Hip-hop activist shows rap's power to politicise

Issue 
Hip-hop activist Solomon Comissiong. Image: Press TV

Hip Hop, White Supremacy & Capitalism: Why Corporations Infiltrated RAP Music
Solomon Comissiong
Released November 2013
www.solomoncomissiong.com

The politics in early hip-hop music inspired Solomon Comissiong to become an activist, author, lecturer and film-maker. Green Left Weekly's Mat Ward spoke to him about his work, which uses rap music as a tool to educate and organise.

***

Some people doubt the power of music to politicise, but you are living proof that it does. Tell us about how hearing a lyric about political leader Marcus Garvey when you were growing up turned you on to politics.

When I first heard a song called "Black and Proud" by a hip-hop artist by the name of Intelligent Hoodlum, within this song I heard the name Marcus Garvey - a name I was not familiar with. I did not know if Intelligent Hoodlum was referencing another rapper or what. I went and asked my mom if she knew who Marcus Garvey was and she told me. However, she was surprised I had learned about him in a song. My mom encouraged me to learn more about this great leader. I started researching him as a kid and the more I learned about Garvey the more I was inspired about his work as the leader and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Then I began to learn about the people Garvey influenced such as Malcolm X's parents and how that trickled down to Malcolm X. Garvey was one of the many historical figures who were name-dropped on various songs throughout the “Golden Era” of hip-hop.

In the latest of your four books, "A Hip-Hop Activist Speaks Out on Political Issues", you say that what is now called socialism was being lived by non-white people long before white people felt they had to give a name to it. "Labelling everything in order to give it credibility is a Western based habit." Tell us about that.

Yes, it sure is. indigenous people throughout places like the African continent and what are now known as the "Americas" had been living communal lives. The way they lived would be described by today's terms as "socialism". However, they did not need some term created by white men to validate their way of life. As we know Karl Marx was not even a figment in the imagination of humanity when these indigenous people prospered with their way of life. They lived within their means and each was provided resources to their particular needs. There was a beautiful balance between their way of life and nature. Their way of life ultimately complimented nature. There is great hubris in the bad Western habit of failing to recognise and learn from the lessons of antiquity, especially where people of colour dwelled, and then labelling it something as a means to validate it.

What have been some of your favourite reactions to your books?

It has been particularly gratifying when people tell me that my books have inspired them to further their independent studies, become more involved in their communities, or just simply inspired them in some positive way. As a revolutionary-minded author and activist, it feels good to know that your work has exposed readers to information that expands their overall understanding of critical issues. This helps pave the road for people to become more mobilised and organised.

You write about the cult of US president Barack Obama. Do you think the colour of his skin allows him to get away with more regressive policies than his supposedly more right-wing predecessor, George W Bush?

Of course, Barack Obama's skin colour, without a doubt, has played a most destructive role in preventing liberals and so-called progressives, of all stripes, to look past the crimes against humanity he is committing, What is most reprehensible about this is that these same people were vilifying Bush for similar crimes - rightfully so. However, now that Obama is doing them - in some cases even worse - they turn a blind eye to the destruction Obama is causing. The cult of Obama has exposed many people who were previously masquerading around as social progressives as the frauds they truly are. They now support war simply because it is a brown-faced Democrat doing it.

You note how your teachers in your mostly white school set low expectations for you and you therefore underperformed. Do you think you were lucky in having a mother - highly qualified, I believe - who snapped you out of that underperformance?

Yes, my mother made it blatantly clear that many of my teachers did not have my best interests in mind when she found out they were congratulating me for receiving C grades on my work. She explained to me how they obviously believed I was only good enough for average grades and how as long as I allowed myself to perform at the standards they set for me then I was playing into their low expectations. My mom has been an inspiration to me throughout my life and I can safely say that if it was not for her guidance and love I would not be who I am today.

Your documentary "Hip Hop, White Supremacy & Capitalism: Why Corporations Infiltrated RAP Music" is great because it also showcases the work of some of the better rappers out there. What have been some of your favourite reactions to the documentary?

I have loved hearing that this documentary has inspired parents and grandparents to more deeply understand that hip-hop as a whole is not bad and that it is the media corporations who have reshaped aspects of hip-hop to resemble some type of "Frankenstein" version of rap music. Hearing how it has inspired these parents to expose many of the positive suppressed aspects of underground hip-hop to their children and teach them about media literacy has been most rewarding. I made this film to help educate folks and to make a change, even if it was a small change. [Watch the documentary in full below.]

You stress the importance of people learning their own histories, no matter their background. Your roots are in Trinidad - is that why the corporate hip-hop rapper Trinidad James and his confederate soldier's hat, which you criticise in your documentary, caught your eye [in the video below at 1 minute 59 seconds]?

Not really. The fact that there would be a black man wearing a confederate army hat on his head caught my eye with blatant irony. It’s simply sad to see how misguided and foolish someone like Trinidad James is. However, this routinely occurs when you have someone from a historically oppressed demographic who has never been exposed to their history - they begin to take upon the ideals of their oppressor, without even knowing it.

The Golden Era of hip-hop, when socially conscious hip-hop acts were getting mainstream exposure, lasted from the late 1980s to about 1994. So it took corporations quite a while to catch on that promoting such acts wasn't really in their interests, didn't it?

As soon as these corporations began to see how hip-hop was not going away, they began to turn their greedy eyes on the culture with hopes of co-opting it. Once they started to buy out independent record labels and radio stations, and as their control over hip-hop grew, they realised that it was in their best interests to selectively promote artists who fit a "cookie cutter" mould that they envisioned. They wanted to promote rappers that only spoke about things like drug dealing, drug usage, consumerism, exploiting and degrading women, and senseless violence directed at people of colour. This would allow them to make loads of cash, while mentally "dumbing down" masses of youth. In essence, they were orchestrating all-out cultural and psychological warfare on youth and young adults.

In your documentary, radical rapper Jasiri X notes how independent artists can get paid more than the most commercially successful "sell out" artists, like Rick Ross. As more artists take the independent route, do you think we could we see a "Platinum Era" of hip-hop, or do you think artists still need the exposure offered by big labels for something like that to happen?

No, they do not need big labels at all. However, in order for artists like Jasiri X to get the exposure they deserve, we have to become more organised and begin to strategically expose their music to our communities. It is not enough to simply say you are a fan of various socially progressive artists if you are not going to share their music to those who have never been exposed to it. We must understand how critical the stakes are currently and understand that music has historically played a significant role in edifying various people. More and more people, especially youth, need to be exposed to the music of artists like Jasiri X, Capital X, Dead Prez and Narubi Selah. This is why I decided to make the documentary "Hip Hop, White Supremacy & Capitalism: Why Corporations Infiltrated RAP Music". I wanted to do what I can to share this critical information about the corporate media and the messages they are trying to suppress. This is why I do the lectures I have been doing throughout the US and globally. If folks want more information about my work they should visit www.solomoncomissiong.com. We need to build together.

You stress the importance of reading the books of your foes. Tell us about that.

If we only read the books that are aligned with our revolutionary politics we will never fully understand the devious and nefarious nature of those who do not wish to see a much more progressive, equitable and socially just planet. We need to also read the books and literary works of those who are on the complete opposite side of our political spectrum. However, we must understand the political motives of the authors of that work prior to reading it. As [hip-hop pioneer] KRS-ONE once said, “If you don't know the history of the author of the book you are reading, you won’t know what you are reading." We must get in the habit of studying all angles of critical issues and systems of oppression that we are trying to overturn.

You also stress the importance of never talking down to people, as no one starts out with the knowledge they now have. Want to expand on that?

Sure, it’s simple. All of us, including myself, have not always known what we know now. However, something or someone exposed us to that information. We must understand this about large segments of society - they don’t know what we know. This is why we must make organised efforts to expose these people to various aspects of information. We cannot impose the information on them - nor should we want to. However, we must expose it to them. If we do this, I have no doubt that many of those people will join with us to organise for a radically better global society than the one we currently dwell within. We must strive towards a world that is riddled with social justice, equity, and PEACE.

What acts are catching your attention at the moment?

Wow, there are too many to say. So many terrifically talented and skilled artists out there today like, Narubi Selah, Welfare Poets, Immortal Technique, Lowkey, Jasiri X, Invincible and Capital X. I could go on for a long time naming them. Many are featured on: "Hip Hop, White Supremacy & Capitalism: Why Corporations Infiltrated RAP Music". Folks can email me at: scmbconsulting@hotmail.com if they would like a more extensive list.

You've said you've previously thought you'd stop writing books, as they take so much work. Are you still thinking that way, or do you have another planned?

I thought I was going to stop writing books,. However, I simply can’t. I love writing and when it calls you... it calls you. I have been summoned back to the keyboard and pen. I am currently working simultaneously on books. I don’t really have a timeline to complete them. However, one of them is well under way. One will be the second instalment of a book similar to "A Hip Hop Activist Speaks Out on Social Issues". The other book is still in its infancy, so I don't want to disclose its focus as of yet, since I am still fleshing my way through the process of framing the book.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

If people would like to connect with me please email me at: scmbconsulting@hotmail.com, www.solomoncomissiong.com or visit me on Facebook at: A Hip Hop Activist Speaks Out on Social Issues. Let’s build a better global society, together!

Read a Green Left Weekly interview with rapper-activists Rebel Diaz here.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.