Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Misunderstood Africa

By Chiderah A. Monde

I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and raised in other countries still feeling extremely connected to my heritage. My parents did a great job of making sure I knew a lot about my family, the place I was born, and the problems that face the people of Nigeria. Over the years, being in America has immersed me in Black culture. Seldom is there even recognition of Africans in America, and often times if there is- it tends to be negative.

I once encountered a professor who explained a theory he had that Black Americans have been taught to turn their noses up to Africans, and vice versa. The divide between the two has been implemented and encouraged, used as another strategy by the dominant race to keep Black people from uniting and incapable of taking over. It is another divide much like the dark skinned vs. light skinned fight, the college educated vs. the non college educated, wealthy Blacks vs. the working class, Black Republicans vs. everybody else, Haitians vs. Dominicans...and so on.

James Baldwin discussed the difference between Blacks and Africans in Europe in "Notes of A Native Son" and the unfortunate differences that keep us all- those of African descent- from understanding each other. Although the differences are too often swept under the rug, like most conflicts between races, there are tons of misconceptions and stereotypes about Africans and the continent of Africa.

I came into the first day back to 5th grade in Baltimore with a young British accent (having moved from London the previous year) and a deep tan (having spent time vacationing in Nigeria over winter break) ready for the show and tell portion of class. I had pictures from my trip: of my family's estate, my cousins' school, the family horseback riding on Bar Beach, pictures of the city of Lagos, etc....and they were welcomed with the most outlandish questions from my classmates.

I was asked, "Did you live in a hut?" to which I replied, no- we have houses.

"Do people wear loin cloths?" no, we have clothing. My aunt owns her own clothing line and store.

"Does your uncle hunt lions for a living?" no, actually he works for a major Oil company there.

And a plethora of equally ignorant questions. I cannot blame my classmates for these questions, I blame society. I blame the media for only ever showing one side of Africa (although it is SO VERY IMPORTANT- I am a huge advocate for change in my continent) and for never highlighting the beautiful things about this continent.

Africa is the most underrated continent on Earth. It was a rich and beautiful land stripped of many of it's resources by the Western world, and given no credit for any of its' people's accomplishments. It is home to tons of stolen art, food, mathematical, scientific and medicinal discoveries, and of course- beautiful people.

That being said, I found this YouTube video about the Africa they never show on TV:

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Black Men Not Graduating in Michigan

DETROIT (AP) — A national report says Michigan is the worst in the nation when it comes to graduating black male students from high school.

It also says Detroit has the second-lowest rate among big-city public school districts. The report issued by the Schott Foundation for Public Education says Michigan graduated 33% of black males in 2005-06, compared with 74% of white males.

Detroit Public Schools graduated 20 percent of black males and 17% of white males.

State Superintendent Mike Flanagan says the low graduation numbers are a “major concern.” He says Governor Granholm’s small high school initiative will help build greater relevance and relationships with schools and students.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

YBW Exclusive Interview w/ Amir Sulaiman

Interview with Spoken Word Artist and Activist, Amir Sulaiman, by Tolu Olorunda.

Amir Sulaiman is a renowned poet, activist, recording artist, and a 2 time HBO Def Poet. Sulaiman is a household name in the world of Spoken Word Poetry. His brand of poetry has garnered him much adulation from those who have come across his unmitigated-ingenuity. Amir has performed – and still performs - at countless colleges, universities, high schools and community centers. He has shared the stage alongside such artists as, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Lauryn Hill, KRS-One, Pharoah Monch, Floetry, The Roots, Goapele, Stevie Wonder, The Last Poets and Dead Prez. As a member of “Youth Speaks” in the Bay Area, California, Amir works in mentoring and teaching kids, by way of spoken word, and a focus on the union of art and education. He is a visionary and a monument of inspiration, who believes that the power of love can disempower the stranglehold of narcissism in our society. With a passion comparable to none, Amir Sulaiman has managed to prolong the legacy of such trail-blazers as “The Last Poets.” I had the pleasure of speaking extensively with him on issues of direct relevance to our society, and the world at large:

Thanks for joining us, Bro. Sulaiman; can you start by informing us of your musical background, and the pathway leading up to “Cornerstone Folklore” – the album?

Well, Cornerstone Folklore was my very first album – which very few people have. It was composed of just acappella poems, and these poems were a collection of everything I had done up to that point. I started writing around the age of 12, and continued through Junior High and High School, but I got a lot more intense with it in college. Cornerstone Folklore in some ways is my origin and my favorite album. Cornerstone Folklore has a double meaning. The “Cornerstone” aspect of it is, giving honor to the ancient tradition that we have – involving the didactic stories, inspirational stories and cautionary tales that we have in our tradition -- as black people in America, and also as Africans. And, the Folklore element of it is the urban element – particularly the Hip-Hop era – from the ‘80s, ‘90s and present.

Now, it was in 2006 when you stormed the stage of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, and delivered the mind-gripping poem “Danger.” Can you dissect Danger and explain its symbolism?

Well, Danger is what most of my poetry is about – expressing for those who can’t express for themselves. So, there are people who don’t have a voice – whether it’s because they are disenfranchised, impoverished, their economical status, their age, or incarcerated – but need their stories told. Danger was meant to facilitate their voices to be heard, and give them a platform to be noticed. So, I started off saying, “I am not angry, I am anger;” and that was meant to show that this wasn’t just about me, but about the collective membership that I represent. And, most people have informed me that the poem inspired and motivated them when they first heard it.

Following up the “Danger” performance, the ACLU and Amnesty International broke reports of you being questioned by FBI Agents; can you enlighten us on that exchange?

Six days after the poem on HBO, the FBI came to my house and followed me around. They did it in a fashion that alerted me -- so it wasn’t clandestine. They also came to the school where I was teaching, and got the names and personal addresses of my students. So, that process showed me the power of the word, and reminded me that most of my heroes we’re in like-manner, known for the power of their words and brought into questioning by the same organization. After that encounter, I wrote an op-ed about it, called “The High Cost of Freedom of Speech.”

Your classic album, “Like a Thief in the Night,” was released in May last year. Pls. explain the process of creating that project, and your motivation during production?

Well, the project artistically went in a new direction for me, because I was inspired to blend poetry and instrumentals on it. On the album, I was craving poetry songs, and so the format was different from my earlier projects. It was also different because it was my first album to have a major distribution, which opened me up to an international audience. It was more so different, because this was the first time that I had featured multiple guests and producers on my album. I consider poetry a solo enterprise -- where one writes the poems and recites the poems. So, cooperating with other artists brought something out of me that I couldn’t bring out on my own. In that sense, Like a Thief in the Night was very influential to me as an artist. I chose that title, because I believe the purpose of life is to stay awake; and if we could stay awake to witness our honor, beauty and miracles, it would inspire us with the power to achieve whatever we were designed to achieve. But, if we fall asleep to depression or a victim-mentality, we won’t be effective; so our spirit has to be awake to witness God.

I want to move on to politics and then back to music in a second. As an outspoken Muslim, what is your assessment of the rise of Islamic consciousness -- following Senator Obama’s announcement of his presidential-run, and how do you gauge the Obama campaign’s response towards it?

Well, the question of Obama for me is two-sided – as I have to look at it from a Black Man’s perspective and a Muslim’s perspective. It is hard for me to put a finger on it, because he represents a symbol of hope, and appeals more as a person than as a politician; but, with the two incidents involving the Muslim Women wearing Hijabs, and Rep. Keith Ellison, it is a definite blow. It is unfortunate that Barack Obama has a problem with the Muslim community – which overwhelmingly loves and supports him. Also, his defense to the controversy surrounding him being an alleged Muslim, insinuates something fundamentally wrong with being Muslim. He treats it as though it’s an insult, and being a Muslim is problematic. So, I want to observe how he navigates this moment, and see if he lives up to the expectations; also, I’m aware that the pressure of the presidential office sort of bends candidates against their will.

Now, if you don’t mind, I would like to select certain songs from Like a Thief in the Night and have you deconstruct the science behind them. On “They don’t know,” you speak of our past – comprising of victories and losses – having an impact on our present state; can you explain that dynamic, and how we can draw both correction and inspiration from our history?

Well, generally for anything, the past always impacts the present, and the present is a product of the past. So that, in one way, for Black people in America, we have this idea that our home is Africa, and in other way, we say our home is in America; and I think both of those things are true. We are an indigenous people, and we had a pre-Columbus presence here. We are as indigenous as the Bush and Cheney family – and probably even more so. So, with that, one half wants to leave this land, and the other half says, ‘This is my house -- which my grandmothers and grandfathers built.’ Now, with that comes a certain responsibility and mental-determination to fix the problems we are experiencing, and “They don’t know” explains that reality. So, I want us to think for a moment, on topics such as, the history of crack, and if indeed it originated from some random person in L.A playing around with baking soda and cocaine; and, I want us to think beyond the present to find the answers from the past.

“How beautiful” was a soul-stirring ballad, where you lamented the degenerating self-esteem of Black Women; please elaborate on that?

It is a well-known fact that our women are treated most poorly than any other demographic in America – which is a shame on us. So, out of that shame, I wrote the poem expressing the beauty of Black Women -- in hope that they recognize it.

On the closing theme, “Killers,” you presented a different context to homicide within our community -- nevertheless pointing out the ramifications of such atrocities; can you break down the line of “Most killers don’t want to kill,” and “most of the dead don’t want to die?”

Well, “Killers” was one of my favorite songs when creating the album. But, if you can imagine in your mind, a young man killing another young man - with the realization that the killer doesn’t really want to commit the murder, and the victim certainly not wanting to die - you start asking certain questions like, “why is this happening?” Most of the time, both parties more than likely don’t want to be involved in that situation; so they become “Gladiators” -- even without the will-power to act in such manner. And I was pondering with that idea, that thousands of homicidal victims have been killed, without the desire for it -- which is a very peculiar and strange circumstance.

Lastly, on “I love you” – an emotional tribute to black heritage – you wanted to stress the importance of caring and selflessness. As a messenger of love – with the understanding that most black people are suffering severely from self hatred – how can love heal the wounds that have scarred our community, and what are effectual means of injecting that ‘serum’ back into our communities?

Yes; this question is ‘the question’ – as love is the cure of all ailments. All the cooperation that goes on between elements of the universe is a manifestation of love. Without love, there is no life, and if you find hatred, you find death. Hatred cannot generate life, and you cannot live simultaneously with hatred in your heart. Every time you hate, something in you has to die. So, love and selflessness necessitates surrendering one’s ego. Ego feeds off hate, and has the need to defend itself. Our level of love therefore has to transcend our ego. If our love transcends our ego, we will remain infinite, but if our love fails to transcend our ego, our life will only be as big as an ego – and an ego is only an illusion, in and of itself – which would make us meaningless; and only when we achieve selflessness, can we expect the Kingdom of God on Earth.

On the subject of your ministry through music, Abi Odun from “The Last Poets” joined you on the track, “We Are the Revolution.” Do you consider your musical-style more in tune with the legacy of the last poets?

Very much; they are my fathers – without a doubt, and they invite me into their house, to counsel me and advise me. I consider myself in their tradition, and find my music in line with them. I also want to be an inspiration to the up-and-coming generation of poets -- so “The Last Poets” are very essential to my music.

Finally, what are your upcoming projects and ventures?

Well, one of my projects is the Cornerstone Folklore tour – which is a very important venture for me. We did the tour in Atlanta and Sweden, and we’re looking to perform in Africa very soon. I try to present new artists and showcase new talents with the tour. Also, I’m working on my next project, which is called “The Meccan Opening.” I’m almost done with it, and it is expected to be released early next year or later this year.

Thanks for the time, Bro Amir.

This interview was conducted by Tolu Olorunda, Staff Writer for YourBlackWorld.com

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The "Miseducation" of the Black Community

Going to college, and having come from a highly-ranked series of primary and secondary schools is a blessing that I never take for granted. My high school’s graduating rate was about 90% my senior year, and moved up to 94% the year after. Out of about 500 seniors, less than 100 are not continuing on to higher education or vocational options.

A fifteen minute metro train ride from my high school in Maryland will take you to the D.C. public school system, where everything is the complete opposite. Washington D.C. public schools have received and/or tied for the lowest rankings in the country as far as basic learning skills, test scores, drop-out rates, poverty make-up, and safety issues are concerned. The Washington Post featured an article about whether or not the District schools are fixable. Noting that

“After decades of reforms, three out of four students fall below math standards. More money is spent running the schools than on teaching. And urgent repair jobs take more than a year…”

Washington Post article

There is a deeper issue than this. I think the most important thing that contributes to the success of students in any school system, is the attention paid to the racial make-up of these students and their needs, their economic backgrounds, the lack of motivation, and the unfortunate plight of using property taxes to pay for the upkeep of schools in cities where property tax is low or properties are not owned.

Most of the students that attended my high school come from middle-class, single family homes and townhouses, decent paying jobs, and safer-than-most neighborhoods. At a glance I would say the school is about 56% white, 26% Black, 10% Asian, 6% Hispanic, and the rest a combination of smaller populations.

In the cities where most Black and Hispanic families are, the Black population can sometimes be as high as 98% and the poverty level beyond belief. Even the city of Syracuse, where I attend the university, sees similar results to those of the D.C. public schooling systems. The problems are repetitive. More attention is given to thriving schools that have enough money coming in from their property taxes to pay for newer and better facilities and equipment. More parents in these thriving schools are actually involved with the schooling of their children. More teachers and guidance counselors are helpful to students that don’t pose as threats to their safety.

My younger sister is the president of her high school’s NAACP Youth Leadership Chapter, so when I am home, I attend some of the meetings with her. In almost every meeting, the topic has been about how to get the Black students of Maryland and D.C. public schools motivated enough to come to school, stay in school, and graduate to higher learning.

Too many of our youth are “miseducated” about their chances of success. The guidance counselors and teachers in these schools of urban areas suggest these students consider working after high school instead of going to college. The parents either did not go to college and don’t tell their children they should, or are not home enough to really be involved with their child’s education (although, I do understand that some parents have no choice but to work- sometimes multiple jobs, sometimes for single parent families).

Too many children drop out and follow lives of crime or become pregnant. Those that drop out are often times not given any reason or motivation to go back. Too many children believe that rappers and athletes are the only moneymakers, and therefore see no point in school for those talents ( what about doctors, lawyers, journalists, businessmen/ or women…?), and finally, too many children are not informed about the MANY scholarships, programs, fee waivers and resources that can help them succeed regardless of their race, gender, family, and economic standing.

The problems are repetitive. The initiative has been taken, but the results are far from where they need to be. I do not think it is Obama’s job to come to the rescue of the Black community. What he can maybe do for the school systems, is see to it that the governors of each state make sure that funding is equalized for all of their areas.

Kanye West said in his song “Champion”:

“‘Cause who the kids gonna listen to, huh?/ I guess me if it isn’t you”

I take that as a personal challenge. Whether or not you have children, it is our duty as members of the Black community to see our kids succeed. Better yet, it is our duty as members of the human race to see all kids succeed. They at least need to know that they have options, because success does not only mean going to college, it means living up to their fullest potentials- whatever that may be.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

1st & 15th Artist Gemstones, On Education & Much More

Interview with 1st and 15th Recording Artist, GemStones, by Tolu Olorunda.

GemStones (formerly known as Gemini), is a recording artist on Lupe Fiasco’s vanity record label 1st & 15th. He was raised in Jeffrey Manor/South C on the South Side of Chicago. In 2007, he shot the video for the first single off of his upcoming album, Troubles of the World called “We On” featuring Lupe Fiasco. He appeared on MTV for “MTV Diary” and in August 2007, he was a “featured artist on MySpace.” In December of 2007 GemStones was featured on Fiasco’s sophomore album, The Cool. He appeared on tracks “Free Chilly”, “The Die”, “Go Baby”, and Lupe’s first single “Dumb it Down.” He recently endured a startling experience, which he aptly describes as his “transition.” He lost over 70 pounds, and picked up a socially-conscientious style of Hip-Hop. A highly articulate and lucid speaker, he claims to still posses the lyrical-velocity that accrued fans in the first place. Fresh off “The Cool Tour,” GemStones is now ready to take his place in the Mainstream. His mixtape, Testimony of Gemstones was released June 20th and his debut album, Troubles of the World is due to drop in fall of 2008. I had the pleasure of speaking with GemStones on his life, his music, and his overall outlook on a broad swath of issues:  

Thanks so much for joining us, GemStones. Can you pls. inform us of your background, past projects and the struggle leading up to 1st and 15th records?

Well, I grew up in Chicago, as a rapper/singer. Originally, I adopted the name, “Gemini,” because Gemini is a sleek personality, so I was double-sided. My negative side was me rapping, and my positive side was me singing. I ran into Lupe (Fiasco) in 2001. I was recording in a studio, and Lupe walked in with the late “Stack Bundles.” At the time, Stack Bundles was also signed to 1st and 15th Records. When he heard my verses, he was so impressed, and before time passed, I was signed to 1st and 15th. I then began putting songs together for a whole year, by grindin’. I was living with a couple of producers, who made beats and offered them to me. After a while, I finally got a record-deal. Then I started recording with Lupe, and then he released his first major album, “Food and Liquor,” and I was featured on almost every song on it. And in 2006, when MTV did the special, “My Block Chicago,” I was featured as the headliner. I also hosted “Sucker Free Sunday.” And then late last year, Lupe released his 2nd album, “The Cool,” and I appeared on about 4 songs. I joined Lupe on “The Cool Tour” where we performed shows in almost every major city in the world. In the middle of the shows, Lupe would stop it for me to showcase my talents, and rock the crowds of sometimes, about 15,000 people. With all that, people began to notice me, and I got a whole page in the Source magazine, and a whole page in XXL magazine. And recently, I just released my major mixtape, “The Testimony of Gemstones.”

What are the lessons you’ve learned - musically and beyond - from working with Lupe Fiasco?

Well, I’m more conscious of what I say now, and what comes out of my mouth. In the beginning, I was just rapping to put rhymes together. I watched Lupe’s music evolve, and as I was around Lupe more, I saw the impact he was having on people, with his new brand. Lupe helped me find my voice; and his influence made it easier for me to find out what my calling was. My lyrics and my rhymes are a lot more potent than they we’re before. I’m still rapping with the same intensity that I was, but I’m just more socially-conscious.

Can you describe the radical makeover that you underwent, with regards to your musical and physical life?

I wasn’t eating good; I was out drinking and smoking, and wasn’t taking care of my body. I was injecting all kinds of toxic into my body -- and destroying it. I was up to 320 pounds, when I had a mild heart attack. I was out with Lupe one night in L.A, when I felt a numbing-pain on my left side, and all I could think of was the fact that I was about to have a heart attack. I thought about how I had survived the hood - with gun-shots and so much more - and how I couldn’t go out from food. After that, I went to the hospital, and got my body back on track. I started eating vegetables, chicken breasts, and drinking water. With regards to my music, I started transitioning from the bogus, negative style of rap I was performing, to what I’m involved with today. But, I didn’t plan for it to happen; everything just fell into place after my weight loss. Before I knew it, I became healthy spiritually, mentally and physically. In the past, I had catered to my fans and whatever they wanted to hear; I had degraded women, and with my mother listening to my music, it grew uncomfortable. With my new self, I wrote songs like “Skeleton” and “Good morning.” I realized that if I wasn’t part of the solution, I was part of the problem, and so I made a 180 degree turnaround.

Why the name-change from Gemini to Gemstones?

Well, I had some legal trouble, where someone already owned the name, so I had to make the fix and change it to Gemstones.

What is your overall perspective on Hip-Hop today - especially in the Chi – which is widely rumored to be the next biggest thing?

I think Hip-Hop will be good. I never thought Hip-Hop was dead, but I also thought it was on life-support. And, with cats like Common, Lupe and myself - keeping it strong when things weren’t going as good - we helped it. It was because of cats like that who didn’t sell out for a dime -- that Hip-Hop never died. And if you notice, things are starting to get better – it’s recovering. In Chicago, we hold the elements of Hip-Hop down. We have always made good music for the soul. I also believe that with my transition, I’ve made a big impact with keeping Hip-Hop alive. Even in the clubs; the music that is being played today, trumps that of 3 yrs. ago. Yet sometimes, I feel that rap has to be responsible for some of the more negative things that happen around us. And, whether we as rappers want to admit it or not, the kids are listening to us. When young girls start to believe that they can’t be lawyers and doctors anymore; that all there is to be is some video vixen, you have to take it seriously. The tongue is mighty, and when we realize that we can speak things into existence, we might become more conscious of our lyrical content. I think that if we could turn the negative to positive, we would become so strong as a people.

What’s your take on Barack Obama, and do you have any criticisms of his campaign?

I say thumbs up to him. It’s good to see a black person in a position like that. We’ve been held back for so long, and for any black person who’s doing something positive, I’m always with it. I wish him the best of luck.  

You come from a rich musical background. In fact, you describe it as being vital in your shaping. As an artist and entertainer; how concerned are you that many public schools are slowly but drastically losing their music programs?

I’m very concerned, and I think that we as adults and entertainers need to step up and step in. We need to put our foot down. As soon as we start doing our job, things would start to turn around; but I’m hopeful that we’ll be alright though. 

Can you tell us about the Testimony of Gemstones – which is your latest mixtape?

The Testimony of Gemstones is me testifying and apologizing to all my fans, who I might have misled in the past. I might have led people to destruction with some of my past lyrics. I don’t know what to call what I do, but it’s not rapping. I’m telling the truth; it just happens to come over a beat. Rapping seems to be ‘just putting words together because they match.’ The Testimony of Gemstones is all about real life and inspiration. I came from nothing, and I’m testifying to everyone who can relate to me, and the subjects that I touch on in the mixtape, are rarely touched on by most of these rappers. Ever since the release, I’ve been getting ‘5s’ all across the board, and people are going nuts over it. The response so far has been amazing, and it is an orientation before my album, “Troubles of the World” drops -- which is slated to drop later this year. I made the mixtape to prepare the public for Troubles of the World. The album is so raw, that I had to ‘dumb it down’ for them in the form of this mixtape. 

Lastly, what advice do you have for aspiring artists and entertainers, hoping to get ahead in the ‘wildfire’ industry of Hip-Hop?

Don’t sell your soul, and don’t ever sell out for a dollar. People chase the dollar and miss the pot of gold at the end of the road. Also, never give up on your dreams – which is the main thing. Kanye West once told me, “to be with greatness, you got to play with the greats.” Lastly, keep God first and stay humble; patience is a virtue, and you can ‘Touch the Sky.’

For more information on GemStones and his latest/future projects, visit: http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewProfile&friendID=66875165

This interview was conducted by Tolu Olorunda, Staff Writer for YourBlackWorld.com