Sunday, February 21, 2010

Activist rapper Jasiri X calls for a reality check on 'American History X

When the G-20 summit invaded Pittsburgh, rapper Jasiri X was on the streets, documenting events for a video to a powerful state of the union address he called "The Only Color That Matters Is Green."

It's not the place where you find many rappers, but Jasiri X is a cut above, a rapper who, like Public Enemy before him, delivers the news.

The Chicago native, who moved here as a kid in the mid-'80s, went to Gateway High School in the '90s and was part of the group Concrete Elete, is a disciple of the X-Clan's Paradise the Arkitech and comes on urgent and strong like old school rappers KRS-One and Chuck D.

Paradise executive-produced Jasiri X's new politically charged hip-hop record, "American History X," which features production by Canada's Religion, Germany's Track Phoenz, Pittsburgh's Black Czer and 17-year-old prodigy King Sym,

The album, which is getting national attention, deals with such issues as diverse as human rights in Afghanistan ("Afghanistan (Her Story)"), the shallow playlist on BET ("Dear Debra") and stereotypes about African-Americans, using an Obama soundbite ("Ballers and Rappers"). The songs are accompanied by videos that Jasiri X has put up on YouTube and his MySpace page (

One song, "Silent Night: Do Rappers Watch the News?," is a call to the rap community and the media that questions priorities: "I'm talkin' not one of us votin' one year after Obama/and we talked about Rihanna and her drama to death ... all these media distractions have a crushing effect."

Jasiri X, who leads the field at the Pittsburgh Hip-Hop Awards with seven nominations, recently took part in the local Hope for Haiti concert, which raised $1,000. When we reached him Tuesday he was on his way to Rhode Island, not only to perform a show but also speak to students the next day about activist work he does with Paradise on One Hood, to promote peace and justice in Pittsburgh.

So you're on the road right now performing and lecturing?

Yeah, what helps me get over is that I'm not just a concert artist. The music we do comes out of the work we do. That's one of the things that separates me as an artist. Before we even worked on music, we found One Hood.

One of the songs on "American History X" is a call to rappers to be more politically aware.

Yeah, all this stuff going on in the news, so much going on the world, it just surprises me that rap album after album, they're still talking about throwing money in the air. It's a recession, the economy is falling, people are suffering all over the world and none of these rappers are touching on anything. That was the concept behind 'Silent Night': Do rappers even watch the news?

It's more about escapism right now, isn't it?

Yeah, you can escape from it for a three-minute song or video, but look at the conditions that most of us live in. I'm not asking your whole album to deal with it. But can I get one song that at least acknowledges it!? Our whole thing isn't to eliminate some of these rappers -- it's just where's the balance? The song 'Dear Debra' is a letter to BET. It's not that we want BET off the air. We're just saying 'Where's the balance?' Can we have artists who are talking about what's going on and giving people tools to get through these times that are seemingly getting worse.

Well, these rappers are out there but the media isn't paying attention to them.

Yeah, like myself. Well, I mean I have been getting attention off this record. That's why we've been doing videos on YouTube to show people this stuff. We can have videos that get 20,000 views. A lot of times the industry says, 'People don't want to hear this type of music.' Well, they do. Everyone wants a variety.

Did you start off doing consciousness hip-hop?

I think most rappers start off copying the rappers they see and are fans of. I was blessed to be inspired by artists that were conscious artists -- like X-Clan, like KRS-One, like Rakeem -- that spoke to issues and raising awareness. Chuck D and Public Enemy, even Nas and Outkast in a sense. I feel bad today that young people don't have those kind of influences to look up to. What they have is: "Get this money" or "hit this block." Look at what it then leads to.

Do you find young people attracted to what you're doing?

Oh, absolutely. What's really interesting is that when they're introduced to it, when I put out the song "Dear Debra," a teacher in Philadelphia had his class watch it and comment on it. These comments were some of the most phenomenal comments you would want to hear and these were high school students. They loved it, embraced it. It made me feel really good that when people hear the music, they like it. I mean, first the music has to be good. If I'm saying all this stuff, but the music isn't good, the beats aren't good, the lyrics aren't good, it doesn't matter. We try to start with really good music. The producer of that song is 17 years old. He also produced "Afghanistan: Her Story."

I think because I'm this type rapper, I've actually gotten a lot farther a lot faster because I'm not saying the same thing everyone else is saying.

So you've probably some label interest?

Yeah, but I'm trying to make the right decision, because if you put your career into someone else's hands, you have to make sure they market you properly.

Look how much more success Wiz Khalifa has had with his team around him. ... as independent artist, being No. 1 on iTunes was a victory not just for Pittsburgh, but for indie artists in general. It was a victory for all of us.

Do you think the Pittsburgh stigma has been lifted?

Well, I don't think it ever was. We put that on our ourselves. Whenever we have people come in, they're always amazed by what we're doing in Pittsburgh, whether it's on the ground activism or as Pittsburgh artists. If you look at the history of Pittsburgh hip-hop, there wouldn't have been a 'Chronic' without the influence of Pittsburgh producers and emcees. That was something we put on ourselves. With artists like Wiz, Boaz, we don't have that mentality of 'Oh, I'm from Pittsburgh.' It's like, 'Nah, I'm from Pittsburgh and from Pittsburgh, we can touch the world!' We have some of the most talented artists and producers that I've seen or worked with.


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