I Have Insomnia, So I Cannot Dream

Minister Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching at an event

I Have Insomnia, So I Cannot Dream

A modern interpretation of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech” by artist and educator, Professor A.L.I.

I have seen and heard “I Have a Dream” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. countless times and yet it still gives me the same spine tingly chills that I had when I first heard his soulful voice as a snotty-nosed, wide-eyed youngster in the third grade. For the longest time I thought those involuntary goose bumps came each time his bass filled voice echoed in my skull because I knew that I was listening to a martyr speaking passionately not too long before his inevitable assassination. I even postulated that when the fine hairs on my skin bristled that it was surely due to his eloquent oratory and the way in which he delivered his words, from his pulsating heart into the chambers of mine. Perhaps, the historian in me wondered at times if my reaction was not due to the context of his era; one I knew from the grainy black and white images on fast-clicking filmstrips that captured the brutality of bombed churches, fire hosed marchers and the viciousness of Billy clubs and rabid police dogs. While all those things continue to make MLK’s speech one that enthralls every fiber of my being, I have found that I still shiver when I hear his words, because I know that MLK is dreaming, and that his dream is an aspiration for the future, but in the words of Langston Hughes, Dr. King’s dream today, remains a dream deferred.

A Dream Deferred

There are those who will read that last line and automatically respond in their minds with pseudo-intellectual arguments, which are textbook examples of deflection like “but Obama is president” or “look how much Lebron James makes” or “how about Beats by Dre or the financial success of Jay-Z?” or simply, “Oprah!” As much as I would like to believe that we have advanced towards MLK’s dream, these perceptions are far from the truth of our times. The numbers don’t lie; holistically the Black community is worse off than it was at the time the speech was given, as exemplified by facts like blacks are at a greater risk than whites to suffer due to poverty from homelessness, illness, malnutrition and disease and as recent as 2012, Black men and women still earned less than their White counterparts with the same education, and they are more likely to lose their jobs during economic downturns. Even when you consider improvements, like the prior emblematic examples of Obama, Lebron, Jay-Z and Oprah, you realize these are exceptions to the rule and that the disparity between Blacks and Whites has only grown in the United States since MLK’s dream, and that furthermore the statistics that enumerate the divide are nightmarish—the exact opposite of the dream. The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander outlines this nicely, outlining how amongst other policies the so-called “War on Drugs” was a direct war on the Black community—and systematically undermined the dream. When MLK spoke his words students in America were segregated by race, however soon thereafter, it seemed that with the passage of the Civil Rights Act students would soon be integrated. This certainly seemed like a step towards the dream, but even here re-districting, the aforementioned wealth disparity and school board politics nullified what should have been great gains, and is shown in the fact that in 1968, 76.6 percent of Black children attended segregated schools and in 2012, it was still 74 percent!

Insomnia

I find it hard to sleep in these times, and my sister and fellow educator Dr. Heidi Mirza knows why, as she lamented last year in a piece on how MLK’s dream of a world free from “discrimination, intolerance, prejudice and extremism” has been replaced with one that is seriously considering candidates like Donald Trump, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen in the so-called-West while remaining silent on genocides perpetrated by extremism and carried out in Burma, Bahrain and Yemen, to name a few places in the ‘Orientalist’ East. How can I sleep, let alone dream in this reality as a global Black man or a Muslim, or even a conscious human being? Shall I give into the fear that fuels ignorance or try to fight an ever-inclining uphill battle? I’ve diagnosed myself of having some form of spiritual insomnia—I am incredulous as I watch the news media unquestioningly giving airtime rhetoric that seems to echo Mein Kampf verbatim, save for Tavis Smiley who was lampooned by Trumpites on Twitter for his recent attempt to challenge their apathetic ranting, which seems to increasingly pass as normal reporting amongst the sheeple. I look to my brothers Deray Mckesson and Ameer aka Left of the University Of Left, who have become more authentic voices for the happenings of our time and try to make sense of it, as our cognizance of MLK’s dream continues to unravel. The dream seems dead. The dreamers lay bleeding on the concrete, their last act in life is usually raising their hands in the air, and when those that notice and care, like Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza and state that these innocent lives had value, and try to create a movement to highlight this fact, the naysayers come forth and mis-hear a phrase like Black Lives Matter as “Only Black Lives Matter” and thereby impugn attempts for solidarity and ultimately change. If only these dream-killers would’ve championed “All Lives Matter” when they heard of the countless extra-judicial murders in this country carried out by police officers—then perhaps little White and Black children could be found playing together as in the hopeful imaginings of Dr. King, but instead we are living in a nightmare in which teenagers are murdered in cold-blood and people seem to be able to stomach the justification given for their murders. It is a world where even the dream is slaughtered—where bullets can snuff out the life of a sleeping seven-year old girl (Aiyana Jones) by officers during a police search and there is no (official) national outcry.

Nas postulated on NY State of Mind off of his Illmatic album that “sleep is the cousin of death.” Yet we find the converse to be true, for in order to dream in the literal sense, one must sleep—however I find myself unable to sleep these days, with a deluge of death on ones newsfeed, hence my play on Dr. King’s words, “I Have Insomnia, So I Cannot Dream.”

martin-luther-king-jr

I Have Insomnia, So I Cannot Dream

I’m a light sleeper to begin with, so even a mere gasp–

A last breath, by one being choked upon the asphalt,

For selling cigarettes illegally, keeps me awake; let alone,

News of twelve year olds, shot dead, playing with toy guns.

The firearms echo inside the memory folds of my brain.

They awaken screams of Louima, and even Diallo’s pain!

Gone are sounds of chains, replaced by the din of skittles,

As they bounce off the concrete. Black life is now riddled,

With bullets from pistols (legal for white privilege to wield).

The NRA sponsored the Mulford Act, just ask Bobby Seale.

Dr. King, its hard to dream when one cannot fall asleep.

For even sleeping fauns like Aiyana Jones are targeted when they dream.

Hard to scream with broken neck, the sky seems Freddie Gray;

Will I dream in a Walmart coffin like John Crawford one day?

If I fake like I’m asleep, they’d Grant me an Oscar in fact,

Which I’d refuse, and instead ask for justice for Oscar Grant!

#BlackLivesMatter is a phrase for the nightmare to which we wake;

Does the dream of children holding hands involve a police state?

When one’s hands are up in the air, how can they join other hands?

Its hard to sleep, to dream when the days are Sandra Bland.

How can freedom ring, when injustice is protected by false justice?

And Dr. King, how can it be just when its set prey upon just us”

How can the imprisoned sing “free at last!?”—I cannot fall asleep.

This is why I have insomnia and have lost the opportunity to dream.

The dreamers are dead, and the dream is a nightmare, so I how can I sleep—even as I find myself tossing and turning, wondering as a law-abiding educator, who will try to break in and steal me away? It is a provocative thought, and yet, it’s so rooted in the reality of our time that it doesn’t seem like something unlikely for one of my faith or complexion. Guantanamo is just one notable example and while it is an ugly one, the ugliest is our domestic prison industrial complex. MLK spent time behind bars—many freedom fighters have, but fifty years later even his dream is imprisoned. When Dr. King dreamed back then, I don’t believe he could’ve fathomed that the incarceration rate amongst Black folk would be three times higher when I would write these words.

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The Pen or the Pen(itentiary)

I wrote and recorded “The Pen” to introduce my audience and students of Hip-Hop in general to the concept of the double entendre and coded language in our (Hip-Hop) culture, while at the same time provide them with a critique of ignorance, which I believe to be the antithesis of Hip-Hop, which is defined by our community as “intelligent movement”, because one must be “Hip” or “in the know” to understand it and “hop” or move in order to live it, and ignorance is unintelligent and unmoving, and as a Hip-Hop artist and cultivator of this culture, I see ignorance as a tangible prison that diminishes our humanity and snuffs out our light as potential learned beings of this universe.

“The Pen” is a piece that asks the listener to stand in-between a sense of hope and a cloud of cynicism, hinging on how one perceives the word “pen”; it can either be a writing instrument representing knowledge or a slang-abbreviation for penitentiary, which is a prison. So the pen respectively represents the freedom of speech on one hand, and on the other it is confinement to a cage, which hinders both movement and speech.

I wrote this piece lamenting the existence of this very fork in the road for youth in America, and as an educator and artist I have seen too many young people from amongst my own peers in public schools situated in gang infested ‘hoods to my own students attempting to navigate this fork, two decades later, only to choose the path of the pen that is clouded by cynicism, which ends with them in prison as opposed to the path of the pen, which leads to wisdom and knowledge; at the same time the piece represents a larger historical conversation and a clash that our world is experiencing right now—an actual battle of survival between the people of knowledge and the people of ignorance.

Those who know me know that I abhor violence and increasingly as of late senseless violence born of ignorance have besieged my newsfeeds and timelines, filling them with egregious, gory examples of sick depravity. This plague has a common thread and it is that violence is constantly being aimed at sources of knowledge or legitimacy, whether it be those who hold the narrative truths or those that pose questions, and that these acts are carried out by the ignorant, willfully or otherwise.

Ironically, those that escape the actual prison, make it out of confinement through knowledge and those that avoid it altogether are those that embrace/ed the pen as a tool for wisdom. Old cliché’s inform us that this pen is mightier than the sword, but it is the sword that is being used as a blunt instrument throughout the world to write a modern narrative using innocent blood, seemingly pitting East against West, but in reality its inviting all the “crazies” or extremists to sully forth and use it to write their own narrative, and as the hemoglobin of innocence flows, so does our own faith in each other, polarizing our world into an endless clash of the “uncivilized”.

The Pen performed Live with Jazz Horizons in Oakland, California

In the end to paraphrase the words of Assata Shakur, the only difference between those in prison and those on the outside is that those inside can see the bars, while we operate under the illusion that we are free, as evidence by our inability to dream. We are not free to dream—but like Dr. King I do long for a day where I can say, at the top of my lungs, with my children that we are indeed free at last—and until then, I’ll remain awake.

With Peace & Love.

professoralimlk

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Islamophobia: An irrational fear for the religion I hold dear

They Kill MeIslamophobia: An irrational fear for the religion I hold dear

by Professor A.L.I.

 

As a Muslim educator and artist, times like this past week, which included terrorist attacks in Baghdad, Beirut, Paris and Nigeria are especially challenging. I find solace in the fact that I can be there for young people, who are still navigating their identity while that identity is being stereotyped by these events, homogenized with its perpetrators, then marginalized and attacked. I rather I be the face of Islam in these moments than them and I rather I be the target of hate, then them. However, I know it is a burden, that all Muslims have to share—especially those who live in the West.

Recently, Donald Trump who campaigning for in the Republican primaries made the assertion that Muslims should wear identification badges. Sadly, in the xenophobic reality that is present day America, ones American identity is questioned by ones head covering or facial hair. Ask any practicing adherent of the Sikh faith and they will affirm this truth. The assertion made by Trump was made in an effort to connect with voters, since it is a feeling held by many. People in America look at Paris and they don’t feel safe. They look at Paris and remember the Boston Marathon and 9/11. I know this because when I look at the events of Baghdad, Beirut, Paris and Nigeria, I remember Boston, New York and D.C. I remember how I felt, violated as an American and how I felt doubly violated, when, my fellow Americans began to associate me with those who had carried out these disgusting acts.

If you are not a Muslim or Sikh or can pass for not being one due to your ability to blend in, then you may not know the fear we feel in these moments. It’s caught in the eyes of Alia Ansari, a 37-year old mother of six, in between the flashes of gunshots, as she was gunned down in front of her home in Fremont, California, in 2006. imgres

Her only distinguishing quality, the headscarf she wore. I live in the Fremont area, an area known for a large Muslim population and I feel the fear. I live here with my wife and children, and the fear is real, everyday and its heightened after global tragedies.

The fear I feel is responsive. It’s fear in response to the irrational fear, i.e. phobia that grips my nation in times like this. It isn’t the irrational fear of the stranger (i.e. Xenophobia) alone, but the irrational fear of Islam and Muslims, known as Islamophobia. I use the term irrational to juxtapose it with rational, in order for people to distinguish between groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban and Al Qaeda versus people like me. You should fear ISIS and their ilk. I fear them. This is a rational fear. They’re stated goal is to create fear through terror. They want to kill you and me and they have carried out gruesome acts of violence to showcase their resolve. This fear is like the fear of a venomous snake. It makes sense. When you combine this fear with ignorance, however you get phobia, or irrational fear. Irrational fear is the fear of any Muslim or of Islam in general. It’s the fear mongering of presidential hopeful Donald Trump. It’s the motivation behind the profiling of Sikhs and Muslims. It’s the compounded tragedy found the tragic death of Alia Ansari.

Fear of “any old Muslim” is like fear of “any old snake” and not just the venomous ones. It is irrational fear and its irrationality holds me hostage in my own country for my constitutionally protected beliefs. The only way to combat irrational fear and hate is by diminishing the ignorance that fuels it with knowledge so one can discern between the ISIS’s of the world from the vast majority of Muslims who are just peace-loving average citizens and by washing away hate with love—loving those who are doubly impacted by these tragedies and who have to fear for their lives because of the way they are perceived in times of fear.

Islamophobia Article

This is a challenging thing to do. The challenge is that ISIS and its ilk claim to do what they are doing in the name of Islam emboldened by their interpretations of the faith. People ask me all the time, how they can tell the difference between these extremist groups and the average Muslim. I can respond to this question by breaking down a movement that began in the latter half of the 18th century called Wahhabism and how it morphed into Salafism in the 20th century and how its from this octopus that the tentacles of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, etc. have come. I can break down the motivations and the global realities that have created these groups and even take it further to analyze mental illness, the lack of education, poverty and unemployment that helps fuel the zeal of its adherents. I can break down how such an interpretation of Islam ever truly began and breakdown the event of Karbala, which is a clear delineation between the Islam (characterized as a religion of peace) and the Islam of ISIS, which is clearly one of war and conquest. However the simplest way to discern is to know that Islam is an Abrahamic faith and that the killing of innocent people is a fundamental no-no—“Thou shalt not kill” is a universal belief shared amongst the majority of Muslims—and not of ISIS.

ISIS isn’t even a logical extension of faith. It is faithless. I find the best description of this false consciousness in the words of my brother Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “For me, religion—no matter which one—is ultimately about people wanting to live humble, moral lives that create a harmonious community and promote tolerance and friendship with those outside the religious community. Any religious rules should be in service of this goal. The Islam I learned and practice does just that.”

I hope the people who need to read this read this and I invite you to share it. I need my fellow Americans to understand it for the sake of young people growing up in a world filled with fear, who share “my look”, if not my faith. I pray that my children can grow up in a world filled with love and knowledge, so that hearts and minds can stay connected in moments of tragedies as opposed to divided at odds with each other

I leave you with two spoken word pieces I wrote to be read at the Athenian School, for students and colleagues in my role as an educator there. I read the first part, which I wrote during and shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings. I never intended to publish it and it is provided here, unedited—capturing the angst I felt at the time. I was moved to tears as I read it in front of the entire school and I have not edited since. I didn’t intend to write a second part, but after this last week, I felt the need to do so again. Perhaps it’s the spirit of Kurt Hahn that pervades the Athenian Campus that compelled me to do so, to speak out against terror again—or maybe its my way of engaging in therapy to set myself whole, but I shared it the second part with my colleagues and students and I share it with you for I truly believe that I am you and you are me and that only together are we PEACE.

BostonMarathon

Who Am I?

By Professor A.L.I.

(Unedited and written less than 24 hours, after the Boston Marathon bombings)

I am an American as the news flashes:

“Boston Marathon, Bomb blasts!!!”

Cell phone in hand, I call and text,

My friends in Boston; slow, cold sweat.

Are you ok? Is everything all right?

Fingers twitch nervously as I type.

Sadness and anger grip the nation:

Social Media, Twitter Feed speculation.

I am a Muslim, that’s all the world sees.

A news correspondent tweets:

“Yes they’re evil, Kill them all!”

I scroll up, he says Muslims, kill them all?!

140 characters of vitriolic hate.

Muslim is trending. My insides ache.

I am not the Muslim runner or the Muslim spectator.

I am not the Muslim imam who opened his door for those affected.

Boston PD on the look out for dark skin and an accent.

A tweeter tells me to go back to the desert.

Expletives, and expressions of anger;

Yesterday, I was an American; today I’m a stranger?

The sun reflects off of my iPhone screen,

But instead of my own reflection I see,

The image of the words defining me;

I am the terrorist they want me to be,

For “they” cannot see me;

I am a just a human being.

And our humanity cries for those innocent souls;

But should our creed be a reason for our innocence sold?

I am the Sikh or Hindu mistaken for a Muslim during these times.

I am the Pakistani-American kid killed for foreign crimes.

I am you,

And you are me.

And together, we are PEACE.

 

Who Am I? (Part II)

By Professor A.L.I.

(Written 2 days after the ISIS terrorist attacks carried out on Paris, Beirut and Baghdad)

Refugees on rough seas, with smugglers rolling dices;

Irrelevant in our newsfeed, do we only care about oil prices?

When reflecting on the Middle East, the riddle of social media.

Muslim is trending again, for Paris lays bleeding and

Beirut the day before; Baghdad on previous weekend.

The news chooses its stories, as broken families are weeping.

All attacked, innocents killed and the culprit signals crisis,

Practicing a fundamentalist interpretation and called ISIS.

Like Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and the Taliban,

These organizations, attack the image of Islam,

So now every Muslim, of a billion, is seen as a threat,

And yet, these groups also mark innocent Muslims for death.

They kill them in the Middle East and then they kill them here.

They kill me, by filling my children’s future with fear.

The weight of labels and prejudice create Islamophobia.

And what is the definition of a phobia?

It’s an irrational fear.

Islamophobia is an irrational fear of a religion I hold dear.

Yes, I am a Muslim; it is the faith I practice.

So I look upon bomb blasts as doubly tragic:

The loss of innocent lives; where innocence dies.

I also brace myself for impact of a stereotype.

This is why, like my colleagues, I became an educator.

To end the debate between “us” and ignorance and hate.

By extinguishing ignorance with knowledge,

And washing away hate with affection and love.

That’s why we teach, so we can live in a world full of light and hope.

We are like Kurt Hahn facing Hitler, like David facing Goliath;

And we will only survive as people, if we can stay United.

I am you,

And you are me.

And together we are PEACE.

Intelligent Movement for Ignorant Times

“Intelligent movement in ignorant times” – This statement is why many argue that Hip-Hop is dead, or that it has been dead. A part of me would argue that Hip-Hop died on September 13th, 1996; but that wouldn’t be fair to the thousands of artists who have tried to evoke intelligent movement in their artistry, including me—but the thought lingers, because there was a time and Kendrick Lamar may be one examples of the few exceptions, when studio backed albums still held content that was of value and connected to the community from which these artists came. Why 2pac was so instrumental was that he was both erudite and thought provoking at the same time—and he did this by mastering coded language and the art of rhyming. For the most part, this type of artistry lives in independent Hip-Hop and I’m happy to be a part of that movement—and this was the impetus behind this show, held on May Day, in Oakland, at the end of a long day of solidarity with #Baltimore & #Ferguson and anywhere where there is a question of brutality & systemic abuse by law enforcement.

Of Course All Lives Matter!

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Of course all lives matter, which is why black lives should. This question: “shouldn’t all lives matter?” – often given in response to an affirmation of the #blacklivesmatter movement leaves me a bit incredulous and slack-jawed in its absurdity – perhaps people are purposefully deflecting or perhaps it is genuine ignorance, but it is disturbing. Its as if I’ve had my arm nearly severed by a chainsaw and as I scream and lament about my severed limb, someone says to me in disdain that I shouldn’t just care about my limb since my whole body should matter.

I’m convinced that this is symptom of a greater illness that plagues our society. I look at the thousands of young black men and women killed in extrajudicial ways by law enforcement in the last five years throughout this country and I see many more victims. The victims do not just include the dead but the living—even the officer’s are victims of programming that leads them to the extrajudicial act in the heat of an arrest. I hold Hollywood, the mass media and public schools responsible for the programming that has created a black demagogue to be feared—even when he is as young as Tamir Rice, or fast asleep like an angel like Aiyana Jones—may they both rest in peace.

The #blacklivesmovement will not bring these children back and it won’t bring back those killed by black on black crime either—but those killers and the police officers in the former examples have one thing in common, it is programming that associates blackness with the negative.

So I felt duty bound as an artist to speak out on the programming and call into question our narratives of Blackness and flip the paradigm in which we see it. “That Blackness is a seed, it’s a diamond’s ancestor… Blackness is the hope inside Pandora’s package” was a way to use our own imagery and what we value to reconsider blackness—I used the metaphor of the moth, often depicted as fluttering towards the flame, attracted to its light and ask whether the moth is truly headed towards oneness with eternity, a oneness that is shrouded in darkness, in blackness – and reframing it in this way still makes it beautiful.

Blackness is beautiful to me. It is my skin, that of my daughter, and my ancestors before me—and I cannot deny my identity or hate myself any more than you can—but the programming aimed at me has nearly every protagonist be white, every villain be dark and depicts the world in a way that privileges those with white skin. I’m tired of that programming and I’ve decided to change the channel—I hope you like this piece… Blackness performed live with Jazz Horizons with Stephen Herrick at the Terrace Room in Oakland on May Day 2015.

In the spirit of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, Trayvon Martin, Ahmadu Diallo, Abner Louima, Oscar Grant & my brother & childhood friend James Cowling – PEACE, in solidarity with #Baltimore & #Ferguson from Oakland, CA– Professor A.L.I.