Archive for November, 2010

Review of the Voices of Rap and Hip-Hop event at the British Library

The Panel

The Panel (photo by Jo Berridge)


On Friday 26 November, several hundred people chose to spend their Friday evening down the library – specifically, the British Library, for an event named ‘Voices of Rap and Hip-Hop’, part of the ‘Evolving English’ exhibition currently taking place at the library.

The event featured some crucial figures from the world of hip-hop and cultural activism: renowned poet, writer and actor Saul Williams; scholar, writer and film-maker MK Asante Jr (whose book “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop” was reviewed on this site recently); and two of England’s leading rapper-activists, Lowkey and Akala.

The legendary rapper KRS One had originally been billed to speak, but due to a schedule clash he unfortunately had to cancel. However, while he was in London a few weeks ago, he took the time to record a video message at the British Library, and this video message was played as an introduction to the event.

KRS spoke in particular about the theme of ‘Evolving English’, discussing the way that the English language and hip-hop have affected each other over the years. He mentioned the slang that has been popularised by hip-hop (for example, bad meaning good) that has now made its way into colloquial English in many different countries. He also pointed out that one of the inspirations for graffiti – an essential component of hip-hop culture – was the massive letter that you often see at the start of a chapter of an old book. (Incidentally, KRS One has been a prolific graff artist since the age of 14 (1979)).

Standing in front of a ‘Poetry is Revolution’ poster from the late 1960s with the names of legendary freedom fighters Huey P Newton and H Rap Brown and leading cultural activist Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones), KRS said of the poster: “this is what hip-hop is really about: poetry for revolution.” Discussing the origin of the term hip-hop, KRS pointed to the Wolof origin of the word ‘hip’ – to open ones eyes and see. He quoted from his lyric on ‘Hip Hop Lives’:

Hip means to know
It’s a form of intelligence
To be hip is to be up-to-date and relevant
Hop is a form of movement
You can’t just observe a hop
You got to hop up and do it
Hip and Hop is more than music
Hip is the knowledge
Hop is the movement
Hip and Hop is intelligent movement
All relevant movement
We selling the music
So write this down on your black books and journals
Hip Hop culture is eternal
Run and tell all your friends
An ancient civilization has bee born again
It’s a fact

He finished with an acappella rendition of his classic track ‘Stop the Violence’ – one of the best examples of cultural activism within hip-hop. It may not have been as good as having him there in person, but the video was nonetheless a great intro to the event.

MK Asante introduced the discussion by talking about the importance of “transforming observations into obligations” – he said that it is not enough to just *observe* something; one has to turn that observation into action. To see a problem is to have an obligation to do something about it. He gave the example of Afrika Bambaataa’s journey as a young man – Bam saw that people of colour needed to do something to break the cycle of violence. He had the opportunity to visit Africa, and this trip gave him massive inspiration and insight, which he used back in New York, turning the Black Spades gang into the Zulu Nation.

MK talked about Bambaataa’s concept of the five elements of hip-hop: MCing, DJing, breaking, graffiti writing and the oft-forgotten fifth element – knowledge. MK remarked that this fifth element informs all the other elements, and that we should make sure it isn’t left out.

MK went on to discuss the relationship between English and the African population in the Americas. He pointed out that slaves taken from Africa didn’t share a single language and therefore had little choice but to speak to each other in English. In order to speak in a way that the masters couldn’t understand, they developed some symbolic transformations of the language. For example, if they heard that a slave had escaped, they couldn’t say “Wow, Saul [the slave] is good”, because they’d be overheard and lashed; so instead they said “Saul is baaaaaaad!” This is the root of the verbal dexterity, the wordplay, the lyricism that is so central to hip-hop.

Asante also mentioned the cultural and linguistic continuity in the African diaspora – for example the culture of call and response, and words such as the Wolof ‘dega’ (from which the slang ‘dig’ is derived), ‘jev’ (‘jive’) and indeed the ‘hip’ in hip-hop.

Introducing the speakers – Saul Williams, Akala and Lowkey – he said that they were carrying on a great tradition of rebellion within culture, citing the example of the great Paul Robeson as a true *artivist*.

Next was a live performance by the legend, Saul Williams, of his poem ‘NGH WHT’. The performance was nothing short of mindblowing. The extraordinary richness of content, the depth of cultural and historical understanding, along with Williams’ flair for performance, left the entire audience amazed. There’s no point giving a summary of the poem – even if I transcribed the whole thing, you wouldn’t really get it unless you heard it. Luckily there’s a good quality video of Williams performing the same poem at a different event (seriously, watch it now!).

The next speaker was Akala, who picked up where MK Asante left off with the theme of cultural continuity. He emphasised the importance of understanding that rapping over a drum beat is not something that started in the South Bronx in the early 1970s – MCs (poets performing with beats) are known to have been existed in some form in Africa for at least 800 years and probably longer.

Akala spoke about the Mandinka people of West Africa, who have a rich oral history tradition stretching back for almost a millennium. This oral history is passed down through jelis (griots) – wandering musician historians – via poetry accompanied by drums and kora (a 21-stringed instrument). These jelis were responsible for educating the population about their history and about current affairs.

Akala pointed out that samba, reggae, hip-hop and other musical forms of the African diaspora are derived directly from this jeli culture – even the rhythms of bashment are traceable to West Africa. Akala explained the importance of understanding this history as a means of informing the music we make today and understanding the role of music in wider society.

The last speaker was Lowkey, who picked up the theme of the importance of the English language in hip-hop. He challenged the audience: “Why is the English language so widely spoken anyway?” The answer: imperialism. The British Empire. He pointed out that, these days, a lot of the best hip-hop is not made in the English language – increasingly people are rejecting cultural imperialism and choosing to express themselves in accordance with their own history and traditions. “The rejected people of the world are speaking; we must listen.”

Lowkey said that hip-hop at its best poses a challenge to power. However, much of what we listen to *serves* power. If the US government likes the music we listen to, then we have to ask ourselves some questions. Hip-hop is being exploited and used as a vehicle to put forward negative ideas, particularly crass materialism and individalism. Who does that serve? Does that build for freedom or oppression?

Lowkey concluded by saying that hip-hop is currently at the forefront of cultural imperialism. The contradiction, however, is that it’s also at the forefront of resistance – people all over the world take up the rebellious element of hip-hop culture and use it to further their struggles. He pointed out that we all have a responsibility to encourage and promote the hip-hop that is challenging power, not the hip-hop that is serving power.

After the speeches, it was time for questions from the floor. I got the chance to put a question to the panel: Given the way hip-hop has been and is being sabotaged through mass media and corporate record deals, what should we say to aspiring young rappers who want to make a career out of what they do? We know that they’re much more likely to get signed if they’re willing to talk negativity and nonsense, so do we say that it’s ok to compromise for the deal or do we say they should stay independent, even if it means not being able to make a living out of their craft?

Lowkey replied that we need to focus on empowerment – taking power away from the music industry and bringing it back to the musicians and the audience. He said that we’ve come to believe that artists have a responsibility to make rich people (record company execs) even richer; we don’t. And with the emergence of new forms of promotion and marketing, particularly internet-based forms such as Youtube, Twitter and Facebook, it is actually possible for artists to make a living and retain their independence.

Saul Williams took a slightly different approach to the question, saying that artists need to get creative. “Be so good at what you do that the industry has no choice but to play it.” He pointed out that Public Enemy’s beats and lyricism were so innovative, so fresh, so exceptional that the radio had to play their tunes, even though the industry hated the message. Regarding his own career, Saul said: “I get invited to the White House, I have a record deal with Sony, and I say what the fuck I want!”

Saul also pointed out that an awful lot of ‘conscious’ rappers focused a little too much on being ‘conscious’ and not enough on being exceptional. Ultimately, you have to make people dance. The responsibility is on those artists who want to say something worth saying to say it in a way that people *have* to listen to.

Akala noted that we must lead by example. He has just finished his fifth fully independent UK tour, and has recently released his third album on his independent record label. He emphasised the need for persistence and hard work – keep pushing, keep exploring ideas, and trust that word of mouth is a very powerful promotional medium. He also pointed out that Exodus was Bob Marley’s ninth album – it took Bob Marley nine albums to ‘blow’. We can’t expect immediate success; if it takes Bob Marley nine albums, the rest of us can expect it to take more!

MK reinforced Saul Williams’ point about the need for creativity, originality and persistence. He also pointed out that a message for freedom could be pushed in original ways. He made a comparison with the freedom quilt – quilts made by slave women during the days of the Underground Railroad that contained secret symbols with information to aid escape. MK said that the freedom quilt brought together four major themes of the African experience in the Americas: resourcefulness (they were made from any and all available materials, much like the culture of DJing, which grew up in the context of the government stopping funding for musical instrument lessons); beauty; practicality; and symbolism.

The first female voice of the evening came from an audience member asking a very pertinent question: what can we do about the level of sexism within hip-hop?

Akala responded by saying that back in the day, when hip-hop was independent, there were many strong female figures in the scene, such as Queen Latifah, Roxanne Shanté and Salt-n-Pepa. Akala said that African culture generally has a high level of respect for women; however, over the years, the sexism that prevails in western society has been injected into our music and culture. Yes, sexism in hip-hop is a problem, but it’s really just a reflection of a highly sexist society. How do we change it? “Turn off your television!”

Saul pointed to the need to actively support strong female artists – across all musical genres – who are putting forward a positive image and challenging gender stereotypes.

MK reinforced the idea of people collectively supporting the type of music and message they want to hear. He gave the analogy of McDonalds, saying that it’s often an easy option for a quick food fix. You might have a Big Mac, but deep down you know it’s not real food. And you might say “maaaan, food is dead!” The problem is you’re not looking hard enough. If you went to the little cafe around the corner, you might have the opposite reaction. The solution is simple: don’t go to McDonalds. Hip-hop is alive and well; you just have to go out there and get it.

This was a great ending for a wonderful and inspiring discussion. The only major criticism, echoed by many people I spoke to afterwards (including MK Asante and Akala) was that it was way too short and that at least another hour for discussion would have been great. Note to the British Library: more time next time please!

With the discussion finished, people moved across from the conference centre to the main entrance hall for a live performance featuring the brilliant Zena Edwards, Akala and Lowkey, hosted by erstwhile rapper and talented all-round entertainer Doc Brown. At this point I decided to stop taking notes and enjoy myself, so I can’t give you a blow by blow account, just a quick overview. Hopefully the videos will be available soon.

Zena kicked things off with her usual rich mix of song and spoken word, her wit and personality shining through and delighting the audience. If you haven’t heard her live before, I’d strongly recommend catching her next gig. In the meantime, check this video:

Next up was Doc Brown, a name familiar to anyone that’s been into UK hip-hop for a while. Doc was one of the top rappers on the scene, and a trailblazer who used to host the legendary Deal Real open mic nights. Doc treated us to his hilarious Slang 101 comedy routine, which had the audience pretty much in tears. If you haven’t seen his comedy before, then check out this video:

Doc then reminisced about the old days at Deal Real where he had helped to kickstart the career of a hungry, angry 17-year-old rapper by the name of Lowkey. Bringing Lowkey to the stage, Doc Brown said it was a great pleasure, seven years later, to see Lowkey getting worldwide attention for his skills and knowledge.

Lowkey gave an energetic performance, playing three of his most popular songs: Long Live Palestine, Hip-Hop Ain’t Dead, and Terrorist. For the last track, he brought on the up-and-coming 17-year-old rapper Crazy Haze, who Lowkey is pushing as part of the next generation of radical rappers. The two had the crowd bouncing to the epic ‘Terrorist’, probably the most important hip-hop single of 2009.

Last up was Akala, who came on with full live band – drummer, guitarist, bassist and, later, kora. Akala and his band gave an emotional and eclectic performance, from rock to hip-hop to a London take on traditional West African jeli poetry. With his sister Ms Dynamite and several other family members looking on, Akala moved the crowd with his intense passion, energy, complexity and intelligence. He is without a doubt one of the leading cultural radical figures of our time.

Overall the evening was pure inspiration, and I came away feeling that our culture is strong and our movement growing. Big respect to the organisers, and to the British Library for putting it on. It was great to have the opportunity to meet and connect with so many like-minded people, and to be able to discuss serious issues with some of the people at the cutting edge of the debate on how to use music to move society forward.

Also I must give a big shout to Octavia Foundation, for organising 20 teenagers to attend, thereby massively increasing the number of young people at the event. It’s worth noting that the day after the event, 27 November 2010, was the 10th anniversary of the death of Damilola Taylor, the 10-year-old boy killed on North Peckham estate by teenagers. If nothing else, this anniversary should remind us of the importance of engaging with, supporting, encouraging and helping to educate and organise young people. As fantastic as the British Library event was, it would have been of much less value had it not been for the presence of a decent number of young people, who were deeply inspired by what they saw and heard. The possibilities for meaningful social change are mainly in the hands of the youth. If people of my generation want to see that change, we must break down the generation gap, we must avoid the trap of blaming and judging young people, and we must work with them seriously to find answers to our common problems.

Beat Knowledge review of MK Asante\’s book
Akala’s F64 (with lyrics)
Lowkey’s speech at anti-war protest
Saul Williams anti-war freestyle (with lyrics)

Saul Williams Twitter
MK Asante Jr Twitter
Akala Twitter
Lowkey Twitter
Zena Edwards Twitter
Doc Brown Twitter

Book Review: MK Asante Jr “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop – The Rise Of The Post-Hip-Hop Generation”

Bigger than Hip Hop

Bigger than Hip Hop

Did you ever give any thought to that chorus: “It’s bigger than hip-hop”? The line is so catchy, the flows so striking, the bass so overwhelming, that I wonder how many people have taken the time to consider what the classic Dead Prez track is really saying.

With that song, I think M1 and stic.man are trying to tell us that the struggle for freedom is alive, is real, and that participating in it is about more than listening to – or making – great music. The movement for progress is “bigger than hip-hop”, and would exist if hip-hop wasn’t there. “It’s bigger than all these fake-ass records.” Indeed, there are plenty of forces within hip-hop that are working *against* the struggle for freedom. “I’m sick of that fake thug, R&B-rap scenario, all day on the radio.” stic.man demands of the listener: “Would you rather have a Lexus or justice, a dream or some substance?”

With his remarkable book, “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop”, MK Asante Jr takes the sentiment of the song and turns it into a manifesto; a discussion document for a new generation (the ‘post-hip-hop’ generation) to help define and develop its role in the struggle for a better future.

Asante starts by examining the current state of hip-hop – the music that is generally considered as being representative of young Black people in the US. He points out that hip-hop, especially the kind that gets major TV and radio coverage, has largely moved on from being a voice for the Black community. The likes of Public Enemy and KRS-1 are sidelined in a scene that has “been lulled into being a conservative instrument, promoting nothing new or remotely challenging to mainstream cultural ideology.” Asante is scathing in his criticism: “Even in the midst of an illegitimate war in Iraq, rap music remains a stationary vehicle blaring redundant, glossy messages of violence without consequence, misogyny, and conspicuous consumption. As a result, it has betrayed the very people it is supposed to represent; it has betrayed itself.”

Asante remarks that hip-hop has effectively been colonised. It has become a key part of a music industry that is entirely controlled by rich white men (while Jay-Z gets to be considered the ‘CEO of hip-hop’, the sad fact is that not a single Black person sits on the board of directors of any of the main parent companies that own labels such as Def Jam). That music industry has been busily trying to turn hip-hop into its opposite – from a tool of freedom into a tool of oppression, projecting an image of Black people that the white supremacist ruling structures are entirely happy with (that is, an image of simple, primitive, hypersexualised people only too willing to kill themselves with drugs and guns).

“Under the banner of ‘keeping it real,’ the hip-hop generation has been conditioned to act out a way of life that is not real at all. The hip-hop *industry* (as opposed to the hip-hop *community*) has been successful in framing an authentic Black identity that is not intellectual, complex, educated, or diverse, but a monolith of violence and sexism.”

MK Asante Jr opines that the current generation of politically/culturally/socially active youth does not identify with hip-hop in the same way that young people identified with it 20 years ago. Therefore, Asante argues, the post- hip-hop generation has to move beyond the limited discourse of current hip-hop, using it as a voice where possible, but not being constrained by it.

Asante goes on to analyse in depth the wider social, economic and cultural problems facing this generation – the issues that hip-hop *should* be engaging with, starting with the changing role of mass media and the part it plays in shaping the thoughts and activities of our generation.

“Any 21st century discussion of our world, across race, gender and class lines, must acknowledge and take seriously the notion, the reality, that young people of today derive the bulk of their ideas not from traditional institutions, but from the growing number and more intrusive forms of mass media.”

Regarding the way media affects specifically the Black community, Asante writes: “Where the Black church, community centers, and family were once the primary transmitters of values and culture, today it’s a potent mass media concoction of pop music, film, television, and digital content – all of which are produced and disseminated through a small handful of multinational corporations.”

This is a critical point that few radical writers have engaged with – the ability of the ruling classes to control people’s minds is *increasing*, not decreasing; the ability of the older generation of oppressed peoples to transmit their values to the younger generation is *decreasing*, not increasing, for the same reason. This is a disastrous situation for all oppressed people, but particularly for Black people, who have practically zero representation at the ownership level in the mass media.

Asante writes: “Images of people of African descent remain virtually unchanged from the racist stereotypes promoted before and during slavery.” And these images are not just consumed by people whose interests are served by perpetuating racism; they are also consumed by the victims of that racism. “Images produced by and for whites to justify Blacks’ oppression, images of savages, of laziness, of pimpism and gangsterism, have been embraced by Blacks. It means that the images that taught white people to hate Blacks, to oppress them, have ultimately resulted in Blacks hating Blacks.”

MK Asante Jr moves on to the closely-related problem of the generation gap, which is more prominent than ever before, and which stands in the way of unity for progress. The media has been a major force in creating this problem, on the one hand reducing the power of the traditional community institutions where different generations would interact, and on the other hand presenting the older generation with a crass, warped view of the younger generation (via MTV, BET, cop shows, etc).

As Michael Dyson often argues, the generation gap between the Hip Hop generation and the Civil Rights generation has created a shameful disunity over the last 30 years. The media, the fear culture, the social paranoia arising from the crack explosion, the breakdown of communities, the changing nature of racism and exploitation, the rise of unemployment, the defeat of the Black Power movement, the changing values of the youth – all of these have fed into the problem. Asante points out that this gap must be analysed and overcome if the major problems of our society are to be fixed.

The only thing worse than fighting with your allies is fighting without them” (saying)

Arguing for a broad unity of all oppressed people, and all those struggling for a better future, Asante points out that all struggles against oppression and exploitation are connected, and that all attempts to disrupt the unity of the oppressed must be defeated.

“It was Malcolm [X] who knew, toward the end of his life, that the fundamental problem is not between Blacks, whites, browns, yellows, reds, or any other racial category, but rather, between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing, the exploited and those who do the exploiting – regardless of skin colour. Malcolm realised that the only way to fight oppression is to unite with people who share the same spirit of resistance against inhumanity and injustice – and those spirits may, and in fact should, have different colours, genders, religions, etc”

Asante quotes Martin Luther King on the same issue of unity against exploitation:

“One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society…”

Another issue that is rarely touched upon in the mainstream political discourse is that of prisons. There are currently 1.5 million Black Americans in prison. There is no precedent for this level of imprisonment anywhere in the world, ever. WEB DuBois wrote over a hundred years ago that “the courts have become a universal device for re-enslaving blacks”. If this was a problem in 1903 (when The Souls of Black Folk was published), it is a much bigger problem now, where the so-called War on Drugs (in reality the War on Black and Latino Youth) has been going on for forty years.

Asante cites then-president Richard Nixon: “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. They key is to devise a system that recognises this while appearing not to.” Nixon defined a clear strategy for dealing with this ‘problem’: pump drugs into the Black community, create anxiety, create fear, create crime, create a context in which many people are actively calling for a greater state presence in the community, and then target that same community in a ‘war on drugs’.

The result of that ongoing war, forty years later, is that the US prison population has risen from around 300,000 to around 2.2 million, the vast majority of which is Black and Latino. The oppressed communities have been clearly targeted for imprisonment. Asante points out that, “according to Amnesty International’s definition, the vast majority of African-Americans imprisoned today are political prisoners.”

The prison industry is one of the biggest industries in the US. It is the main employer in hundreds of towns, and prisoners constitute a deregulated ‘Made in America’ work force, where there is no unionisation, no strikes and very little pay. As Robert King of the Angola 3 wrote: “Let’s call prisons exactly what they are: an extension of slavery.”

“Only a fool would let an enemy educate his children” (Malcolm X)

Asante, who is a tenured professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, also discusses the education system, which he points out is still deeply racist and which actively supports the prevailing system of exploitation and oppression. Asante calls on his readers not to leave their education purely in the hands of a state that doesn’t represent their interests. He calls on his readers to take an active role in defining their own education – studying relevant material, in a way that suits their culture and experience, and which directs them towards liberation, rejecting oppression, exploitation, racism, misogyny, eurocentrism and white supremacism.

Asante particularly focuses on the urgent need to use all means at our disposal to educate ourselves and others. He poses the question: how can we free ourselves without understanding society, without understanding history, without breaking our ideological reliance on the system that oppresses us?

Hip and hop is more than music
Hip is the knowledge / Hop is the movement
Hip and hop is the intelligent movement
(KRS-1 and Marley Marl – Hip Hop Lives)

So where does hip-hop fit into all of this?

Asante puts forward the idea that art is not an independent, isolated phenomenon; it is a part of the society it exists in. All art is to some extent political, because silence means implicit approval (to quote The Roots, “If you ain’t sayin’ nothin’, you a system’s accomplice”). Artists that wish to have a role in making society better therefore have a responsibility to be *artivists* – combining their talents with activism and using their voice in the interests of the masses. “The artivist must challenge, confront, and resist this otherwise inescapable fate of torture, injustice and inhumanity.”

Asante points out that the artivist has a particularly important job in a world where many people do not read books. For people with world-changing ideas, books have long been the chosen medium for conveying those ideas. Whilst it is positive to encourage people to read more, we also have to find other ways to get through to them. Discussing his own decision to become a film-maker, he says: “The artivist must not be afraid to learn a new language in order to inspire and empower new people – by any medium necessary.”

Asante calls for a combination of culture and activism in order to build a movement with the ability to seriously challenge the status quo and win freedom for all oppressed peoples. “No movement is about beats and rhymes. Beats and rhymes are tools – tools that if held the right way can help articulate the world, a new world, in which we want to live.”

Can hip-hop still be used? Of course. Hip-hop is a very powerful weapon. It’s a voice; it should be used widely, and people should remember that it is part of a continuous African-American (and, before that, African) tradition of using art as a means of changing society for the better, for guiding people, for inspiring people.

“It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop – The Rise Of The Post-Hip-Hop Generation” does a wonderful job of raising the issues that face young people today, and it lays the ground for a wide-ranging discussion about how we can address and solve those issues, using all the tools available to us.

Chuck D’s endorsement says it all: “MK Asante Jr combines drive, skill and a commitment that buoys us all. The hip-hop community should feel extremely blessed to have those qualities attached to its forward movement.”

“It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop” is a brilliant, well-written and thought-provoking book. Although its primary target audience is young people of African origin in the US, it has clear relevance for all those who want to participate in making the world a better place.


For those of you in London, please note that MK Asante Jr will be chairing a session at the British Library on Friday 26 November, entitled ‘Voices of rap and hip hop’. Speakers/performers include Saul Williams, Akala, Lowkey and Zena Edwards. More info here: http://www.bl.uk/whatson/events/event114077.html


‘Bigger than Hip-Hop’ at Amazon UK
‘Bigger than Hip-Hop’ at Amazon US
MK Asante Jr’s Facebook page
MK Asante Jr on Twitter

Saul Williams – Anti War Freestyle (lyrics)

This freestyle, recorded over Nas’s incredible ‘Made You Look’ beat, is a phenomenal example of radical street poetry. Williams passionately denounces the war on Iraq, and examines the irony of Black Americans becoming soldiers in the US Army: “We was the first type of oil that they ever stole … Now they want a deal and asking us to back them”.

Check the audio. Lyrics below.

Now let’s get it all in perspective
Shift the objective, you’ve been misdirected
What’s the purpose of another song to step to
If you stepping in the wrong direction
Thug introspection
Mindframe in the fast lane
Through with cocaine
Time’s up, time to maintain
Before a n***a gets drafted
Cos you the number one pick, corn bread, cotton-crafted
Them people’s army shot another brown kid today
And all you strapped little boys let ‘em get away
So what you packin’ for
You packin’ for the war?
They gonna ship you out and put you and your mans on tour
Yeah, your Hummer came in handy
Son, your Air Force 1s are sandy
You’d better peep the plan, B
Before you call yourself a soldier
Get caught up on the wrong side and your little party’s over
Put your blunt down, no time to front now,
Put your drink down, time to think now
We on the brink now
Where my peeps at, where the streets at?
Same cats that stole you is using you to steal Iraq

[Gunshot] Yo, I say let ‘em shoot
My tongue is my gun aiming for the truth
They got a silencer and aimin’ straight at the youth
And all their talk of terrorism’s nothing but a spoof

We was the first type of oil that they ever stole
Nah, fuck the oil metaphor son, we was gold
But let the truth be told, we was platinum
Now they want a deal and asking us to back them

War, don’t start none, won’t be none
We fighting for freedom
Yeah they say they is but son I don’t believe them
Cos when there’s violence in the hood you never see them
Unless they starting it
They got their heart in it
Now they got you thinking money is power
You’re counting dead pres by the hour
And the one that’s living, the Bible thumping Christian
Like y’all n***az trying to cross out the mission
Listen, power is vision
You’re keeping it real in a neighbourhood that’s government sealed
Yo, let the truth be revealed
Before your freedom has failed and the innocent killed

[Gunshot] Yo, I say let ‘em shoot
My tongue is my gun aiming for the truth
They got a silencer and aimin’ straight at the youth
And all their talk of terrorism’s nothing but a spoof

I’m hip to your games
Hip to the science of war
Propaganda make me fight but what am I fighting for?
My way of life, means and rights, give or take less or more
See through the eyes of the poor, plus I’m black to the core
Ignorance is on tour, booking stadiums and more
The days of Hitler painted pictures patriotic with gore
You raise a flag on a land, snatch a bald eagle’s claw
And send a symbol on your currency to finance your war
I’m saying no
Not in my name, not in my life
Not by my hands, that ain’t my fight
Not in my name
You wage a war against terrorists and violence
And try to wave your guns and fear us all into silence
No. Not in my name, not in my life
Not by my hands, that ain’t my fight
Not in my name
You built your empire with natives and slaves
Like the truth on resurrect waging war from its grave


For those of you in London, please note that Saul Williams will be speaking at the British Library on Friday 26 November, at an event entitled ‘Voices of rap and hip hop’. Speakers/performers include Akala, Lowkey, MK Asante Jr and Zena Edwards. More info here: http://www.bl.uk/whatson/events/event114077.html (Even if the page says the event is sold out, try calling the box office, as there may be more tickets available).


Follow Saul Williams on Twitter
Join Saul Williams’ Facebook page

Lowkey’s Speech at the Afghanistan Troops Out Protest (video and transcript)

I went with my son down to the demonstration and rally yesterday (Saturday 20 November 2010), and can attest to the fact that Lowkey’s speech was hugely inspiring!

Here’s the video. The transcription is below.

We are here – all of us are here – because we believe in the equality of all and the supremacy of none.

All of us are here because we do not believe in British imperialism. What has British imperialism given to the world? British imperialism has carved up the Middle East. British imperialism has left its scar on Palestine. British imperialism is the reason that Obama is sending drones today to bomb what we call Pakistan.

What people need to realise is that those drones are dropping bombs on the Pashtuns, who don’t recognise the red line which was drawn by the British. They do not consider themselves Pakistani and they do not consider themselves to be from Afghanistan; they are Pashtuns. What is the root of that problem? The root of that problem is British imperialism.

There is a reason that they call Afghanistan the graveyard of empires. There’s a reason. But what we have to ask ourselves is this: if we expect people around the world to resist British imperialism, who are we not to oppose British imperialism *here*?

They have an occupation in Kabul, but we have an occupation down there, in the Houses of Parliament. How can we combat those who are fighting humanity around the world?

Two words: *direct action*.

They want us to condemn the Millbank protestors, but they want us to commend those who drop bombs on people we do not know and people we do not see. They are quick to show soldiers with missing limbs (who of course I sympathise with), but they do not show babies born with deformities because of the depleted uranium that has been dropped; they do not show the soldiers that have babies with deformities because they were exposed to depleted uranium in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Why?

Because the narrative that they are pushing forward wants us to commend imperialism. We say: no, we condemn imperialism, and no, we don’t condemn the protestors – I *commend* those protestors.

So we must take away the lesson from today, with all of us gathered together – all of us who have humanity in our hearts and equality in our aim. The lesson we must take from this is: we are not speaking their language. Their language is: direct action.

Thank you.

Slang Like This – True Tiger featuring P Money

This is a great example of positive underground London music celebrating youth culture and diversity. Big ups to True Tiger and P Money.

Reflecting on Stereotypes in Professor Green’s ‘Jungle’ music video

Co-authored by Sukant Chandan of Sons of Malcolm and Carlos Martinez of Beat Knowledge

To make it clear from the outset, we are not saying that Maverick Sabre and Professor Green are racists; not at all. From what we know about them, they are aware of many social and cultural issues. From reading interviews with Maverick Sabre in particular, it’s clear he is a conscious brother with great talent and intelligence. Professor Green is also an intelligent, talented and well-respected artist who undoubtedly opposes racism. This track and video may even have been conceived as an attempt to address some negative aspects of our lives in order to move positively away from them.

Nevertheless, the most anti-racist and conscious of us will never wholly rid ourselves of white supremacist ideas, as they have been beaten into our consciousness, constantly reinforced by the education system, the media and the music industry, which always seeks to colonise our youth and community’s natural wealth: our culture. So it’s important for us to look out for each other when we might slip up, and discuss in a mutually respectful and calm way in order to build towards freeing our peers in our communities from the mess we are in. Many of us are doing this in many ways, including in such forums such as the recent Hip-Hop History evening, an inspirational event featuring a panel that included highly respected artists such as Lowkey and Akala, at which over a hundred youth took part in a deep debate on issues such as sexism, racism and violence within music.

So although we understand that Maverick and Professor not racist, we consider that there are a number of very problematic elements to the track ‘Jungle’, which combined with the music video raises some deeply troubling issues.

The video is based in Hackney, in North East London. Hackney is one of the poorest boroughs in England and has a high concentration of working class people, including high concentrations of peoples from backgrounds from the Caribbean and Africa, Turkish and Kurdish peoples, and East European and Asian. The video starts of with Green stating:

“Welcome to Hackney, a place where I think somebody’s been playing Jumanji.
A manor where man are like animals, an’ they’ll yam on you like they yam on food.”

So this video features two white artists telling a story about how life in Hackney is like a “jungle”. To show this, exclusively Black people are used to portray a “jungle” life of back-stabbing, violence and crime – a dog-eat-dog world where the only two white people in the video are simply observing.

Apart from one young man, the video depicts only Black men committing graphic violence against other Black men with the use of various weapons including firearms. Admittedly, this is not the behaviour of upstanding human beings concerned with their fellow humans, but to compare these people to animals in the context of this video whereby those passing comment (Sabre and Green) are white men surrounded by a sea of Black on Black ultra-violence leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Or as one friend put it in relation to the video: “Dehumanised discourse, stereotypical ‘Black behaviour’, while two white boys take an observational stance, worried about getting ‘yammed’”.

We don’t know how much input Green had into the writing and the direction of the music video. Often in the mainstream industry, artists have very little say on the artwork and videos, so it would be interesting to know Green’s level of involvement in the conceptualisation, writing, directing and editing of the video. As it stands, this video is more akin to Daily Mail propaganda: fear culture injected into the underground music scene.

The theme of de-humanising the Black subjects in the video continues with Green stating:

“London ain’t cool to cruise through where the hunters pray, Looking lunch today, and your chains looking like fresh fruit to a hungry ape.”

Although several other ‘jungle’ animals are used to talk about Black crime in Hackney, using the term “ape” in a video (when the word is mentioned the video cuts to a young Black man’s face at 1:13secs) is massively insensitive. Is it so difficult to understand that this can be construed as deeply offensive and racist?

Presumably some would argue that it’s just a fair representation of reality, where Black people are over-represented in street gangs (an issue that deserves to be dealt with in a serious and considered manner). However:

a) While many gangs might be majority Black, most have white members as well. Given that Professor Green is a white artist making music that has its origins in the Black community, you’d think he would have the cultural sensitivity to paint a more balanced picture. Yes, Professor Green is from the ‘ends’ himself and is perfectly entitled to comment on what life in poor inner-city neighbourhoods is like (indeed this is to be welcomed), but we can’t afford to ignore the issue of race, which still runs deep in the society we live in. As the respected US professor Cornel West points out: “All people with black skin and African phenotype are subject to potential white supremacist abuse.”

b) Any artist trying to communicate a socially relevant idea has a responsibility beyond simply painting a picture of a dystopian reality. In the words of the legendary singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson: “The role of the artist is not simply to show the world as it is, but as it ought to be.” The net result of this video is to promote white supremacist ideas – that’s not helpful.

c) No doubt Sabre and Green would claim to be anti-racist. Hence they need to actively take responsibility for countering racist attitudes. Racism is overwhelmingly concentrated in the white community; therefore white cultural figures such as Green (especially where he’s making a good living off Black music) need to have a clear, unambiguous, public anti-racist policy and to be an example to others.

Hackney has some of the worst levels of working class crime in the country. The reasons for this are many: for example, high levels of unemployment; poor provision of youth services; gentrification; concentration of poverty; neglect from the state; and many more.

Hackney has a large Black population and high levels of crime but our mainstream media does a very good job to portray non-white people in England as untrustworthy, crime-loving, dangerous savages and all this video seems to do is reinforce and glamorise that, which is a great shame as Sabre and especially Green are actually in a position to challenge that.

Also, there are plenty of white people involved in crime in east London, but to someone who relies on the Daily Mail or the Sun for information, this video would simply confirm their prejudices that violent crime is an exclusively Black affair.

Again it promotes ideas that Black people are condemned to a world of Black on Black violence. When in reality, the main problems for Black people are deep-seated racism that affects every aspect of their lives. From being 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police, twice as likely to be unemployed as white people, racism in our schools (which actively deletes Black people’s history in relation to England) which creates racist attitudes in society at large through to the dehumanisation of Black peoples of the Caribbean and Africa.

Instead of just saying ‘this is how it is’, could not have Sabre and Green not done something to show why it is like that? Hackney being the second poorest borough in the country obviously has a lot to do with the fact that for many people being a part of the system is not an option. Surely reinforcing white stereotypes of Black people was not the intention but as Sabre said in a recent interview: “If you’ve got four minutes in someone’s head, in someone’s room, a young person – why say bullshit to them? The most important thing to me is that people can say I really connected to your song, whatever the song may be, and I understand something about myself more or something about society more.”

It also has to be said, for fear of sounding clichéd, most of our youth are humble, intelligent young people who want to do well in life even though they are usually aware and spend nearly every day of their lives countering the many obstacles a racist and exploitative system puts before them.

Our youth need a culture that is not scared to address the negatives, but in a way that uplifts them, inspires and informs them, and gives due credit and direction to the potential and actual power that is in the hands of our youth. We are not “apes”! We are beautiful and intelligent human beings who are fighting for our cultural, moral, social and political freedoms. And for those who are falling victim to the society’s traps, our job is to unite with them positively and bring them into our freedom struggles.

Gig review: Akala at the O2 Islington Academy

Akala

Akala

On Monday night I was lucky enough to attend the London stage of Akala’s current UK tour.

It was my first time seeing Akala do a headline set, and I was definitely not disappointed. Nor, if their shouting, dancing, smiles and applause meant anything, were the two hundred other people crammed into the upstairs arena at the Islington Academy.

Akala’s set was a great representation of his energy, diversity, passion and intelligence. Never one to conform to the norm, he did the whole set with a live drummer (yeah – a really effin’ good one), and a lot of the instrumentals in his set were basically hard rock (those of you familiar with his latest album, Doublethink, will know what I’m talking about!)

However, the fact that the music wasn’t all ‘standard’ hip-hop definitely didn’t stop anyone from shucking out and having a great time – Akala’s ability to get a dancefloor moving is something special. From the very beginning, the entire crowd was fully involved in the show, chanting ‘Wele-wele-wele-wele-wele-wele-weleeee’ along with the first track (the classic ‘Freedom Lasso’). It was inspiring to see people get down to such diverse and intelligent sounds.

Akala played a fair few tracks off ‘Doublethink’, including ‘Psycho’, ‘Find No Enemy’ and ‘XXL’, in addition to treating the crowd to a bunch of classic material, including ‘Roll Wid Us’, ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Bullshit’ (which he introduced by saying: “Now if I were to say that we invaded Iraq because we were genuinely concerned about it attacking us, what would you say?!”).

The tracks were interspersed with Akala sharing his ideas about the state of society and in particular the music industry. Pointing out that this is his fifth fully independent headline UK tour (not bad for a 26-year-old!), he said that it was clearly possible for artists to maintain their independence and not sell out to the corporates.

Akala and DJ Mutiny

Akala and DJ Mutiny


The sad fact is that the corporates are not going to push conscious, intelligent music. Not because people don’t want to hear it, but because the big labels have a vested interest in keeping people stupid. Akala pointed out that the recent ‘Yours and My Children’ release had a phenomenal reception the few times it was played on commercial radio – for example, Mistajam played it and had 100% positive user feedback – and yet it received relatively little airplay on the big radio stations.

Because the radio stations don’t support the music, it doesn’t sell as well as the playlist bullshit that gets cranked out all day, and therefore the music industry can claim that people don’t want to hear what artists like Akala have to offer (“sales figures don’t lie”).

Actually most people would *love* a break from the bullshit that gets pumped into our heads in the name of ‘urban music’. Most of us have had just about as much ‘crack rap’ or ‘sex rap’ as we can handle. A lyrical discourse that glorifies black-on-black violence or a negative attitude towards women frankly does not represent the ideas of the vast majority of people, and yet the music industry insists on pushing the same old tired nonsense. Where is the music industry catering for people who respect the culture and who want to hear artists representing intelligently and positively?

Akala summed his points up nicely with a very moving performance of ‘Find Your Enemy’:

They can keep the charts
All I want is your hearts
Call it black radio – don’t make laugh
So is black music all about tits and arse?

Shouting out Lowkey, Akala told the audience: “We are part of the resistance to the (for want of a better word) bollocks they want us to buy into.” He encouraged the crowd to question the motives of the corporates and the state, and to constantly seek to improve their knowledge: “Whoever told you that being uneducated is cool is trying to oppress you”.

The set ended on a high: we got to hear an exclusive new track, ‘One More Breath’, from the forthcoming live album; then he did an acappella of his F64; then came ‘Find Your Enemy’, and the classic ‘Comedy Tragedy History’ to round it off.

All of the 15-20 people I spoke to after the gig were massively impressed and deeply moved by the set. Akala is one of the great voices of our generation – an uncompromising artist with deep humanity and endless respect for his artform and his audience.

If you get the chance to catch one of the remaining shows of the tour, don’t miss out! So far the tour has seen Akala visit Birmingham, Glasgow, London, Cambridge, Southampton, Tunbridge Wells, Liverpool, Sheffield and Hertfordshire. The remaining gigs are:

  • Oxford on Friday 12 November
  • Winchester on Saturday 13 November
  • Leeds on Monday 15 November
  • Manchester on Tuesday 16 November
  • Bristol on Wednesday 17 November
  • Bournemouth on Thursday 18 November
  • Exeter on Friday 19 November

More info from http://www.tourdates.co.uk/akala

Check out Akala’s F64
Lyrics to Akala’s F64
Buy ‘Doublethink’ on iTunes
Check out ‘Yours and My Children’
Follow Akala on Twitter

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