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!


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.”


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.

<Click for free download>

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.


Rediscovering Malcolm X through the XFactor

Malcolm Promo1

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


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.


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.


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.

The Martyr’s Song From the Audubon


I was honored to write & perform this piece as part of the official #XLegacy commemoration event for #MX50 at #UCBerkeley, on the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of #MalcolmX; #MX50Forever… This was the next chapter to Malcolm X inspired/homage album/curriculum entitled #XFactor by Professor A.L.I.

The Martyr’s Song from the Audubon
by Professor A.L.I.

An Introduction: (taken from these three perspectives: a witness in the crowd, the family lawyer and the Audubon Ballroom Director)

Sharon Shabazz was 19, she sat in the Audubon and heard a commotion
She thought it was drunks, till Shots rang out; like mini explosions
She sees Betty scream hysterically, “They’re killing my husband”
She saw Malcolm fall, blood flowing in front of four little orphans

The family lawyer said, “Malcolm died broke, no insurance policy”
Others collected his royalties from books and articles in magazines
Who cared for this family? As the roots were severed from tree
Where was the crowd, to play the role of a husband and daddy

No outline where Malcolm fell, no crime scene police tape
A dance was sponsored later at the Audubon, that very day
3 cleaning women scrubbed the blood from the hardwood away
And instruments were carefully placed upon the same stage


The scent of Mecca, lingers upon, his metaphysical form
It fills the Audubon, as he delivers to warn,
A message, Islam, for bullets we’d mourn
They hiss, ripping thru the shell of his form.
His spirit has flown, our spirits are blown
Like gun barrels, while his soul drifts to the throne
Target, cuz he worshipped the Most High alone
He shines, a prince returnin’ to his spiritual home

Hard-bottoms tap in rhythm on the ballroom floor
To hear Malcolm Speak, strengthens ones Spiritual core
The flavor of sustenance, he delivers, lingers in minds
Devoid of swine, Afro-American U-N-I-T-Y
Amongst these 400 hundred people lingers the spy
Snitches and snakes; serpents serving Satan’s side
The brisk February coldness makes visible breath
The audience would be in the presence from a visit with death
Waiting for Malcolm to speak, ushers silence
As the mic static, gives way to knowledge, then violence
3:03 to 3:10 what happened in those seven minutes?
Momentary distraction, gave way to a sanctioned hit
An assassination of an icon, he falls, and they shoot on
Women clamber towards his corpse, blood fills the Audubon
Your last breath paves way for the coldness of your flesh
You died at 3:10, but became more alive through death

The scent of Mecca, lingers upon, his metaphysical form
It fills the Audubon, as he delivers to warn,
A message, Islam, for bullets we’d mourn
They hiss, ripping thru the shell of his form.
His spirit has flown, our spirits are blown
Like gun barrels, while his soul drifts to the throne
Target, cuz he worshipped the Most High alone
He shines, a prince returnin’ to his spiritual home

Look into his family’s eyes, sift thru memory flashes
That spark like the hammer of the pistol pulled back
His spit, paints the picture, definition of blackness
Strategic in his vision, textbook precision in tactic
A man of action, who spins around the kaaba like an atom
The building block of faith, no hate, just compassion
Who could kill such a man? Who could shred this flower?
From the garden of righteous souls; in this very hour?
Fifty years ago, what mother birthed these demons
Who could bring themselves to murder our beacon
It’s not the hand, but who put the money in the pockets
Is the question we should ask, if we ever want to solve this
His faith was like pure water, amidst polluted seas
He was the breathe fresh air, we all needed to breath
Yet in that moment I’m asthmatic, sawed off shotgun blast
I’m his orphan, horrified; where is my father, I ask?

The scent of Mecca, lingers upon, his metaphysical form
It fills the Audubon, as he delivers to warn,
A message, Islam, for bullets we’d mourn
They hiss, ripping thru the shell of his form.
His spirit has flown, our spirits are blown
Like gun barrels, while his soul drifts to the throne
Target, cuz he worshipped the Most High alone
He shines, a prince returnin’ to his spiritual home

The guns spit, tear thru clothing layers and burn skin
The soul separates, so your face widens to grin
21 gunshot wounds left in your chest, yet heart beats
Within your six seeds, your deeds and those you still lead
Your corpse smiles, as it shares Yuri’s breath
Yet the air she gave escapes through holes in your chest
In death you bore witness, the definition of martyr
Sister Betty would forever be haunted by your slaughter
And six little girls would forever long for their father
Like the tears of Hajar birthed the Zamzam water
As she ran in between Safa and Marwa mountains
The tears of Malcolm’s daughters, formed fountains
Attallah, Qubilah, Ilyasah and Gamilah are orphans
And Malikah and Malak are fatherless, unborn
2 daughters cling to womb, 4 weep over your tomb
Now you sleep next to Betty, and your grandson, Malcolm

The scent of Mecca, lingers upon, his metaphysical form
It fills the Audubon, as he delivers to warn,
A message, Islam, for bullets we’d mourn
They hiss, ripping thru the shell of his form.
His spirit has flown, our spirits are blown
Like gun barrels, while his soul drifts to the throne
Target, cuz he worshipped the Most High alone
He shines, a prince returnin’ to his spiritual home