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.

 

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.

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