Thursday, June 17, 2010

“I’m allowed the luxury to be loquacious.” Interview with spoken word poet, Malik Yusef

Malik Yusef, discusses his Craft, Hip-Hop, the Music Industry and Burrell’s “Positive Push” Campaign

By Sylvester Brown, Jr. / for

This week, in honor of Black Music Month, author Tom Burrell officially launched “Positive Push,” a social media campaign aimed at promoting positive music, images and culture. The movement evolved from Burrell’s book, Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority. In the book, Burrell encourages “enlightened thinkers” to use “New Media” to alter negative projections and project positive images and messages about black people.

In order to explore the challenges of promoting this campaign we interviewed Chicago native Malik Yusef, one of the few spoken word poets, including Mos Def, Kumasi Simmons and Talib Kweli, who have found mainstream success in the entertainment world.

Yusef has performed or recorded with the likes of Kanye West, John Legend, Chantay Savage and Pharrell Williams. The former gang banger’s rhymes have been featured in advertisements for Sprite, General Motors, Verizon, Miller Brewing Co., Nike. In 2007, he collaborated with Director Frey Hoffman on a 10-minute film adapted from one of his poems. “The Untimely Demise of Hollywood Jerome” tells the story of a 14-year-old South Side gang member who faces the consequences of his criminal lifestyle and fascination with Hollywood embellished gangsters like Scarface and Godfather. Cameos in the film, which will be released on DVD this summer, include Kanye West and Twista.

Despite commercial success, Yusef has maintained his rep as a street poet on a mission. His performances including those seen on Def Poetry Jam, BET’s Rap City, MTV’s Hip-Hop Week reflect his commitment to combat global socio-economic problems, revitalize urban areas, combat gang violence and illiteracy and uplift young people.

In this interview, Yusef explains how talented hip-hop artists survive and sometimes compromise in a rapper-eat-rapper, money-driven industry that exploits negativity. The “Positive Push” campaign is definitely needed, Yusef said, but proponents must be informed, passionate and, most of all, committed to the long run challenge of change.


STOP THE BRAINWASH (STB): Would you describe yourself as a “positive” artist?

MALIK YUSEF (MY): Positivity is relative. There are a lot of ‘positive artists with terrible music. I’m a poet, songwriter and fledgling musician (he plays the guitar). I do good music that motivates and inspires people.

STB: You have collaborated with many hip-hop artists. How do you strike a balance between music that inspires and music many deem negative, violent or misogynistic?

MY: Hip-hop is no more negative than an Arnold Schwarzenegger or John Wayne movie. We can do better. We can do without the misogyny but no one person gets it 100 percent. Sometimes, I’ll say ‘Brother, you can say that a little better.’ And sometimes they respond.

STB: What’s the defining difference between spoken word artists and hip-hop artists?

MY: Rap says you have to be tough, a tiger. If you’re a tiger without teeth, you’re a meal. Spoken word artists are not confined to the world of machismo. I’m allowed the luxury to be loquacious, I can be more vulnerable. I can speak about heartbreak, and uplift. I can give the same message as the Imam, the Rabbi or the preacher.