Chicago rapper Jasiri X has taken the social consciousness his single mother instilled in him and used the hip-hop music he grew up with to spread that message to others.
His song, “Free the Jena Six,” about six black teens in Louisiana who were charged in the beating of a white teen, propelled the start of his career and showed him that “music with a message” was something Americans wanted to hear — despite being told otherwise.
Jasiri X, 32, will give a presentation, performance and discussion Tuesday at the University of Puget as part of the school’s Martin Luther King Jr. events.
He spoke to The News Tribune about his career, his social consciousness and his upcoming presentation and performance at UPS.
Q: How did you get into hip-hop?
Answer: This is the music in my neighborhood that I’m hearing, the environment I’m in, it’s the music I’m attracted to. As far as participating in it, a friend of mine at the time got turntables for Christmas, and he was like, “I’m going to be the DJ; why don’t you rap?” When we rapped, it was terrible, but I stayed at it and I got encouraged along the way and found my style and my voice.
Q: Who were your role models? Who were your favorite artists growing up?
For me, Nas was always the artist, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, Lauren Hill, Pac, Biggie, the ones you hear about. Also, coming from a socially conscious household, I love Public Enemy, KRS-One, those you would consider icons from the day.
Q: You said you grew up in a “socially conscious household.” What was that like?
My given name is Jasiri Oronde, which is Swahili. It was a single-parent household. My mother stressed to us being proud to be black, the love of being black. My heroes growing up were Malcolm (X) and Martin (Luther King Jr.). She connected us to great black leaders and thinkers.
Q: What does your name mean?
Jasiri means “brave warrior.” Oronde is “the appointed one.”
Q: Where did the X come from?
The X came from me gaining knowledge of self through the Nation of Islam and through listening to Minister (Louis) Farrakhan and wanting to learn more and wanting to be a part of the Nation.
Q: What compelled you to mix the social consciousness instilled in you with your passion for hip-hop?
Just, really speaking in my own voice. The way you become authentic as a hip-hop artist, you talk about the things you are passionate about in your own life.
The condition of our communities, the condition of the country, the plight of young people of color, these are the things I’m most concerned about, so these are the topics I want to make music about.
Also, my major in college was political science and economics, so I also rap about issues that touch topics that are interesting to me, which is how I can get an authentic voice.
Q: Where did you go to school?
The University of Maryland College Park and the University of Pittsburgh.
Q: What were your experiences like at those schools?
My experience at the University of Maryland was more like the college experience. The University of Maryland is like a traditional college campus, with the grass and the pillars and all that stuff. It was cool.
When I transferred to Pitt, it was different for me, because when I came back to Pittsburgh, none of the people that I was friends with were in college. That made me going to Pitt a little more difficult and that's why I ended up dropping out.
Q: I've been to the University of Maryland's campus before, and it's beautiful.
When you watch movies about college, that’s what college looks like. It looks like Maryland. Pitt is in the city. That’s no disrespect to the education I got there, but Pitt doesn’t have the grass and the pillars. Pitt is in the city of Pittsburgh. Like I said, for me, my crew wasn't going to class. They were involved in other things.
Q: When did you start realizing rap was something you could do more or less full-time?
In 2006, I did a song about the Jena Six. Prior to this, I kind of gave up rapping. I was working as a teen parent advocate, so I was a counselor for young fathers in the Pittsburgh public school district, 95 percent of whom were black.
When I heard about the Jena Six situation in Louisiana I did this song called “Free the Jena Six,” put it on my Myspace page and sent it to a website I was getting my hip-hop from, which was allhiphop.com. Allhiphop.com put this song on their front page. I was like, “Yo, I’m on the front page of my favorite hip-hop website.” I couldn’t believe it.
Somebody sent the song to Michael Baisden, who had a syndicated radio show in every major black market in the country. He says my name, and I’m getting calls from people all over the country. Once he played it on his it on his show next thing you know, the song's being played all over the country.
I end up getting invited to go to Jena, Louisiana, with Al Sharpton and all these people, on stage in front of 20,000 people.
Before that I was being told people didn’t want to hear music with a message, which is why I stopped rapping. When that (Jena) happened, I realized, “I was lied to. People do want to hear music with a message.” From that moment on, I began to create that type of moment.
Q: That positive reaction to the “Free the Jena Six” song, that wasn't something you expected. What's the reaction been to your work since?
It’s been one unexpected event after another. The ramification of that song, was that when the officers who killed Sean Bell were found not guilty, people began to message me: “You need to do something about this.”
It was like I was recruited, in a sense, to be an artist who spoke on these issues. Initially, I was reluctant because I didn’t wanted to be an artist that just addressed these types of issues. But I didn't see mainstream hip-hop artists talking about these things.
And so, when I started to do these songs, the response I got from people, the love and appreciation for it, it went really well.
It's really been me speaking my voice and I think the timing has caused people to really embrace this type of music, and now we see socially conscious artists that are mainstream, when you look at a J. Cole, you look at a Kendrick Lamar, mainstream artists are doing this type of music.
Q: What compelled you to work with teen fathers when you were in Pittsburgh?
We have a media academy in Pittsburgh called the OneHood Media Academy. (The University of )Pittsburgh did a study on how the Pittsburgh media portrayed black men. Basically, they found that 96 percent of the time that they cover black men, it’s crime or sports. They said that when it comes to quality-of-life stories about black men, it was less than 3 percent.
So we went to the commissioners of the study, which was the Heinz Foundation, and we said, “Hey, we want to teach young black men how to analyze media, create media for themselves,” and the OneHood Media Academy was born. Now we have young men and women doing it.
For me, personally, I grew up in a single-parent household and I feel like I made mistakes early on in my life because I didn’t have a positive male role model that I could trust and share with.
To me, to be somebody who can be an influence on these young brothers and try to direct them in a positive way and speak truth to them that sometimes they might not want to hear but can help guide them on a positive path, that’s greater than anything else I can do.
Q: What role does your faith have in your performances and your message?
One of the things that separates me a little from other conscious hip-hop artists is that I do have a belief. I’m kind of an optimist. I feel like even though we’re in this very perilous time in American history, ultimately, good will win; ultimately, righteousness will triumph.
So I approach my work with that thought in mind and, with a level of fearlessness and believing that if I’m striving to good things with the right motivation and the right intentions, I’ll get the right results, and I don't have to fear any negativity coming at me.
Q: When you come out here to Tacoma on Tuesday, what are you going to focus on during your speech?
It's mind-boggling to me that the term “Black lives matter” has become controversial, and in some aspects, it doesn’t make any sense.
A lot of times, when people use that terminology, they bring up Dr. Martin Luther King. But they have no other reference of him than one speech he made. And not even the whole entire speech. They don’t talk about his work for poor people. They never talk about his critique of capitalism or of the military-industrial complex or war.
I hope to explain that when we’re saying “Black lives matter,” it’s not “Only black lives matter.” So it’s not a necessity to follow up with “All lives matter.”
I also want to show the connection of the work of Dr. King to this current movement, that it’s not like this current movement is disconnected or has somehow thrown Dr. King out.
Q: You're going to be giving this presentation at a pretty exclusive private school in the Northwest, which is an area that by and large is not particularly diverse. What's different about presenting and speaking with an audience that doesn't necessarily have the same experiences that you grew up with on the South Side of Chicago?
That’s what makes it interesting. It’s an opportunity for me to maybe introduce you to something you do not know.
A lot of times, the focus of change is on young people, because we haven’t necessarily had our minds made up yet. We’re open to new ideas and new experiences, new thinking.
The hope is that people come with an open mind, that people come wanting to learn about a person that’s gone through experiences that they haven’t gone through.
This was the whole idea of going to college anyway. I may be coming from a small town, but I’m going to this school because I want to meet people of other races, of other cultures, and I want to get to know them and have those experiences. I’m the same way, even though I’ve been to the Pacific Northwest a few times.
What I hope is that in that dialogue, we can find some common ground. One of the worst things about this current conversation in the media is you’re either this or that.
If you consider yourself a right-wing Republican and Obama’s like, “Let's cure cancer,” you can’t clap for that. You don’t want to cure cancer? “Of course, I do, but he said it.” What are we, 5 years old?
To me, the way the discourse in this country — this is coming from 50-, 60-year-old people — is really very backward. I’m hoping our generation can begin to do the work that this generation or the one previously didn’t finish.
Q: Speaking of current events, one thing currently going on in the Northwest is an armed militia’s occupation of federal buildings in Eastern Oregon. Have you paid attention to that at all?
Absolutely. To me, it’s one of the biggest critiques of the media. Nobody’s even talking about it, but it’s still happening. But why? It’s because these people are white men.
When we use the term “white privilege,” oftentimes white people will feel that’s a term that doesn’t apply to them because they look at it as simply about economics. They think, “I'm poor, I had to struggle to get a job, I had to struggle to get an education, I had to take college loans, how was I privileged?”
Take all of the economics out of this. You’re able to do things. You can walk into a store and people will assume you’re there to buy things. They’re going to assume you're not there to steal anything, so you won’t be followed. These are the type of things.
When a police officer sees you and your friends and there’s six or seven of you, he doesn't assume you’re plotting on something or that you’re a gang or you’re bad. He assumes you’re just a group of people doing whatever it is you do.
And this applies to this situation. Somebody made a comment on Twitter that said, if 150 armed black people took over a federal building, they’d bring 150 body bags out.
We saw in how the white people of the Tea Party began to emerge — they’re talking about civil war, they’re marching on the White House with guns — how that was treated differently: “That's patriotic! They want to exercise their American rights!” When we were protesting Bush, it’s like, “You’re un-American. Get out of this country.”
Nobody I’ve seen in the mainstream media has called that act (the milita takeover) un-American, has called that act treasonous or has challenged their patriotism. To me, if there’s any greater example of white privilege that exists right now, I don’t know what it is.
Q: Is there anything you'd like to add?
I just put a new album out. It’s called “Black Liberation Theology.” It’s doing very well. It’s been very well-reviewed. I’ll have that with me, if anyone is interested in some of the music.
I’m not just going to speaking, there’s going to be a performance aspect, there’s going to be video, there’s going to be pictures. I hope it’s interactive.
My best-case scenario is not to just have me come and speak, but to have a dialogue, that people who agree or disagree would come ready to have an honest dialogue, because that’s the only thing that will get us to where we need to be.
I got a fellowship from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and I’m in Florida at a property the foundation owns for a record thing. Two of my roommates are from Ireland and they’re saying it’s hard to believe that in 2016 that there’s still this big race issue in America. Why is that?
I said it’s because it’s the elephant in the room. We would rather pretend that it doesn’t exist than have honest conversation about it and deal with it in an honest way and a truthful way.
That's what I hope for. I hope to have some honest dialogue, some truthful dialogue, and if you disagree, come and talk and ask questions, have a conversation based on facts and not just outlandish things.
Let’s have an academic conversation. We're in college, right? That’s how it works. Hopefully, that’s what we'll have.
If you go
What: Jasiri X’s speech and performance at University of Puget Sound’s 30th Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Schneebeck Concert Hall, University of Puget Sound, 1500 N. Warner St, Tacoma
More information: pugetsound.edu