THIS IS THE THIRD in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Malcolm London, an internationally recognized Chicago poet, activist, educator, and musician. Called the Gil Scott-Heron of this generation by Cornel West, London’s latest project OPIA was released October 17 and is available free on SoundCloud and for streaming on iTunes, Apple Music, and Spotify.
ADRIAN PARR: The content of your spoken-word performances mixes intense personal experiences with social critique and commentary. Can you describe what motivates your writing and performance?
MALCOLM LONDON: The motivation is very simple and it really has to do with how I began as a young poet, which is in the vein of art poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who is also from Chicago. She says that our duty as poets is only to tell the story of what is right in front of our nose. I learned that early on by simply being in programs like Louder Than A Bomb, which is a youth poetry slam in Chicago and elsewhere. It simply began by understanding I am an expert of my own experience. It then becomes relatively easy to talk about social and political issues when you are born into the city that is the most segregated city in the nation and on the West Side of Chicago.
Initially, it may not have been my intention as a 16-year-old to write about social justice issues, but I wrote about what I saw. What I saw was my brothers, my cousins, and my friends in trouble and arrested. What I saw was corpses of neighbors and people that I loved piling up around me. What I saw was that my educational experience was a lot different than other folks in the city. What I saw was a mother who would work extremely hard for a hard life, and who could barely keep two young boys and a roof over our heads.
I think the pedagogy and philosophy around spoken-word poetry is to provide spaces and platforms for young people who are deliberately unheard, to begin to tell their story. As a learner and now as an educator of spoken word, you listen to the stories of so many young people and you begin to realize how many of these stories overlap. Through their stories you understand the many issues that touch their lives. You begin to hear how capitalism affects young people — whether or not they know how to spell that word, they inherently understand it. You begin to hear about the wage gap. You begin to hear about achievement gaps. You begin to hear all these things, but with poetic license, and in a way that hopefully reimagines the situation that a lot of people talk about and the situations that they come from.
You mention that your educational experiences are different. Could you expand upon that a little more?
I often say that I got my education on the Number 66 Chicago Avenue bus. I say this because in a city like Chicago, which I imagine is like a lot of American cities, you see segregation firsthand. What I learned was definitely not in a textbook but I definitely learned it on the journey home each day. That education came from seeing how one side of the city experiences police repression. And another side of the city experiences tall buildings and cleaner neighborhoods. On one side of the city, homicide rates soar. And on the other side, people get to go to bed safe.
It’s not that I want anybody from the other side of the city, or from the more affluent neighborhoods, to have less, but it occurred to me that in my neighborhood, folks didn’t have enough. So when young people, like myself, begin to tell that story they begin to see there are gaps in the story, there are missing pages from the books you are reading and learning from. So it becomes necessary to rewrite those pages and rewrite that history of segregation and inequality.
When you describe yourself as an educator are you referring to this rewriting of history and retelling stories by telling your own story?
When I use the term educator, I mean someone who is both a happy and determined learner. I think that anybody who is actively learning can also be an educator. For me, an educator inspires other young people to learn about themselves and other things.
How does spoken-word poetry test the limits of language and do you see this as being a political act in itself?
Cornel West once told me: “Poets are the legislation of the people.” That sums up perfectly what poetry is for me. For me, spoken word pushes the limits. It allows young people of color to define themselves on their own terms by how they use language. In a country that is not made for young people of color, but a country that has been made on their backs, spoken word allows young people of color to appropriate and change language in ways that make it their own. This is what makes spoken word a political act. Especially now, at this moment in American history, with Donald Trump, this is an increasingly dangerous time for young black, Latino, and Muslim people.
By using a language that has excluded me and has been used to discourage me, I simultaneously reclaim that language and rename the world. This makes spoken word a political act.
Can you describe how your work is connected to black queer feminism?
My work doesn’t draw on black queer feminism. My work is educated by it as best as it can be. In the context of my political organizing the term black queer feminism ensures that when we are talking about ending oppression we place the most marginalized folks in our community at the center and not on the outskirts of our struggles. They can’t be mere tokens of our activism. I think black queer folks are at the intersection of many forms of oppression. In order to have work that is both liberatory and revolutionary it needs to be informed by black queer feminism. That is what I hope my work does.
As a young black man living in America, who grew up on the West Side of Chicago, what is your firsthand experience of state violence, and in your view are race relations in America improving or worsening? And why?
I think the West Side of Chicago exists primarily because of state violence. There are many ways state violence works. Whether it comes from interactions with police, living in neighborhoods that have an extreme police presence for no other reason than the false idea that more people who live where I live are criminals or are criminalized more, or whether it be the poverty that exists. I think poverty exists because the state fails to respond. In this respect poverty exists because of the state. Some of the tangible ways state violence works is by the closing of Planned Parenthoods on the West Side of Chicago.
Being a young black person from the West Side of Chicago, I am affected by state violence. In a lot of ways I am alive because of state violence. I continue to struggle, to build, and to imagine because of state violence and to hopefully eradicate it.
Are race relations in America getting any better? Absolutely not. All you have to do is look at who is unfortunately in the White House and there lies the answer. It’s 2017 and Native Americans are still fighting for grounds and treaties they were given over 200 years ago. There are more black people in prison now than there were in 1865. And this has continued to occur under a black presidency. So race relations in America are not getting any better. Unfortunately, I think they are getting a lot worse. It became harder to see these things when America aligned itself with a post-racial identity. Having a few people of color in positions of power has made it harder to see how racism is getting worse. Right now we are seeing a rise in hate crimes and explicit forms of racism. Things are getting a lot worse because it is becoming a lot harder to have these conversations, particularly from those who benefit from not having these conversations, such as folks invested in upholding White Supremacy and the privileges that it allows.
I think emotionally we are in a worse place than where we were. This is because the enemies of progress are allowed to continue to flourish both in a covert manner and through the use of coded forms of language, as you see with the alternative Right. It allows people who are indifferent to continue to ignore the rise in racism. People might not necessarily be lynched on a tree, but they are lynched on the branches of government. There are so many different ways racism work, whether this is through imprisonment or by the Congress diminishing necessary public resources. Unfortunately racism in America is getting worse.
There was a news report that came out today from Mississippi. I don’t know if you have read it yet, but it is terribly upsetting: a white student tied a noose around a black team player’s neck and yanked on it. The police discouraged the parents of the terrified black student not to file a report. The white student’s parents used to be a former law enforcement officer. We are in 2016, not 1916, and that something like that could be taking place in America today is shameful. It prompts me to think about something you just said and that I want to pick up on. You said: “I’m alive because of state violence.” How so?
What I mean by that is that the West Side of Chicago does not exist in a vacuum. The poverty I was born into, I did not create. The poverty my mother was born into, she also did not create. So when I say that I am alive because of state violence I mean that the conditions that I was raised in were not conditions I had any control over. In a lot of ways these conditions were created because of explicit forms of state violence and the nuances of how state violence works.
I have always deeply admired your work. I think it brings to life a lot of things that remain invisible and unheard within the political landscape of the United States. And it also taps into other minority struggles that are occurring around the world both in terms of the energy and force you bring to issues of inequity and violence. In a way your work comes to life because of state violence. Do you think it is this context of state violence that makes spoken word so lively, charged, and politically resonant?
These struggles make my art more necessary. I think for people who share my skin or share the same struggles, art has always been something that is functional. No artist that I know in my communities has the luxury of making art for art’s sake. We don’t have the luxury of writing poems about flowers just for the sake of writing poems about flowers. I do not have that privilege. The way art functions in my life is directly connected to very real, lived experiences, and to this specific time in history.
I want to be careful because I don’t want to say that because there is crime on the West Side of Chicago, that makes my art more living and more intense. Although that is true, I am ultimately writing art so that pain and trauma does not exist.
Do you think spoken word can be used as a tool for political activism and social change?
I am an artist. I see myself as a poet. I’ve been always intrigued by what poetry can do. Mostly what I have learned about politics comes from writers. I’ve been in gifted classes and programs, but it wasn’t until I wrestled with a James Baldwin book, for instance, that I could digest the information. Statistics or political science only captures a partial reality. Art brings something else to our understanding of politics. It makes politics more tangible.
It is often hard to have honest conversations about political struggles in the absence of art. Spoken word helps a young person develop their internal “eye/I” to see the “we,” the “they,” and the “us.” It is not just spoken word that does this. I think any art form does. It is the moment when the classroom is no longer just the journey to a better taxpaying citizen, but becomes a journey on how to leave the classroom and become a better human being.
Adrian Parr is an Australian-born philosopher and cultural critic, a professor, and the director of the Taft Research Center at University of Cincinnati. In 2014, she helped bring Louder Than A Bomb, the largest youth poetry slam in the nation, to Cincinnati.