Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Cornel West

Cornel West says Harvard donors establish ‘taboo’ on criticism of Israel (and NYT buries that angle)


You have surely heard the news from late February that Cornel West was denied tenure at Harvard and has attributed the rejection to his support for Palestinian freedom.

West, 67, a philosophy professor in the Divinity School who has gotten wide faculty and graduate-student support, made the allegation to scholar Tricia Rose on the Tight Rope podcast two weeks ago.

He said that “donors” and “elite” administrators at the school were his enemies for a number of reasons but especially on Palestine.

West also attributed the denial to Jews “in high places” but qualified that charge to say that anti-Palestinian prejudice is widespread in the elite regardless of ethnicity.


The New York Times has now covered the West story and left the Palestinian angle to the last couple of paragraphs, making the controversy entirely about the representation of black scholars at Harvard and other universities.

That was a real issue in West’s discussion–“massive forms of disrespecting black folks.” But it was not the crux of the matter; and in suppressing West’s critique the Times is merely reflecting the elite taboo West targets.

Middle East Eye also has the story but not in full.

Here’s what West said to Tricia Rose re Palestine on February 23.

West said generally that donors and elites set the ideological limits at Harvard and other “neoliberal” institutions, because the schools are “so tied to image and cash flow and consumer reputation.” Harvard states, “We believe in a robust conversation.” But not all the time, West said.

You got a consensus, you got an orthodoxy, you got a certain kind of dogmatism… on certain issues, and it is also I think possibly tied to the donors.”

When West was denied tenure, he looked over his political record and concluded that it was not his support of Bernie Sanders that got him in bad odor.

But considering two cases of scholars who he believes were denied tenure for their criticism of U.S. imperial policies led West to decide it was his criticism of the Israeli occupation.

Hmmm— I wonder whether it’s outspokenness for my precious Palestinian brothers and sisters under Israeli occupation. And I’ve said over and over again, if there is a Palestinian occupation of precious Jews I’m with the oppressed group and in that case my precious Jewish brothers– and the Israeli occupation of Palestinians I’m with my precious Palestinians because it’s a moral and spiritual issue.

But the problem is that it is a taboo issue among certain circles in high places. It’s hard to have a robust respectful conversation about Israel, the Israeli occupation, because you’re immediately viewed as an anti-Jewish hater, or you got anti-Jewish prejudices or you’re antisemitic, or what have you.

I said, That’s ridiculous. Yes, we’ve got to fight any hatred against our Jewish brothers, I say, yes we got to fight any attempt to degrade Jewish brothers and sisters, but Palestinians have exactly the same value as Jews.

People say, Well now you’re not just making it political but somehow you are trying to charge these Jewish elites with you not getting tenure. I said, Well, it’s true in this particular instance that you do have Jewish administrators. But that doesn’t mean that somehow– Every Jew doesn’t agree with them! You got a whole wave of Jewish comrades and Jewish brothers and sisters who are very critical of Israeli occupation, but not in high places!

Not in high places. Now again, this was my hypothesis. Because given the possibilities of why they would not even be interested in initiating a tenure process, What else could it be?

West returned to the question of money and image later in the discussion and said it’s not just Jews in those high places.

The handbook says these are the procedures and rules, but everyone knows that on the ground a whole host of things is taking place. And when you talk about Israeli occupation you’re not just talking about Jewish donors, at all.

We’re not talking first and foremost about Jewish money. You’re talking about the money elite, who are Jewish, non-Jewish, black, white, red, whatever, who do have a certain kind of tilt on that issue. And it’s an issue that cuts across a whole host of different groups in that regard…

The university is most afraid of their money, they’re most afraid about their image and reputation, and they’re most afraid of a legal lawsuit.

The New York Times covered West’s battle with Harvard on March 2. It interviewed West and left the Israel angle to the very end of a long article. It noted that when West left Harvard in 2002 for Princeton, he called Harvard President Larry Summers “a bully and ‘the Ariel Sharon of American higher education,’ a characterization criticized as having anti-Semitic overtones.”

Then having tarred West, the Times barely mentions the Palestinian angle.

He said he is mystified as to why he would not be given a tenure review, but offered some possibilities: a reluctance to grant a coveted position to someone of advancing age, whose best work might be assumed to be behind him, and concerns that his support for the Palestinian cause might offend the prevailing orthodoxy and donors.

“More than anything else, there’s a certain disrespect for Black scholars and taboo issues that don’t allow us to have a robust and respectful dialogue,” he said. “And both of those are very much tied to the way in which the university’s become commodified. It’s a money-driven institution, and it’s sad.”

The taboo subject here is obviously Jewish donors of my generation and older (post 60) who are conservative on Israel. West hedges the charge, saying it’s all administrators regardless of race. I don’t agree.

The issue here is Jewish donors who love Israel. I addressed this in an article about Jewish donors to Harvard in 2008. I quoted an anonymous friend: “What are the names on the buildings? Taubman, Rubenstein, Belfer, Weiner. Where do you think the money is coming from in academia?”

When Larry Summers was forced out of the Harvard presidency in 2007, Marty Peretz attributed it to anti-Israel bias, and threatened a donor rebellion at Harvard.

“I know of at least three gifts in the $100 million range that were very likely to materialize and now are dicey.” A donor rebellion was also threatened when Harvard Kennedy School dean Stephen Walt published his landmark paper on the power of the Israel lobby with Chicago colleague John Mearsheimer.

The Times itself acknowledged Jewish donors as the “elephant in the room” in a related area of giving, the Democratic Party, in Nathan Thrall’s landmark article on why Palestine continues to be a marginalized issue among Democrats.

In part, some Hill staff members and former White House officials say, this is because of the influence of mega-donors: Of the dozens of personal checks greater than $500,000 made out to the largest PAC for Democrats in 2018, the Senate Majority PAC, around three-fourths were written by Jewish donors.

This provides fodder for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and for some, it is the elephant in the room. Though the number of Jewish donors known to prioritize pro-Israel policies above all other issues is small, there are few if any pushing in the opposite direction…

Yes I am conflating Harvard donors and Democratic Party donors. Obviously it’s not the same pool. But they’re not unrelated. JJ Goldberg of the Forward and Stephanie Schriock of Emily’s List described the power of Jewish donors as “gigantic” and “shocking” in a 2016 J Street forum. 

Goldberg said,

You ask a Democratic fundraiser, where do you get the money from? “Well from trial lawyers, from toys, from generic drugs, from Hollywood. From Jews.” Those are all essentially Jewish industries

When you are raising  money, you need to find rich people who are not right wing, and there are not– pardon me for saying this, there are not many rich goyim who are not right wing. Forgive me for saying that.

West is surely right when he says that a new generation of Jews doesn’t buy into the Israel mythology. We champion such Jewish views at our site. But conservative views on Israel are the dead hand of the past when it comes to philanthropy, and still very influential.

Finally, it is interesting to consider that whatever Cornel West’s transgressions at Harvard, he’s not even talking about BDS, the nonviolent campaign for Palestinian human rights. Just the occupation!

Thanks to Linda G. Ford.

Democrats try to bury Palestine in middle of the night

In the early morning hours of 25 June, while many Americans were asleep, Hillary Clinton allies on the Democratic Party’s platform drafting committee blocked a motion that called for an end to Israel’s military occupation and illegal settlement enterprise.

The vote came after several grueling hours of bickering between members named to the committee by Clinton and Democratic National Committee chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, on the one hand, and those appointed by Senator Bernie Sanders, on the other.

The video above shows highlights of the heated exchanges surrounding the vote.

Deeper struggles over Israel taking place within the party have been brought into the open since Sanders named prominent supporters of Palestinian rights to the committee that is writing the party’s general election platform.

Clinton, who appears likely to clinch the party’s presidential nomination after a hard-fought primary battle with Sanders, named members who back her staunch pro-Israel lin

Andrew Bossone shared this link

Despite the tragedy of the other guy winning, this is the platform of the presumptive democratic nominee:
“Clinton surrogates shot down motions endorsing universal health care, a carbon tax, stronger support for raising the minimum wage, forceful opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and a moratorium on fracking.”
That’s Not even addressing the debate among delegates on calling the occupation of Palestine what it is.
Cornel West abstains from voting to support the platform, and drops the mic with “That’s how I roll.”

Sanders reps make passionate pleas, but are outvoted by Clinton surrogates. 

Dark of night

Throughout the day, Clinton surrogates shot down motions endorsing universal health care, a carbon tax, stronger support for raising the minimum wage, forceful opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and a moratorium on fracking.

While these defeats took place during the day, committee organizers waited until the dead of night to deliberate on issues related to Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.

The vote appeared to be deliberately timed to garner as little attention as possible.

It was the very last section raised and by then it was nearly 1am.

Ironically, holding votes in the middle of the night has been a Republican tactic for passing right-wing measures with as little public scrutiny as possible.

But if the purpose in this case was to suppress public debate over Israel, it doesn’t seem to be working.

End the occupation

Arab American Institute president James Zogby, a Sanders appointee, introduced an amendment to revise the language in the Israel/Palestine section of the platform.

Zogby proposed deleting a drafted pledge to oppose so-called delegitimization of Israel at the United Nations or by the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

He also proposed removing a reference to Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided” capital.

Zogby pushed for wording that called for

1.  “an end to occupation and illegal settlements so that [Palestinians] may live in independence, sovereignty and dignity,”

2.  “an international effort to rebuild Gaza which the UN warns could be uninhabitable by 2020” and

3. recognition that Palestinians, like Israelis, “deserve security, recognition and a normal life free from violence, terror and incitement.”

Sanders “had direct input” in crafting the amendment, Zogby said, arguing, “the term occupation shouldn’t be controversial.”

Indeed, there was nothing radical about the amendment, which left the pledged US commitment to subsidizing Israel’s military machine and the reference to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” intact.

Even the supposedly liberal pro-Israel lobby group J Street did not object to the word occupation. Although the memo it circulated to members of the platform committee urged them to adopt language opposing BDS.

Champions of occupation

Clinton appointee Wendy Sherman, a lobbyist who effectively sells access to government officials, accused BDS and the UN of “creat[ing] anti-Semitism.”

Former congressman turned lobbyist Howard Berman framed opposition to Israel’s occupation as “one-sided” and suggested that Palestinians bear some responsibility for Israel’s illegal conduct.

Bonnie Schaefer, former joint-CEO of the jewelry chain Claire’s Stores, didn’t even bother addressing the issues raised in the amendment. Instead, she engaged in pinkwashing.

“As a gay Jewish Zionist, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, as we all know, the only place in the Middle East that I can walk down the street with my wife hand in hand and not be afraid,” Schaefer said.

A Clinton supporter and major donor to the Democratic Party, Schaefer was named to the committee by the DNC.

“Tell the truth”

Zogby fired back, while “you can go and walk down the street of Tel Aviv holding the hand of your wife, I can’t get in the airport without 7 hours of harassment because I’m of Arab descent.”

“We have to be able to call it what it is. It’s an occupation that humiliates people, that breeds contempt, that breeds anger and despair and hopelessness, that leads to violence,” Zogby added.

Civil rights activist and celebrated public intellectual Cornel West, an outspoken supporter of BDS appointed by Sanders, expressed outrage.

“When the IDF [Israeli army] kills innocent people, over 500 babies in 51 days, no matter how many shields they say Hamas uses, it’s wrong,” said West, referring to Israel’s summer 2014 attack on Gaza.

The “Democratic Party must tell the truth,” West implored. “We can never fully respect the Palestinians unless we can name … the boot on their necks.”

“I come from a people who’ve been hated,” West added, drawing an analogy between the long history of denying the horrors inflicted on African Americans and the refusal to recognize the oppression of Palestinians.

The motion was nonetheless defeated in an 8-5 vote, with Sanders’ representatives being the only committee members to back it.

That vote, combined with other defeats throughout the day, prompted West to abstain from approving the platform altogether.

“[If] we can’t say a word about [Trans-Pacific Partnership], if we can’t talk about Medicare for all explicitly, if the greatest prophetic voice dealing with impending ecological catastrophe can hardly win a vote and if we can’t even acknowledge occupation as something that’s real in the lives of a slice of humanity … it just seems to me there’s no way in good conscience I can say take it to the next stage,” West said.

“I have to abstain. I have no other moral option, it would be a violation of my own limited sense of moral integrity and spiritual conscience,” he added. “That’s how I roll.”

West’s and Zogby’s advocacy for Palestinian rights has been so insistent that the Clinton wing of the party has attempted to neutralize them through the most cynical form of identity politicking.

“Concerned that Zogby and West’s viewpoint may be gaining traction at least in the public narrative, Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina representative and now a CNN commentator, sent a letter signed by 60 African American politicians around the country to the co-chairs of the platform committee last week urging them to stick to the traditional language on Israel,” CNN reported.

This move was meant as a “counterpoint to West, a prominent member of the Black community.”

Fundamental disconnect

“Even though ending Israeli military occupation and settlement building have been explicit US policy goals since the early days of the George W. Bush administration, and even though Hillary Clinton as President Obama’s Secretary of State tried to advance these goals, Clinton appointees to the Democratic National Committee’s platform drafting committee outvoted Sanders appointees to exclude these very same goals from the Democratic platform,” Josh Ruebner, policy director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, told The Electronic Intifada.

“As Dr. Jim Zogby, a Sanders appointee, noted in the debate last night there is a fundamental disconnect between official US policy and the unwillingness of the Democratic Party to back it,” Ruebner added.

The US Campaign is calling on activists to urge both the Republican and Democratic parties to support Palestinian rights in their platforms.

About time for Palestinian liberation: Statement by over 1,000 Black activists

The actual distance between Ferguson, Missouri, and Gaza is about 6,000 miles. But last summer, the repressive and deadly violence visited upon blacks and Palestinians, respectively, made that distance seem to disappear.

Immediately, lines of solidarity began to emerge between those groups, and in August a set of activists and organizations in Palestine issued this statement:

We the undersigned Palestinian individuals and groups express our solidarity with the family of Michael Brown, a young unarmed black man gunned down by police on August 9th in Ferguson, Missouri. We wish to express our support and solidarity with the people of Ferguson who have taken their struggle to the street, facing a militarized police occupation.

From all factions and sectors of our dislocated society, we send you our commitment to stand with you in your hour of pain and time of struggle against the oppression that continues to target our black brothers and sisters in nearly every aspect of their lives.

We understand your moral outrage. We empathize with your hurt and anger. We understand the impulse to rebel against the infrastructure of a racist capitalist system that systematically pushes you to the margins of humanity.

And we stand with you.

At the same time, I wrote an article in Salon that spelled out the similarities between the forms of oppression both groups live under, including dispossession from lands and homes; de facto forms of inequality; state violence; the constant interruption of daily life; and the ways the perpetrators of such violence are often immune from prosecution.

Nevertheless, such comparisons were criticized by some here in the U.S., and acts of solidarity were sometimes regarded with suspicion:

In what ways might solidarity with Palestinians be harmful to black political projects here?

Individual activists such as Angela Davis and Cornel West addressed that issue and spoke out on the need for black solidarity with the Palestinians.

As West put it:

In terms of the various kinds of Zionist critiques, we make it clear that this has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with anti-Jewish hatred or anti-Jewish prejudice.

This has to do with a moral and spiritual and political critique of occupation.

Secondly, there is no doubt that Gaza is not just a “kind of” concentration camp, it is the hood on steroids. Now in the black community, located within the American empire, you do have forms of domination and subordination, forms of police surveillance and so forth, so that we are not making claims of identity, we are making claims of forms of domination that must be connected.

There is no doubt that for the Ferguson moment in America and the anti-occupation moment in the Israel-Palestinian struggle there is a very important connection to make and I think we should continue to make it.

But until today there has not been a mass statement of support from black activists and groups to echo the one issued by Palestinians last year.

Now, in a historical event, well over 1,000 black activists, artists, scholars, students and organizations have released a comprehensive, carefully crafted and passionately intoned statement reaffirming their “solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and commitment to the liberation of Palestine’s land and people,” and supporting “freedom and equality for Palestinian people.”

In this sweeping and momentous document, the signatories make a point of drawing out the historical connections between the issues of black and Palestinian freedom and rights, and the urgency of their present-day struggles, calling the fight for Palestinian liberation “a key matter of our time”:

On the anniversary of last summer’s Gaza massacre, in the 48th year of Israeli occupation, the 67th year of Palestinians’ ongoing Nakba (the Arabic word for Israel’s ethnic cleansing)—and in the fourth century of Black oppression in the present-day United States—we, the undersigned Black activists, artists, scholars, writers, and political prisoners offer this letter of reaffirmed solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and commitment to the liberation of Palestine’s land and people.

The list of signatories includes scholar-activists Angela Davis and Cornel West, political prisoners Mumia Abu-Jamal and Sundiata Acoli, rappers Talib Kweli, Boots Riley and Jasiri X, and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors. Organizational signers include the Florida-based Dream Defenders and St. Louis-based Hands Up United and Tribe X, which were founded after the killings of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, respectively, as well as the 35-year-old Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis.

The statement calls on the U.S. government to end diplomatic and economic aid to Israel, for black and U.S. institutions to support the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with its obligations under international law, and for supporters of black and Palestinian liberation to target the private security company G4S for boycotts and divestment, as well as other companies doing business in the occupied territories.

Besides endorsing both academic and cultural boycotts (which in the U.S. is facilitated by the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel), as well as divestment and sanctions, the statement makes emphatically clear the signatories’ commitment to the three goals of BDS and especially addresses the issue of Palestinian refugees:

Our support extends to those living under occupation and siege, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the 7 million Palestinian refugees exiled in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. The refugees’ right to return to their homeland in present-day Israel is the most important aspect of justice for Palestinians.

Andrew Bossone shared the link

“In terms of the various kinds of Zionist critiques, we make it clear that this has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with anti-Jewish hatred or anti-Jewish prejudice.

This has to do with a moral and spiritual and political critique of occupation. Secondly, there is no doubt that Gaza is not just a “kind of” concentration camp, it is the hood on steroids.

Now in the black community, located within the American empire, you do have forms of domination and subordination, forms of police surveillance and so forth, so that we are not making claims of identity, we are making claims of forms of domination that must be connected….

There is no doubt that for the Ferguson moment in America and the anti-occupation moment in the Israel-Palestinian struggle there is a very important connection to make and I think we should continue to make it.”

More than 1,000 black activists released a statement reaffirming their “solidarity with the Palestinian struggle”|By David Palumbo-Liu

From Brooklyn to Bo-Kaap

Music Exchange, one of South Africa’s premier music, film, and entertainment conferences, was held in Cape Town’s City Hall this weekend. The 3-day conference, which describes itself as “a catalyst between the artistically anchored worlds of entertainment, film, music, and academia,” welcomed critically-acclaimed and commercially successful U.S. Hip Hop recording artist and actor Mos Def (a.k.a. Yasiin Bey).

Born in New York City in 1973—and living in Brooklyn for 33 years of his life—Mos Def left “The City That Never Sleeps” (New York) to take up residence in “The Mother City” (Cape Town).

In his keynote speech to Music Exchange 2014 (presented below in Q&A fashion), he shared his views on Cape Town and much more.

Mos Def Moves to Cape Town, South Africa

H. SAMY ALIM posted this March 10, 2014
From Brooklyn to Bo-Kaap
Mos Def, A.K.A. Yasiin Bey

Mos Def, A.K.A. Yasiin Bey
Photo: The VCG for ‘Entertainment Today’

Can you give people in Cape Town a sense of what it was like growing up for you in New York City?

I was born in Brooklyn, New York City. December 11th, 1973. To teenage parents.

I was raised in Brooklyn in a part of town called Bedford-Stuyvesant. My first home was Marcy Projects. My second home was Roosevelt Projects.

I come from a working-class family. Faithful people. My paternal grandfather was a Baptist Minister, a very devout man, a very serious, wise, strong man. My grandmother, on my maternal side, was much like my grandfather. She wasn’t a minister professionally or vocationally, but she was a very devout and faithful person. Very strong, very humble, very meek but far from weak. My grandmother was one of my first heroes.

My mother and my father were teenagers when I was born, so it was a challenge for them to raise me, coming together. My mother lived in Brooklyn; my father was from Newark, New Jersey, so it was a challenge keeping in contact with my dad when I was a young boy. But we managed, we managed.

And my dad and my mom are both great heroes in my life and have been extremely supportive of my dreams and my initiatives…
[When I was a teenager], New York City was a crazy place. Crack had just been introduced into the social context, and it was crazy. It was crazier than I can even express.

Neighborhoods that were already going through trouble were now in a state of crisis. Everybody suffered, whether they used it (crack?) or not. I never felt safe as a teenager, ever, not one day in my development years in New York City, because anything could have happened, at any time—it didn’t make a difference where you were—in New York City.

You could be mugged; you could be shot; you could be stabbed; you could be arrested…. You could get your shoes taken; you could get embarrassed or humiliated, at any time, at any time.

So, here I am, going to school a hour away from where I live, travelling to school, with millions and millions of New Yorkers with their aggressions and attitudes and dysfunctions and really wanting to be an artist, you know, to just study art. No career ambitions.

It was just something that I really enjoyed doing. I auditioned for all of the arts schools and all of the arts programs that I could. My mother was patient and supportive of me in taking me to all of these auditions, you know, listening to my meanderings and ramblings about, “Oh, wow, this school is amazing! Dear Jesus help me!”

And Hip Hop was goin on the whole time. Meanwhile, I’m reading plays. Doing off-off Broadway, working in the theater, with great people. Doing plays, reading plays. I was fortunate enough that in junior high school I got into a very good school that really encouraged us. It was a arts program, it was in my community.

Philippa Schuyler 383 [Middle School]. I think that was a very important point for me in my development as a young person with this ambition, and this gift, this thing that I liked to do. And I was supported and nurtured, and yeah, it was a good time for me. And I was in junior high school, closer to being an adult, and it’s a changing time, it’s a different time.

What do you mean it was a different time?

I didn’t quite fit into the cultural status quo of that day, which is kinda like you know big gold chains and velour suits, and very big tough macho guys—and I wasn’t, it just wasn’t me. Some of them I admired, but I couldn’t be that. It just wasn’t me.

And into that equation comes De La Soul with their album Three Feet High and Rising and it was a great moment for me because they were—De La Soul is singlehandedly the reason that I have a career as a emcee today, because their example encouraged me to keep going forward.

I knew I wanted to do something with music, but I wasn’t quite sure that Hip Hop, the craft of the street that I loved so much, was the place for me, in terms of my own personality. And De La Soul showed me that it was certainly my place. I belonged there just as much as anyone else.

What are some of your earliest Hip Hop or artistic memories?

I first started doing anything artistic—like, the first piece of art that I could remember producing was a short story for my second grade class. We got an assignment to write a short story, and I just took a lot of joy in writing this story.

I didn’t know why it felt good, or why I was so interested in putting this story together. I was excited, but I couldn’t tell you what the story was about now. But I was really, really excited about this short story. I told my mother, and I told anyone who would listen about my short story that I wrote for my second grade class. It was quite powerful. And that’s the first time that I recognized, “Oh, you know, this is something that I like to do. I think I’m good at it, and I enjoy it. I enjoy doing this.”

I always liked to read. I love language. Coming from a religious family, there’s a lot of emphasis on language. The Good Book, and on and on. And then when I was 9 years old—I was either, seven or eight years old—I heard my first Hip Hop song, the first two Hip Hop songs I ever heard. One was “Planet Rock,” by Afrika Bambaataa.

But the first one that I remember hearing clearly—I don’t know which one I heard first, but there’s two clear memories that I have of Hip Hop. I think I was seven or eight years old. I was in the Bronx. It was like 1981. I was standin on the corner, at an intersection—it was a sloping street. To my left, there was a doorway—it was an open doorway. And it was this sound that I had never heard anywhere before comin outta this doorway… [Begins beatboxing the beat and hard-hitting music of Run DMC],

“Unemployment at a record high/People comin, people goin, people born to die/ Don’t ask me, cause I don’t know why/But it’s like that, and that’s the way it is!”

Now, when you’re eight years old, when my eight year old mind and ears heard that, it was—it just stopped me and I was like, “Woah! What is that? Who are those people? Where is that sound coming from?” Not just in terms of space, but like, who thinks to arrange thoughts or sounds or ideas in that way? It was the most curious thing I had heard in my life.

And then, I heard “Planet Rock,” by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force. And I remember being in Brooklyn on Glenwood Road at this pizza—you know, it’s amazing, but it’s like crisp. I can see it like it just happened the other day. Standing at the counter of this pizza shop and they’re playin “Planet Rock,” and I literally started lookin up at the sky, as if the sound was coming from Planet Rock. And I said, “Man, whatever these guys are doin, what is that?”

So, a year later, I said my first rhyme in public, and I said it at the basketball court in my projects. And, you know, I was a quiet kind of kid. I wasn’t this social butterfly. I was a nerd for my, you know, social atmosphere. Where it was like really, really important for guys to be seen as cool, I wasn’t the coolest kid, not in my projects anyway.

So, it was a group of young boys at the playground and we would have this emcee battle. One kid said his rhyme, the other said his. And it was time for me to go, and I did. And as soon as I was done, everybody said, “Ohhhh!” [Laugher] And my life in my projects was a little different—a lot different—from that point on. I still was the, you know, still got the nerd tag and all of that, but it was different. It was like, “Oh, you’re good, you’re good at this rap.”

And, you gotta understand, New York City, early 80s. You’re a young kid; you’re rappin on the street. There’s no career path or career ambitions at all. It was local music. It was just, I mean, local. People in New Jersey barely listened to Hip Hop. It was five boroughs and it wasn’t a national phenomenon.

People in Chicago were not listening to Hip Hop, not that I knew of. As far as I knew, Hip Hop was a New York City affair. That was it. It was just something that I liked to do. It was a craft of the street that I enjoyed, and I kept it up. And I kept writin and writin, and wantin to get better, and kept listenin, and kept getting inspired.

What were you reading in high school? What was inspiring you?

As I left high school, and during my high school years, I started reading more. I started reading novels. My mother gave me a great gift when I was 16. She gave me Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew album… Yeah, and my mother, you know, my mother is not—that’s not her type of music, but she knew I would get into it and she was absolutely right. And she gave me a novel by Chester Himes, The Real Cool Killers. And I remember reading this book and just bein like, “Maaan, this guy is amazing. How does he put these words and thoughts together? I wanna write rhymes like that. I wanna be able to say in my rhymes, you know—I wanna be able to use the type of language that I’m seein in these novels in my rhymes.”

People like Chester Himes, Chinua Achebe, playwrights like Edward Albee, Jean Paul Sartre, Harold Pinter, man, you know. Certain phrases useta jump out at me, like, “Man, that would be amazing to say in a rhyme!”, you know. And I wanted to make great literature, using Hip Hop as the medium.

I wanted to be able to say great words, have people repeat great words, and communicate great ideas, but in the craft of the street that I grew up with, that was just a part of my natural environment. So, it was around this time I was findin my voice as a emcee, you know.

There were certain prevailing notions that were goin around like in order to be a good emcee you have a gravelly voice, you had to talk about certain things, you know, you had to have certain themes. And I tried that. I tried other people’s voices. And some of them I was good at mimicking. But none of those voices was as clear as my own. Sometimes I did things because I thought that’s what you were supposed to do to have impact, to make people connect with what you’re saying.

But when I just left all of that and just started saying what I really felt in a way that was specific to me, then I was understood—more than by others, by myself. And I started to gain more joy out of what I was doing, as opposed to waiting to be accepted by others or understood by others.

Your brother was very integral to your career—can you tell us a little bit about him?

When I was 19 years old, my brother, DCQ, God bless him—I remember we were lookin at a video program and he says, “Yo, man, we can do this!” We were lookin at Common; Common had a video, “Take It EZ.” “Yo, man, we can do this!” And I was just lookin at him like, “You’re crazy. You mean be on TV?” He was like, “Yo, we can do this!” [Laughter] I thought it was the craziest thing that anybody ever said to me. I was like, “How? What do you do?”

Just, I didn’t even know where to go. What, do you open classifieds and… [Laughter]. “We can do this!” Sure enough he just starts making the rounds, you know, taking us to talent shows and meeting people and just networking, which is just something at that point in my life I did not have the social skill set to do at all, at all.

But my brother recognized something in me, and in us, that he said, “Maaan, we can do this!” And he was right. So, my brother was a great inspiration to me. I got a lotta heroes in my life. People that not only knew how to deal with success but could also deal with failure or tragedy.

A short story about my brother Denard, emcee DCQ, Urban Thermo Dynamics…my first partner in Hip Hop. When my brother was 5 years old, he was hit by a speeding car on a street in Brooklyn, on a street called Glenwood Road. We were playin—I was a few years older than him and he got away from my attention and he ran in the street and got hit by a car. The car was going 75 miles an hour. [Pause]. My brother was in a coma for 6 months.

They told us he wouldn’t live; he was gonna have permanent brain damage. He wore a brace for many, many years. Now, my brother teaches varsity basketball. He played on the high school varsity basketball while being paralyzed on his right side. I watched him retrain himself how to write with his left hand, as a fourth grader. You can do anything you put your mind to. You can do anything that you put your mind to…

That’s an incredible story, and a powerful message, especially for those dealing with adversity.

Yeah, I’m grateful for those people, people like my brother, people like my grandparents, people like the streets of Brooklyn, people who created Hip Hop out of nothing, out of NUTHIN.

Can you explain what you mean by that? What was the situation?

America had forgotten about New York City.

There was a fiscal crisis in the late 70s, early 80s. New York City went to the federal government for aid. The federal government’s response was, “I’m not gonna be able to do it.” New York City’s response was, “Bet. No problem. We’re movin on.” And poor people in New York City’s response was, “We’re going to create the strangest, most beautiful, curious, dynamic art form that the world has seen in the last hundred years. We’re going to rock and shock the world. We’re going to speak only to us, and everybody eventually is going to understand. We’re not going to compromise. We’re only going to be us a hundred percent of the time. Weird, strange, beautiful, aggressive, angry, earnest—all the time. They’ll come around, or they won’t. But we’ll be rockin on.” So, I got a lotta heroes. And Hip Hop is a huge hero for me. I love it…

What do you love most about Hip Hop?

I love its vitality. I love the fact that it speaks to young people the way it spoke to me. It recognized my talent, it recognized that I was beautiful, it recognized that I was lonely, it recognized my despair and it told me, “Don’t cry, don’t despair. I understand you. I got something for you to do with all your energy. I got something for you to do with the hopefulness in you. I got something for you to do with the anger inside of you, with the sadness inside of you. I got a way for you to turn that around.”

Can you take us back to the high school years, and when you first got into acting?

While all of this thing with Hip Hop is goin on, and I’m fallin in love with language, you know, with acting, with playwrights. And I remember tellin a guy, you know, I was 15 years old, a guy I looked up to in my neighborhood. And he was askin, “Yo, what y’all wanna be when y’all grow up?” I was like, “I wanna be a actor.” He was like, “You won’t be no actor.” Like that! I was like, “Maaan, that wasn’t nice.” [Laughter] I wasn’t even mad, I was just like, “Geez, man, I liked you… I thought we was cool.” But I just took it like—I wasn’t even angry. I was like, “That’s not true. I am gonna do it.” I didn’t know how I was gonna do it, I just knew that I had to do it.

So, I’m workin as an actor. I’m fortunate. I come into high school. ABC comes to my school. They wanna have an open casting call for a new movie that they’re doin, which means they were just lookin for cheap talent, [Laughter], it’s a start, hey, it’s how I got started. So, they come to my school and, mind you, school started in September. They came to school in October, it was my freshman year. They take us to these auditions.

They’re askin us who our agent is. I put down the name of my high school, my drama teacher, the Board of Education, [Laughter]. So, they ask me all these questions and, you know, “Do you like to travel? Would you like to dah-da-dah…?” “Uhh, I gotta ask my mom, but it sounds cool.” [Laughter] And I get the part! And me and my mom are off to Montreal in 1988 to go be in this movie.

Everybody in my school, in my neighborhood like, “Yo, you goin to shoot a movie? Like, a real movie?” I was like, “I guess so. That’s what the people said.” And so I go do this thing and it’s a real movie with real actors I seen on TV and I’m like, “Woah.” It really happened. And then it comes on TV, and then they said it might get nominated for an Emmy, and I’m like, “Woah.” I had no ambitions of a career. I was just in school.

So, my career got started literally like—I don’t wanna say by accident—but by no effort of my own other than just showin up on time for drama class. My mother and I, after that, we started walkin the street, lookin—my other knew nothing about this business, neither did I. But it’s 27 years later and I’ve worked with so many people that I admired. I can call them friends now. It’s a great gift.

I owe so much of it to the effort of my mother… [Takes a long pause, with his head down, clearly emotional, shedding tears, and begins speaking again]… It has been a really amazing and crazy year for me, going from 2013 til now.

And you’ve been living in Cape Town for nearly a year now—what made you move from Brooklyn to Bo-Kaap, so to speak?

I’m a Brooklyn guy. I lived in Brooklyn 33 years of my life, my natural born life. I’ll be 40 this year, I mean, last year. I lived in Brooklyn 33 years of my life. I thought I’d be buried in that place. And around 7 years ago, I was like, you know, “I gotta go, I gotta leave.”

It’s very hard to leave. And I lived in a lot of places. Central America. North America. Europe for a while. And I came to Cape Town in 2009 and it just hit me. I was like, “Yeah.” I know when a good vibe gets to you. And, you know, I thought about this place every day from when I left. I was like, “I’m comin back.” People were like, “You’re crazy. It’s nine years away. It’s crazy. It’s scary. They’re gonna eat you…[Laughter]… I saw this report on Nightline, it’s very scary, don’t go there.” I was like, “I’m goin!” And last year in May, with the help of my dear friend (artist/manager), Abdi Hussein (Whosane), been talkin about it for a number of years, I was like, “I’m comin.”

So, I came and I said I’m not leaving, I’m staying. And I’m not here just for like middle class comfort, you know. Sure, it’s a beautiful place, you got the ocean, the mountain, the botanical garden, the beautiful people, the history, the culture, the struggle and everything—maaan, let me tell you something, for a guy like me, who had five or six generations not just in America but in one town in America to leave America, things gotta be not so good with America.

And I’ve lived in some beautiful places in America. I’ve lived in New Orleans; I love New Orleans. I love Brooklyn. Forget about it! New York City needs to thank Brooklyn every day just for existing! It was a hard thing to leave home, but I’m here. And I’m glad that I did it. I don’t think it’s any accident or coincidence that I’m here…

And it’s amazing, and it’s crazy. South Africa’s crazy! Cape Town is crazy! I seen some of the craziest people in my life walkin up and down Long Street, and I’m from New York! This guy is—this guy’s crazy. These fights are crazy. These guys with the vests, “helping me park,”… [Laughter], they’re crazy. Angry-lookin-faced people, crazy! People complain about nothing, crazy. But worthwhile. Not always easy, but more beautiful than a lotta places that I’ve been.

I’ve been to some beautiful places. More than just the natural scenery, I’ve been really encouraged by the artistry and the determination that I’ve seen in this city and in this country. People like Petit Noir, people like Driemanskap, people like Khanyi Mazi, people like Smiso (Okmalumkoolkat), names that I’m forgetting… So many young people. Ill Skillz. Designers. Graphic designers. Painters. Writers. Lebo Mashile.

So many fantastic people in almost every area of endeavor. And yet, I see the same dynamic people, many of them doubtful or fearful, or feeling like what they have to offer is beautiful only to them and not valued by the world, and that there’s not quite a place in the world for it. And I find it curious that all of this enthusiasm that all of the rest of the world has for Africa in general and South Africa in particular is not really shared as heartily by Africans themselves.

I find that to be very, very, very curious. Because I’ve seen some beautiful places. I’ve been to Brazil numerous times, all throughout Asia, all throughout the best places in Europe, the best places in the States, even as far as some of Scandanavia. Amazing talent, amazing places. But nobody, excluding any place, is like Africa. Nobody.

And that’s not a past-time or history, that’s today—the arts, the crafts, the thoughts, the concepts, the energy, the people that are comin out of this continent are unlike any other in the world. And that’s not something to trip on, or to take as a dose to the ego. But don’t trip, be aware. Be aware that you are in a special place at a very special and unique time in history.

Do you have a particular message for South African artists, for young people?

Be encouraged. Yes, it is crazy, but that’s OK. Hope has never been and will never be lost. Even though people will try to promote that, like, the end is nigh. That is a great trick. Some people will have you believe that your actions don’t mean anything because the odds are too insurmountable, the stakes are just too high for you to win.

And this is a fiction. This is a fiction. This is worse than a fiction. It’s a lie. Don’t believe that lie. If anything that you could take from what I’ve said today—looking at my story—it’s not always about having the best odds. If you focus on how good the odds are in your favor you may never do anything of real value.

Optimism, as my dear friend Cornel West said, is looking at a circumstance and based on empirical facts, seeing that the odds are in your favor and feeling positive. Hope is knowing that the odds are not in your favor and that things do not look positive. And that the sky on this day is black and bleak and the sun is not shining at this moment quite as brightly as you would like. But it is shining nonetheless. And that this great cloud must pass even if it’s hanging directly on your shoulders on this day.

Do not be discouraged, do not be dismayed. You are a beautiful people with a beautiful history, a beautiful legacy. A message, an example for this world. Should you conquer the ills of the past, you can build a society that does not quite yet exist. You can be the change in the world that you want to see. You do not have to live in the drudgery of the past, of even your sins. We can all get better.

People often make the mistake about the future that it will be more of the past. And it is anything but. The future is something that we have never quite seen before anywhere but in our dreams and in our visions.

And hope is only lost when we lose those visions and we stop believing those dreams, stop believing in ourselves, stop believing that a better world can be possible.

Lastly, have the power of a pure intention. Work to leave this world a little better than you encountered it, in whatever ways you can, using whatever talents that you have. If you can do only a little today, then do all of it good. Never think that you’re little is not big enough, and never think that you’re dreaming too big. Failure is not failure.

The only sin is having a low aim. Aim high, even if you miss.

The point is, what direction are you pointing in? Try to be pointed in a good direction, good for yourself, good for your neighbors, good for the world. Don’t be scared, don’t be dismayed, don’t stop. Keep forward. Keep the sunshine on our face. God bless you.

H. SAMY ALIM is a professor at Stanford University where he directs African and African American Studies and the Institute for Diversity in the Arts. Some of his books include Roc the Mic Right: The Language of Hip Hop Culture (2006) and Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. (2012, with Geneva Smitherman). He has written for numerous publications from The New York Times to Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo, Egypt.





February 2023

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