M.K. Asante, Jr.: Let's Get Free
In between organizing the World Festival of Black Art (or FESMAN), teaching at Morgan State University and countless other activities, Asante found time to speak with me about his latest book: Its Bigger than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip Hop Generation. The book, which centers on social and political issues facing African-Americans today (and where Hip Hop fits into the equation), is written exactly the same way Dr. Asante speakspassionately.
Although he tempers the harsh realities of the modern worldHurricane Katrina, Sean Bell, The Jena Six [click to read]with optimism, M.K. Asante, Jr. knows that the challenges faced by the post-Hip Hop generation are daunting. That's why he preaches, If you've made on observation, you have an obligation. It's a mantra we could all learn from. If we take it to heart, perhaps we'll all have an easier time sleepingM.K. Asante, Jr. included.
HipHopDX:Would it be fair to call your book a Hip Hop book?
M.K. Asante, Jr.: Definitely! I think it would me more than fair. I think it is.
DX: Not to say that it doesnt have anything to do with Hip Hopwhat I mean is, is that your focus in this book?
M.K. Asante, Jr.: Oh, I see what youre saying. This bookI think Hip Hop is its vehicle. And I think the book uses that vehicle to examine some real critical issuessociopolitical things. It examines things that one doesnt usually associate with Hip Hop, but under closer analysis would to examine those political and social issues that affect young people, mostly of color, around the United States, but not only in the United States.
Its not a music book though. I think even a lot of book stores put it in the music section, which is slightly misleading because, like you said, its an examination of those sociopolitical issues that affect young people of color in the post-Hip Hop generation. But, you know, its using Hip Hopthe culture and the musicas a vehicle to do that. So I think its a little bit of both.
DX: Right, because you didnt really sit down and take the Jeff Chang approach and write about the history of Hip Hop and say, these are the four elements, and so on. What did you want to do differently with this book, and how did you go about doing it?
M.K. Asante, Jr.: You know, I love Jeffs book andI thought he did an excellent job. I think theres a lot more to do, even in regards to the history of Hip Hop, but my approach was much different. You know, you mention the four elements, and one of the things I rooted myself in understanding is Afrika Bambaataa, the founder of Hip Hop. [He] talked about five elements of Hip Hop. He also talks about how that fifth element gets neglected and negated in conversations about Hip Hop. But that fifth element is essential! In a lot of ways, my book is an approach rooted in that fifth element. And that fifth element, Afrika Bambaataa calls is knowledge, wisdom and understanding, or building. And that knowledge, wisdom and understanding is connected to the condition of people of color in the U.S. and the issues that we face.
The fifth element is really supposed to inform the other elements. I mean, yeah, you can rap, you can do pretty art, you can dance. But ultimately, it should be rooted in that knowledge, wisdom and understanding. Thats what should be informing what you rap about or the kind of graffiti you write.
DX: What is the post-Hip Hop generation?
M.K. Asante, Jr.: The post-Hip Hop generation is a term Ive used to talk about the generation of young people that are inheriting the world from the Hip Hop generation. Going back to [Franz] Fanon, [who says,] each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it, now we have a new generation inheriting the world from the Hip Hop generation. Its a very important and pivotal moment for young people, and they do have choices. Are they going to continue to maintain the tradition? I think thats very important.
I consider myself a custodian of that culture, and that the post-Hip Hop generation will be custodians and keepers of the tradition. Its also a term that gets the Hip Hop generation to think beyond themselves. So its not just about youits about the youth that are coming up behind you.
DX: Why do you think that Hip Hop is having so much trouble carrying on the tradition into the post-Hip Hop generation?
M.K. Asante, Jr.: Well, I dont know if its having trouble carrying on the tradition. I think the trouble is rooted in the dissemination. One of the things Ive tried to do is not diminish the people, and theres so many of them, who have kept the tradition alive. Even if theyre not on VH1, or MTV, or BET, or Viacom, or Clear Channel or whatevertheres the Hip Hop industry, and then theres the Hip Hop community. The Hip Hop industry is often made up of people who are not members of the Hip Hop community, and their only interest in the Hip Hop community is the bottom line. So its important not to allow those institutions to determine what Hip Hop is. Its the people that determine what Hip Hop is.
Clearly, if we look at the mainstream, we see a gap between the kind of catalyst that Hip Hop emerged from and what it represented in terms of its resistance against oppression that was happening and its cry out against the pathology that was stopping and interrupting so many of the black lives in the cities in the 1970s. But at the same time, there are so many cats that stay true and are really holding it down. I think that in some ways, theres a crisis in dissemination. Theres a crisis in the diversity of what we hear and corporate-controlled medianot just in Hip Hop but with news and everything. Its kind of controlled by a few people who I dont think have the best interest of the people. Thats a general area, but I think there are a lot of people who are keeping the tradition.
I like to think of it like food. I dont eat at McDonalds, because thats not real food to me. I dont go to McDonalds expecting to get real food. So I dont turn on the radio and expect to hear real Hip Hop necessarily. But what I do know is that there are local farmers in the Maryland area, in the Philadelphia area, in the California arealocal farmers and local businesses and local agricultural workers that do have real food. And I like to support them. And we should support local Hip Hop like we support local agricultural workers.
DX: Did this new generation arise out of necessity, or was it a natural evolution?
M.K. Asante, Jr.: I think its a natural evolution. When we talk about generations coming up, its part of the natural evolution that each generation must emerge and define itself. I think its come naturally. I think for some people it may have come from a feeling of misrepresentation of what they were seeing in the mainstream. But again, its important not to let whats happening in the mainstream define whats happening in the culture.
DX: Does post-Hip Hop imply that Hip Hop, or its effectiveness as a medium for generating dialogue about social change, has come to an end?
M.K. Asante, Jr.: No. It definitely doesnt. In my book, one of the things I do is I rely on Hip Hop heavily to convey messages. I use lyrics of people like dead prez, Immortal Technique [click to read], Mos Def and lots of other cats as well, to illustrate these points and show how effective it can be. I think when we talk about post-Hip Hop generation, were not talking post-Hip Hop. Were talking a generation that is inheriting the world from the Hip Hop generation. Were not talking about the end of Hip Hop or the death of Hip Hop or the ineffectiveness of Hip Hop or anything like that. I think its a vehicle and tool, and we must use it. But we must not allow tools to be used against us as weapons.
DX: Theres no genre of music as self-analytical or as self-referencing as Hip Hop. Is this always an asset, or is it sometimes a detriment? Does this need to continue in the post-Hip Hop generation?
M.K. Asante, Jr.: I think its a valuable asset in a lot of ways. Self-analysis is good. Self-referencing, I think we could do a little less of that. One of the concepts I talk about in the book is the recognition of the collective, and the philosophy of Ubuntu specifically, I am because we are. Hip Hop is so rooted in African culture. We look at the word hip, and we see it comes from the Wolof word hipi, which means to open ones eyes and see. This is a West African language. Mix that with hop, and we have enlightened action. It goes on and on as far as the connection and the oral tradition, the rhythm. But one of the things that I think is important is that beyond these things, which are cultural retention, is to try and get back to some of those African concepts as well. And one of those concepts is collectivism rather than individualism.
Paul Robeson says, Dont look at my success and judge where my people are based on me as an individual. Its very dangerous to look at Barack Obama and make a statement about where black people are in America. The masses of black people in Americayou live near Baltimore, right?
M.K. Asante, Jr.: Nuff said. Thats the reality. So I think its important, in terms of the self-referencing, to be more collective and understand that if Im not free, youre not free, and that your freedom is connected to mine. And that we really are in this thing together; we have to share and breathe the same air. I dont see a lot of that. I think we could do a little less self-referencing and focus a little more on the collective.
But I think the self-analysis is excellent. It reveals the humanity and struggles in all of us. Thats one of the things I love about Tupac. This is somebody whoeverybody in the world can identify with those internal and external struggles he dealt with. It all goes back to Nkosi Johnson.Said the little boy, We are all the same. The best of us, the worst of us. We represent all of that. To be able to see thatthats progress. We embody all of that; the best of us, the worst of us. We are able to acknowledge out faults, but try to move forward.
DX: I thought it was interesting that you reference Tupac several times. It seems that he was an example of the best in terms of his message, but also the worst at some points. Why did you focus solely on his good side? Dont you have to acknowledge that he flipped the script and did a 180, negatively influencing a lot of youth and Hip Hop artists?
M.K. Asante, Jr.: That negativity you talk about is part of the reason I chose to focus on the other part. Sometimes you find that theres a lack of balance in terms of how someone is represented, and I thought it was really important. For me, Pac is a real personin so many ways. I dig him for that conflict. It was an internal thing and an external thing. When I look at someone like that, I see all of us. Whether or not our struggles were as public as his, ultimately I think we all struggle with positive and negative forces, [which] I think he did in a very dramatic and painful way.
A lot of the enormous positive contributions that Pac made, I felt, was being missed by a lot of people. And also, to contextualize his life in terms of, who was this person? We sometimes hear the name Afeni Shakur, but we rarely hear the name Assata Shakur as being related to Pac. Even rarer do we hear the name Mutulu Shakur. [Tupac's] stepfather was a revolutionary and political prisoner who is still in jail. Rarely do you hear the name Mumia Abu Jamal [click to read] when we talk about Pac, and this is another one of his teachers. So I wanted to kind of introduce these ideasnot just to the 18 to 22-year-olds in my classbut the young people all around the country who just dont know this stuff. I wanted to contextualize Tupac. Whenever we tell a story, we choose to focus on certain things, and maybe not focus on other things. I think the other things are out there for people to see quite easily, but this story wasnt quite as easy to see.
DX: In Its Bigger than Hip Hop, you tackle institutionalized racism, poverty, the war on drugs, black on black violence, and much more. Does Hip Hop serve as a catalyst or facilitator to these problems?
M.K. Asante, Jr.: I dont think Hip Hop is responsible for any of these things, but it exacerbates an already very serious problem. The decisions that we make are all rooted in culture. We make certain decisions about what were going to do with our lives, with our day, with our morning, with our evening. Hip Hop is culture. Music is culture. When you are listening to shit about sellin drugs, robbin people and killin brothers all daythings that are happening alreadyits not productive. Its not healthy.
Think about it. As soon as you hear the beat, before you even hear the lyrics, what do you do? You nod your head. That nodding of your headthats affirmation! If Im talking to you and I say something you agree with, you nod your head. You hear the beat, you already start nodding your head, youre already affirming whatever [is about to come on]. So I think [Hip Hop] can work against us. Art is a weapon. If you dont know how to use it, it will be used against you.
DX: You kinda got me with the head nod. I never thought about that.
M.K. Asante, Jr.: Yes, man! Thats the affirmative right there. In every culture, if you nod your head, you are saying, Yes, Im agreeing. I feel it, I dig it, I cosign. Thats what we do, and I do it too. Turn on something with a dope beat, I cant help it! Thats part of the power and the danger.
DX: What about Hip Hops role as a tool to generate apathy towards things like Sean Bell and the Jena Six? Thats a completely different animal.
M.K. Asante, Jr.: This is how I like to think about it: all art is political, in my view. Everything. If dead prez makes a song called Fuck the Police, obviously thats political. But if someone makes a song that says, All I do is get money and fuck bitches, thats political too. One is political, the dead prez statement, because its a challenge to the status quo. The other one, thats political as well. But what its doing is reinforcing the status quo. For example, if you ask George Bush, hell tell you the same thing! Get money! Fuck everyone else! That is the status quo. But when people make art that reinforces it, a lot of times its not seen as political. What youre talking about, creating apathy, thats what it does. You are creating an environment for apathy.
DX: So youre saying theres no such thing as an apolitical action?
M.K. Asante, Jr.: Not as long as theres oppression going on. If Im walking down the street and, God forbid, somebody is whoopin your ass, I look at the situation, and I have a couple different choices I could make. Number one, I could get directly involved and assist you and defend you against this person who is unfairly hurting you. Thats one option. But I have another option. I could decide to be apolitical. I could say, Look, this doesnt have anything to do with me. I dont even know this person. Im going to be neutral in this matter, and Im not going to do anything about itIm just going to walk away.
See, what Ive just done in that situation is not be neutral. I have not been apolitical. What Ive just done is support the person who is whoopin your ass. I have supported the oppressor. So when we talk about oppression, you are either supporting this oppression, or resisting. Silence only helps the oppressor. It enables the oppressor.
DX: Id like to discuss two key issues you bring up, lack of ownership and what you call the prison of image. Could you elaborate on the effects of these on black America and Hip Hop? Are they intrinsically tied together or can they be separated from one another?
M.K. Asante, Jr.: The lack of ownershipthis is something that has plagued us from the first day black music was recorded. I think that the critical point with the ownership is that its hard to control something when you dont own it. We dont own a distribution method. We dont own the way Hip Hop is disseminated. Weve become dependent, in a lot of ways, on institutions that arent connected to the Hip Hop community to do things that might be against their financial interestswhich theyre not going to do. Thats not how they operate. They operate on the bottom line.
Were in that situation because were not having the level of ownership that we need to in terms of our own culture. And thats not just Hip Hop. What if someone told you that all of the chopsticks and fortune cookies were owned by Norwegians? That the whole Chinese food industry was being run by Norwegians? You would think that it was a little strange. In our situation, so much of black art and cultural production has been outside of our community. Its been outside of our hands, which takes power away from our community, because we dont even own it. In regards to the post-Hip Hop generation, I guess the message is, learn from your mistakes, but learn from other peoples mistakes as well. History is best prepared to reward us if we do our research. And what we can learn is that we must own whatever we create.
With regards to the prison of image, we talk about how the real image of black, which often times isnt real at all, it can trap us. Were doing things outside of nature, things outside of our character. Were letting people define who we are, rather than come to that on our own. Were allowing other folks to make those definitions. Thats something again thats rooted in history. When we talk about the history of black entertainment, whether it be music or film, this has been the story. The first music that was successful in this country on a national level was the minstrel music, which was often done by white people in blackface. The first blockbuster was D. W. Griffiths The Birth of a Nation, which coined the term blockbuster, because the line was so damn long!
All of these things are based on misrepresentation. Youve got people feeling like this is who they are. This kind of evolves and continues, and we see it today. Later on, they put black people in blackface. Who wrote the script? Whos funding it? Whos making money off of it? Whos benefiting from the degradation of humanity? The degradation of ones character? Who profits, who makes the money, and who loses? Those are the things I try to address in the book.
DX: In your dissection of the various issues that plague African Americans, there is a definite though unstated connection to Hip Hop. You discuss the importance of never simply accepting everything youre taught in school as factto go out and be self-educated, not just educated. Isnt this directly applicable to those who look to mass mediamagazines, MTV, BETto define what Hip Hop is and what isnt?
M.K. Asante, Jr.: I think its completely, totally, one hundred percent applicable. Its really a philosophy for life. I think people should challenge everything, whether it be Hip Hop or TVeverything. Without challenging, theres no progress, theres no learning. Even if you come to accept something after youve challenged it, youve learned why you should accept it because you challenged it. And youve done the work. Just accepting things, thats how you become a slave. You have to resist. Not only is that applicable to Hip Hopthat is Hip Hop! When Kurtis Blow said he was attracted to Hip Hop for the same reason he was attracted to Malcom X, thats what it is: the spirit of resistance.
Its time to bring in alternative media and people-sponsored media, rather than just corporate-sponsored media. Thats how Hip Hop grew, evolved and thrivedbased on people, not the corporations. They werent in the parks in New York in the 1974. They werent in the Favelas in 2000. We need to rely less on corporate media.
DX: How has your work teaching the youth in Baltimore affected or established your views on Hip Hop and the post-Hip Hop generations?
M.K. Asante, Jr.: Its central to those views in so many ways. Teaching at Morgan, which is a historically black school, most students there are from Baltimore, Philadelphia or D.C. We have a lot of shared experiences and commonalities. It keeps me abreast of what theyre thinking about, and what their concerns are, and what their issues are. Its important to always be connected to people who are in different stages in their development. Its important to me.
Theres a Chinese proverb, Study the hole when youve carved the peg. That means dont just be coming up with answers and solutions and theories based on thin air. You should be basing those solutions and ideas on the problems. Its Bigger than Hip Hop was a response to what they needed in order to further their development.
DX: You contend in your book that Hip Hop is a weapon of the people. When all is said and done, has it been turned on them?
M.K. Asante, Jr.: I dont see it as solely [one or the other]. I think in some instances, were doing well. In others, it has been distorted and hijacked. There are different battles to be thought. In some ways it has been co-opted, and in other ways it hasnt. Theres a great speech that Toni Morrison gave when she won the Nobel Prize. She talked about a blind woman. Some children walk up to the blind woman with a bird in their hands, and they ask this blind woman Is this bird dead or alive? And the blind woman says, I dont know, but its in your hands.
Thats how Hip Hop is. Whether or not its been used against us, thats not important. Whats important is recognizing our power. Its in our hands.