By: Edward Banchs
Jasiri X entered the Oakland office of 1Hood Media with a phone attached to his ear, a few minutes behind our scheduled time. Not to be distracted, he politely smiled and introduced himself by way of a firm handshake, while still tending to his call. Though it is easy to expect the East Liberty-based rapper to be consumed by his work as a touring musician, his profile has grown significantly as a civil rights activist and public speaker, including a performance at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in January of 2017. The phone call was merely a reflection of his busy schedule.
This particular call, he explained, had to do with a local political issue. “The recent political events made me want to get involved, particularly [at] the local level. When we first started 1Hood and people wanted endorsements, we were like, ‘Nah.’ Particularly as I began to do things nationally.” Though he credits Trump’s election with his increased political involvement, he explained that Obama’s presidency actually made him more cynical about the political process, for various reasons, notably that America is continually mired by racial thought. “I work with a lot of the mothers of the movement: Trayvon’s mom, Tamir Rice’s mom, Eric Garner’s mom. And the fact that none of them got any justice with a black president, and two black attorney generals, it made me (realize) the solution ain’t political.”
Jasiri X’s profile as a rapper has enabled his ascension into the national discourse as a result of his socially conscious lyrics. He honed his craft at the legendary East Liberty staple, the Shadow Lounge, now defunct. His breakout came during the tribulations of the Jena Six, in which six teenagers of color were given severe sentences as juveniles for their role in a fight with a fellow white student in their high school in Jena, Louisiana in 2006. A series of national protests followed as, for many, the cases of the six teenagers reflected the true injustice of our judicial system for people of color. Jasiri X not only wrote a song in solidarity, but also traveled to the marches in Jena after his song, “Free the Jena 6”, received national airplay, and served as the de facto anthem for the nationwide movement that followed.
He has not stopped since.
Releasing a full-length album in 2013, Ascension, followed by another in 2015, Black Liberation Theology, as well as in various singles, Jasiri X powers his messages through his music.
His recent single, “The Whitest House,” released in early 2018, reflects where he feels America is, not only at the moment, but also where it has always been. “I wanted to make a song beyond just [Trump]. Because he is not the father of white supremacy, although he is hitting all those buttons, all those dog whistles, when it comes to representing those racist politics… So, when I say the, ‘Whitest House,’ I’m actually talking about the United States. At the beginning of the video I show all the presidents, and it’s just a sea of white men until you get to Obama, then you get Trump. This is the Whitest House, it’s this country. It’s not just Trump at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. when you look at how black and brown folks are treated differently. So, I sing in the song, ‘A real American can only be Caucasian’. It’s this idea of patriotism. When we were criticizing the president, that was un-American. When we were criticizing the FBI, that was un-American. The Tea Party criticizes the president, it’s patriotism. When Trump criticizes the FBI, it’s patriotism. We can’t ever take that. We can’t ever wrap ourselves in that flag; it just doesn’t fly.”
His frustrations with the situation of black life in America also pour into another theme he often uses in his music, white privilege. “I talk a lot about white privilege. And sometimes, when I talk about [it], a white [person] will say, ‘I grew up poor.’ You can’t look at it like that. It’s not an economic thing, it’s more. When you [a white person] go into a store, you’re not being followed. You can openly walk around with a gun, and the police will calmly ask you, ‘What are you doing?’ I can’t do that. To me, Trump has really exposed that, because of what he has been able to get away with. Obama had to be perfect; he had to be a genius. This is the level that he had to be a as a black man. And Trump, it doesn’t matter how wild he is. It just shows me what you can get away with, particularly as a white man in the United States of America. You can be that and still be held up.”
Jasiri X explains that the divisions of black and white life are beyond perceptions. He feels they are deeply rooted in America’s construction. “We are taught these ideals about what America is – freedom, truth, justice, pursuit of happiness – and then you see that doesn’t apply to you. You realize that was written without you in mind. But you’re taught that these apply to you, too. Then when you start saying, ‘I’m not getting justice over here. I would like my justice, please, I would like my liberty, please, I would like my pursuit of happiness, please.,’ it’s looked at like somehow you’re attacking America. No, we’re actually trying to get this thing that you told us, by being an American, [by] being born here, we’re entitled to – that you have. You’re trying to get America to live up [to] those ideals and standards that are written, but you don’t see in action. That is actual patriotism. But it’s not written like that.”
While it may be polarizing for some listeners when musicians are up front with their political views, conscious lyrics are what sets Jasiri X apart in the Pittsburgh rap scene. “He told me once that when he started rapping, people told him that no one wants to hear hip-hop with a message. And, I think historically, that is sort of true,” says Margaret Welsh of the Pittsburgh Current.
“So, if you have a message, you have to express it really skillfully. And he really is able to do that. Jasiri not only expresses his message well, he walks the walk, and has been such an important influence in terms of how artists can combine their work with activism,” she adds.
Fellow 1Hood partner and rapper, Livefromthecity, says about Jasiri, “I think what stands out the most to me about Jasiri’s approach is his revision process. He’ll rewrite a song three or four times to make sure he’s getting his point across as clear and as succinct as possible.” He continues, “I think it’s important for music artists to focus on their personal message. I think worrying too much about making a social statement dilutes the message. When artists are focused on their personal message it tends to make a strong social message regardless.”
1Hood Media is a collective of artists working across various mediums who use their art to bring awareness to social issues around the world. Coming out of the hip-hop generation, and pursuing activism, the birth of 1Hood was more than a call for unity, it was an instrument of change for those involved at the intersection of art and activism.
“So, the idea of 1Hood for us was our power and our unity. We’re actually harming each other. We’re taking our frustrations out on one another. We’re all poor. We’re all lacking good housing, good schools, jobs. We’re all suffering from police brutality, violence. But we take our frustrations out [on] one another, instead of saying the solutions are if we come together and unify. We actually could begin to solve these problems, these issues. That’s kind of how 1Hood began, these young men out there working in the community,” said Jasiri.
Much of their recent work has been inspired by a study from the Heinz Endowment called, Portrayal and Perception, which looked at how black men are being portrayed in local media. As expected, much of the attention was negative. This led 1Hood to take up an initiative for change by launching the 1Hood media campaign. “We went to Heinz and said we wanted to teach young black men how to analyze media,” Jasiri said. And, in 2018, 1Hood was able to fund their media campaign via a grant from the Heinz Endowment. “When we launched the media campaign in 2010, we didn’t know that it would actually lead to 1Hood becoming this collective of socially conscious art that kind of came out of this media academy. We now have artists – hip-hop artists, R&B artists, storytellers, videographers – that are making media, but doing it in a way where it is around issues of social justice.”
“He serves a great purpose in leadership and mentoring youth. I believe he’s utilized his artistry in delivering much-needed messages over time. And that gravitates people toward him because he’s such an important figure, and they look to him to be a voice when we are sometimes silenced,” says Thomas Agnew of Jenesis magazine, a Pittsburgh-based youth culture life-style magazine. “I think he will continue to grow however he chooses to, whether it’s with music, with his organization, 1Hood, there are many possibilities available for him. He’s one of the blessed ones to be able to pick and choose,” adds Agnew.
“1Hood means family to me. It’s always been love and support… It’s cool to have others have my back just as much as I do, if not more. I think Pittsburgh artists should know that about 1Hood. We’re a family.” Livefromthecity said.
The work done by 1Hood is close to Jasiri X, as are his efforts here, in his home city. “We want to see Pittsburgh be the most livable city for everyone, not just the select few. Because we have the poorest black community in the country, according to the U.S. Census. If we see poverty, then it’s not livable for us. If it’s the ‘most livable place,’ then we need to make it work to be the most livable place.”
With no plans on leaving the Steel City, Jasiri X is quite at home here. “I feel like you are able to connect with folks a little bit easier in Pittsburgh just because it’s not as big. Pittsburgh is this blue-collar place. [This city] understands the importance of unions, of workers and workers’ rights. I like that about Pittsburgh. For the size of the city, it supports the arts in a very strong way. Part of the reason I’m still here is that I do get support as an artist from Pittsburgh. We were able to make an impact in not a long period of time, a bigger impact because of the size of Pittsburgh. I feel that we’ve been able to make real change in Pittsburgh in a way that we haven’t been able to in other places, so it’s been a blessing.”
Originally posted here.