Speech talks Black Lives Matter, Police Killings, Interracial marriage, the queer community & Christianity!
Speech Speaks very candidly to Guy Emerson Mount of the African American Intellectual History Society for the Mastermind Thinking Aloud series!
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview! I was of course a huge fan growing up and I’m sure I speak for many AAIHS readers in saying that your work was a significant touchstone for my own intellectual development. In fact, what prompted this interview was a conversation I had on Twitter with fellow Thomas Holt mentee and Stanford Professor Allison Hobbs in the wake of the Dallas police shooting. There the Dallas Police Department used a robot to remotely detonate a bomb that killed a black gunman suspected in the shootings. I was instantly reminded of the MOVE Organization and how its residential building was bombed by the Philadelphia Police Department in 1985 killing eleven black men, women, and children. In citing my source to Professor Hobbs the first thing that popped in to my head was not a book, or the recent documentary on the MOVE Organization, but Arrested Development. I then discovered that you guys were on Twitter and had two new albums and I just had to hear more. How did you first learn about the MOVE Organization?
SPEECH: I’ve had many years of studying American history in school and in private and the MOVE organization was one of many blaring examples where the constitution was set aside for gross racial oppression and spiritual warfare. What struck me as somewhat unique about MOVE is their knowledge of nature, the humanity of everyone, spirituality and the divinity of all living things, the fact that their execution by the state was in broad day light in the middle of the city! Lastly, as witnessed in generations past, the MOVE organization was a more recent example of the United States of America falling back on this ideal that White fear of Black consciousness is a sufficient reason to ignore the rights of Black American citizens, without any legal recourse nor examination by the law nor White freedom enthusiasts.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: One of the meta-projects of the African American Intellectual History Society is to expand the definition of who counts as ‘an intellectual.’ While black people have historically been valued in a capitalist economy for their bodies rather than their minds in the rare instance that black thoughts are acknowledged in mainstream America they are usually imagined as emanating primarily from elite, classically trained black men like W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Carter G. Woodson, etc. Black women, illiterate workers, and (as I argued in this piece on Jean Michel Basquiat) artists are often overlooked for their specifically intellectual gifts. Artists in general, and black artists in particular, tend to be associated with affective emotional expression rather than thoughtful, brainy, intellectualism. While your artistry clearly touches the heart and moves the soul, it also is clearly committed to the life of the mind. What does it mean to be an artist AND a thinker?
SPEECH: I would say that all artists are thinkers and all thinkers are artists. Both fields are seeped in deep thought and powerful disciplines.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: Is there ever a tension between the two in your creative process where, for example, your mind might tell you that a particular word is the right one for a given verse but you sense that another word would just sound or feel better? If so, how do you typically reconcile this?
SPEECH: When it comes to music, the only right way to approach things is sound and feel. Now where the thinking comes in is deciding WHAT type of sound or feel are you hoping to accomplish. If it is for academic reasons, you may choose more correct english to resonate with that audience, but if it’s for dancing it may be another dialect you’re going for. And of course, the same goes for those attempting to mix the two together. All of this is very deliberate for the experienced artist. The better an artist is (in my opinion) the more the artist can rely on all of these techniques to accomplish their various goals.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: Another core commitment of the AAIHS is an analysis of black internationalism and intra-diasporic exchange. Still, many in the U.S. are entirely unware of the fact that you are a HUGE deal in Japan. Far from ‘falling off’ after Zingalamaduni in 1994, you have been busy the last two decades stretching the spatial limits of black culture and thought across the Pacific. The international explosion of Korean K-Pop and Japanese Harajuku culture has taken place as both countries are still coming to terms with an admittedly tiny number of black people living in their countries. How do you read the Asian hip-hop scene’s interactions with black people and black culture?
SPEECH: It’s fascinating! They are very appreciative of our culture and they are studious in striving to learn about it, imitate and evangelize it. It’s encouraging for us as American artists, because many of the Asian cultures really respect us more than we respect ourselves. They treat us with more care and awe than we do towards each other in America.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: What’s it like being black in Japan?
SPEECH: I’ve never lived in Japan, but from what I hear it’s great for men and jarring for women, as sexism is still more rampant there. Racially, I’ve had funny situations backstage where EXCITED Japanese fans have come up to us and said, “WE LOVE NIGGERS”!!!! It was hilarious because we knew by their faces and expressions that they meant absolutely no harm and were simply going by the term that describes us so much in contemporary rap music. And the language gap is such that they many times only understand general themes of rap music not the nuances. But I’ve always said that as rap has now grown up, it is even more important to create this extremely powerful music with PURPOSE and not just acting as if we are only speaking to our “blocks” or “hoods”. We are projecting an image of us worldwide that can either work for our advancement or against it.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: In the U.S. all we normally see are a handful of specular cases of appropriation or blatant anti-black racism coming out of Asia but are we missing a much deeper solidarity and affinity forming on the ground between black and Asian people through hip hop itself?
SPEECH: I think what we are missing is the deep emotional weapon we have at our disposal! Fela Kuti said, “Music is a weapon of the future”
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: One of the things I have always found fascinating in your music is your deeply human and spiritual critique of organized religion. Your early work expressed a deep skepticism as it relates to religious dogma while blasting conservative black churches for their focus on the hereafter and their abandonment of revolutionary movements. At various points in your career you might have existed somewhere among our founder Chris Cameron’s catalog of black freethinkers but certainly never among his black atheists. How have your views on religion changed over time both personally and as it relates to radical black politics?
SPEECH: I have become less religious and much more spiritual and biblically based. I now believe that the bible is the inerrant word of God, and if people focused on the actual book more and less the people who claim to follow it, things get much easier to understand! I was very confused about Jesus growing up. And I’ve found by studying the bible with hundreds of people that most people are still confused. You see the paintings of him being white, you see the ultra emotionalism from many that claim to follow him, you see all these different denominations speaking conflicting messages, you hear people claiming Christianity as a white mans religion created to oppress the masses, you see so-called priests molesting boys and it can all be very confusing and discouraging, if you’re unaware of the actual bible. (Laughs out loud!) I now see Christ as the most revolutionary person that ever lived on Earth! His politics were the spirit, which in my opinion is the life force of all movements! His main concern was the eternal soul, which is the currency of all hope and change! People die for causes that can affect change for the unseeable and eternal future. Eternity is the fuel to our existence. The bible says that God hard wired ETERNITY into the hearts of all of us. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) We want to live forever! Whether thru song, our children, our intellectual contribution, peoples memories of us etc. We all want to live forever. So politics whether black, white or other is about fulfilling the spirits hunger… whether it be hunger for change, freedom, equality, humanity, etc. So Jesus is indirectly political, but he goes to the root of spirit. I strive to do the same.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: I know you became a minister in the Churches of Christ in 2005. What prompted the end of what you once described as your “Fishing for Religion?”
SPEECH: I was invited to church by numerous people, and I flat denied their invitation because I saw no power in Christianity! In 1996 a woman named Nicha invited my wife and I and after 6 months of those invites we finally went to her church. I hated it! (Laughs) It felt like a cult full of white people, but for some reason we went back the next weekend. We hated it again!!! And yet when asked if I would study the bible, I mysteriously said yes. That night, I “brushed up” on my Christian books in order to give them a piece of my mind! However after reading various books, I was deeply convicted that Jesus was the son of God and that I was previously wrong about Him! I got violently nauseous and humbled. By Monday night I was much more open to hearing what they had to say. In my living room, night after night, we poured over scriptures, I asked very tough questions and most were answered by this group of Christians. I saw Jesus for the very first time! (Not physically, but spiritually). I studied for a few months and finally got baptized December 8th, 1996, I then immediately baptized my wife who had also studied the bible.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: Or do you not see it as an end at all but a temporary stopping point in a lifelong search for truth?
SPEECH: As I say in “Tennessee” - “I am still thirsty”. I’m ALWAYS thirsty for truth, because my devotion is not to any religion, it’s only to truth. So far, of all the things that I have been exposed to (which is a lot of beliefs) Christianity remains the most true as being from God and being for us and being for our relationship with Him.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: Why have you committed to this denomination among all others and why Christianity?
SPEECH: I believe I answered that.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: Is there something specific about the theology that coincides with your many other core commitments?
SPEECH: I believe I answered this when I addressed the fundamental power of Spirit and Soul in our human existence.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: Speaking of politics, I know that you have been an active supporter of both Black Lives Matter and Democratic party politics all while advocating for a more general black revolutionary platform in your music that many would classify as far to the left of them both. As much as pan-Africanism and Afrocentricity are clearly central to your thought you also make significant gestures in your music towards universalism, inter-racialism, and a class-based solidarity. How have your politics changed over time and where do you stand now vis-a-vis the current American political scene?
SPEECH: I used to speak about revolution even if the revolution resorted to aggressive violence. Lyrics from Give A Man A Fish, “This government needs to be over thrown, brothers with their AK’s and the 9mm’s need to learn how to correctly shoot em, save those rounds for a revolution, poor whites and blacks bum rushing the system”. Because of my Christian faith and my belief that there is spiritual ways to demolish strongholds, I no longer subscribe to violent aggression as something that I would support, however, for those that do subscribe to it, I still agree with what my lyrics say as one means to accomplish the revolution. Whether it be songs like, “United Minds”, “Shell”, “Revolution” or “Give a man a fish”. With the current political scene, I think it’s important to vote for a candidate that can realistically win and a candidate that has the most to offer you in their platform, for me that’s Hilary Clinton in this election cycle.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: What’s the state of the revolution as you see it today and where are the openings for black activists and thinkers to best advance your vision for social change? What are the most urgent needs, strategies, and programs that readers and listeners should be supporting?
SPEECH: The revolution is about fundamental change! We as a people throughout the diaspora must 1.) focus on unity of purpose. The purpose being self-determination and setting aside for the sake of unity the things that divide us. (ie: religion, class etc) 2.) Create dependable information vehicles for our purpose to thrive. (ie: news shows, entertainment, business and culture vehicles) 3.) Pool our resources together (ie: support our own businesses financially, circulate our talents for collective growth, pool our natural resources together, world wide)
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: In your recent TED talk you state that in a world of empty consumerism “[m]y spirit taught me that purpose lies in the glorious fields. Creating new narratives with vast possibilities and roads that have yet to be traveled.” Your recent album is titled "Changing The Narrative" and you describe it as “changing the topic of discussion from living the American Dream to being awake from it.” This theme of the master narrative of American history harkens me to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s critique of the “Dreamers” which was a central feature of my AAIHS review of Between the World and Me and the subject of several subsequent conversations with Coates. Why do you think acknowledging the nightmare of the America dream is so traumatic for Dreamers?
SPEECH: I think acknowledging it is traumatic for everyone because it’s a deeply dark, grotesque and traumatic history. And yet refusing to acknowledge it is like refusing to look at yourself in the mirror. It is from this beautiful & bloody history that we arrive at today, it’s a necessary journey for healing.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: What are the barriers to folk getting woke? (free to use that one on the next album) Why do those upon whose backs American wealth was produced so often get suckered in to defending the system and the narrative that continues to brutalize and enslave them?
SPEECH: The sole barrier is lack of priority. We are double-minded in our purpose. We love to wallow in oppression when the oppression is sheer materialism, the worship of money, the love of decadence or the love of pleasure but we hate oppression when some of us are murdered or imprisoned by that same system. When the system gives a few of us wealth, many of us cling to the dream of having that wealth as well, instead of seeing the system as manipulating us. We still believe that the system had us in mind when it promised, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and in due time it will make it’s way to us all.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: Very much related to this question of narrative and changing narratives, Coates and I have also discussed individually and together on Twitter the ongoing tension between hope, possibility, contingency, and the pitfalls of a hope-based narrative for black people. Yet in your TED talk you also state that “My life, my music, it would always explore these alternatives and celebrate the unseen. The unseen tomorrows. The possible heavens on earth that we can create.” I see in these statements and in your music a cautious but enduring belief in an almost uniquely empowering brand of hopefulness. I read this belief/hope in a better (possible) tomorrow as tempered, however, by your critiques that we discussed earlier regarding black churches. By ignoring the hard politics of the here-and-now in favor of a rather naïve certitude in the inevitability of otherworldly deliverance, by insisting that ‘The Struggle,’ as Coates describes it, is not necessary, and arguing that a teleological whigism should occupy black thought it seems that black Christianity, in your view, often gets it wrong. How do you then square your hopefulness with your commitment to ‘The Struggle’ even as you know full well that there are no guarantees for a better future world promised to any of us. Historian Howard Zinn used to justify his activist-based optimism through his appreciation for history’s non-linearity by saying that while we do not know if our actions will ultimately succeed in making the world a better place we do know that at least it gives us a better chance of making the world a better place as opposed to doing nothing at all. Is this a way out for you or does something else prompt you to insist on a future world that is destined to be better than it was in the past? Can we escape the passivity that hope so often engenders? Do we need hope as a touchstone for empowerment at all and can we access that power without all the baggage? Is there a way to salvage hope from its own hegemony? Conversely, what would a hopeless activism look like?
SPEECH: I believe, (as I sort of addressed in earlier answers) hope is the only thing that matters as long as it is fortified with action. Hope alone (like faith) is dead without deeds. I believe hopeless activism is an oxymoron.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: We’re big on book here. What’s on your reading list? What have you read in your life that has most influenced your music?
SPEECH: The Bible, Malcolm X, How Europe underdeveloped Africa, the destruction of black civilization, Brainwashed, among many many others.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: I wanted to ask you about gender and sexuality. Arrested Development remains rather unique in that it is a multigenerational and multi-gendered hip hop group. While black men and women might get together on a collaboration track here and there, I can’t think of another well-known hip hop group that sees black men and women creating art together as a permanent, ongoing state of affairs. How have the black women in your life and in the group influenced your artistry?
SPEECH: We were (to my knowledge) the second ever hip-hop group with both men and women. (The first being Funky Four +1) After us came others like: The Fugees and Black Eyes Peas. I am deeply influenced by Black women from my grandmother, mother, to many others in the community and of course members in the group. The views I have on respecting women have been from seeing their amazing strength and hearing their thoughts.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: Could you ever have done it without them?
SPEECH: Depending on what you mean by “it” if you mean make songs…definitely. But if you mean, be as prolific as we are….NO WAY! The women in AD are extremely important to us in every way, with them we are inspirational and communal.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: At the same time, your gender politics are extremely complex as you and the ladies in the group have been strong advocates for traditional mono-racial marriage, monogamy, and interestingly, the right to life for unborn black fetuses, all of which are traditionally characterized as conservative right-wing positions rather than revolutionary black leftist ones. Can you articulate where you are today on abortion rights, black queer communities, and marriage equality?
SPEECH: I think I can speak for the whole group when I say, we’re not against interracial marriages nor love. A song I wrote called, “Sunshine” talks about the free spirited nature of true love and that one can’t control who they truly fall in love with. I, however, love to promote Black love because it’s been so highly neglected and under-represented within western media and therefore world media. And that skewed view has a damaging affect on how we view our own humanity and how others view our humanity. We have been successfully portrayed as beasts, brutes and jezebels for so long, there’s a need to counter these gross images. The life of a baby is always sacred. There’s a position I explain in our song, “Warm Sentiments” for instance is that there are justified reasons for abortion, but it should ideally be communicated between the two that created the child together. When it comes to the queer community, I deeply respect queer communities despite my belief that living out a homosexual lifestyle is a sin. Sin is common to all people, so just because I believe something is sinful, doesn’t mean that i believe the people practicing it have no rights, or equal humanity. I understand that peoples decisions in this regard deserve to be respected. It also took me a couple phases of learning to accept marriage equality, but I have for some years now.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: Your new albums, like your old albums, offer a fierce pushback to contemporary commercial hip hop. In a world where Lil’ Wayne says he has never experienced racism and Pharrell is imagining himself as some kind of ‘new-black’, raceless superhero, conscious hip-hop today seems overshadowed by a cloud of ignorance. Beyond the obvious early pioneers (yourself, Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, KRS-1, etc.) who among the younger generation today gets it right?
SPEECH: I don’t think any one of todays influential Hip-Hop artists are even trying to get it “right”. By far, most are ashamed of being called conscious, and those that used to be fine with that title have opted for “upward mobility” and relevance rather than being excluded from the pop culture conversation. They generally turn a blind eye to our own ignorance and critique the system only. I address this stuff to some degree in songs like, “Trends”, “Bloody” and “In-Line”.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: Are we witnessing a new kind of hip hop (perhaps ushered in by 2Pac) where residing with contradiction and acknowledging one’s internal struggles and imperfections (something that, for example, Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Arrested Development have all explored) becomes a new way of being politically conscious without coming across as holier-than-thou and overly preachy? But still, why in an age of Black Lives Matter do we get these bizarre post-racial statements from prominent black artists? Is it all about the money or are these brothers just lost?
SPEECH: I think 99% of the artists today have perfectly calculated the risks and have chosen ignorance as their primary lyrical vehicle or at the least chosen to tolerate ignorance in order to remain relevant and financially viable. It’s the equivalent of snitching to consciously critique anyone in the rap game who is accepted as credible in the streets. Not to mention, in todays rap game, ignorance is greatly rewarded by mainstream radio and video outlets, so there’s little financial incentive to fight it. Plus, the majority of songs and artists break in the strip clubs, so by nature, lyrics that make you think are counter intuitive. I address a lot of this in songs like, “Rules to the game”, “Lost Soldiers”, “Trends”, I Don’t See you In the club, and In-Line. I also address it in various articles on our groups website.
GUY EMERSON MOUNT: Is there anything else you would like to share about your thought, your politics, or your intellectual development with our readers?
SPEECH: I’m honored to be asked such well thought out questions and I look forward to connecting with you and the others in this society! I really want to have speaking engagements in 2017. I’d love to connect with you all in helping to make this happen. Let’s please stay in touch, thank you again! :-)