Bomani on the Global African for The Real News Network

Posted on July 13, 2015

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I had the extreme pleasure of appearing on the Global African with Bill Fletcher Jr.  Here is the video and the transcript of my interview.  Click the link here to find out more about The Global African and the Real News Network!

BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll talk to D.C.-based artist Bomani Armah, and we’ll also look at African American-Palestinian solidarity. That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us. We’ll be right back.

~~~FLETCHER: Hip hop as an art form can be used to teach activism and science, creative writing skills and math. Some say it’s the language of our youth.Producer and poet Bomani Armah skillfully uses hip hop to teach young people the power of perspective and the importance of telling their own stories.

~~~BOMANI ARMAH: My name is Bomani Armah. I am not a rapper. I am a poet with a hip hop style.UNIDENTIFIED: Bomani, you say that you’re a poet with a hip hop influence,–ARMAH: Yeah, yeah, yeah.UNIDENTIFIED: –but not a rapper. Can you explain the distinction?ARMAH: Sure. So, I mean, I track my art form past hip hop. I love hip hop. You know what I’m saying? I grew up in it. But I track my art form past that. I connect myself to Langston Hughes. I connect myself to Shakespeare. You know what I’m saying? I can do a poetry reading. I can do it with a deejay. I can do it a cappella. But it’s about understanding and respecting the art form and using the words. And I love rappers. You know what I’m saying? Rappers are some of my favorite artists. But now when I would go in and teach young people and I would tell them I’m a rapper, they’re like, yo, where’s your chain? Where’s your car? And I’m like, oh, I’m not that kind of rapper. I’m a poet with a hip hop style. So it all kind of came together. Yeah.UNIDENTIFIED: That makes sense.ARMAH: Yeah.

~~~ARMAH: In hip hop you talk with your hands and your voice. One, two, three. [incompr.] You’re, like, right in front. Alright. Let’s try this. One, two, three. [incompr.]VOICEOVER: For many, the sum of hip hop today is what we see in popular culture: gold chains and fast cars. But there are artists like Bomani Armah who represent the hip hop community every day, teaching young people how to write, rocking stages at night, and producing albums for other artists. Bomani is a modern-day renaissance man, believing in music’s intrinsic spiritual power to move people with clever lyrics and strong beats. He gained national attention with his song “Read A Book”,–

Read a book, read a book, read a mother– book
Read a book, read a book, read a mother– book

–encouraging young people to read, while also teaching [incompr.] the importance of satire by examining how hip hop culture shows up in mainstream media. The sum of his work shows us that he is in fact an artist who embodies the power and style of hip hop, the social responsibility of teacher, and the wisdom and observation of poet.

~~~FLETCHER: We’re joined for this segment with Bomani Armah, who is a Washington, D.C., based self-identified poet with a hip hop style, who’s also known for a 2007 single “Read A Book”. He is a teaching artist, a producer, and homeschools his twin sons Olu [spl?] and Dela [spl?]. Welcome to The Global African.

ARMAH: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

FLETCHER: You don’t like to be or don’t want to be identified as a rapper.

ARMAH: Well, yeah. So, I mean, that began because I started doing spoken word poetry before I started doing hip hop. But I was always doing my poetry to a rhyme, but not on beat. And so I started doing that just as an homage, I guess, to rappers, didn’t think I’m not trying to do the same thing. But then I started really getting serious about hip hop. But the students I would teach, I would come into class and they’d be like, where’s your gold chain? Where’s your car? So I’m like, well, I’m not a rapper. You know what I’m saying? It started meaning that a little bit.

ARMAH: I think it’s the duty of the poet, especially in the tradition of black poets, to shed light on the community that you’re in and to give a vision of the community that you want. I mean, like, once again, Langston Hughes is one of the biggest examples of that.

FLETCHER: When you mentioned Langston Hughes, so my great-grandfather was a major pre-Harlem Renaissance poet, author. His name was William Stanley Braithwaite. And I’ve read a number of his poems, and there’s a complete contrast between his more generally socially progressive commitment and his poetry. It’s not reflected in much of his poetry. His poetry is almost 19th century British in some ways. Hughes, on the other hand, very much integrated his critique of the situation facing people of African descent into his poetry. And that struggle seems to be a struggle that is faced by many artists in black America.

ARMAH: Mhm. Well, Langston and the people that were part of the Harlem Renaissance movement were completely a part of a lot of things going on. They were part of the blues tradition, which is very raw about the realities of people’s lives. They were part of the activism against–the anti-lynching campaign. When a black man was getting lynched every two or three days, it was the poets, it was the artists who were making mention of it in everything they could write, everything they could sing. He was very much an active communist. You know what I’m saying? And communists at the time were very much about using every form of entertainment and propaganda to get their message out. So the idea that your art is directly connected with some kind of social issue, I mean, you couldn’t avoid it in the time that Langston was doing it. I honestly don’t think you can avoid it now. One of the reasons that I guess I probably separate myself from the commercial aspect of hip hop is, like, we’ve been at war for 15 years. We’ve been at war–for a lot of the young people that I work with, we’ve been–maybe not 15, 13 years, the majority of their lives. I can’t tell you the popular song that made it to radio in hip hop addressing the war in any way. You know what I’m saying? Like, we, as a–commercially, not as a culture–the culture has been making a lot of noise about it, but commercially there is no recognition in hip hop of a battle that we have been fighting, that almost 1 million people have lost their lives over in Iraq.

FLETCHER: In the late ’60s, early ’70s you had the predecessors of hip hop, The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, highly political in their art. But at a certain point there’s, like, a divergence that seems to happen of this tradition.

ARMAH: Completely. And, I mean, I would throw other artists in there. James Brown is one of the godfathers of hip hop. I honestly think, just because I’ve been overdosing on his music, like, the humanity that I hear in Bill Withers’ writing is, like, the same kind of humanity I hear in Tupac’s writing. You know what I’m saying? Very much can relate. “I Ain’t Mad At Cha”, is, like, one of the best songs ever, and it’s about recognizing that you’ve gone to a different place in life but you still love your friends. Even if it’s not, like, anti-drugs or violence or something, it’s understanding the humanity of people, right? And watching Bill Withers and watching Gil Scott-Heron talk about their careers, they always talk about them reaching a point where people wanted to put them in the R&B category, the same struggle Marvin Gaye was going through when no one wanted to put out “What’s Going On”. You know what I’m saying? They want to completely make him R&B. And there’s ways you can do both. There are always ways you can do both. I mean, I was talking to a good friend of mine. He’s a banjo player in a folk band. And we were talking about the common connections of all folk art is, when it comes down to it, it’s about telling women to shake their backside, no matter what culture you come from, right? But they also, also incorporate the struggles they’re having with the crops, the struggles they’re having, you know what I’m saying, trying to recognize whatever culture they’re in. So it’s all–it’s got to be a part of the entire human experience. And yet commercial music always wants to cut off that one half of you. And my favorite artists always fight against that.

FLETCHER: Let me ask you a question that I’ve been grappling with. A lot of my work has been in the trade union movement.

ARMAH: Okay.FLETCHER: And much of the culture within the trade union movement seems frozen in time. When you have performances, for example, at union rallies, it’s folk music, 1930s, 1940s. A

RMAH: Mhm. Guitar.

FLETCHER: That’s right, guitar, guitar solo. You know.

ARMAH: Right, right, right, right, right, right.

FLETCHER: But it seems frozen. And I’m trying to understand why that happened. But I’m also trying to understand someone like yourself. What would be your critique and what would you say to such a movement about a kind of–some sort of cultural renovation?

ARMAH: Well, you know, it’s interesting. So the single that I put out a couple of years ago, it’s a song called “Late Shift”, and it’s about people who work two jobs, you know, more than 60, 70 hours a week. And, actually, I got a chance to perform that at a couple of different union-related benefits, and they all loved it. But it was an interesting dichotomy or difference between that and the other performers that would come up. And I definitely think all movements need to embrace especially youth culture, popular culture. I love, you know, being PG County, Washington, D.C., I love bounce beat. I’m a little older than the kids in D.C. who are doing go-go bounce beat, but the actual rhythm of it is powerful. If you see the kids in PG County and D.C. move to it, you understand that it’s powerful. And finding a way to incorporate that sound into the songs that we do about our reality–. I got blessed into a project with Chuck Brown’s band and some members of the Free Minds Book Club, which is incarcerated youth who were part of a book and writing club in prison, and then they stay in it when they come out. And we took a bounce beat and made it about what they’re doing [snip] FLETCHER: Now, you are involved in various ways in the Black Lives Matter movement.

ARMAH: I’m–I would say no. I’m very much involved in the black community. I’m very proud to be black. And I’m not a protester. Martin Luther King used to tell the protesters that if you can’t promise that no matter what happens you’re not going to be violent, please don’t come. And I took that to heart. And so I don’t really show up at the protests. But I am behind the idea of people mobilizing and getting their voice out. Black Lives Matter feels wrong coming out of my mouth, just the actual phrase. The concept works with me, but saying Black Lives Matter feels like saying water is wet. Like, it should just be like–you know what I’m saying? Like, that can’t be my–I’m human is not my rallying cry. That was my grandfather’s rallying cry, that was my father’s rallying cry till he was, like, 25 or 30. But it’s my generation’s being like my life matters and you’re going to respect that. You know what I’m saying? I’m not going to ask you for it; I’m going to demand that. And so I’m with the movement in the sense that I stand understand what they’re trying to accomplish, but, yeah, that’s not a strong enough statement for me in that sense.

FLETCHER: So two things. Well, so (A) maybe you need to amend the statement, right?

ARMAH: Uh-huh.FLETCHER: But the other thing that I would say about Black Lives Matter is that the part of what I think is important about the statement is that it is actually an anti-genocidal statement. In other words, it’s not simply–.

ARMAH: But I don’t know if you can ask to not be killed off.

FLETCHER: No, no, no. But I don’t think it’s asking. I think it’s an assertion.

ARMAH: It’s an assertion.

FLETCHER: Yeah. It’s an assertion. I don’t think it’s, like, asking, please don’t kill us, right? I think it’s more–I mean, this is the way I interpret it–

ARMAH: I gotcha.

FLETCHER: –is that it’s an assertion that, yes, we are humans, we are not going to be killed off, right, that it’s actually an interesting assertion around the whole concept of race, in that what race and racism does is that it basically says that there is a relevant and an irrelevant population. There’s one population whose experiences are important and another who’s not, right? So in that sense I think of black lives matter as saying, yes, we are human; we are not going to be the victims of genocide. Something like that.

ARMAH: I agree with you. And I’ve never–like, I’ve–kind of write extensively on social media and my own blogs about what I see going on in the movement, and I appreciate it. Don’t get me wrong. Like–.

FLETCHER: No, no. I gotcha.

ARMAH: But I guess–so my amendment would be the “I wish a MF-er  would movement”. You know what I’m saying? Like, I want to set up a scenario where that can’t happen, you know what I’m saying, where we’re not asking you to please recognize that this 17-year-old black boy is just as valuable as that 15-year-old white girl that went missing that you showed the pictures.

FLETCHER: How do you recommend integrating the cultural perspective, the artistic perspective that you’re offering into political activism?

ARMAH: I know personally one of the ways that I have learned to create my art and do my art activism and education together is to go to meetings and organizations like you’re talking about and have us write a song together, to have a brainstorming session where we’re talking about it. So it’s not–I’m a big fan of Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. And one of his–the biggest concept that sticks to my head about that is not going to these communities and telling them what their problems are, not assuming that I know just because–. Even, like, my experience with the Baltimore riots. And I think sometimes artists, or just activists in general, like, think they can represent–they think they understand what a particular movement is because they’ve seen Eyes on the Prize or something like that or they’ve read some headlines. And I think we have to integrate ourselves into that community.

FLETCHER: Bomani Armah, thank you very much for joining us. And we definitely need to stay in touch.

ARMAH: Cool. Definitely. Thank you. I appreciate it. FLETCHER: Thanks very much.

ARMAH: No problem.FLETCHER: Take care. And thank you very much for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a moment. Don’t go anywhere.