Tamil Identity, Nationalism and Imagination

The song Red Dot, about the old DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) flag, which belonged to a failed political movement of pan-Dravidian and/or Tamil nationalism is one that wonders what a Tamil nation state would have meant to Tamil peoples in the modern age.  Aside from a failed civil war for Tamil Eelam in Lanka, there have been no other Tamil nationalist movements that have lasted in the modern day.  Most Tamils living in the Diaspora ascribe their national identity to South Asian nations or to their adoptive homes.  Tamils who live in the Indian subcontinent, the islands of the Indian Ocean or South East Asia similarly identify themselves with pre-markers like Malaysian Tamil or Indian Tamil—the will for a pan-Tamil identity has all been lost.

As an artist of Tamil origin, living in the Diaspora, this identity became more real to me as I navigated my own consciousness and awareness around my identity in America.  The discovery of my late father’s loyalty to the DMK flag and what it represented only furthered the fuel of this fire.  This along with my own sensibilities around the injustices carried out toward my people in Lanka, created within me the imagination of a Tamil state.  It recalled the legend of Kumari Kandam, from which, it is believed Plato may have been inspired for Atlantis.  The lost Tamil continent that sank into the Indian Ocean.  The pseudo historical theories of the Tamil connection to the Mayans, the actual Tamil connections to East Africa and Yemen, and the journey of the Tamil, known as Damo, who established the Shao Lin Temple in China.  I wondered if I was such a global person because my Tamil identity was woven into the fabric of the world.

Then came the National Geographic documentary about the first genes out of Africa and lo and behold, the Tamil DNA marker shared the same markers as the Andamanese, the Papuans, and the Aboriginal peoples of Australia as the first out of Africa.  As I imagined the migration of my people over the water, I thought of my own spiritual connection to the sea and wondered if something deep in the fabric of my genetic make-up inspired my fascination.

Finally, there was the theory of the renowned linguist Susumu Ohno, who put forth the idea in the 1980’s that Japanese (held to be an Altaic language) was overwhelmingly influenced by Tamil, believing the connection to have happened over 2000 years ago in the Yayoi period of Japan.  Ohno was not the first to propose this connection, but as a linguistic scholar of Japanese he was by far the most qualified to make the claim.  Although Ohno is not without his detractors, his theory is backed by an sound argument that picks apart Japanese words and shows the Dravidian linguistic connection, grammatical overlap, relative pronouns, a likeness in word order, striking resemblance in the rhythm of each language and the presence of Tamil influence upon the Yamato kotoba, or words that existed in Japanese prior to the Chinese writing system.

In his book “Seeking the Origins of Japanese Language”, Ohno takes it further by looking at cultural development and influence on ancient Japanese customs such as those connecting with the harvest, religious ritual, and nuptial rites.  While Ohno’s ideas are compelling, they are not backed by sound archeological evidence, and rely on Ohno’s linguistic arguments alone.  As a Tamil, who has had great affinity for Japanese culture, I found his arguments compelling and again they tickled by imagination and I began to wonder, what if there were proof of this connection and influence.

I wrote Red Dot as a fictionalized narrative that begins with the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu sending ships to follow the nautical path of Damo; it flashes forward to Japanese imperial soldiers being slaughtered by a combination of saltwater crocodiles and the British Indian forces in Rangoon during World War II.  In this imagined narrative these Japanese soldiers were coming to rescue their Tamil brethren from British colonial rule.  The narrative also examines the Moorish connection to Tamil, the dead language of Arwi, a combination of Arabic and Tamil, the Moorish bloodlines that mixed with Tamils during the viable and long standing Indian ocean trade.  The East African connection to Tamils both by trade and genetics and finally the little known fact of Tamil coolies who were converted into the Atlantic Middle Passage Slave trade via South Africa, though they only account for a small percentage of that trade having numbered two thousand, that genetic story is also a part of the American Slave Trade epic.  All in all, the song explores all these strands and ends on a black banner, with a red dot, or disc fixed in the middle.  Ironically its similar to the Japanese flag in construction, save for the black taking place of the white, and it imagines a place that has never been allowed to exist by Indian, French, Dutch, British and Sinhala hegemony and that is a pan-Tamil state:

TamilNation

In the world we live in Tamil nationalism is a footnote at best, but Tamil identity is very much alive and vibrant.  Linked to a language and culture that continues to thrive wherever it goes—from Trinidad to Toronto, for Johannesburg to Jaffna and from Malaysia to the Maldives, Tamils continue to have a profound impact.

Advertisements

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.

<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.

professoralimlk

An Open Letter To Saudi Arabia

OpenLetterSaudi

1/2/2016

Dear Saudi Arabia,

The word “dear” is a common salutation in any letter, but I feel so conflicted using it in this instance, since not only are you not dear to me, I actually despise you, for what you are, what you have done and continue to do and ultimately what you symbolize in the world.

I write this on behalf of your people, many of whom are my friends and whom I consider extended family members, who languish in your state, unable to speak, watching helplessly as you prey upon basic human rights of your own citizenry.

I write this on behalf of the tortured and executed innocence of your archaic injustice system, where upper social class and male privilege hold greater sway than both truth and justice.

I write this on behalf of immigrant workers, who come to help build your nation, who you treat like animals, and who you further victimize in ways too gross and too numerous to mention.

Despise You

I do despise you for how you have treated Tamils, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, East Africans and other racial groups who constitute a modern day slave labor system in your nation, complete with the viciousness of the days of old; and yet this is not the main reason for this letter.

I do despise you for how my friend (name omitted for security reasons) and his family are brutalized by the elites of your nation, despite being Saudi himself, and have no recourse for justice, since you have a system that blames the victim, when that victim represents a minority of any kind; and yet this is not the main reason for this letter.

I do despise you for how my aunt and uncle were treated while they lived in Riyadh, where he was working for AT&T, and the tales they told me of what they experienced and what they saw with their own eyes, and again this is not the main reason for this letter.

Hold You Responsible

As an American I hold you responsible for all the 9/11 hijackers who came from your country. I hold you responsible for Bin Laden and your export of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which has hijacked the lives of many people, including Americans overseas and continues to hold our tax dollars hostage in military expenditures. I hold you responsible for the Janjaweed, for Boko Haram and for ISIS, all of whom you directly or tacitly support.

But these are not the greatest reasons for why I hate you.

Saudiquote

As a Muslim I hold you responsible for hijacking Islam. In your backwards pseudo-intellectual interpretation of the faith, you have birthed every single example of Islamic terror we see in the world and have made the word terror inextricably connected to Islam in ignorant minds as a result. You gave birth to Islamophobia, because your form of Islam is one that we should fear. You hijacked hajj, the holy pilgrimage, which you don’t even hold on the proper day and your mismanagement has cost thousands of lives.

And still these are not the primary reasons for my disdain.

I hold you responsible as a human being, who sees your citizens, impish oil sheikhs, who travel to places like Los Angeles and London, prey upon women with brutal sexual violence and escape their crimes by using the façade of diplomatic immunity and paying off those who compromise their own values for filthy oil dollars. I am in disbelief that women and both religious and ethnic minorities are treated with greater disdain and inequity than that experienced by those groups before Islam.

Disgust

The greatest reason for my disgust of your regime is the simple fact that all of these valid critiques are looked upon you as a sources of pride and that this pride fuels even greater abuses such as your financial and military support for the genocide in Bahrain and the extermination of the Houthi people in Yemen. The news of your execution of Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, whose only crime was to ask for open elections, speaks volumes that you are a regime who is so wrapped up in the cloak of your perceived self-importance that you strike out at any that you can who disagree with you. You destroy shrines and world heritage sites to make space for your own aggrandizement, but also because those places represent legitimacy and you know you’re an illegitimate ruler of Holy Lands.

This is why I cannot go on the Hajj. I have family and friends who have gone, but I do not believe I can. I cannot enable the misperception that the false hajj you lead is legitimate. I cannot allow one cent to directly inure your kingdom of benefit from my coffers (I know that my usage of gasoline does, and I am taking steps, pun intended to remedy that as well). I cannot allow a visa stamp be looked on by my children, the students I teach as tacit approval of your regime and I cannot practice the cognitive dissonance that so many do who feel the same way.

So I have to deny myself a holy pilgrimage that I longed to do even before I became Muslim and prayed for every day since, and instead devote my prayer to your demise—that from your ashes a just regime emerges that is more in tune with the egalitarian and scientific principles of the true Islam. I will devote my time as an artist and educator to speak out against you and I hope that the Islamophobes in my country take a moment to listen, so that they know that where their legitimate fear can be directed. I will use my words to enliven those you’ve killed, thinking they have gone away—so do not think Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr is dead, he is very much alive and his voice will only grow louder as I add my voice to it, and invite those who are like-minded to do the same.

سیری ناپذیر-89840-shia muslim

There are those Muslims who may read this and say that I’ve gone too far and that the hajj is a pillar of our faith, and yet if Husayn ibn Ali and Zaynab bint Ali, the grandchildren of the Prophet Muhammad could break their hajj and leave Arabia just as the usurper Yazeed became Caliph—I believe I am justified in doing so.

There are those Americans who read this and wonder why I am focusing all my energy on you, when there are so many other despotic regimes in the Middle East—and it is because you are the reason for many of their existences as well and I’d rather focus my attention on the head of the beast rather than its tentacles for if you kill the head, the rest will fall.

How do you kill the head; a head created by lies and emboldened by ignorance? With truth and knowledge. This open letter is just the beginning. I have been relatively silent till now, but I can no longer sit pat while innocent people are killed–

You have awoken in me and others who are brave enough to stand with me your greatest nightmare—we will be the truth seeking missiles that will dismantle the infrastructure of your lies and the knowledge bearers who will water the thirsty while rooting out the ignorance you depend on for your existence. Your days on this earth are numbered.

Sincerely,

Professor A.L.I.

The Price We Pay

Price We Pay
by Professor A.L.I. & Yusuf Abdul Mateen

Is the price we pay worth it?

When these innocents die, innocence dies,
Incensed we cry, cuz in a sense WE die…
In tents, on the tenth, it was intense
71 bodies limp, one body tense
“Yaa Hussain!” screamed for generations since
Bahrain, it seems that Yazeed is your prince
Understand what this means: O-ppression
Rape children, slice open midsections
Pull out fetus and start over again
Feel justified, Cuz Obama’s your friend
Oops! Did I hurt your virginal ears
You didn’t know your taxes were making these tears
It’s ok–its the price that Shia’s pay
But beware cuz these same Shia’s pray
Glory to the Most High, You cant stand His wrath
Do the math–the meek shall inherit at last!

This piece was dedicated to the innocents whose blood has been spilt in Bahrain and throughout the world simply because the chose to believe in and model their lives after those who similarly were martyred because they spoke out against oppression.