Mohammad Ali, the Socialist Vocalist, is a hip hop artist based in Toronto known for his sharp political lyrics and for his deep commitment to struggles for social justice. Scott Neigh interviews him about his music, about his involvement in activism and organizing, and about the ways that social movements in Canada need to do a better job at engaging with and supporting the arts.
It's not clear why so many of the social movements, progressive organizations, and grassroots groups in English-speaking Canada today don't do better on this front. You can look to North American social movements of the past, like the labour radicals in the early 20th century or 1930s, the Black freedom stuggle across many generations, or all manner of movements in the 1960s, and you can see vibrant scenes of musical, theatrical, and artistic creation that were either integrally part of movements or existed in rich dynamic relation with them. Whatever the reason for the widespread lack of movement engagement with the arts in more recent decades, though, Ali is keen to help change things.
Ali moved to Canada from Mauritius as an 8 year-old. Growing up in small-town Ontario, he faced intense racism, and the hip hop he started listening to was one of the first things that he encountered that allowed him to start making sense of that experience and gave him language to talk about it. He had been writing poetry since he was in grade school, and after his family moved to Toronto when he was sixteen, he started hanging around with some other kids who not only listened to hip hop but performed as well. He started freestyling, writing songs, and dreaming of being up on stage.
Political hip hop had already started to shape his ideas about the world, along with reading things like the Autobiography of Malcolm X. As he grew older, he read more and more, and in particular, it was reading Che Guevara's diaries that most inspired him. So much so, in fact, that he took off to Cuba in 2004 and lived there for the majority of the next two years, hanging mostly with a hip hop crew in Havana, and sometimes performing with them as well.
When he moved back to Canada, he plunged into both making music and into organizing. In those years, his political work was particularly foused on the Canada Haiti Action Network, which worked in solidarity with the Haitian people in the face of the then-recent coup supported by a variety of Western governments (including Canada), and on the War Resisters Support Campaign, which sought to support US soldiers who fled to Canada to avoid participating in war crimes in Iraq and elsewhere. He put out a solo album and did a national tour for the War Resisters, but over the next few years the largest part of his time and energy was consumed by activism and organizing.
It was about five years ago when he realized that, while he still wanted to participate in activism and organizing, he really wanted to prioritize his art. He found some solid mentorship and really focused on honing his craft. After lengthy discussions with other artists, friends, and comrades, he committed to a project grounded in people's experiences of work. Labour of Love, he called it. The album has been done for a couple of years, but its release was held up by financial concerns. He has also developed various theatrical pieces and visual art as part of that project, and the album is set to be released in fall of 2018. He's hard at work on new material for a project he calls Protest Music, and he's gearing up for a cross-Canada tour to support the Labour of Love album starting in September.
And as for what movements need to do to better engage with the arts, including music, Ali has a few ideas. On the one hand, he says that things are better than they were ten years ago – more groups and organizations are interested in incorporating performers into their events, and more of them realize that they need to pay performers for their work.
While that's good, it isn't enough. He says that we need to get beyond just a token performance and a cheque for the artist as the gold standard, and begin really having a conversation about a much more profound kind of integration of music and arts into struggles for social justice. This has to mean creating more opportunities for artists to participate in and contribute to movements. It means recognizing that lots of artists support movements even when their own work is not explicitly political, and creating opportunities to take part in movements that work for them. It means recognizing that often the people who make decisions in movement contexts do so from a pretty narrow conception of what grassroots politics should look like, and broadening that.
It means, most of all, recognizing that music and the arts shouldn't be regarded as an add-on to movements but as integral to them – as a key approach to convey ideas, to popularize issues, to spark conversations, to give voice to experiences of oppression, and to build consciousness, and one that will reach people in a way that yet another long speech at a rally never will.
He says that the first step to start moving in this direction is for individuals to start speaking up, wherever they happen to be -- the next time your group, union local, collective, or organization is planning something, be the person at the table who raises the question of how to make music and art part of it.
The image above and the excerpt from the song "Precarious Work" in the episode are both used with permission of MC Mohammad Ali, the Socialist Vocalist.
Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.
Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.
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