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Asheru on African identity: 'In US media, Africans are portrayed as primitive.' 'Sleepless In Soweto' is a love letter to South Africa. That's how Asheru (Unspoken Heard, Boondocks theme song) describes his first solo album in years. In fact, it's a love letter to African identity. Featuring rap artists with roots from Nigeria to Ethiopia, the LP was recorded during his travels between his native Washington DC and the Mother Continent. As a Pan-Africanist, Asheru went digging for the essence of 'Blackness': 'a cultural identity that goes beyond national border.'

Pic by Jesse Justice

What exactly is a 'Pan-Africanist'?

A person who believes in solidarity among Africans throughout the Diaspora.

Strangely enough that kind of projects is rare in hip-hop?

I don't know about what other American artists need to do. I just want to help build the bridge between African Americans and Africans. I was seriously influenced by hip-hop to explore Africa and my cultural heritage from listening to groups like X-Clan, Stetsasonic, Public Enemy, Jungle Brothers, etc.

In what way?

X-Clan taught me about ancient Egyptian gods and symbolism. Groups like Public Enemy, Native Tongues and NWA taught me about Black Nationalism, individualism, and identity. Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Brand Nubian a.o. taught me about Islam and the Nation of Gods and Earths. KRS-One taught me about rhyming with a social conscious and the concept of 'Edutainment'. They taught me all these things I still practice in my music and youth work to this day.

You work at a school. Do you have a word with the history teacher if there is not enough attention to black history?

Well, I'm very fortunate in my position at the school, to work and co-plan with teachers of all subject areas, including history. That way I can make sure that the finer points are covered in their instruction. And to find art projects and media that can be incorporated into the instructional approach by teachers and outcomes of the students.

On the album you 'address the current media on what Blackness is'. What is 'Blackness' to you?

To me, it's a cultural identity that goes beyond national borders. Blackness is the acknowledgement of and identification to a direct link and connection to the source of humanity. Being that the first man/woman were black and of African descent. In the context of world identification and classification, I've come to understand that black people of other countries identify with their nationality first. But here in the US our nationality, at best, is a hybrid, hyphenated one. Much like many of our biological make-ups: African, Native American, and European roots.

And having a black president?

Symbolically gives hope. Other than that, it doesn't mean much. I think we initially had high expectations for Obama in addressing social justice issues and helping to change the inequalities of the system. But we have now realized that the system is bigger than him. You can't be a black president and the black leader or liberator of the people. The two cannot co-exist.

One of the latest hip-hop records that had a Pan-African approach was 'Connect The Dots' by Zimbabwe Legit's Dumi Right. You also featured on Zimbabwe Legit's 'House Of Stone' album?

We both live in DC, so it made sense. I have always been open to collaborate with various artists in the US and abroad. I have singles with artists, producers from France, UK, Germany, SA, Japan, etc. When I heard the track from Dumi, I loved the concept and the beat, so making the song was easy.

Land Of Gold

Did you record the album in South Africa or the US?

Several songs were recorded in South Africa. The rest was recorded here in the US, in between my visits to SA.

The track 'Gauteng' is dedicated to Johannesburg and the province of Gauteng, meaning 'Land of Gold'. How's South Africa nowadays, twenty years after apartheid?

South Africa today is reminiscent of the post-civil rights era in the US. The remnants and shadows of the apartheid -the white supremacy system of oppression- are still present. However, the love that I received from the people there and the hospitality and kindness that was shown to me was 'worth more than gold' which is what I was attempting to convey in the song.

How do South Africans look at the United States?

I think that South Africans or Africans value America as a land of access and opportunity. They look to our influence in fashion, music, and other cultural expressions.

However, I still believe that there is a disconnection between African Americans and Africans that is fuelled by a system of racism and white colonialism. This is evident in the way Africans are portrayed in US media as primitive and perpetually in need. While it simultaneously portrays African Americans as an athletic, violent, rhythmic, materialistic, crime-prone people who are to be feared and cautioned by the rest of the world.

Zulu Nation

The album was released on the 40th anniversary of the Zulu Nation. Also in Belgium, there's a very active chapter. What would hip-hop look like without that movement?

Zulu Nation has had a huge hand in elevating and celebrating hip-hop culture to a universal, global level. And it continues to influence and impact the hip-hop landscape by promoting the five elements: DJ-ing, MC-ing, B-Boying, Graffiti, and knowledge of self.

The ground message of the Nation is 'unity and peace around the world'. Is that the same message you give to the youth?

The Zulu Nation's chant of 'Peace, unity, love, and having fun' is a life philosophy that I follow as a parent, a hip-hop artist, and an active participant in my community. My organization, Guerrilla Arts Ink, and the Hip Hop Educational Literacy Program are projects that I created out of the influence and power of hip-hop culture, which I love so dearly.

With these two organisations, I have made a way out of no way. And for that, I'm thankful. The reason why some students have difficulties with resolving conflict is because they are unable to clearly and calmly articulate their pain, hardship, and conflict. So I work with students on how to see themselves in the shoes of others, how to put things in context, and knowing when to walk away and avoid conflict or harm.

The Last Day

'The last day might be today' it goes on the album. When you look at disasters, such as in The Philippines now, you certainly think it's not far away. What do you tell your students at school? After all, they will be confronted more with climate issues than this generation?

We empower students to take an active role in their usage of energy. We show them what the circumstances are in other parts of the world, whether they are water scarce or food scarce environments, areas rich in minerals and other resources. We reinforce to students that 'there is no culture without agriculture'.

How do you try to help nature on a personal level?

I am a recent graduate of a master gardener program. I look forward to the time that I can start doing some more urban gardening and growing my own food. I hope to teach my children to do the same...


POSTED 11|20|2013
conducted by cpf

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