Monday, May 5, 2008

Organic Intellectualism in Hip Hop

"Invest in a new music ecology. Don’t use the master’s tools to dismember the master’s house. Get away from that—go build a new house. Better yet, go live in the fucking woods.”-Ayize Jama-Everett

A feature on Ayize Jama-Everett. A discussion of hip hop. One expert, so many problems.

Jama-Everett at Espresso Roma in Berekeley

New York City perpetuates in Jama-Everett. Born in Harlem 33 years ago, Jama-Everett has rhythm pulsating through his veins. “I’ve always been into music; of course I was going to be into hip-hop,” said Jama-Everett. When he was young, there was no need to go far. He stayed in the neighborhood for higher education. Attending Ithaca upstate, Jama-Everett started out in media studies and moved into theology later, having always seen a connection between the two. “Media is the study of symbols," he said, straightening his bandana. "Look at the history of religion as a conversation about opposing symbols. What is sacred music and dance? How do things become holy?”

Jama-Everett is cool and collected like the jazz cats of old. His smile suggests a vitality not often seen near the hustle of hard cities like Oakland. Maybe it’s the Berkeley hills standing tall behind the cafĂ© where we sit. Maybe it’s because he knows something we don’t.

“Religion is like media in its cultural persistence. We choose to hold onto words, dances, and meanings across generations,” Jama- Everett said, instilling into the conversation a feeling of real meaning, a trait often lost in these chaotic times. “There is still something sacred about a hip hop decipher." Hip hop is rooted deep in our culture, tracing back to our country's beginnings. Ayize describes that there is an organic feel about it. It can move soul he said. "When a stripped down base, two snares, and a high hat is all a MC needs to hold it down, it can pull something out of you.” A simple set is all an artists needs to floor his audience if he is true to the craft of original rhythm.

Now a health educator and counselor at the College Preparatory School in Oakland, California, Jama-Everett said he spent his high school days at a boarding school in New Hampshire where he was introduced to the Wu-Tang Clan. “They kept me sane.” Ayize beholds a true expertise of the Wu-Tang Clan; his knowledge of the Wu has led him to teach the group's ideology at the University level. When is the last time you attended a lecture based around a hip hop group?

Before the Wu, The Sugar Hill Gang’s first album with single “Rapper’s Delight,” kept Jama-Everett content. Later, after the Wu-Tang clan, he became interested in more revolutionary artists like San Franciscan rapper Paris and the underground hip hop group Dead Prez. Adding even more complexity to his demeanor, Jama-Everett said he had the punk ideology of raising oneself up to the other side from an early age—as an adolescent, he frequenting CBGBs in New York.

For true democracy, dissenting individuals must be fully engaged—it promotes equality in individual action if one among many is able to make his point to a receptive, even if disagreeable, group, says Jama-Everett. Total societal participation is crucial for the advancement of knowledge in every sense, including the development of organizers. When uninhibited ideas found in individual thought appeal to the masses, those thinkers become leaders by way of intellectualism, not domination says Jama-Everett.

These ideas aren't easy to grasp; just as Ayize is not easy to get. He moved from New York to Santa Cruz to Oakland and now we met in Berkeley. Who is this intellect? He must be far from traditional.

Traditional intellects often assume that, provided fair representation, a disconnection between themselves and the masses allows for greater achievement due to less resistance. However, Jama-Everett refers to Antonio Gramsci: “The intellectual’s error consists in believing that it is possible to know without understanding and especially without feeling and passion…that the intellectual can be an intellectual…if he is distinct and detached from the people…without feeling the elemental passions of the people…”

“Musicians need to explore new ways to make music accessible and action oriented,” says Julia Dowd, adding insight. She is the associate director of the Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Sudies and Social Thought at the University of San Francisco. She said musicians need to find out how to utilize their skills for the social good.

Intellects who interact among the public commons without exclusion become organic intellectuals, says Jama-Everett, because in doing so, they are embracing reality. The relationship between the organic intellectual and the masses can be personified in hip-hop, an arena well outside that of conventional academia.

Jama-Everett says in hip hop jam battles, where multiple artists use flurries of rhymes to contend against each other in poetic warfare, the audience—like the masses—can be won. If a particularly influential artist appeals to his audience, in greater fashion than his opponents, then he will have convinced the masses accept at least a portion of his ideology. However, this is a dynamic relationship. The artist must also be able to balance his message with his reception of both the audience and his opponents says Jama-Everett.

The map below shows the path of one organic intellectual, Leonardo Martinez, in his journey from Cuba to the Bay Area.

If the artist is accepted, he must convey to his audience that he is someone engaged in them at least equal to their engagement of him says Jama-Everett. The goal of the artist is the acceptance of his crowd, not necessarily the ruin of his opponents. One of the artist’s principle tasks is to transfer his rhyme to his opponent with style and ease, letting the competition represent itself. Politicians take note.

Critiqued on perceived information, the economy and the politics that decide it work in the same way. In dominant hegemonic discourse, one can join because everyone is joining. This is a paradigm of inherent domination in which the dominated assume that the ruling class is right in reigning over them. The responsible hegemony articulates itself—there are no unstated or covert agreements. Put simply, “There are no family secrets,” said Jama-Everett.

Jama-Everett says when rappers and hip hop stars rock the mic with stereotypical ‘rap game’ jargon including excesses in cash, drugs, cars, and women; we can see the destruction the truth. No longer is there an honest dialogue being communicated in black or minority communities when the acknowledged intellectuals (rap stars) produce detrimental fantasies about an unsustainable and dishonest—never mind unproductive—existence.

Leonardo Martinez, a Cuban finding refuge in the States, raps for his country's freedom. He embodies his people in his salsa inspired beats and as he says, he only spits the truth. "Music is my passion." Similiar to Jama-Everett, he bumps the New York style. Seeping out through his headphones, one can hear echoes of the Roots, the Dead Presidents, Tali-Kwalib, Mos Def, and most rebellious NYC clan, the Wu-Tang.

Dowd, who earned a masters in Nonprofit Administration at USF, said, “Artists need to discover joy,” in finding a vocation that supports social action, “You have to get excited.” Take for example, Dowd said, the efforts of the Not-for-Sale. This campaign promotes awareness against human trafficking by creating songs and uploading them onto the Internet to inspire and educate, she said. Although music is seen as a universal language, it is not the only means to endorse change—Not-for-Sale has downloadable posters as well as guides, handbooks, and toolkits.

If music is your means, listen to Niki Turkovic’s song about ending modern day slavery, “I’ll be your friend.”

Focusing on how to rediscover a successful culture, Jama-Everett said, “If you want it, be real.” He said realism is the source of accomplishment, because without reality, there can be no useful communication between parties. For instance, Jama-Everett said, the Clipse predominately rapped about stockpiles of cash at a time when rappers were barely scrapping by and African Americans in general were in a particularly diminished state.

“Let money go in hip hop.” Jama-Everett said. He continued, when A Tribe Called Quest talks about the shadiness of record companies, they are informing other rappers of the prevalence of deception in the music business. In showing an alternate view of an industry that often promises riches and glory, A Tribe Called Quest takes on the role of an intellectual promoting action outside hegemony. In doing so, they become organic intellectuals—they become revolutionaries.

Connections depend on shared identifications—if rap artists elevate themselves above the culture of their inception, the opportunity for uplifting their foundation ceases to exist. At this point, the artist’s raps become mostly entertainment, having left behind the disparities and struggles of his community, says Jama-Everett.

To critique hip hop or politics, one must look at what conversations are taking place. Whether that be in music or culture or society, civilizations must analyze their own discussions to gain view of hegemonic representitives as well as minority representitives.

To enact serious change, “Get a day job,” says Jama-Everett, maintaining that organic intellectuals do not make a living off of being intellectuals. They must be actively engaged in their communities and relieve themselves of overindulged materialism. “Let go of all the bells and whistles.” Exaggerations comprise too much of rap, Jama-Everett said, it is time to hear what else is going on in your world. Is it exaggerations, or denials that comprise our politics?

To Ayize, it is not just rappers who must change. Our dichotomy does not rest in the rich and the poor, but rather it lies in what we signify as good and bad. We must challenge out perceptions.

“While food shortages world-wide persist, bio-fuels are not a good idea. Fuck Ethanol,” says Jama-Everett, providing an opinion not often heard. Moreover, he said harvesting corn for alternative fuels is not practical while people are starving throughout the world. “We don’t see the poverty of the world. The poorest person in the US is a king in some places. Much of the world lives off less than a dollar a day,” said Jama-Everett, “Anyone in the US can score more than a dollar a day.”

As the issues become more intense, so do Jama-Everett’s eyes. He hunkers down in his chair and gives it another go. He is tired and war-torn, but he must fight on. He believes in the organic intellectual. He wants to believe that others do to.

“Realizing you cannot pillage everything pillageable is important. There has to be some conservation. Capitalism promotes conservatism.” Jama-Everett admits capitalism is easy to put on the hook because there are no foreseeable ways to take us off it. He pushes that we must understand that infinite resources are not available; capitalism relies on the principle of growth. Our survival, he says, relies in the principle of sustainability.

True to his form, Everett wears humble clothes. He wears a painter’s shirt, stained with a long day’s work. It is clear Jama-Everett has had to work for what he has. He takes nothing for granted. He longs that others will see through the myth of our culture too; it will take the masses to recreate a new identity.

“What is the difference between Bill Gates, Rupert Murdock and the silent king?” asks Jama-Everett. He continues, the only time the masses know they have a silent king is during a revolt or when the king makes a demand. Say, when we take out our wallets? “Capitalism is the silent king.”

In realizing the paradigm the US is in, Ayize takes the first step toward reform. This is no AA either--it is true social reform that uses the individual as a catalyst to think above a single frame of mind.

Specific to music, he says, “Invest in a new music ecology. Don’t use the master’s tools to dismember the master’s house. Get away from that—go build a new house. Better yet, go live in the fucking woods.”

Music can be our example.

Jama-Everett said he remembers one Fugees’ rap that was particularly honest. The rap includes Pras Michel and Wyclef Jean exchanging lines about a street altercation. The scene presented by the two is summed up when Michel asks Jean if he shot the guy and Jean says no, in so many words. “This was a moment of truth,” Jama-Everett said, one that isn’t heard in many raps, but exemplifies authentic actions occurring in real life altercations.

Musicians have traditionally represented the cultures in which they arise. For better or for worse, their observations tell the story of common belief. Jama-Everett said, "If we believe in money, talk about cash. If we believe in saving people, talk about change."

One artist raising awareness, according to Dowd, is Moby. “He is on a grand scale. He raises issues of economic justice and poverty around the world.”

Jama-Everett’s first show was Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys at Madison Square gardens. “Everyone fucks up now, but back then Rock and Rap combinations were authentic,” he said, leading into the fact he was an early convert to Rick Ruben, producer of such bands as Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Hip Hop was never just entertainment for Jama-Everett, who listened to Grand Master Flash and the Furious 5 for their hard-hitting, but honest raps on how much disparity there is in American ghettos. He said content such as this separates street hip hop from radio hip hop.

“You can have a number one record but if you can’t freestyle—if you can’t go to the street and spit it, then shut the fuck up! Freestyle is democracy in action.” He said while Prince and Michael Jackson were radio standards, Public Enemy was articulating politics.

Hip Hop always had meaning for Jama-Everett. To listen to Public Enemy, he said, at a certain time was to announce your politics on the street. Back then there were no I-Pod earphones to slink behind; hip hop rang out of boom-boxes. It was cacophony to some, but cultural revolution to others.

“I’ve always referred to myself as a black cultural refugee. I listened to ACDC, but Public Enemy was it.”

“To know hip hop... is to know blackness—to know Public Enemy though you have to encounter blackness,” he said, and many people didn’t. What worse, he said, because of Public Enemy, many have a fear of the black planet. Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions was a complex audio collage of horns, embodying the sounds from New York City and the street. Many people hear the harshness of the lyrics and back off, missing the point that minorities often have to be hard to survive.

Jama-Everett believes this form of cultural resistance is inherently political—on both sides. Public Enemy is hard because they refuse to buy into elite views, he said, and become a threat to the dominant class. In the US this means you are not reconstituting the capitalist model. Unlike the patriarchal capitalist model, the organic actively participates—like Public Enemy—and engages anyone willing to listen, taking the time to educate.

Because they have a revolutionary message, Public Enemy along with many other artists are considered organic intellectuals and face a considerable challenge in cracking into the radio system, Jama-Everett said. The radio is the link to the masses. “Radio has never played what people want to hear. It’s commerce,” Jama-Everett added. “You’ve never seen an organic intellectual in radio or on TV because commerce limits dialogue to please the majority.” For the first time in history, we truly have the means to deliver what the people want in terms of music, Jama-Everett remarks. Straining the supply, he said, are bureaucratic obstacles that mean to ensure growth and financial earnings in the free market system through limiting the market. For many years, media conglomerates have guaranteed their industry by regulating and hindering music’s more progressive styles.

Another example of this Jama-Everett said is the movie industry. He says having the Classification And Ratings Administration (CARA) hand a movie an NC-17 rating is the worst thing for a film because theaters in general won’t pick it up. This is one body affecting the outcome of almost all major movies. “Limited criticism promotes censorship,” especially when there is no criticism, Jama-Everett said.

In this case, Jama-Everett said, we don’t have the conversation about culture presented to us by individuals because two governing bodies, the ratings body and the movie theater body, have already governed our choices to those with majority agreeable ratings.

The original democratic ideal was not representative in terms of participation, he adds, but rather it was an ideology shaped around the individual. “Representation came with the Romans, but true democracy was established long before by the Greeks.” Here he elaborates, principles of equality stimulated democratic thought by constructing a society where every man believed he was an individual equal to all others. “One-man, one-vote logic eventually led to representatives, but in theory, representation was rooted in the masses,”—not the elites.

Perhaps Antonio Gramsci sums it up best, “If the relations between intellectuals and the people-nation, between leaders and led, is a result of an organic participation in which feelings and passion become understanding and thence knowledge…then and then only is the relation one of representation.”

Or maybe its Jama-Everett, "Freestyle is democracy..."