young artists themselves now walk freely.  Many of these artists are oblivious to who the legends are, and the years these figures spent in the game, at a time where Hip-Hop was given no ethos in popular culture.  I guess I must’ve stood apart from them to Lord J in some way because he also showed me love and agreed to participate in a song which was ironically aimed at the very concept of identity which he’d been speaking up for, for years.

It was almost as if the song was meant to be.

We began and ended the conversation with the word “Peace”, and a week later I had lyrical gold sent to me as an e-mail attachment.  I called up my boy, fellow Brand Nubian fan, Hakim, who always plays the role of the laidback cool kid in the back of the room… but even he was noticeably ‘juiced’ as I leaked the news.  “I just got a feature from Lord J,” I said.

Now I’ve been in the booth with E-40; and on my first solo I worked with Raekwon, Canibus, Sadat X, Hussein Fatal and Killah Priest, and since then other legends, as well as contemporary heavyweights.  However this song and its message along with the person featured on it, held special weight.  It meant and still means something special.

This ‘feature’ meant an almost perfect marriage or Lord J’s appearance to the lyrical content to the custom beat made by Arun Trax which used a vocal sample from the late Khalid Abdul Muhammad; in addition to top it all off, the song itself was titled after the seminal work of Frantz Fanon, White Skin, Black Masks.  The song was meant to be both a history lesson regarding people of dark skin or African descent in the West as well as a wake-up call to many of what Hip-Hop had been and could still be: message driven music.

So for the backdrop for this song, my team shoes an appropriate video, the infamous ‘Black Sambo’ by Warner Brothers; a ‘banned cartoon’ because it depicts in the most heinous of ways a child of black descent in such a negative light.  It spoke to the essence of the song and seemed almost tailor made to convey the  lyrical message which ironically speaking to issues that sadly still exist in society today.  Another layer of irony is that it was images like ‘Back Sambo’ which reinforced in the minds of many black and other children of color growing up a sense of inferiority.  These children then grew up to wear ‘white’ masks to move forward in society.


Hip-Hop
is a way of communication positive messages and it gives voice to the voiceless.  However those that say Hip-Hop is dead say so because it has become a co-opted art form in becoming an almost self-deprecating form of expression especially as it is packaged in its erudite now popular form—I would argue that in this sense while Hip-Hop seams ‘dead’ to its message driven roots, the message does live on.  Hip-Hop is alive overseas; it lives in basements, in backpacks, in taped up headphones worn by street urchins, in cyphers comprised of orphans, and in vocal booth microphones that embrace the spit of authentic stories which are often ignored by popular media.  Hip-Hop lives in large part to the continued investment of those who have laid the path like Lord J.

Lord J, gains nothing from our collaboration—instead he builds and gives back, he allows the spotlight that has embraced his years of work to shine ever so briefly on an up and comer like myself.

PEACE, Lord Jamar, thanks for doing this young up and comer a solid on this joint.  I was honored that you would consider it in the first place.  While the song may not have a mass audience, it speaks to issues that continue to affect the masses. PEACE, Professor A.L.I.

***

Keep Hip-Hop Alive watch the video here and support the song and album Carbon Cycle Diaries on iTunes.

Hate Muslims!

What makes a 'Muslim' hate Muslims?


10/30/11

Dear Norwegian Sisters and Brothers,

I want to begin by telling you that I don’t know what has happened to my sixth grade teacher, Ms. Whitlock and imagine that she retired soon after my time in her world history class. However I still remember how passionate she was about the world and culture in general. It was in her class that we were given a choice to do a research project (which back then meant copying out of Encyclopedia Britannica) on a European country. I had one of the first choices and choose Norway, probably because I was such a Norse mythology nut thanks to Marvel Comics.

I enjoyed doing that research project and remember how fascinated I was to learn about fjords and hakarl. Even beyond that handwritten project, my love of Norway would continue to grow over the years from a rising respect due to Norway being one of only a handful of countries to stand by the Tamils during the Sri Lankan Civil War, to my love for Norwegian Hip-Hop groups like Gatas Parlament to the fact that as a seminar instructor I’ve created and currently teach a course about Norwegian History centered on the Viking Age every Spring. I have a lot of love for Norway and could see myself settling down on the outskirts of Oslo, so when Remi Bye my friend of Facebook contacted me about writing this letter I felt the urge and compulsion to do it.

Though two decades have passed I can still remember my time in 6th grade vividly. Aided by social media like Facebook I’ve been able reconnect with old friends and wax poetic over shared memories, allowing them to live again. I remember the fun moments back then like my time horsing around with my friends Kenneth and Terrell in the back of the classroom to competitive moments like shooting hoops with Jason and Dissoni at lunch. Unfortunately I also have sad recollections, like coming back home to arguments and stress. I remember vividly how it was in the 6th grade my father was two years into his unemployment and would leave us two years later.

6th grade was a precarious time in my life, as well as a time of great self-reflection and identity formation. It was back in sixth grade I truly tackled questions like what I was in a world and why was it that it (the world) was trying to define me for its own benefit. There were so many doubts in my mind in those days but there were two things I knew to be true: that first, Norway was a wickedly cool place and second that I hated Muslims.

Maybe one of the reasons I liked Norway so much initially was because it didn’t have a significant population of Muslims to begin with. I’m not sure if that is true, but the fact remained: I hated Muslims, emphatically. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, in a suburb where a significant population of Afghan refugees had settled. Every year there were more and more Afghans and as each year passed I became increasingly agitated.

All the way through high school I was the only Tamil-American in my city, and being a brown person at that time meant you were lumped in categories for convenience sake. What bothered me was that I was continuously being lumped in with Afghans. This was pre-Taliban, pre-Islamic revival movement but there was no question that these Afghans were Muslim. In fact I saw them as Muslims first and they were joined by Iranians, Pakistanis and Arabs—and I hated them all. Being considered a Muslim drove me insane, so I lashed out.

I called them ragheads. I fought with them at the bus-stop and made fun of the kids when their moms would yell at them in their strange gibberish language. I took all the stereotypes for Muslims I saw on TV and I spit it back in their face. Like the Iron Sheikh so aptly stated in the WWF, Hack Too-Ey! I just wish the ragheads would go back home!

You know why I hated Muslims? They stuck to themselves, they were like a gang. They came off as arrogant and in my opinion had no reason to back up why. They had created their own little world within my world and it bothered me. However it wasn’t the only thing–as a student of history it bothered me that Muslims had gotten their own countries in South Asia while the Tamil people got screwed.

The primary reasons I hated Muslims was that I kept being mistaken for one. I didn’t have a bear d or a doily on my head, but I kept getting mistaken for a raghead and at the worst possible times. It was not a fun place to be in Union City during the first Gulf War. U.S. patriotism was at an all-time high and in an area with a large Muslim population that meant issues for a brown person such as me. I started to see that my friends Kenneth, Terrell, Dissoni and Jason began to wonder if I was one of them. I felt I had to keep making my case, and the best way to do that was to lash out at the ragheads, and I did that.

I formed a solid mental image in my mind, ‘Muslim = bad person’ and I would live with that image for the next 6 years. It would thaw a bit when I discovered Malcolm X in high school, a person who I grew to deeply respect, but I just couldn’t shake the fact that I hated Muslims. Hip-hop eased my dislike as well because artists like Brand Nubian, the Wu-tang Clan, Tribe Called Quest, Ice Cube, Rakim, Public Enemy and the Poor Righteous Teachers kept referencing Islam in their music. Through Malcolm and hip-hop my respect for Islam grew but my hate for Muslims did not diminish.

My six year truth would finally become challenged on the very first day of classes in college. I would meet a Pakistani-American named Abbas that day, and that meeting would change my perceptions of Muslims forever.

I still feel bad about how I treated Abbas when I first met him, calling a filthy Muslim and going off about how much I hated Muslims and how we could never be friends. A year later I was living with the guy and calling him my brother. I could write volumes about his profound effect on me through his actions, but ultimately it was the subtle things like seeing Abbas pray or fast in the dorms, give charity and help others and how he was so non-judgmental that stayed with me. Up until now I had met Muslims in the media and in my life as public school student, but none of them had actually practiced this religion I had grown to respect through its references in the music I listened to and one of the people I admired in Malcolm.
So there I was interested in reading the Quran and learning more, and in my journey of discovery with the same passion for learning about new cultures and places as I had with Norway I began to piece together the Muslim world.

Over time I embraced the philosophy and then the religion of Islam, and transformed myself into a Muslim. However it was here in my life that I truly discovered the reasons why I hated Muslims, reasons I could not know while on the outside looking in—I was now inside the mosque, breaking fast with them, and conversing openly. I was observing their behavior and the way they treated each other and me, and unlike other “converts” I did not accept answers like, ‘it is that way accept it’ I wanted to know why. My journey of asking questions led me to more questions and greater truths until I discovered a shocking secret one known by few in the Muslim world… Islam is a pretty cool religion, but Muslims suck!

I say this after having travelled and lived briefly in the Muslim world, having read the Qur’an and the books of hadith cover to cover along with the complete works of Tabari (the Arabic Historian), having learned one of the gibberish tongues I used to ridicule, only to discover that I was right all along. My sixth grade self-had reached the correct conclusion for all the wrong reasons.

I hate Muslims and I’d like to tell you why. I hate Muslims for turning their back on their own prophet, the Prophet Muhammad, by murdering the his grandchildren, for burning down the Ka’aba in Mecca, for causing the miscarriage of the Muhammad’s own daughter Fatima, which resulted in her death. I hate Muslims for attempting to spread Islam through war, though the Prophet Muhammad taught them not to. I hate Muslims for downplaying these historic events and not talking about their own culpability in them. I hate Muslims for going away from the Prophet’s demeanor, going away from the kindness and mercy he exhibited and instead practice both hate and anger. I hate Muslims for being judgmental when only God is the judge. I hate Muslims for creating worlds within worlds instead of being one with the people they live among. I hate them for ignoring the message in the Quran and for diminishing a great book into a literal understanding. I hate Muslims for trying to construct black and white realities when we live in a world of gray and for ignoring that the Quran speaks more to the gray and the idea of reasoning than it does about right or wrong. I hate Muslims for being blind in faith and not posing and asking questions. I hate Muslims for gender inequities and their cultural views on the roles of men and women which has nothing to do with Islam. I hate Muslims for attacking the arts as inherently evil, and presenting Islam as some sort or robot religion devoid of love and emotion. I hate myself for hating Muslims, because if I had truly embraced Islamic ideals fully I would not hate, because Islam is truly about love.

So that last paragraph might make me a marked man in some enclaves in the world, but I’m fine with that because I know that I can always go to Norway. But seriously, while it may come off as Islamophobic, I don’t think it is. I don’t fear Islam. Nor do I fear Muslims. I fear God. I consider myself trying to be a true Muslim one who attempts follow those things that Muslims don’t follow. I try to follow the path of Fatima the daughter of Muhammad, as I believe her to be an exemplary leader. I also follow her legacy (though Muslims would attack ten generations of her progeny, through open war and covert poisoning), who I believe are the 12 princes prophesized in the Bible in Genesis 17:20 as well as mentioned in the Qur’an both directly and by allusion. I call this a movement of truth; a movement that I refer to as the “Fatima is Fatima” movement. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwxGG3vK1E0

So to my Norwegian sisters and brothers I must say it can be quite frustrating to see the events going on in the world and the behaviors from Muslims in Norway I’ve outlined above, but step above the basic understandings like only Norwegians can, and uncover the truth. Islamophobia is the ‘irrational fear of Islam.’ Norwegians are many things but far from irrational. Start with the story of Fatima and the life of the Prophet and you will discover much depth that is hidden, unknown to the majority of Muslims because many are taught not to ask questions. I invite you for dialogue through Facebook or through my webpage www.facebook.com/professali or www.professorali.com.

Peace and Love,

Professor A.L.I.

Carbon Cycle Diaries ~ A Reflection by Professor A.L.I.

Carbon Cycle Diaries ~ A Reflection

The other day I called up the grandson of one of my penultimate role models: Malcolm X; it was his namesake and only male heir, Malcolm Shabazz , who was on his way to a speech. While on the phone he tells me that a mutual friend of ours was in the car with him. I immediately asked him to deliver the universal Islamic greeting, ‘Asalaamu’Alaykum’ on my behalf.

I heard Malcolm in the background as he said, “Aye Yo, Professor A.L.I. says ‘Asalaamu’Alaykum’.”

This was the moment that ‘it’ hit me; it was like a reality verifying pinch that this journey I’ve been on is in fact real. In many ways the ‘Carbon Cycle Diaries’ project has felt like a dream. I never would’ve believed that I would actually collaborate with artists that I listened to as a hip-hop fiend in the early 90’s. I am still in disbelief that the cypher and spoken word have led me to a digital release. I am humbled by praise for a project from my peers and well-wishers, knowing all of this has been made possible by The Most High solely, of which I have no doubt.

What many people do not know is that both Professor A.L.I. and the ‘Carbon Cycle Diaries’, almost never came to light. In 2002, I gave up on my ‘hoop dreams’ of ever becoming an established artist, one who would demand attention let alone respect. Somehow I never believed it would happen and I walked towards the goal of becoming a professional, even my life in academia was an afterthought.

Then death struck. First my father then my mother… I found myself the oldest person in my family and at the same time with a family of my own to support. Music was in the recesses of my mind. Yet, I had volumes in pads scratched from back in 1987 forward. I had verses that possessed my mind like reoccurring visions. I had images I had catalogued from all over the world, and I had rage and hope. I had venom and I had to spit it out.

The mic beckoned. I heard the voice of my mother telling me to ‘grab the mic’ as she passed from this realm. I realized that my own time is limited, but before death overtakes me, I wanted to have the opportunity to leave my voice, both for myself and for my seed; in death I realized that I would take two journeys, of soul a spiritual awakening, of body the Carbon Cycle.

So I started to speak to the physicality of this realm and the imbalances that exist within it. Ultimately focusing upon the earth which is our matrix, our test, our trust; yet in reality it is a mother betrayed by her children, who’ve severed the umbilical cord, drained their mother of milk, murdered their siblings and then sacrificed Gaia to the idol of self, finally eating away at her corpse like zombies. So I grabbed the mic.

What flowed was the ‘Carbon Cycle Diaries’, an in depth look at the issues that plague our planet. It was a title that meant so much. It spoke to our role in the physical form as well as our relationship with the planet. It spoke to the basic element that defines life and it documented how we are destroying life in so many ways. It was also a play on words, a shout out to Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and his chronicled journey to his self-realization in “Motorcycle Diaries”.

Why not write a book? I am, but music and in particular hip-hop was an important medium. Hip-Hop is alive, it is intelligent movement. It speaks to a group of people who understand coded language, and their role in the shadows. It is my generations smoke signal or message tied to passenger pigeon. It is communicative to a specific audience and it is with music, which touches the soul.

Some would say like the pigeon that hip-hop has gone extinct. However I would disagree. I would argue that hip-hop exists and will continue to exists alongside commercial rap music. The moment the first rap album was played on commercial radio it ceased to be hip-hop, it became erudite, and hence commercially viable. Commercial culture took over and though some artists maintained that communicative nature in music, it became less important, because now it was a product. Yet while this was happening, there were still true hip-hop artists, independents, basement level grassroots cats who still were hip-hop. That hasn’t changed. So hip-hop is not dead, it is alive but you need to have the proper ears to listen to it.

Professor A.L.I. came to be to educate using the microphone, and the fact that he has now entered the shadow consciousness speaks to hip-hop and the fact that a Professor can have knowledge but an M.C. has the audience. From a journey surreal, to a movement so real; I ask all those reading this, listening to ‘Carbon Cycle Diaries’ to stand up to the issues addressed in the album from racial inequality to Islamophobia, from indigenous rights to police brutality, and from corporate hegemony to Global Warming. The music is but a mechanism to deliver a greater larger message that we has human beings need to unite in the face of oppression and educate our brothers and sisters to the work that needs to be done. Each one teach one, spread the word, Professor A.L.I. and the ‘Carbon Cycle Diaries’ have arrived.

Shout out to Remi Bye from Norway on Facebook for his eloquent questions which helped shape this reflection. Stay in touch with Professor A.L.I. at www.facebook.com/professali