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The activism behind Malcolm London’s RightAwaySeries EP

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The activism behind Malcolm London’s RightAwaySeries EP

Just minutes before I picked up the phone to call Malcolm London, students across America were returning to their classrooms after a 17-minute protest against gun violence in America. 17 minutes, one for every person killed as a result of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Violence is par the norm for London, who presented at a TED Conference in 2013 as a teenager. “Taking tests is stressful, but bubbling in a Scantron does not stop bullets from bursting,” he said in the talk with unbridled passion as he offered commentary in his spoken word poetry style on what high school is like for an inner city youth. By the time London gave the talk, he had already been a community organizer and activist for several years, and the lessons he learned as a kid in Chicago’s West Side (known for its gangs and street violence) form the foundation of his poetic and musical work.

“Having nightmares of bullet holes coming through the mattress,” is an example of that upbringing, which London sing-speaks on, “Smokescreens and Magic,” a track from his latest EP RightAwaySeries, released in January. The six-track album features London’s lyrical flow that sounds more like slam poetry than rap music. It starts with smooth R&B compositions based in synth piano and electric drums with lyrics that vacillate between critical and confessional. By the fourth track — “Just to be Clear,” featuring Marcus Atom and Simone Bisous — London slithers into slinky jazz territory before upping the tempo and his delivery into a more danceable sound for “Smokescreens and Magic.”

The life experience and subject matters that London explores would have wide-enough appeal in the world of heady academia: Cornel West is cited on London’s website as calling him the Gil Scott-Heron of his generation, and his TED talk was the first to be televised on PBS, appearing alongside John Legend and Bill Gates. He was part of a youth delegation to the United Nations in Geneva and advocates for changes in education, youth incarceration and social justice. He runs an open mic in Chicago with Chance the Rapper and was featured in “Saving Chicago: Inside Hip-Hop’s Movement to Make Chicago a Better Place,” a documentary from Billboard, alongside heralded rapper Common. Though London could rely on these laurels to create lofty rhymes that soar over listeners’ heads, he instead deftly crafts pivot points in his music to keep it relatable. In songs like, “Work While You Sleep,” London’s words can be interpreted as an analytic review of a difficult romance or as a harsh rebuke of his relationship with his community. “My definitions of love and relationships are complicated but also simple,” said London in a phone interview while between shows in Missouri.

RightAwaySeries feels more direct and urgent (as the name implies) than OPIA, London’s first full-length release in 2016, addressing issues of the moment that plague his hometown and the nation surrounding it.

“Being an artist means you have to tell the truth, and the truth is really harsh in Chicago,” he said. “All of these things are part of our story. That’s the beautiful thing about Chicago.” That beauty surges in the work of other Chicagoan emcees but London said he doesn’t view the recent uptick in Windy City hip-hop as a threat. “If I see someone doing great, it pushes me to be a better artist. It’s inspirational more than it is a competitive space,” he said. London’s work has less producer-polish than his hometown contemporaries, but the subtlety of his musical compositions allow for his lyrics to shine through: London has seen more frustration in the world than his 24-year-old eyes should allow but it hasn’t yet made him jaded; his poetry-to-music stylings weave together reflections on the struggles of urbanity that are unique to working class city kids with the coming-of-age flux of doubts and surety that most twenty-somethings can relate to.

“There are people everywhere in this country who are wrestling with these issues,” London said, and he uses his self-defined role as a “facilitator of space” to ask the listener to turn attention to the here and now without turning his music into a microphone pulpit. “I believe in the idea that activism is loving people. It is the rent you pay to the earth,” he said, and added that while the youth tend to be the most vocal and diligent in pushing an agenda for change forward, it doesn’t mean that older generations are apathetic or vulnerable to attrition. He spoke about a shift in roles as people age, from those on the frontlines to a more supportive position (ie: providing food and shelter for a family), noting that, “had I not been able to eat, I wouldn’t be able to run around and be an organizer.”

By the time our conversation was over, news media had already splashed images of high schoolers with protest signs gathered in school courtyards and lined-up on sidewalks on websites and television screens. For London, who is only a few years removed from that scenario, music and words are the agent for change, meeting people in the hip-hop clubs across America that he finds are slowly growing in numbers and, “carving out space for themselves.” He said his hope for this Friday’s show at The Low Beat (his first time in Albany) is that people see their own reflection in his work. “It reaffirms my message and my heart and spirit,” he said, adding, “Together, we work towards a brighter day.”

Malcolm London at The Low Beat feat. Youseff Milad. Friday, March 23 7:30 PM

Deanna Fox is a freelance journalist. @DeannaNFox www.foxonfood.com

 

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