Brother Kazembe Speaks on Working for Unity

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OTP:  What is the Universal Nubian Association.

Brother Kazembe: The Universal Nubian Association is a loose network of Pan-Africanists and African Nationalists.  Young adults based mostly in New York City.
OTP:  What groups are involved and what is it that you do?

BK: Our primary focus is promoting nationalism and Garveyism in particular.  We work in the trenches.   We try to be involved with everything that’s going on in the movement and in providing troops and assisting other groups. We’re also on the campuses of BMCC and Lehman College.  We work to organize students around fighting against tuition increases and understanding the role that access to tutorial services has traditionally played at CUNY. We’ve been around for ten years in different forms.

We have a small membership, but we use our resources and our time to assist all of the larger existing organizations that are out there such as the United African Movement, the National Action Network, the Unity Party and so forth.

We use our influence in our circles to work with groups that are doing work.  We have a chapter in the Bronx and in Brooklyn.  Sometimes our activity is just to encourage people to come out to the House of Justice or the Harriet Tubman School, to get information and to contribute funds if they can or just become involved in the overall movement. We used to have a base at the Muse on Bedford Avenue.  We’ve worked with people like Una Mozak, Sonny Carson, Alton Maddox and some younger people like Kevin Muhammad, Brother Eric Muhammad, Sista Soljah, Erica Ford, people like that.

OTP:  When I hear Garveyism or Nubian or Nationalism, I don’t usually associate that with the kind of work the Unity Party is doing.  How do you make that connection?

BK:  Within the Universal Nubian Association, we believe that we have to use the totality of struggle to achieve our ends.   That means whatever has the potential to work and advance the condition of our people, we will use.  It could be the ballot or protesting in the street.   Historically, over the years, our organization has kept good relations with different forces in the movement that didn’t relate to each other.  For example, for a while there was a big thing between Sharpton and Sonny Carson.   During those years we related to and did programs with both of those brothers.    We were able to do this because within our organization we felt that both of those forces were doing good and we were able to relate to both of them.  Now as far as the Unity Party is concerned, we definitely believe that there is a need for a Black led progressive political party in the state of New York and in this country.    When Sharpton ran for mayor and Barron ran for city council, I counseled both of them to consider running not as Democrats but as independents.   I thought that would have given them a better chance of impacting on the people in a permanent way and also potentially winning.   Especially since they would have been insured of having a rematch in the general election.   That didn’t happen in those two elections, but they are both in the vanguard of supporting and building the Unity Party which would serve this purpose in future elections.   The reason we are supporting the Unity Party is because we see the potential for it to be a Black organization.  That’s important to us, not because we think black people are superior just because they’re black, because we don’t.   We do see ourselves as black people, and we believe that because of the history of this country, and the way this country has developed, race is a key element, a key organizing element for us as a people because that’s how we’ve been oppressed.  We haven’t been oppressed because of our religion, our class or ethnicity or the language we speak.   Elements such as class may be present, but overall, race is the main factor and those other things come into it.   Therefore we believe there should be a black-led party as this country diversifies.   As black people, seeing the world through our own eyes, we demand, insist, and will fight for the need for acknowledgment of the contributions of black people in building this country and creating a progressive agenda.  The civil rights movement of the sixties led to benefits for women and other ethnic groups.   That was led by the black community.  Now as the country continues to diversify, we want the recent immigrants to this country to acknowledge and respect the contribution that black people have made.   Since the Democratic, Republican and Liberal parties are controlled by white people and corporations, we believe that the Unity party must be multiracial and black led.

OTP:  What kind of work do you do to increase participation in the electoral process?

BK:  The main thing is to be out in the streets spreading the word.   Last year the Universal Nubian Association sponsored a cable show on BCAT called “Nubian Voices”.   We did a couple of shows around the political process and young adults and their opinions about the mayoral race when Sharpton was running.   Basically it’s voter education.  Getting the word out about the issues and the importance about how an individual can impact the system.  Not just by voting on election day, but also keeping a constant relationship with the local elected officials and other elected officials that represent them.  So we go out in the streets and encourage young people to get involved in the political process.   Right around now it’s been difficult because of the situation with the President.  People are pessimistic about the whole political process.  This is what I’ve seen over the past few weeks while carrying around the literature about Mary France and the Unity Party.  But I think that will pass.   Long term, I see young adults getting involved in the political process because Hip Hop culture has an impact on young adults worldwide.  Many of the leaders, be they artists or just people involved with the industry are starting to focus more on organizing that culture to get them to be more political and active as far as social issues.   I see that in the near future, possibly in time for this election to get Mary France those 50,000 votes, but definitely going into the new millennium, a new upsurge in activism coming from young adults because the Hip Hop Culture is beginning to focus in on that.   Steps are being taken to organize that energy and get the young adults to see that historically culture has played a key role in empowerment.  People like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier they assisted the civil rights movement.   Prior to that you had the great Paul Robeson.  In the 80’s you had Public Enemy and KRS One and X-Clan as part of the Hip Hop generation.  That sort of got knocked out of the box by so-called Gangsta Rap.   Gangsta Rap took over.  But nowadays I see an upsurge in nation-conscious rap and that bodes well for young adults being involved in the political process.  The Nubian Nation, which is what we call the UNA as a street name, all along has been encouraging rappers.   Now we are working with Conrad Muhammad and other people putting the focus on organizing the Hip Hop community.   This is something that is going to takeoff and work.  Young adults are looking for established activists and or politicians who talk their language and understand where they’re coming from.   That’s why we’ve been advocating within the Universal Nubian Association that the Unity Party should add a plank to their platform that specifically deals with Hip Hop Culture.   The fact that it started in New York and is a cultural and economic force on a global level that needs to be supported by government so that they can create more jobs and continue to grow.   Such a plank by the Unity Party would be like an “invite”.  It would be opening the doors to encourage all these young adults who are in that culture to come aboard and get down with the Unity Party.

OTP:  When you say Hip Hop Culture what do you mean?  Could you explain to me what you mean by Hip Hop Culture?

BK:  Hip Hop Culture started in the mid-seventies in the South Bronx.  Dealing with Graffiti as an artistic expression.  Also break dancing, deejaying and rhyming and rapping.  Rhyming and rapping sort of took off more than the other three aspects of Hip Hop culture.   To some it seems that the Hip Hop Culture itself is just Rap music.   But the other things the graffiti, the deejaying and the break dancing were all a part of it in the beginning.    It’s also mannerisms, the way you carry yourself.  It’s a language, it’s lingo that is used within the generation.  It also has expanded into film, comedy and clothing.  A lot of Hip Hop culture is very creative.  That’s how we talk about it in the UNA.  The creativity of Hip Hop Culture.   The ability to say, “Well we’re not being taught in schools how to play instruments because all of that has been cut out of the Board of Ed.  Fine.  We’re just going to hook up our turntables to street corner poles and take little bits of previously recorded music and make a whole new sound.”   The creativity of that, the ability to market out of the back seat of your car or to have the ability like the Wu Tang Clan, to go into various major labels and strike deals.  Deals that have the artist keeping creative control and getting a fair share of the profits.  This is different than how some of our artists were treated in the ’60’s, when they didn’t reap the financial benefits that they were entitled to.   Of course there are still artists that are getting ripped off and not getting their just do.  But there seems to be more creative control and business control with people like Master P or Sean “Puff Daddy” Coomb, in this generation than there was in the past.  Hip Hop Culture is global.  It’s beyond the Black and Latino neighborhoods of New York.  It’s in Germany, it’s in Japan, it’s in Cuba, it’s in Brazil.  It’s a global culture that’s youth oriented and deals with expressing your self.  And that expression usually comes through fashion, through music or through art.

OTP:  Last week I looked at a website that had on it some lyrics for Little Kim.  I was stunned.    Reading those lyrics and hearing you talk about Nation Consciousness, how are these two sides of the culture being reconciled?   What about lyrics that portray one kind of image, and the kind of image that you’re talking about now?
BK:  Nation Conscious Rap was a book that came out about 1990.  That was when Nation Conscious Rap was at it’s peak, with people like Public Enemy, X-Clan, KRS One and others.  That sort of got knocked out of the box by Gangsta Rap.  When NWA came out with, “”Fuck the Police”, and some of these other West Coast Rappers rose up.   Now with Little Kim, what she raps about is sexuality using vulgar and explicit lyrics. Now for every Little Kim there’s a Lauren Hill.  The number one selling album in the country– not only amongst rapper, is Lauren Hill.

OTP:  Oh yes, I’ve heard of her.

BK:  The other two members of that group are of Haitian descent.  They’ve done a lot of good work.  Fund-raisers for the people in Haiti and so on.   For every Little Kim, there’s an Erica Badou.  Erica puts out positive conscious lyrics and she talks about empowerment and self development and spirituality.  We say that in Hip Hop there’s good and bad, just like in all things.   Look, you can go and buy violent movies or sexually explicit movies and magazines or you can choose not to.  I think artists have to be able to express themselves even though it is sexually explicit or is drug related or crime related.  I would not promote it and I don’t think young adults should listen to that twenty-four seven.   But I don’t think artists should be prevented from expressing themselves either.   People have the right to choose to purchase what they like.  Then it’s up to the community to step to these artists if they go too far over the line and to put them in check.

OTP:  Give me a listening list of some positive, nation-oriented rap artists.

BK:  I would say Erika Badu, Lauren Hill, Wycleff Jean, The Fugees, Digital Underground, Brand Nubian and Dead Presidents.   Of course, there’s Sista Soljah and Ras Baraka has some poetry out. There’s also A Tribe Called Quest, those would be good place to start.
What we like about Hip Hop artists is that they put their friends and their family members on the payroll as they grow businesses.  Like Fat Joe up in the Bronx opened up a clothing store and he has a clothing line.  The Wu Tang Clan has a clothing line.  What we admire about the Hip Hop Culture is how people are able to get into it and keep spinning and revolving into different things.   First there’s the artist, then the label the clothing line and so on.  We think that bodes well as far as creativity and entrepreneurship are concerned.  And that is something this generation is into more than the prior generation.   We think that this generation can learn from our parents, the Civil Rights generation, about the need to struggle and to be out there and force the government to respect us as human beings.  But we also think that our parents can learn from this generation about ownership.  Not just looking for a job, but creating a job out of nothing and having ownership.

OTP:  What’s your background?  Did you grow up in New York?

BK:  I grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant on Jefferson and Tompkins.  I live in the Albany Houses now.

OTP:  What school did you go to?

BK:  I graduated from Boys and Girls and I went to Borough of Manhattan Community College.

OTP:  Is there anything else you’d like to speak on?

BK:  The gang situation.   We believe as a consensus that our leaders have to spend as much time dealing with young adults that are NOT in the gangs, as they do with people who are in the gangs.

OTP:  If you were in charge, what kinds of programs would you see for young folks?

BK:  I see a program that is similar to what Richard Green does, even though I don’t like his politics.   There has to be a building.  A Plant where sisters and brothers can come in and get skills training and that has support services like access to computers.    Take the Jackie Robinson Center operation for example.  They’re getting a new building and it’s going to have studios, a library and more.    I think what the young people need is similar to school but more of an after-school program that they can tap into to build themselves up.  Most of the young adults, if you give them a chance, they want to do better.  They do negative things because they don’t see any other way out.   What we need is a building that provides support services for whatever it is that’s productive that the young people want to do.   It would be sort of and after-school, camp, skills/development center and it would be open twenty four seven.  That’s what I’d like to see.