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.”

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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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Malcolm Smiles On

Malcolm and Me

Malcolm Smiles On by Professor A.L.I.

It was a warm afternoon in the East Bay and I was at work walking from a class I had just taught to a meeting I was late for because I had lingered after class to respond to student questions about the upcoming final exam and I was distracted as I hurried on the path by my phone, which kept buzzing – rather than turn it off, something compelled me to look and I saw it was a call from my close friend and brother Muneer Ali. I stopped a few feet short of the door of the conference room that my colleagues had just entered and I answered the phone to tell Muneer that I would call him back—but what I heard in the tone of his voice gave me great pause. You see I’ve heard Muneer cry before when we shared an intense spiritual experience together on pilgrimage in Mashad and the fluctuation in his voice harkened me back to that memory, and at the same time it was different, melancholy, heavy and devoid of warmth.

Muneer told me in a broken voice, which I imagined later must have reflected a broken spirit, that our friend and brother Malcolm Shabazz was dead, and that he had been murdered. I stumbled for words as my brain and heart froze trying to process the news. “Malcolm? Not young Malcolm? Did he say Malcolm?” all these were the questions that went through my mind in rapid succession and as I answered them I found myself on the edge of a pit of despair that was growing in my stomach. He repeated the news and this time it struck me like a head-on collision on the freeway and immediately stole the air out of my lungs and left me gasping, dumbstruck in confusion. Muneer spoke again, and in a measured phrase said, “He’s gone akh.”

There was no exclamation point, no question, just a period. The statement lingered in the air as I clamored to an empty building nearby, and walked into a room on legs that had lost their spring and began to fight back tears as I asked him for more information, about his sources, and if indeed this news had confirmation. He told me what he knew, that Malcolm was in Mexico City and that he’d been murdered.

I was shocked because last I heard Malcolm was with his fam, and last I spoke with him he was in New York and the last I saw him was a few months back in the Bay—Mexico City didn’t compute and I just couldn’t believe the news. I hurriedly checked Facebook and saw his most recent status update, which was an image of what now appeared to be an ominous recreation of the Last Supper, but replacing Jesus and the Apostles were images of the activists of our generation, Malcolm X was there and Young Malcolm was there—it was ominous because when he had posted the image he was one of the only people alive in the picture; in it, he was surrounded by martyrs—and now I wondered if he had truly become one?

Muneer told me not to share that information with anyone that no one in the U.S. knew yet and that the news would come out soon. He told me that Sheikh Hashim Alauddeen (our mutual spiritual advisor) would call and just as he said, shortly thereafter I was speaking with Hashim, and he was confirming my worst fears and the nightmare I was imagining was becoming tangible, just as my insides felt like they were being sucked further inward by a mysterious vacuum at the center of the abyss that was seeking to consume bme and I had lost my balance under the weight of what I was hearing and finally beginning to process.

The truth is to this day I am still processing that news and I still feel broken from the loss of my friend and dear brother Malcolm Shabazz. Its one of the reasons I dedicated my last XFactor project to him & his family because Malcolm was one of my most avid supporters and did for me as an artist and brother much more than I could have ever expected in the ways he would promote my craft and tried to connect me to his networks in order to push what I was trying to do—He believed in me as an artist when I truly didn’t believe in my own artistry and as our bond grew, it was clear that it went beyond a normal friendship, into what I would call brotherhood and this is why it wounds me to my soul’s core that I have no way of thanking him for all he did and what he meant to me because he was callously murdered and the light of his beautiful smile was stolen from us.

Malcolm-Shabazz-at-Zainab-tomb-in-Syria

I still remember vividly the moment when I was talking to him on the phone after he came back to the US from Syria, where near the shrine of Zainab he was studying Islam in a seminary and had shortly thereafter moved to Miami to stay with our mutual spiritual guide Sheikh Hashim Alauddeen. I asked him if I could ask questions and recorded the conversation via Skype and my hope was the interview would intertwine his narrative into a future project of mine and what you see on the XFactor release is that interview in two parts with Malcolm & Me, Part 1 and 2.

It pains me that Malcolm wasn’t alive to hear the project come to fruition. These questions were unplanned and the ones that popped into my mind as we spoke, but his answers, full of wisdom inspired me as an artist to take the Hip-Hop & the teaching and merge them together and this entire album and the course attached to it are inspired by my quest to use my artistry to inspire others in the same way that Malcolm and his grandfather and family have inspired me.

Shortly after our conversation through Skype we’d get a chance to meet face to face in Miami where Hashim would organize a special event before another conference in the area that many, including I were attending. It was as this conference that I first met Malcolm face to face and it was all love. During our meeting, I was immediately struck by Malcolm’s humility and felt the physical warmth of his smile. He was so poised when he spoke, so unassuming and so vibrant at the same time.

It was clear that he had a powerful energy about him and that aura was like a lantern drawing like-minded souls towards the flame of his being—but with this truth Malcolm wasn’t satisfied, and it became clear that he wouldn’t be, until he used the force of his personality to truly connect everyone in his growing circle to each other in brotherhood/sisterhood. Some of my closest friends in life, i.e. those whom I call my brothers; we became connected through Malcolm.

Malcolm & Friends Miami

For example, without Malcolm’s intervention, I’d never have met the director Justin Mashouf, the venture capitalist Hassan Golzari, Yusuf Abdul Mateen of the rap group Blak Madeen or social activist Hajji Jason Sharif. We all became interconnected through Malcolm’s efforts and remained loyal brothers within Malcolm’s network and remain inclined to his work and vision, which was for advocating for and actively building a just and peaceful society, through our work today.

The irony is that we are effective in this work now because of Malcolm and yet at the same time our efficacy has been greatly diminished through his loss. I shudder to think what Malcolm would be feeling seeing the continuation of the brutality of law enforcement that he actively worked against. What would Malcolm do viewing the footage of the murders of Freddie Gray or Walter Scott? How would he process the killing of Tamir Rice? What would he say to us? Just thinking about these events, disparate, yet connected by a thread of injustice that ensnares the fabric of this nation like the Biblical serpent of lore leaves me utterly disgusted knowing how these events would twist the beautiful smile of our brother Malcolm into a scowl.

Whenever we talked on the phone our conversations always gravitated towards our daughters. When he spoke of his daughter, even on the phone, I could see him smiling. His heart was filled with such love and he saw the same reflection in me. He met my daughter Husna at Muneer’s home in Richmond, and he smiled, and my daughter, too young to remember the exchange, smiled back. That was Malcolm’s strength, his ability to move anyone, young or old, just like his grandfather, with the power of his smile.

At Muneer’s home that day Malcolm pulled him aside and gave him a small hastily wrapped package. He opened to find a ruby ring—and was surprised. I told him it was my late father’s and I wanted him to have it, and I prayed that it would bring him sustenance and fortune so he could continue to do his work. I never saw him wear it, but giving it to him meant something to me, in a poetic sense. In many ways it was his family, his grandfather, Malcolm X, who had also raised me to become a Muslim and it seemed fitting to give a small token of my appreciation to the family and in Malcolm, I found the namesake & heir to that legacy.

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I tried to spend as much time as I could with Malcolm in the Bay. I invited him to speak to my summer class for PCA at U.C. Berkeley and he obliged on a whim, I helped provide security at the Black Dot Café when he first came to the Bay and then later was present when he met our ustad/teacher, Professor Hamid Algar and dialogued about Islamic spirituality. I took him to some of my favorite eateries and I even arranged for him to come to Athenian to speak, but unfortunately at the last minute a scheduling conflict prevented his appearance.

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And he would reciprocate, inviting me to the radio station, bridging connections to help my music get airplay, advocating on my behalf and giving me the push I needed as an artist. Malcolm then connected with my brother-in-law Muhammad Ali and they went to Hajj together and he returned with even more light on his face, and a wider smile. At the same time, unbeknownst to me, Malcolm was making connections on my behalf—he talked to Ras Ceylon, an educator and artist in the Bay Area, and at the time a practitioner of the Rastafarian faith in order to connect with me specifically and I was struck by this, because Malcolm hadn’t told me, and it was at his funeral, when I met Ras for the first time and he communicated this tale and when I looked into Ras’s eyes and he into mine, we both saw a broken part of ourselves and connected in a brotherhood born of our mutual love of Malcolm.

It was hard to sleep the night after I heard of his passing—so many questions lingered and I really wanted to know who was responsible. My phone kept ringing. I would answer calls from Jason or Yusuf and not know what to say. Sheikh Hashim was broken, Malcolm stayed in his home and was basically a member of his family and on top of that our community had gone through a severe and traumatic death not too long ago and this murder revisited that pain and added to it, like a fire burning away at your flesh from the inside. Unfortunately the pain would get worse in subsequent days as the news would spin half-truths and spread lies about our brother.

The next afternoon, Sheikh Hashim called me and told me of a fundraiser, asked me to contact my networks and told me of funeral plans in the Bay. I started making arrangements and when I called back, Sheikh Hashim informed me that we would be washing Malcolm’s body as per Islamic custom and ritual and while I was honored, I was anxious—I knew my brother had been murdered and yet nothing could have prepared me for what I would see that day on the slab at the mortuary.

I think till the day we die, my brothers who were with me on that day will remain connected in our service to the family of Malcolm X, to our brother Malcolm Shabazz, having washed and shrouded his form so that his mother, Qubilah could view her son & recite a prayer. Brother Hussain, Ameer Rashad, Malik Emir, brother Zayd, Raymond King, Sheikh Hashim and myself bore witness to the lies in the media first hand on that day. Sheikh Hashim would say later at the funeral, that looking upon Malcolm’s form reminded him of Emmitt Till. The weight of that statement would send shivers down the very spine of the community at large.

Malcolm Funeral

At his funeral, I read a poetic elegy I had written on his behalf, but the rapper in me couldn’t process the tragedy to write any bars of consequence to commemorate him in song—it was not until I began to reflect on the idea of eulogizing and how to best tell the story, in a brief and heartfelt way that inspiration began to come.

I knew that of my songs with featured artists that Malcolm loved the joint I had done with Raekwon, and so I took the song and remixed it in his honor, and what follows below is a video dedicated to souls we lost too early to violence. First is the narrative of my childhood friend James Cowlings, following that is Raekwon’s own reflection on a cab driver he knew named Ed and finally there are eight bars dedicated to my brother Malcolm. After that a soulful guitar is plucked away by Khalil Abdullah, a brother and admirer of Malcolm who I met ironically through an Islamic wake held in Malcolm’s honor, attended by his mother in the Bay Area at Sheikh Hashim’s home.   I smile at this fact because Malcolm is still connecting us through the light of that smile and I hope you feel a sense of connection to him and his message through this:

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.