KGOU

Rapper Jasiri X Aims To Change Minds One Rhyme At A Time

Aug 29, 2016

 

Singer-songwriter and activist Nina Simone once said, “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times.” Hip-hop artist and activist Jasiri X tries to keep Simone’s imperative at the core of what he does and has adopted the guidance as part of his artistic statement.

“Hip-hop really helped me to find my own identity,” Jasiri X says. “And so, when I started writing music I always wanted it to be something that had some type of meaning, and not just me writing raps to write raps.”

 

Jasiri developed that identity after moving from Chicago to Pittsburgh while he was in school.

 

“I was in a neighborhood in Chicago that because of the type of neighborhood that it was and the violence that was happening, my mother actually wanted to move me and sister too, so we actually moved to a suburb in Pittsburgh called Monroeville,” Jasiri says. “I literally went from an environment that was 100 percent black to 95 percent white. And I was like the first time I really experienced in-your-face racism.”

 

Jasiri is an outspoken proponent of politically and socially conscious hip-hop who founded the organization One Hood Media and works with organizations such as the Urban League and the Gathering for Justice. He highlights issues like economic development disparities , violence and minority representation in the media.

 

“We started [One Hood Media] up ten years ago in 2006, when Pennsylvania actually led the nation in what they call quote-unquote black-on-black violence. I don’t like to use that term because I feel like it’s a politically loaded term. People commit crime where they live,” Jasiri says. “But when it came to community violence, we led the country, and so we started using hip-hop to kind of bring our communities together to increase the peace in the streets.”

 

Earlier this year, Jasiri X received an honorary doctorate from the Chicago Theological Seminary for his work. By fusing together his passions for music and social justice causes, he hopes to lead a new generation and and leave a lasting mark on hip-hop, and as he puts it, free minds one rhyme at a time.

 

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Interview Highlights

 

How Jasiri X Began Combining Music and Activism

 

After I realized that I couldn’t fight everybody [in school] and get suspended, that’s kind of what made me become an activist being in this school. And so we started a black club and we got the school to start a black history class. And this is kind of one of the reasons I talk about race a lot in my music because I experienced the pain of dealing with racism, like, in my face firsthand. So, that was like the Pittsburgh that I experienced first, was like this is a very racist place. And if you want to see it better, you have to be actively involved in doing something about it.

 

Why Artistic Expression Is Important For Self-Confidence

 

Hip-hop helped me to keep my identity, it gave me a sense of power. It gave me a voice, like I can rap. I can say what’s on my mind. I can get on the microphone and at that point you have to listen to me. And I can tell you how I feel and so, hip hop music and writing music was very therapeutic for me and helpful to me. And so to give other young people that opportunity to say, “You know what? Your voice matters, your story matters.” Whether it's you writing, blogging. Whether it's you creating videos, whether it's you doing music or production, like, your creativity in what you do matters. And so, for me it was also [that] I grew up in a single parent household and so I also struggled early in my life because I didn't really have a male role model that I could interact with. So I think another part of it was also trying to provide mentorship to younger men who might not have a male role model in their lives that they can interact with.

 

On The Goal Of One Hood Media

 

We focus at One Hood Media around media representation because it conditions people to see black people in a certain way. If the only time is if you don't live around black people, you might not know black people. But the only time you see us on the TV or in the newspaper, on the radio is criminals and thugs and then when you see me, you might clutch your purse. You might become scared because you've been conditioned to see me in only one way or through only one lens. I think this is where the media narratives become so dangerous. So, you see a young black man in a hoodie, and automatically it's like, "Oh, he must me doing some type of crime because young black men dress in a certain way as criminals. That's the only lens I see them through." So I think that's why it's important for us to have the ability and the power to tell our own stories and change those media narratives because I feel like it can condition somebody to see black people, brown people, anybody that's classified as “other” you're seeing through that lens that you become conditioned in.

 

FULL TRANSCRIPT

 

MERLEYN BELL, HOST: Let’s get started by talking a little bit about your upbringing in Pittsburgh. Can you tell us about growing up there and how the city has changed since you were a kid?

 

JASIRI X: Well, more so, I guess my upbringing started in Chicago, Illinois. My experience with Pittsburgh was really very, very different because I was coming from an experience on the southside of Chicago where my school was one hundred percent black. And so, I was in a neighborhood in Chicago that because of the type of neighborhood that it was and the violence that was happening, my mother actually wanted to move me and sister to, so we actually moved to a suburb in Pittsburgh called Monroeville. And so I literally went from an environment that was one hundred percent black to ninety-five percent white. And I was like the first time I really experienced in-your-face racism. And kind of realized like, “Oh. This is what my mom was talking about.” You know when she was talking about Martin Luther King and Malcom X and all these people and, after I realized that I couldn’t fight everybody and get suspended, that’s kind of what made me become an activist, you know, being in this school. And so we started a black club and we got the school to start a black history class. And this is kind of one of the reasons I talk about race a lot in my music because I experienced the pain of dealing with racism, like, in my face firsthand. So, that was like the Pittsburgh that I experienced first, was like this is a very racist place. And if you want to see it better, you have to be actively involved in doing something about it.

 

I think that, you know, right now Pittsburgh is really going through this economic revival, but the sad part is it’s really only affecting one community. Pittsburgh was called America’s most livable city by Forbes magazine a few years ago and in that same year was called the most livable city in America, according to the United States census, we had the poorest inner city black community in the country. Poorer than Detroit, poorer than Cleveland. We began to ask the question, “Who was it most livable for?” And so a lot of the economic development revival that’s happening in Pittsburgh unfortunately is not trickling down to the poor, predominantly black community in Pittsburgh.

 

BELL: What ways could people in Pittsburgh work to make that happen for everyone so that not only is it livable for whites but also for blacks and other minorities as well?

 

JASIRI: Well I mean, this is one of the reasons that we started the organization One Hood Media in Pittsburgh, because what we saw, and you know, and we started this up ten years ago in 2006, when Pennsylvania actually led the nation in what they call quote-unquote black-on-black violence. I don’t like to use that term because I feel like it’s a politically loaded term, people commit crime where they live. Bu when it came to community violence, we led the country, and so we started using hip-hop to kind of bring our communities together to increase the peace in the streets. A couple of years later the Hines Endowment of Pew Center actually did a study of how the media in Pittsburgh portrays black men. What they found in ninety percent of the time its crime. If you add sports, it’s almost a hundred percent crime and sports. And when it came to quality of life stories about black men, it was less than two percent. And so this is when we started the One Hood Media Academy and began teaching young people of color how to analyze media, create media ourselves and tell our own stories. And so, to me I think it’s really beginning to look at Pittsburgh, the city as a whole, not like different communities or different places. What we’re experiencing right now in Pittsburgh, is like before you make any changes or improvements first thing you do is like, move out the majority of black people, you know. Then it’s like a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe’s and you know what I’m saying? As if we don’t like good food, you know, nice restaurants and nice things or like we can’t handle those things, you know, in a predominantly black community. To me, I think it’s like when you come in and you want to develop a community and you want to make these changes really looking at the city as a whole and not just like it benefiting a select few.

 

BELL: So when did you start as a hip-hop artist yourself?

 

JASIRI: Really, right around that same time, actually a couple of years after that my best friend at the time when I was around sixteen got some turntables for Christmas and he basically said “Okay, I’m going to be the DJ, you be the rapper.” And so I wrote a rap that was terrible, but you know along the way people just encouraged me to keep writing and you know, I kind of found my voice, and hip-hop for me was special in terms of, when I went to this environment – this predominantly white environment – I feel like hip-hop, the music was able to help me keep myself. And not try to be something other than what I really was, you know what I’m saying? Hip-hop really helped me to find my own identity. And so, when I started writing music I always wanted it to be something that had some type of meaning, and not just me writing raps to write raps.

 

BELL: Hearing what you’ve talked to us about already, it seems apparent to me that because you moved to Pittsburgh at a pivotal time in your youth that you’re trying to sort of address these issues with children at a much younger age, and I wonder how you feel like you may have been affected if had an organization like One Hood existed when you were a kid in Pittsburgh.

 

JASIRI: Probably not. I think that, like I said, for me hip-hop helped me to keep my identity, it gave me a sense of power. It gave me a voice, like I can, you know, rap I can say, you know, what’s on my mind. I can get on the microphone and at that point you have to listen to me. And I can tell you how I feel and so, you know, hip hop music and writing music was very therapeutic for me and helpful to me. And so to give other young people that opportunity to say, “You know what? Your voice matters, your story matters.” Whether it's you writing, blogging. Whether it's you creating videos, whether it's you doing music or production, like, your creativity in what you do matters, you know what I'm saying? And so, for me it was also I think too you know I grew up in a single parent household and so I also I struggled early in my life because I didn't really have a male role model that I could interact with. So I think another part of it was also trying to provide mentorship to younger men who might not have you know a male role model in their lives that they can interact with.

 

BELL: Let's talk about your work specifically because I've been listening to a lot of your tracks online and I'm especially curious about your song "The Babies."

 

JASIRI: It was inspired by a conversation with the organization called The Perception Institute. And they were working on this project where they were talking about wanting to change the perception of black men by 2020. And initially I was kind of going to write an essay, but you know it was kind of like, "Can I do a song?" And so that's kind of how I stepped into it. And I read an article in the New York Times that talked about the 1.5 million missing black men, and I thought that was really deep and then I started to think like, "What effect does that have on our children growing up? What effect does our children seeing like Aiyana Jones getting shot down by the police at seven years old or Tamir Rice getting shot down by the police at thirteen have on their classmates or their peers? And then not getting any justice in this case. Like, as our babies are watching this violence that's happening around them, what effect does it have on them? And do they have outlets in order to express how they feel? And that's how I kind of stepped into that song to really ask the question are we considering how all of these things have an effect on our children and on our babies, you know, and I think it's really interesting how we have these schools a lot of times with these zero tolerance policies when it comes to violence, but yet, we seem to only want to solve our problems through violence in America. And so I just felt like it's very hypocritical to tell a child that there's zero tolerance and if you do any type of violence, we're going to remove you from this society, but then okay, go join the army, or you know, if we feel any type of threat as a country, we're bombing, you know what I'm saying? Police come on the scene in a very violent way, often times the movies and people that we look up to are very violent characters. I just was also calling out the hypocrisy that I see in American society particularly when it comes to children.

 

BELL: Jasiri, to me, this song speaks to a lot of different systemic racial problems. You’re talking about income disparity, about policing and mass incarceration, about misrepresentation in the media. I wonder which one of these problems you feel is the most pressing right now?

 

JASIRI: Wow. I think that's hard. All of them are very pressing. I think… We focus at One Hood Media around media representation because it conditions people to see black people in a certain way. If the only time is if you don't live around black people, you might not know black people. But the only time you see us on the TV or in the newspaper, on the radio is criminals and thugs and then when you see me, you might clutch your purse, you might become scared because you've been conditioned to see me in only one way or through only one lens. I think this is where the media narratives become so dangerous. So, you see a young black man in a hoodie, and automatically it's like, "Oh, he must me doing some type of crime because I've been - young black men dress in a certain way as criminals. That's the only lens I see them through." So I think that's why it's important for us to have the ability and the power to tell our own stories and change those media narratives because I feel like it can condition somebody to see black people, brown people, anybody that's classified as 'other' you're seeing through that lens that you become conditioned in.

 

BELL: Do you have any specific ways in which you recommend to people that they work to change those narratives?

 

JASIRI: I think the first thing is to diversify the media. You know, I do a workshop called America's Most Wanted in Media and Mass Incarceration and I start off with the CEOs of the major labels that distribute hip-hop and they're all old white men. And I asked the crowd I said, "What are the similarities the CEO of Universal Music Group, and Warner-Atlantic, and Sony? What do they have in common?" They're all old white men. Then when you go to GE, or whether it's Viacom, all of these media producers - at the top, it's all white men. So, you get a basically very stereotypical representation. I think to me, that's why social media has become so important because it's given a voice to people that never had the mic. Now you get on social media and you can create your own – it’s like we can respond to what's happening right now. I can turn my phone, and record a rant, and put it on Facebook and YouTube and millions of people can begin to share it and watch it, and I can begin to provide that alternative narrative. So, I mean, in the media lens where the media becomes an increasingly - what used to be all these different media companies, now it's only a few. And they have control of that mainstream narrative and primarily when you look at who's making the decisions, its white men that's making the decisions then of course people are getting stereotyped. So either diversify that news or we'll begin to create our own media and that's what I think you see people doing, whether it's One Hood Media or other organizations that are doing it or people that are going on social media, I mean, look at - you had a young woman named April who goes on Twitter and begins to talk about the lack of diversity in the Oscars and creates a hashtag called #OscarsSoWhite that becomes so popular that the Oscars actually begin to make changes. That they actually had to address the lack of diversity at the Oscars because of what somebody on Twitter began to do. These are the avenues I believe we can take to get our own story out. And that's what we try to teach our young people at One Hood Media.

 

BELL: Jasiri, who is your target audience?

 

JASIRI: I think as an artist, often times I'm trying to speak to young people of color and oppressed people. That's kind of normally who I'm talking to. People who are activists or organizing to try to change the world and make the world a better place. There are some people who are intent to see America through a certain lens or want to take America back to a certain time where America was supposedly great, but of course, in that time, it wasn't great for people of color, it wasn't great for women, it wasn't great for other groups. My target audience often times is people who are trying to improve the world and make the world a more equitable place, a better place, a place where all of us can prosper.

 

BELL: Do you see your music as a means of catharsis for people or a call to action for systemic and social change or both?

 

JASIRI: I will say both. I think in some ways - it's definitely cathartic for me. A lot of times, I'm angry at what I see happening. When I see a young person of color unjustly killed by the police, I'm angry. For me, writing a song or telling that story helps me get it out without doing something that would be destructive to my own self. Hopefully, people sharing that or listening, it can be cathartic, but I also - often times I write in a way where I want to make you think. I want to create discussion. I wanna make you listen to this story and feel like, "I got to do something. I gotta change this." So, I'll say things that'll be provocative in an attempt to get you to move to really act and do something. To improve the conditions in which we now live.

 

BELL: Once you take people to that place, what kind of action steps can they take so that they become a part of the movement and join that fight for social justice and change with you?

 

JASIRI: I think sometimes on some level it's simple. I know when I did the song for Travon, we had a petition in the video that was a collaboration with myself and an organization, Color of Change. And it was like "Okay, once you watch this video, you can click this petition." And at that time, the call was for George Zimmerman to be arrested. I've always encouraged people to get involved in two ways. One, I always ask people, “What are you passionate about?” Because I feel like if your activism comes through your passion then it will be natural and it will be something that you want to do and it won't be forced. If your passion is media, then your activism should come through that. If your passion is music, your activism should come through that. If it's visual art or if it's accounting or being a lawyer, I feel like your activism should come through that. I think also people should become active where they live. Sometimes things will happen. I've been to Ferguson, I went to Baltimore. I went to these different places when they became the epicenter for activism and a fight for justice at that time. But I live in Pittsburgh. And so, I have to do something where I live. I'm blessed to travel all over the country to do what I love to do. But I come back to a city that has the poorest black community in the country. So I feel like I have a responsibility where I live to begin to do something to develop or inspire or give people the opportunities that I find myself having. And those are the two things that I would encourage people to do, like activism in the community that you live in.

 

BELL: In Pittsburgh, in your community, I know you talked about One Hood Media and the work you're doing with the youth. What other specific things can you tell us about that you're working on now in your city?

 

JASIRI: It's interesting. Well actually, I'm scoring a movie called Body and Soul which came out in 1925 and was Paul Robeson's first film, and so, I wrote ten original songs that are like the soundtrack to this Paul Robeson 1925 silent film. It's definitely a unique mash-up between old and new music. That's the next piece I'm working on in Pittsburgh. I also work with an organization called Being Me in Pittsburgh. They basically gave fellowships to particularly, specifically black men in the community doing grassroots efforts, ad so we have that happening. We have our One Hood day celebration which is coming up. We did it last year where we went to park and just kinda set up a stage and music in the park and we fed the community and we had a socially conscious hip-hop show, because we’re always… We stay busy.

 

BELL: I know that you were recently in Chicago to receive an honorary doctorate from the Chicago Theological Seminary. And I wonder if you could briefly tell us about that experience because you are a native born son of Chicago.

 

JASIRI: I wasn't expecting anybody to give me a doctorate, let alone the Chicago Theological Seminary. But at the same time, they're a very progressive organization. My interaction with the Chicago Theological Seminary, I performed at one of their conferences and when I was there, it was right when Baltimore was exploding over the death of Freddy Gray. So I'm in a chapel and I kind of said I wasn't going to censor myself because of the environment that I was in because I felt like because of what was happening right now, that I needed to say these lyrics how I wrote them. And I needed to express the pain and anger and the hurt that was very real that was happening at that time. And in doing so and kind of having a conversation about that and why I wrote this music, they really connected with me in a very real way. When I went to Saint Louis and got arrested, it was with several pastors and rabbis and imams that came together to protest what was happening in St. Louis and Ferguson. And many of those are kind of connected to the Chicago Theological Seminary. I'm definitely honored by it. I was a little nervous to do the commencement speech because I didn't want to mess up anybody's graduation. But it went well, and it's definitely an honor. But for me, any time I get something like that, I feel like I have to now work harder. It’s like "Okay, you're giving me this honorary doctorate now I have to earn it." If I'm getting a doctorate from a place where Dr. Martin Luther King studied, and now I have a responsibility to live up to this title I was given.