Posts Tagged ‘hip hop’

Respect Due: Manifesto Pays Homage to Jack Layton

Friday, September 16th, 2011

I was truly honoured when the people at MANIFESTO ( asked me to write a tribute to Jack Layton for this year’s festival guide. Thanks to MANIFESTO’s executive director Che Khotari and the guide’s editor Rodrigo Bascunan.

Few politicians embodied the spirit of Manifesto like Jack Layton. Jack believed in creativity and community, and the power of everyday people to make positive change in their lives, city, and country.

Emerging on Toronto’s political scene in the early 1980s, Jack spent two decades as a councillor fighting for a just city. His politics were driven by love, expressing a philosophical awareness that —to quote Cornel West, “justice is what love looks like in public.”

His many victories were a testament to his tenacity and political courage.

With his support for bike lanes and wind power, Jack was green before green fell victim to cliché.

The White Ribbon Campaign working to end men’s violence against women, which he helped found, challenged men to reinvent themselves and shape their relationships and communities with the same caring and loving masculinity that Jack personified.

His work on affordable housing sought to erase the contradiction of widespread homelessness in a city as wealthy and prosperous as our own.

When HIV AIDS was still marginalized in the mainstream as a gay man’s disease, Jack was one of the few politicians with the courage to stand in solidarity with those affected, fight their stigmatization, and win increased public funding for prevention, harm reduction and public education.

He was on guard for the rights of LGBT folk well before the Pride parade had become a popular tourist attraction and same sex marriage the law of the land.

Working people knew that “Union Jack” would represent their interests at City Hall, and good jobs with liveable wages were core to his vision of socially just city.

Jack took these causes to the federal scene when he became leader of the NDP in 2003. He never tried to be bigger than the movements, just their devoted, steadfast, and loyal representative in city hall and in parliament.

But as we celebrate the fifth anniversary of Manifesto, those who identify with urban culture must pay homage to Jack as a soldier for our cause. We salute his contribution to defending the arts and urban culture from attack, debasement and disrespect.

For as we stand in our city’s premier public space with hip-hop’s boom bap filling our ears, younger heads can be forgiven for not knowing there was a time in our city that an expression of urban culture as visceral and as a proud as Manifesto would not be permitted.

Hip-Hop’s baby steps in Toronto were taken when the city was dominated by the interests of a conservative and lily-white mainstream. While the politics of some councillors were progressive many others were not. And those occupying other positions of power, from the police to the business community, were reluctant to embrace a vision of multiculturalism that entailed a shift in the visual and artistic landscape of our city. A shift in what expressions of culture were deemed legitimate and worthy of respect; a shift in power related to who got funding and gained material recognition for their cultural output.

In Jack we had an OG on council who forever challenged Toronto’s powerbrokers to envision a city that lived up to its motto of “Diversity, Our Strength.” Speaking with us, not for us, he helped carve out a space for urban culture, defending our funding, promoting our projects. For two decades Jack stood tall for us at City Hall, when other politicians cowered. When times got particularly rough, when our city and province descended into Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution, when anti-racist initiatives were rolled back, when equity was off the agenda and equality on the defensive, Jack was our voice on council.

His love for our culture is illustrated in an anecdote from Manifesto’s Executive Director Che Khotari: In the middle of a party at Jack and Olivia’s Chinatown crib,  Jack pulled Khotari outside to give him a tour of an alley attached to the house. The walls were painted top to bottom with graffiti. Jack knew the names of every artist, the nuances of their styles; he had in fact commissioned many of the pieces.

But as much as he loved us, he never tried to hijack our events for his political gain or was one to strike a pose with youth once every four years like other politicians do. For Jack didn’t have to try to be down with us, because we knew he was down for us.

Yes, we have lost a fan of our music, our style, our art, but in Jack we also have lost something more important, something that we—the makers and lovers of urban culture—know is so rare in our city’s and our country’s corridors of power; we have lost an ally.

We must demand of our current politicians no less than the love and respect that Jack showed us. And when they are not willing to give it, we will honour Jack’s legacy by being loving, hopeful, and optimistic and we’ll change our city with or without them.

Published in MANIFESTO Guidebook 2011, pages 64-65.

Beyond Hip-Hop’s Malcolm

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Here’s the first post for my Politics-As-Usual blog at POUND magazine (

Set as my desktop’s wallpaper is one of the most illuminating documents of the black freedom struggle. It’s a telegram from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King Jr., dated June 30th 1964 12:07pm, just less than a year before Malcolm’s assassination. Sent from the Organization of Afro-American Unity headquarters in Harlem’s Hotel Theresa to King’s Florida base in St. Augustine, the telegram reads: 

“We have been witnessing with great concern the vicious attacks by the white races against our poor defenceless people there in St. Augustine. If the federal government will not send troops to your aid, say the word and we will immediately dispatch some of our brothers there to organize self-defence units among our people and the Ku Klux Klan will then receive a taste of its own medicine.  The day of turning the other cheek to those brute beasts is over.” 

At first it seems inconsequential, a brief six line note from one civil rights leader to another. Hundreds if not thousands like it discussing strategy and tactics must have been sent between the likes of King, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, Stokely Carmiachel and so on. But this one was between Martin and Malcolm. While the two men had had little formal contact, the telegram reveals the centrality of their dynamic symbiosis to the black freedom struggle. 

What lay behind the effectiveness of non-violence as a political strategy was not solely King’s appeal to the morals, empathy and sense of fairness of white America – of which there was too short supply – but the real threat of violent reaction, of armed militancy, that was represented in the philosophy and prophecies of Malcolm X, who so effectively channelled Black rage in his oratory and politics. Malcolm was fully aware that such a telegram would be intercepted and read by the FBI. His emergent politics after breaking with the Nation of Islam saw him thinking and acting more carefully and strategically in relation to the mainstream civil rights movement of which King was leader, an evolution  which Elijah Muhammad (head of the NOI) had actively discouraged. By ’64 Malcolm was a free radical, no longer under the censure of the NOI and its narrow, cultish and ultimately self-serving philosophy. Breaking the Nation’s organizational chains, and positioning himself as the potentially violent alternative to King’s non-violent crusade, would result in his death, the product of collusion between the NOI and the American state. But without the nascent threat of violent insurrection, would the American state have moved to recognize the civil rights of African Americans? Would the War on Poverty have been waged had the ghetto rebellions of the late 60s not set alight American cities? 

I’ve yet to arrive at this moment of the telegram as I read the new biography of Malcom, entitled Malcolm X: A Life Reinvention (authored by the late Manning Marable). It’s a truly magisterial work and I’ve been encouraging everyone and anyone I speak with to go out and cop it. 

There are things in the book which might trouble peeps who came to Malcolm as I did, through hip hop and the superficial representation of Malcolm in the culture in the early 1990s (a representation reinforced in part by Spike Lee’s biopic). The Malcolm X adopted by Public Enemy, X-Clan, BDP and other afro-centric artists, was  a caricature of the man: the hyper- masculine black activist and saviour whose “by any means necessary” philosophy stood in sharp contrast to the effete MLK, also represented one-dimensionally (As Chuck D bellows in front of a backdrop of Malcolm at the beginning of the video for Fight the Power  “That march in 1963, that’s a bit of nonsense; we ain’t rolling like that no more”; deriding King, elevating Malcolm). Marable reveals the complexity of Malcolm’s life, at times assaulting hip hop’s Malcolm X with revelations that he could not sexually satisfy his wife Betty and once played the black stud to a rich, white, homosexual socialite in Boston. In hip hop’s world of male braggadocio, this shit will not go down well. Reading the book, you realize these are mere asides which have been overplayed by the media and are minor to the long arch of Malcolm’s life. The Malcolm who emerges from the biography is a man whose complexity, intellect and courage makes him a far more compelling  figure than the commodified and reified Malcolm of early 90s hip hop. We can thank Marable for rescuing Malcolm X from mere imagery, now to be fully appreciated and understood by the hip hop generation.

Published at, July 1st 2011

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010
no gun play. no drug talk. no sexist nonsense. no celebrity chasing. no bottle poppin’. a real emcee doing real hip hop. intelligent, solid, soulful. Gang Starr. Guru. Keith Elam.  R.I.P.

music is language and language is politics: a conversation with Dead Prez

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

Dead Prez @ Chung King Studios, NYC. M1 talks on their latest album (Pulse of the People), the Obama presidency, music and resistance. 

SB: Last time we spoke, you quoted an African proverb to describe your position on President Obama:  “When the axe entered the forest, the trees said, ‘Look, the handle is one of us’”.  Over a year into Obama’s presidency, has your position changed?

M1: Ain’t nothing changed man. It ain’t even about Obama. He’s a pleasant face, a breath of fresh air as far as him as a person is concerned. But as far as the administration, they are doing the same things they’ve been doing and said they were going to do and I think some people are dealing with the hope and wish that he was going to represent maybe more or that we need to give him more time. I’m not here to hate on the positive things he can do. But I know the U.S. system; the agenda is still the same. And Obama is just there to make more people believe in that system again. The world said “America is full of shit,” with the economic crisis, race relations, the prison industrial complex, the food crisis, people have been saying “America is shiting on itself”. And if it wasn’t for Obama being a black man and that new historic thing, people would have made more advances in terms of political organization independent of the Democratic Party. People were willing to try different things, maybe revolutionary things. I think people are realizing that nice guys who seem sincere are in the end just fucking politicians.

SB: With the economic crisis, the time seems ready made for a Dead Prez album. Do you think that will affect how it’s received?

M1: I don’t know. When we came out with Let’s Get Free, the ‘in thing’ was bling. So we never pick good times to come with what we come with. We just come with what we come with and the times gotta get with us. I don’t think it’s a very revolutionary time. I think the time was more right when Bush was just a blatant asshole and people were starting to equate the system with the administration. People who ain’t even up on some radical political shit were saying “Fuck Bush” and they weren’t looking at it like a radical thing, it was so common. But for us, it ain’t about what’s common, it’s a principled thing. We might be a minority voice here, but in the world who ain’t hungry? Who ain’t had a U.S. soldier’s boot on their back? Who ain’t seen the police be breaking people’s arms as they cuffing their hands behind their back? That shit is mainstream in the world and most people can relate to it. We ain’t trying to sell the illusion of the U.S. as this prosperous place. I’m not going to sell the world an image of the U.S. that really is only about 10% of our population, the very rich. That’s the minority, not the mainstream.

So we just coming with that real shit. That’s what hip hop do. It’s the power and the platform for that. It’s the number one cultural export from America to around the world. It’s the language that young people speak in all cultures. I see that as power and that’s something we have to keep developing.

SB: As far as your international work and activism around Palestinian rights or the World Social Forum in Venezuela, how does that experience influence the music and not just the politics of Dead Prez?

M1: Well let me just touch on the politics. We went to Cuba and there ain’t no words for that experience when you see socialism in effect. When you see at 98% literacy rate in one of the poorest countries. When you see a free health care system, local organic produce; all these initiatives that make it a strong country even though they are economically weak as their shitted on by Europe and the United States. They still have their sovereignty. When you see it yourself, that’s amazing.

SB: But when you’re in those places and parlaying with the artists, do you find you’re influenced by them in a musical sense? Or maybe I should be asking has world hip hop progressed beyond American influence and do you see the hip hop indigenous to those countries as shaping your own work artistically?

M1: Oh, good question. Yeah, when we started travelling 10 years ago, we saw peeps trying to be what they see on MTV. As we keep travelling, say to Africa and the Congo, or in Senegal, we see different cats we’ve met who say “We used to rhyme in English, but now we rhyme in our indigenous language.” They realize that they can do it in their own language, their own way. So the imperialism of the English language I think is what makes American hip hop think it’s more legitimate than what else is out their beyond our own borders. But people out there are saying, “Your hip hop (U.S. hip hop) ain’t shit if I don’t support you, so support me too.”

SB: So a Palestinian artist rapping in Arabic, or Haitian artists rapping in Creole, is itself a form of resistance?

M1: Yeah, definitely. It’s being able to speak your reality, express your experience with your own people’s words. It’s like if I can’t speak freely in my music or I put it in Harvard English, it’s not going to communicate the essence and pulse of me and where I am coming from. The problem is English is the language of the colonizer. So in order to communicate we be having to use the colonizers language. So you have to figure out how to use that language without becoming trapped in it. For example, in English, the word ‘black’ is bad. It has so many negative connotations: evil, dirty, mysterious, black hole, black sheep. ‘White’ is purity, angels and shit. And that ain’t in every language. When you speak in this language and that’s all you know, this shit becomes deep in your psyche. That’s why I’ve tried to learn Swahili and different languages to know that English is not the end all and be all of reality. Music is language and language is very much tied into politics. So yes, it is about resistance.

SB: Word.  Do you see your music as a tool for mobilizing people around political and social issues? You don’t necessarily drop the names of CLR James or Walter Rodney in your verses but it has such strong political content. How do you see your music developing over the 9 years since Let’s Get Free?

M1: Well, really we are more influenced by our audience than we try to influence it. We listen to the things that are going on, what sounds are current. We’re not trying to be so different that we alienating people. If something’s hot, nigga that shit is hot. We’re inspired by the culture; we’re not anti the culture. So I won’t say we’ve changed but just Let’s Get Free was so raw and so honest ‘bout our politics that people try to say “this is who you are, we’ve done made a mould of you and everything you do must conform to it”.  So as artists we are always trying to carve out our own identity, not what people think our identity is and not no gimmick. Everything we do is genuine; whether we are talking ‘bout Obama or meeting a chick. And that’s what we as Dead Prez are about. We don’t talk politics as a gimmick, it’s a sincere interest that we have in our life. And I think it’s helpful that people see us as regular human beings with a range of interests but we are political. You can be a regular human being and care about the world. You don’t have to be the Dalai Lama and shit. You can be a regular nigga. I’m a regular man with contradictions and all but that don’t stop me from loving my people and using my platform to talk about our interests.

SB: What can fans expect from Pulse of the People?

M1: Well it’s a new sound because it’s all produced by DJ Green Lantern. It’s a hard sound cuz Green was pushing for the streets. He was saying “the streets need y’all.” So he came with a lot energy. But all our shit is hard. You know for me, rocking your child to sleep is hard. Being hard ain’t no stereotype. So you know with us, you’re going to get honest music. We have some good collaborations: with Bun B from UGK; Chuck D; a dope R and B cat called Avery Storm; Green’s artist Johnny Polygon; and Styles P.

It’s all real shit. We talk about the economy, enjoying the summer, having sex. Everything. We talking ‘bout life, you know man, the Pulse of the People.

The Perils and Promise of Barack Obama

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

Four months after Jesse Jackson whispered “Barack’s been talking down to black people… I want to cut his nuts off…” on Fox Television, he provided one of the most emotional moments of election night. As the screens flashed the news of Obama’s election, tears streamed down Jackson’s cheeks, his face strained and twisted by the duelling emotionsof pain and joy.

Cynical observers saw Jackson’s tears as anacknowledgment of his obsolescence in Obama’s America, claiming civil rights ideals anachronistic. How could racialized politics be relevant in a country with a black president? But unemployment, prison, education and health statistics tell a different story—one where race still matters. Like other cautious supporters of Obama, Jackson emerged from an earlier era of black politics inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle against what he called the “triple evils” of America, “racism, war and economic exploitation”. As his critics point out, on the “triple evils” Obama is found wanting.

ON WAR, the President-elect has openly stated his willingness to bomb targets in sovereign nations without their permission, has committed to extending the war in Afghanistan and intensifying the troop presence there, has continuously softened his Iraq anti-war stance, and says nothing about dismantling the military empire which includes 700-odd U.S. bases beyond its own border. His steadfast support for Israel leaves the long suffering Palestinians with few hopes of progress toward national liberation and statehood. As Condi Rice and Colin Powell demonstrated, African-Americans can bomb third-world countries with the best of them.

ON RACISM, Obama has walked the post-racial tightrope: Attempting to build a broad coalition of voters, his supporters claim Obama must talk beyond race while still appealing to the African-American community to which he owes a great deal of his success. The always on-point Tavis Smiley recently asked “Is it worth winning the White House for an African American candidate if the suffering of black people must be rendered invisible during that campaign by said candidate?”

ON ECONOMIC EXPLOITATION, frequent contributor to the Black Commentator, Paul Street observed, “Obama has placated establishment circles on virtually every front imaginable, the candidate of ‘change we can believe in’ has visited interest group after interest group to promise them that they needn’t fear any change in the way they’re familiar with doing business.” His support for the $700 billion dollar bailout of Wall Street may have been necessary, but his failure to articulate a vision of economic justice that goes beyond corporate capitalism-as-usual belies his mantra of real and substantial ‘Change’. One only has to look at his presidential transition team, filled with CEOs and Clinton-era hacks (including those who pushed for the devastating welfare reforms of the mid-90s which devastated many Black communities and played into racist stereotypes of the Black poor), to know that ‘change’ may mean little more than a change in personnel in the top echelons of power, not a the type of change that would empower the poor and working class.

These are the perils of Obama. The promise lies in the fact the first Black president was elected through a massive mobilization and empowerment of Black, Latino and young voters, particularly the hip hop generation. Obama owes them and on issues of social justice he must ante-up. As Cornel West said on the eve of the election, “I’ll break-dance tonight if Obama wins, but I’ll wake up the next day his critic”. In other words, celebrate the achievement of all that is Obama, but keep him accountable to his message of ‘Hope’, ‘Change’ and ‘Progress’. In this, the hip hop generation has a massive role to play.

Published in POUND, 44 Winter 2008