The Global African: Not a Rapper & Black-Palestinian Solidarity

Story Transcript

BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll talk to D.C.-based artist Bomani Armah, and we’ll also look at African American-Palestinian solidarity. That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us. We’ll be right back.

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FLETCHER: Hip hop as an art form can be used to teach activism and science, creative writing skills and math. Some say it’s the language of our youth.

Producer and poet Bomani Armah skillfully uses hip hop to teach young people the power of perspective and the importance of telling their own stories.

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BOMANI ARMAH: My name is Bomani Armah. I am not a rapper. I am a poet with a hip hop style.

UNIDENTIFIED: Bomani, you say that you’re a poet with a hip hop influence,–

ARMAH: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED: –but not a rapper. Can you explain the distinction?

ARMAH: Sure. So, I mean, I track my art form past hip hop. I love hip hop. You know what I’m saying? I grew up in it. But I track my art form past that. I connect myself to Langston Hughes. I connect myself to Shakespeare. You know what I’m saying? I can do a poetry reading. I can do it with a deejay. I can do it a cappella. But it’s about understanding and respecting the art form and using the words. And I love rappers. You know what I’m saying? Rappers are some of my favorite artists. But now when I would go in and teach young people and I would tell them I’m a rapper, they’re like, yo, where’s your chain? Where’s your car? And I’m like, oh, I’m not that kind of rapper. I’m a poet with a hip hop style. So it all kind of came together. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED: That makes sense.

ARMAH: Yeah.

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ARMAH: In hip hop you talk with your hands and your voice. One, two, three. [incompr.] You’re, like, right in front. Alright. Let’s try this. One, two, three. [incompr.]

VOICEOVER: For many, the sum of hip hop today is what we see in popular culture: gold chains and fast cars. But there are artists like Bomani Armah who represent the hip hop community every day, teaching young people how to write, rocking stages at night, and producing albums for other artists. Bomani is a modern-day renaissance man, believing in music’s intrinsic spiritual power to move people with clever lyrics and strong beats. He gained national attention with his song “Read A Book”,–

Read a book, read a book, read a mother– book

–encouraging young people to read, while also teaching [incompr.] the importance of satire by examining how hip hop culture shows up in mainstream media. The sum of his work shows us that he is in fact an artist who embodies the power and style of hip hop, the social responsibility of teacher, and the wisdom and observation of poet.

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FLETCHER: We’re joined for this segment with Bomani Armah, who is a Washington, D.C., based self-identified poet with a hip hop style, who’s also known for a 2007 single “Read A Book”. He is a teaching artist, a producer, and homeschools his twin sons Olu [spl?] and Dela [spl?].

Welcome to The Global African.

ARMAH: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

FLETCHER: You don’t like to be or don’t want to be identified as a rapper.

ARMAH: Well, yeah. So, I mean, that began because I started doing spoken word poetry before I started doing hip hop. But I was always doing my poetry to a rhyme, but not on beat. And so I started doing that just as an homage, I guess, to rappers, didn’t think I’m not trying to do the same thing. But then I started really getting serious about hip hop. But the students I would teach, I would come into class and they’d be like, where’s your gold chain? Where’s your car? So I’m like, well, I’m not a rapper. You know what I’m saying? It started meaning that a little bit.

ARMAH: I think it’s the duty of the poet, especially in the tradition of black poets, to shed light on the community that you’re in and to give a vision of the community that you want. I mean, like, once again, Langston Hughes is one of the biggest examples of that.

FLETCHER: When you mentioned Langston Hughes, so my great-grandfather was a major pre-Harlem Renaissance poet, author. His name was William Stanley Braithwaite. And I’ve read a number of his poems, and there’s a complete contrast between his more generally socially progressive commitment and his poetry. It’s not reflected in much of his poetry. His poetry is almost 19th century British in some ways. Hughes, on the other hand, very much integrated his critique of the situation facing people of African descent into his poetry. And that struggle seems to be a struggle that is faced by many artists in black America.

ARMAH: Mhm. Well, Langston and the people that were part of the Harlem Renaissance movement were completely a part of a lot of things going on. They were part of the blues tradition, which is very raw about the realities of people’s lives. They were part of the activism against–the anti-lynching campaign. When a black man was getting lynched every two or three days, it was the poets, it was the artists who were making mention of it in everything they could write, everything they could sing.

He was very much an active communist. You know what I’m saying? And communists at the time were very much about using every form of entertainment and propaganda to get their message out. So the idea that your art is directly connected with some kind of social issue, I mean, you couldn’t avoid it in the time that Langston was doing it. I honestly don’t think you can avoid it now.

One of the reasons that I guess I probably separate myself from the commercial aspect of hip hop is, like, we’ve been at war for 15 years. We’ve been at war–for a lot of the young people that I work with, we’ve been–maybe not 15, 13 years, the majority of their lives. I can’t tell you the popular song that made it to radio in hip hop addressing the war in any way. You know what I’m saying? Like, we, as a–commercially, not as a culture–the culture has been making a lot of noise about it, but commercially there is no recognition in hip hop of a battle that we have been fighting, that almost 1 million people have lost their lives over in Iraq.

FLETCHER: In the late ’60s, early ’70s you had the predecessors of hip hop, The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, highly political in their art. But at a certain point there’s, like, a divergence that seems to happen of this tradition.

ARMAH: Completely. And, I mean, I would throw other artists in there. James Brown is one of the godfathers of hip hop. I honestly think, just because I’ve been overdosing on his music, like, the humanity that I hear in Bill Withers’ writing is, like, the same kind of humanity I hear in Tupac’s writing. You know what I’m saying? Very much can relate. “I Ain’t Mad At Cha”, is, like, one of the best songs ever, and it’s about recognizing that you’ve gone to a different place in life but you still love your friends. Even if it’s not, like, anti-drugs or violence or something, it’s understanding the humanity of people, right? And watching Bill Withers and watching Gil Scott-Heron talk about their careers, they always talk about them reaching a point where people wanted to put them in the R&B category, the same struggle Marvin Gaye was going through when no one wanted to put out “What’s Going On”. You know what I’m saying? They want to completely make him R&B. And there’s ways you can do both. There are always ways you can do both.

I mean, I was talking to a good friend of mine. He’s a banjo player in a folk band. And we were talking about the common connections of all folk art is, when it comes down to it, it’s about telling women to shake their backside, no matter what culture you come from, right? But they also, also incorporate the struggles they’re having with the crops, the struggles they’re having, you know what I’m saying, trying to recognize whatever culture they’re in. So it’s all–it’s got to be a part of the entire human experience. And yet commercial music always wants to cut off that one half of you. And my favorite artists always fight against that.

FLETCHER: Let me ask you a question that I’ve been grappling with. A lot of my work has been in the trade union movement.

ARMAH: Okay.

FLETCHER: And much of the culture within the trade union movement seems frozen in time. When you have performances, for example, at union rallies, it’s folk music, 1930s, 1940s.

ARMAH: Mhm. Guitar.

FLETCHER: That’s right, guitar, guitar solo. You know.

ARMAH: Right, right, right, right, right, right.

FLETCHER: But it seems frozen. And I’m trying to understand why that happened. But I’m also trying to understand someone like yourself. What would be your critique and what would you say to such a movement about a kind of–some sort of cultural renovation?

ARMAH: Well, you know, it’s interesting. So the single that I put out a couple of years ago, it’s a song called “Late Shift”, and it’s about people who work two jobs, you know, more than 60, 70 hours a week. And, actually, I got a chance to perform that at a couple of different union-related benefits, and they all loved it. But it was an interesting dichotomy or difference between that and the other performers that would come up.

And I definitely think all movements need to embrace especially youth culture, popular culture. I love, you know, being PG County, Washington, D.C., I love bounce beat. I’m a little older than the kids in D.C. who are doing go-go bounce beat, but the actual rhythm of it is powerful. If you see the kids in PG County and D.C. move to it, you understand that it’s powerful. And finding a way to incorporate that sound into the songs that we do about our reality–. I got blessed into a project with Chuck Brown’s band and some members of the Free Minds Book Club, which is incarcerated youth who were part of a book and writing club in prison, and then they stay in it when they come out. And we took a bounce beat and made it about what they’re doing [snip]

FLETCHER: Now, you are involved in various ways in the Black Lives Matter movement.

ARMAH: I’m–I would say no. I’m very much involved in the black community. I’m very proud to be black. And I’m not a protester. Martin Luther King used to tell the protesters that if you can’t promise that no matter what happens you’re not going to be violent, please don’t come. And I took that to heart. And so I don’t really show up at the protests. But I am behind the idea of people mobilizing and getting their voice out.

Black Lives Matter feels wrong coming out of my mouth, just the actual phrase. The concept works with me, but saying Black Lives Matter feels like saying water is wet. Like, it should just be like–you know what I’m saying? Like, that can’t be my–I’m human is not my rallying cry. That was my grandfather’s rallying cry, that was my father’s rallying cry till he was, like, 25 or 30. But it’s my generation’s being like my life matters and you’re going to respect that. You know what I’m saying? I’m not going to ask you for it; I’m going to demand that. And so I’m with the movement in the sense that I stand understand what they’re trying to accomplish, but, yeah, that’s not a strong enough statement for me in that sense.

FLETCHER: So two things. Well, so (A) maybe you need to amend the statement, right?

ARMAH: Uh-huh.

FLETCHER: But the other thing that I would say about Black Lives Matter is that the part of what I think is important about the statement is that it is actually an anti-genocidal statement. In other words, it’s not simply–.

ARMAH: But I don’t know if you can ask to not be killed off.

FLETCHER: No, no, no. But I don’t think it’s asking. I think it’s an assertion.

ARMAH: It’s an assertion.

FLETCHER: Yeah. It’s an assertion. I don’t think it’s, like, asking, please don’t kill us, right? I think it’s more–I mean, this is the way I interpret it–

ARMAH: I gotcha.

FLETCHER: –is that it’s an assertion that, yes, we are humans, we are not going to be killed off, right, that it’s actually an interesting assertion around the whole concept of race, in that what race and racism does is that it basically says that there is a relevant and an irrelevant population. There’s one population whose experiences are important and another who’s not, right? So in that sense I think of black lives matter as saying, yes, we are human; we are not going to be the victims of genocide. Something like that.

ARMAH: I agree with you. And I’ve never–like, I’ve–kind of write extensively on social media and my own blogs about what I see going on in the movement, and I appreciate it. Don’t get me wrong. Like–.

FLETCHER: No, no. I gotcha.

ARMAH: But I guess–so my amendment would be the I wish [incompr.] would movement. You know what I’m saying? Like, I want to set up a scenario where that can’t happen, you know what I’m saying, where we’re not asking you to please recognize that this 17-year-old black boy is just as valuable as that 15-year-old white girl that went missing that you showed the pictures.

FLETCHER: How do you recommend integrating the cultural perspective, the artistic perspective that you’re offering into political activism?

ARMAH: I know personally one of the ways that I have learned to create my art and do my art activism and education together is to go to meetings and organizations like you’re talking about and have us write a song together, to have a brainstorming session where we’re talking about it. So it’s not–I’m a big fan of Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. And one of his–the biggest concept that sticks to my head about that is not going to these communities and telling them what their problems are, not assuming that I know just because–. Even, like, my experience with the Baltimore riots.

And I think sometimes artists, or just activists in general, like, think they can represent–they think they understand what a particular movement is because they’ve seen Eyes on the Prize or something like that or they’ve read some headlines. And I think we have to integrate ourselves into that community.

FLETCHER: Bomani Armah, thank you very much for joining us. And we definitely need to stay in touch.

ARMAH: Cool. Definitely. Thank you. I appreciate it.

FLETCHER: Thanks very much.

ARMAH: No problem.

FLETCHER: Take care.

And thank you very much for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a moment. Don’t go anywhere.

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FLETCHER: There’s a fascinating link to be made between the story of the struggle for African Americans living in the United States and Palestinians experiencing Israeli occupation, whether it’s whites-only water fountain signs or being subject to racist points of entry by the Israeli government. African Americans and Palestinians understand what it is like to live under the boot of oppression and apartheid.

How can we create lines of support and solidarity between the two groups that share so much in common with each other? That’s what we’re going to be exploring in this segment.

We’re now joined by two guests. Jasiri X, who’s an MC and community activist and is a host of the groundbreaking internet news series This Week With Jasiri X. He also participated in a delegation that went to occupy Palestine and Israel in early 2014.

Also joining us is Yousef Munayyer, who is a political analyst, writer, and currently the executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. Prior to joining the U.S. campaign, he was the executive director of the Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center. And he also served as a policy analyst for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Welcome to The Global African, both of you.

JASIRI X, RAPPER AND ACTIVIST: Thank you.

YOUSEF MUNAYYER, U.S. CAMPAIGN TO END THE ISRAELI OCCUPATION: Thanks.

FLETCHER: So we wanted to look this issue of African-American Palestinian solidarity, and I wanted to start with a very basic question: is there any basis to discuss that concept?

JASIRI X: Oh. Well, I mean, I think there’s absolutely a basis, particularly in terms of the similarities and the way we have been oppressed over here in the United States as people of color and the oppression I saw in Palestine. You know, I tell people, what I saw in Palestine was white supremacy on steroids and it was really sort of–and it was shocking in the sense that it was so blatant in, at that time, 2014 and it was so blatant that you had this system that was set up purely on what your ethnicity was. And so we really witnessed an apartheid state taking place in 2014 in terms of license plates being different. You know, you can’t drive on this road if you’re Palestinian or you can’t move freely through this area if you’re Palestinian. You have to walk through this checkpoint and be dehumanized every day. And it’s very similar to these stop-and-frisk policies that we see as black Americans in New York City, really all over the place, that if a few of us congregate on a street corner, all of a sudden we’re automatically labeled criminals. You know what I’m saying? Over there it’s like if you’re Palestinian, you’re, like, labeled a terrorist until you’re proved otherwise. And it’s like as African-Americans in the United States, we’re labeled as criminals and thugs unless we prove otherwise. And even sometimes if we prove otherwise, we still are treated firstly as criminals and thugs. So I think it’s on that basis of that oppression is that we can find solidarity in terms of how can we work together to really expose the disease of white supremacy that’s, I feel, most prevalent in the United States of America and Israel.

FLETCHER: Somebody who has been very active in the cause of Palestinian justice–they weren’t themselves Palestinian–said to me that I shouldn’t use the term race, because there’s a debate among Palestinians as to whether a racial framework is at all applicable. Now, I was on the same delegation that Jasiri was in early 2014 and had been to the occupied territories a couple of years prior, and it sure seemed to me that a racial framework applied. And I just wondered, what’s your take on that? What was at stake in that comment that was made to me?

MUNAYYER: I think there’s often sometimes hesitation to apply analogies because no analogies really fit perfectly. But I think there’s a lot of use in the racial framework that you mentioned.

You know, I’ll just give you a recent example. We saw the heinous attack on the historic black church in Charleston the other day by a white supremacist, a white supremacist who wore proudly the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, and pulled up into the parking lot of a historic black church with Confederate flags on his license plate. And he believed in a segregationist system, and he believed that there were too many blacks in society, that black people were taking over, that, he said, quote, raping our women. And this is the same kind of language that’s used often to talk about Palestinians, not at the margins of Israeli society, but really by officials and leaders within Israeli society when they refer to people like myself, who happen to be Palestinian citizens of Israel, and other Palestinians as demographic threats. So when you talk about a specific class of people who happen to be of a different ethnicity, a different color, a different background as demographic threats, you know, we can talk about whether or not Palestinian identity and Jewish identity really fits within the framework of race, but the same basic concept of otherization and domination is there, and I don’t think we can ignore it.

FLETCHER: Let me ask a final question to the two of you. What are some examples of things that you have either seen or would recommend as a way of building stronger solidarity?

JASIRI X: Well, I’m going to tell you, you know, one of the realist conversations that I remember having in Palestine in early 2014 was with a brother. Now, I wish I remembered his name, because I’ve told this story over and over again. But we were in Ramallah. We were at a–I don’t know if it was, like, a bar or a nightclub, wherever it was. But I remember him telling me–he said, you know, he said, Jasiri, you know why–you know, black people in America should really be paying attention to what’s happening in Palestine, he said, because the policing that you see over here is coming to a hood near you. And then, you know, eight months later I’m in Ferguson going through a checkpoint that was set up in Ferguson because of the rebellion that happened in regards to the death of Michael Brown. And so to me, I mean, how the Palestinian community, even helping people to understand, like, how to deal with tear gas and how to kind of get through that in terms of the uprisings that we saw in Ferguson and then recently saw in Baltimore, the fact that the same weapons were used in these uprisings here in America that are used on Palestinians in Israel, the same tear gas, the same maker. And so to me these are very real things.

And so I think those concrete steps of really learning about one another, putting ourselves in one another’s shoes, and then helping one another, whether it’s letting the world know what’s happening in places like Gaza or letting the world know what’s happening in places like Ferguson or Baltimore, I think those connections are being made. And to me, ultimately, it’s our unity that’s going to have liberation for everybody. I feel like the reason why it’s a race issue is all over the place is because white supremacy is dominating the globe. And until us as oppressed people all come together and begin to wage war on it, wherever it is, it’s at that point that we get freedom.

FLETCHER: Yousef, you have the last word.

MUNAYYER: Well, I think, as Jasiri said, those experiences are really invaluable, going over there, seeing firsthand. And it’s very difficult here to get a real appreciation for what the situation is like over there without going and seeing it and experiencing it. It’s different than–on this end, it’s a lot easier for us to see, for example, the African-American experience in many inner cities, because these things can be accessible to us, whereas to really understand the Palestinian experience involves overcoming serious hurdles. And I really applaud anyone who makes that trip to go see, because it is eye-opening.

And one of the most inspiring things that I saw come out of those events, when it comes to Palestinian and black solidarity, was a Tweet by one person who was sitting in a prison cell after having been arrested, and he said, I’m African-American, and I’m sitting here in my free Palestine T-shirt next to my friend who’s Palestinian-American and wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. You know, at the end of the day that’s what it’s really about. It’s about being willing to make those kind of sacrifices, because when the T-shirts come off, we’re all human underneath. And when you realize that and you realize that so many of these experiences are shared, the only reaction, the natural reaction, is for those solidarity connections to come into being. So I think that that is very important for the way forward, and it’s really inspired many of us to continue to do this work.

FLETCHER: Yousef Munayyer and Jasiri X, thank you very, very much for joining us for The Global African.

JASIRI X: Thank you for having me.

FLETCHER: Alright.

MUNAYYER: Thank you.

FLETCHER: Okay.

And thanks for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll see you next time. Take care.

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