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.