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Akili’s Letter: A Response

November 11, 2006


In 4strugglemag [Iss.7:sum.’06], Bro. Akili addresses the challenges facing politically conscious, and politically active prisoners when it comes to hip hop, and its potential when it comes to reaching members of the hip hop generation.

Specifically, he raises 3 main questions: 1)How has hip hop influenced consciousness of the hip hop generation?; 2) Does the hip hop generation have a role in struggle today? (and, if so, what is it?); and 3)What should PPOC/POCs do, to utilize hip hop as a bridge (or vehicle) to support PP/POWs?

His letter is certainly timely, especially given the unique role which hip hop plays in everyday Black life and youth con¬sciousness, and it therefore deserves serious thought and reply.

Briefly, I will seriously try to do so.

1) There is no serious question but that hip hop has serious¬ly influenced and impacted Black consciousness, and youth con¬sciousness today. The question is, to what end?

Initially, we should be clear in our terms, so as not to further confuse the issue.

This requires, I believe, that we differentiate between rap/hip hop which is broadcast over commercial TV/radio, and that which is often traded, distributed, or even commercially produced, but never given airplay.

Some readers may know that I was quite critical of Tupac (before his assassination) for the kind of stuff that he released after leaving prison. Being an RnB, Reggae and Jazz head, I was on the outside, looking, and listening in.

When I discussed this with a younger Brother, he actually gave me an in-depth education on the genre, and Pac’s work, that those only listening on the radio (or viewing the tube) wouldn’t get. He explained, and then sampled several of Pac’s pieces that were profoundly militant, and anti-establishment, and that openly called for rumbling against the oppressor forces. I had no knowledge of these works. The Brotha explained that Pac’s best, and hardest stuff never got aired, precisely because it was so hard-core.

I learned an important lesson.

We can’t judge an artist by that which the capitalist culture vulture airs on its media. We have to investigate.

We also can’t underestimate Tupac’s profound cultural and even political impact, nor limit it to his music. Several books have been published, both by and about him, that young folks who are true hip hop heads are reading, and in these works, they are being exposed to a true political thinker, who studied deeply into the nature of the beast, and whose work represented a cultu¬ral and political engagement.

For example, in his posthumously published The Rose that Grew in Concrete (New York:Pocket Books, 1999), Tupac’s poem, “Liberty Needs Glasses”, gives voice to the fundamental injustice of America:

excuse me but Lady Liberty needs glasses
and so does Mrs. Justice by her side
both the broads R blind as bats
Stumbling thru the system
Justice bumped into Mutulu and
Trippin’ on Geronimo Pratt
But stepped right over Oliver
And his crooked partner Ronnie
Justice stubbed her Big Toe on Mandela
And Liberty was misquoted by the Indians
slavery was a learning phase
Forgotten without a verdict
while Justice is on a rampage
4 endangered surviving Black males
I mean really if anyone really valued life
and cared about the masses
They’d take ’em both 2 Pen Optical
and get 2 pairs of glasses [p.136]

This is political poetry, as ornery and revolutionary as any¬thing penned by Langston Hughes or Sonia Sanchez. It speaks not only of injustice as an abstract, but speaks of political prisoners by name, and also critiques the inherent injustice of the State (Ronnie Reagan and Oliver North).

If a hip hop head contacts a PP/POW/POC/PPOC, it would be well to recommend this work by Tupac, so that they can read their hero’s work, and imbibe it deeply from the source.

2) The hip hop generations, like every generation of Africans in America, is drafted into the struggle, whether s/he wants to be, or not. I do not mean here to confuse the regular fan, or consumer, with the artist or ‘producer.’

For the average fan, life here in the states is an unmiti¬gated hell.

In his/her quest to ‘keep it real’, the materialistic, ‘I got good shit/you ain’t got nuthin” rap won’t hold them for long, simply because it ain’t ‘real.’

We should remember that in the economic dynamics that drive the industry, some 70% of customers of hip hop are young white males. Many folks in urban, unresourced environments either boost their radio signals, tape one guys CD, or hustle to make it happen. It is telling that Black audiences, even with marked population deficits, are not, a bigger percentage of the buying market.

We should not forget that rap/hip hop is a profoundly global industry and art form. In the book, The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip Hop and ‘the Globalization of Black Popular Culture (London/Ann Arbor, Mi.: Pluto Press, 2006) [1). Basu & S. J. Lemelle, editors], we learn that hip hop is both popular, resistant, and transforma¬tive also, in places like Cuba, Paris, Tokyo (Japan), Johannes¬burg (South Africa), Kreuzberg (a Turkish district in Berlin, Germany), London, Tanzania, Samoa, and beyond.

Black and Latino kids, playing with stuff found in attics, and the garbage, created an art form that rocks the world! That, is Power! And, given the needs of indigenous communities, to resist insidious forms of neo-colonialism, or cultural colonialism, many young people find a kind of freedom in hip hop that another generation found in the improvisation of jazz.

So, when we remind young folks of their creative potential, of their deep, hidden power, we remind them of their role, to truly spread the message of freedom, liberation, or loosening the bonds of oppression — for all!

The hip hop generation does indeed have a role in struggle, especially if they are given the tools, the raw material from which true culture grows. It’s our job to teach, to reach, and to sow seeds.

3) Prisoners & other politicized persons should see it as our class, cultural, political duty to try to reach out to young folks, both here in the joint, and in the Outside Joint, to expand their frames of reference.

Also, we should communicate, to the extent we can, to those young artists of consciousness who are kicking it out raw, about the struggle. They need to know that their work it appreciated, for, if they are truly conscious, then, no doubt, they are suffer¬ing from the loss of capital that such consciousness entails.

Decades ago, the great Nina Simone broke new artistic ground with her pungent, combative “Mississippi Goddamn.” The late alto/falsetto singer, Curtis Mayfield lifted hearts in struggle with his magnificent lead on the Impressions’ “Keep On Pushin”.

As a young Panther on duty in the office, Mayfield’s music got me through more days than Marx.

When Public Enemy did “Fight the Power” they rocked it, and woke up a generation.

We can never underestimate the power of music to move people, and to light fires in the soul.

We should be ever ready, to pass the matches.

Ona Move!
Fight the Power!

Mumia Abu-Jamal
Author: We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party/South End, 2004

Mumia Abu-Jamal A.M. 8335
175 Progress Drive
Waynesburg, PA 15370-8082

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