In November 1981, when the Rolling Stones were touring in support of their enormously successful Tattoo You album (best known for “Start Me Up” and “Waiting on a Friend”), bassist Bill Wyman talked to Rolling Stone magazine about the band’s desire to play small clubs in the midst of its worldwide stadium-rock orgy: “When we…
“We wouldn’t ask why a rose that grew from the concrete for having damaged petals; in turn, we would all celebrate its tenacity, we would all love its will to reach the sun, well, we are the roses, this is the concrete and these are my damaged petals, don’t ask me why, thank God, and ask me how.”
Jasiri-X never planned on becoming an activist. The better ones never do.
I recently had an opportunity to speak with one of the hardest-working MCs in the genre today, Jasiri X, after his participation on a panel at the recent Netroots Nation conference in San Jose, CA. The panel, titled “Artists For Justice: How Artists Are Transforming The Narrative On Immigration And Equality,” included Jasiri alongside artist Favianna Rodriguez, the renowned immigration rights activist, and Deyden Tethong of Air Traffic Control, a social justice leadership organization, where they discussed the importance of intersecting art and activism.
Through word and deed, Jasiri-X is shaping hearts and minds all over the country, but like with every successful artist, it took a while to not only get there, but to figure out exactly where ‘there’ was. Raised in what he called a “pro-black” family, the young Jasiri – his birth name, a Swahili word meaning “fearless” – grew up with heroes like Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois for inspiration, but the idealistic principles of those great thinkers soon began to starkly contrast with the reality of growing up in a single-parent household in Pittsburgh, PA. That contrast has always lent a thoughtful quality to his work, one that stands him apart from others and is more keenly felt now that ever before. When looking back on his early days, Jasiri noted that he “always had a sense of injustice, but I saw myself, y’know, like any other rapper . . . I wanted to be this big star, live that rap lifestyle.” But everything changed when Harry Belafonte, the internationally renowned singer and civil rights activist, reached out to the young Jasiri in 2005 for the first Gathering Of Justice in Atlanta, GA.
Since its inception, the aim of the Gathering For Justice has always been to promote and develop young leadership in communities of color across the nation, with a focus on connecting yesterday’s leaders to tomorrow’s heroes. “The first thing [Belafonte] did was acknowledge that their generation really dropped the ball in terms of passing on the information to us about the Civil Rights Movement,” Jasiri claims, and in efforts to shrink this knowledge gap the Gathering Of Justice put him and other young aspiring black leaders in a room with a powerful cross-section of civil rights activists and thinkers of the sixties and seventies. Their influence was undeniable, and Jasiri’s talent, charisma, and work ethic made him a natural for the job of hip-hop ambassador to the political realm. Soon after, his life became a whirlwind of activity in both music and politics, with the latter often taking a back seat to the former.
Between the Millions More Movement’s march on Washington, the National Hip Hop Convention of 2006, and the founding of 1Hood Media Academy back home in Pittsburg, Jasiri had all but stopped rapping completely. But like it is for all true artists, the temptations of the muse are irresistible. The time spent in the trenches of the progressive movement had lent a new, more steely voice to the young rapper, who was now penning explicitly political rhymes across a variety of social justice issues, particularly those involving people of color. A hit single and strong debut album soon followed, garnering several awards and widespread critical acclaim, including a fellowship at the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture. He’s managed to carve out a niche for himself since then, entertaining, educating, and inspiring people across the country, whether it’s at the club, or the caucus.
As an independent artist, it’s tougher than ever to make a living in the digital age. But according to Jasiri, there’s no better place to be. “If you’re signed to major label, in a sense, you have a boss.” he said. “If I want to put an album out tomorrow, or a song out or a video out, I can do that. There’s nobody telling me yes or no.” Jasiri has found a different perspective of success through his activism work, bringing a pragmatism to his efforts that ultimately lends itself to deeper fulfillment than money can easily provide. “I pay my bills through hip-hop. I literally wake up in the morning and do what I want to do. To me, there’s no greater feeling than that.” No greater feeling, indeed.
A big part of what Jasiri wants to do is challenge young, up-and-coming artists to redefine their own visions of success, and provide them a space where they can put their visions to the test. 1Hood Media Academy is a source of great pride for Jasiri, and it shows. “When we developed the media academy, I kinda had this thing like, ‘I’m gonna drop all this knowledge on these young people, I’m gonna school these young people!’ But we realized very quickly that they are so much more aware with what was going on in their own environment, and also in the world.” Now 1Hood focuses on providing their students with the tools they need to develop their own media space, and then just stepping out of their way. 1Hood’s most recent endeavor involved issuing iPads to the students for use in a mixtape/DVD project documenting their experiences at the academy, the footage of which will used by the academy to create a promo feature about the school. With powerful, easy-to-use learning and production tools, students have greater flexibility than ever before to learn and grow, and explore possibilities previously unimagined.
“The idea that you walk into a classroom in 2013 and the teacher’s using an overhead projector, that’s insane,” Jasiri commented, and he’s right. More and more schools are substituting textbooks for tablets, as the availability and variety of online resources continues to improve. Tragically, communities of color are often last on list to receive these things, so connecting the youth of those communities with technology is a critical component in helping them generate more positive images of themselves and their peers, the other half of the 1Hood’s agenda.
Jasiri-X is at the forefront of a new movement in hip-hop, one that is resourceful, innovative, and fiercely independent, hearkening back to the genre’s roots in ways that are as surprising as they are refreshing. This new generation of artists is actively shunning the gatekeepers of the music industry, and instead focusing on using the powerful tools they find themselves in possession to carve out their own niche. By doing so, they are slowly pulling the genre out of the consumerist mire it has been stuck in for years, and shattering people’s conceptions of what hip-hop culture looks and sounds like.
To quote Dr. Greg Carr, Chair of the African-American Studies Department at Howard University, mainstream hip-hop artists have historically been marketed as “culture hero[s] to a generation of consumers who have been socialized to conflate materialism with social change.” But there have always been cultural anti-heroes in hip-hop, those that would use the medium to speak truth to power. From Public Enemy to Mos Def, from The Beastie Boys to Arrested Development, hip-hop activists have always been out there, striving for change, hustling justice in any and every way they can. Thanks to the work of rappers like Jasiri-X, we can rest assured that there will be a steady supply of hip-hop anti-heroes for generations to come.
Pausing between songs at his intimate, mostly acoustic November 6 show at SPACE in Evanston, Illinois, New York singer/songwriter Garland Jeffreys quipped, “So, we’re on this little tour … I call it ‘The Rest of My Life Tour’ ….” At 72 and still bringing down the house, you can’t begrudge him the hint of road-weariness…
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