It’s Bigger than Hip Hop: An Interview with Mutulu Olugbala (M1) of Dead Prez

Tom Keefer and Chris Harris

The duo of stic.man (Clayton Gavin) and M-1 (Mutulu Olugbala) produce music grounded in a revolutionary analysis and focused on movement building. As historians, educators, and organizers, Dead Prez’s music, performances, and commitment to the struggle demonstrate their ongoing political relevance. With their two major releases Let’s Get Free (2000) and Revolutionary But Gansgta (2004), as well as their multiple mixed tapes, remixes, and collaborations, Dead Prez cemented their role as theoreticians of radical practice. Through his work as a hip hop artist, Olugbala is able to organize in “50 states in 40 days,” and works to “change the identification that African people have with people in the rest of the world.” In this interview, Olugbala tells the story of how Dead Prez came to be and discusses the revolutionary Black movements that continue to inspire Dead Prez – the Black Panthers, the All African People’s Revolutionary Party, the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement – and the radical love at the core of Black Power. The first part of the text is based on a talk given by Olugbala to Black youth in Toronto in November of 2007. The second half comes from an interview conducted by Tom Keefer and Chris Harris later that night.

Could you introduce yourself?

My name is Mutula Olugbala. I am one half of the tell-it-like-it-is, it’s-more-than-hip-hop, it’s-bigger-than-hip-hop, revolutionary group, Dead Prez. My story is one of African resistance and working-class reality. Many people know me as a hip hop artist or rapper, but I would be remiss to let you think I’m just a rapper. I am a product of the most extreme working-class experiences. I come from a community that is in turmoil. A lot is wrong with our community, but the objective is to figure that out, and that’s what I want to talk about. I’m a student as well as a teacher. I’m a father as well as a son. I’m a breakdancer as well as an MC. We do a lot. And we have to wear a lot of hats in order for us to get to where we are going in the future.

How did you become involved in organizing?

After high school, in 1989 or 1990, I moved to Tallahassee, Florida. I was trying to get out of New York City, and away from a lot of the dead-end options that we face right out of high school. Like Biggie says, ‘either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.’ These are one of the two or three options that are afforded to many Black youth today. A lot of my friends went into the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, because that was the road we were led to.

I decided that I was going to try and go to college. I guess I was smart enough to try to use that as an option. But when I got down to A&M University in Tallahassee, I realized it was all a dream. After one or two semesters on campus, I saw some of the most backward behaviour. I was coming from one of the realest places in the world where the majority of African people survive below the poverty level, living paycheque to paycheque. I went to school many times on just tea and biscuits, and I came to a university where people from exactly the same place I came from were acting like they were new people, as if they were now the Cosby kids.

Meanwhile, all the ones from way out in the suburbs were coming to school acting like they had a pocket full of crack and they were ready to sling it like they were on the block. The dynamic was incredible. People were trying to escape reality and they were not really dealing with the issues they faced. More than anything I saw people unable to answer the questions that confront us in our society. The university was not able to offer any viable explanation as to what was going on in the world. I saw an assimilation process going on as this US government-funded education system was preparing us to go out into the world and create more opportunities for capitalist exploitation. After one or two semesters it was clear. By 1991, I hooked up with my partner stic.man and we began to organize in the Tallahassee area.

I was 17 years old, not knowing much about what I wanted to do, but knowing I had the heart to try it all. My partner stic and I got together with some of our comrades from on and off campus, and we started to organize. We formed an organization called the Black Survival Movement right off the top because we were listening to songs by Bob Marley, the Lost Poets, and Gil Scott Heron. Those songs, along with speeches by Malcolm X, and many other pamphlets and books, were the beginning of our political education. The Black Survival Movement was full of young sisters and brothers, mostly between the ages of 16 and 20 years. We ran around Tallahassee in military formation, wearing olive drab tops and military fatigues and boots, doing exercise drills, trying to start community programs, and trying to redefine what it was to be poor and broke in Tallahassee, Florida.

How did you go about organizing?

Tallahassee in 1990 was like South Georgia in 1812. The Ku Klux Klan still rode around in the back of pickup trucks in broad daylight. This is what I was confronted with when I began organizing.

The Black Survival Movement redefined terms. Instead of celebrating Mother’s Day, which was a holiday created by the government so they could push Hallmark cards, we made an alternative called Momma’s Day. We cooked fish and grits out in the community and we talked about how important the sisters are as the backbone of our community because the war on drugs had left so many of our brothers entangled inside the prison industrial system. The sisters were running the households and we wanted to honour them. We also formed Umoja councils to bring the people together, and to serve as an example to local politicians about community improvement.

In effect, we did our utmost to put our best foot forward to organize and be organized. I remember the day my partner stic was working in a bookstore and came across a newspaper called the Burning Spear. In the back of the newspaper was a call for a revolutionary conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. We didn’t even know that there were still revolutionaries left out there. Even though we were organizing like we thought Huey P. Newton would, we thought the revolutionary tradition had been discontinued, and here was this newspaper calling for other revolutionaries to attend a conference. We were so excited about it that we called them immediately, and we spoke to a woman named Judith Wilson. I must emphasize that the fact that she was a sister was very important. We all gathered around in our little apartment trying to hear what this revolutionary was going to say. The sister couldn’t believe her ears. She talked to us for about 30 minutes, realized that we were a serious formation, and within eight hours she was in Tallahassee to see what was really going on.

And that was our introduction to the organization called the African People’s Socialist Party, which leads a mass organization called the Uhuru movement. It was they who taught me that Dedan Kimathi was the leader of the Mau-Mau, an organization that fought in the bush against the British colonialists in Kenya. He became the prime example of how we would wear dreads – like the Rastas would grow them. They would hide out in the bush and come out when the night fell and cut the throats of the colonial oppressors and burn down their houses, all in the name of land and freedom. The rallying cry used was “Uhuru” and it means “freedom” in Swahili. This is the call that this organization brought into my life. Once we joined the Uhuru movement I felt like we were back in the Black Panther Party days. We joined full-heartedly and went out into our communities, organized our central committees, and started to do the work.

It was fantastic to be training that way because they don’t teach you that in school. This organization was an alternative to the colonial bourgeois education of the ruling class. It is how we learned to organize our own community for community empowerment. The people are the most valuable resource to the community and they are the real makers of historical change, not the politicians who lie to us and manipulate the people.

What I found in working with Uhuru is that they had an unbroken history of resistance from the 1960s to the present. Under the leadership of Omali Yeshitela we continued the work that Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), may he rest in peace, would have completed. And we worked to complete the work of Huey P. Newton, Bobby Hutton, Ella Baker, and Assata Shakur. And I felt proud to do it. It was through that organization that I was introduced to the campaign to free Fred Hampton Jr., who had become a revolutionary figure in the streets of Chicago because of the work that his father had done in the Panthers. In 1992 in Tallahassee, while listening to rap music, I had no idea who Fred Hampton Sr. (the deputy chairman of the Chicago chapter) was. But once I found out, I came to know how important the campaign to free his son was.

What was the significance of Fred Hampton Jr. and Sr.?

Once I understood Fred Hampton Sr.’s role in the streets of Chicago, he became to me as magnetic a personality as many would say that Tupac Shakur is to youth today. I’m talking about a 20 year-old man who was able to command the masses by speaking in plain proletarian English. He was speaking in the words of the people to build our movement in Chicago, Illinois, the home to some of the most brutal conditions for African people in America.

It was out of Chicago that thirty years ago they built the largest chapter of the Black Panther party from 1967-69, under the leadership of Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton Sr. Out of its Ten-Point Platform to create freedom, justice, equality, access to land, bread, and housing for African people, this organization started to do fantastic work in Chicago. Fred Hampton Sr., who came out of Maywood, Illinois, joined the NAACP and then founded the Black Panther Party. As Deputy Chairman, he built his organization with Bobby Rush, who’s now a US congressman (that tells you about what he thinks today). But back in 1968 this organization created the free breakfast programs for children which were the predecessors to the US government’s free school lunch program. The Black Panther Party created medical clinics that tackled sickle cell anemia, which was as much of a problem then as prostate cancer is for young men now, and what fibroids is for women now. Sickle cell anemia was an epidemic at that time, and they took on this particular cause in the hood and in the medical clinics with the help of medical students from the campuses and volunteers from the community.

It was Fred Hampton Sr. who was doing this at a young 20 years of age. He was making some of the most potent statements being made. It was this man who built this very young organization in 18 months. I learned about Fred Hampton Sr. when I was 18 years old. I called my mom and daddy, and I got mad at them. I said, “how the hell did I not know about Fred Hampton Sr. before? Why didn’t you tell me about him?”

So when I joined the movement, the first obligation I had was to free his son. Sixteen years after Fred Hampton Sr. was murdered by the Chicago police on December 4, 1969, I came across Fred Hampton Jr. who had begun to walk in his father’s footsteps. When I got to Chicago and began to work on the Campaign to Free Fred Hampton Jr., the first slogan I put out was, “They took the father but they can’t have his son.”1 I wanted people to connect the legacy between father and son rather than forget what had happened in between. We can’t forget. You have to connect with history and that’s the most important thing that we have to do. They killed the revolutionary but they can’t kill the revolution. They killed the freedom fighter, but they can’t kill the freedom fight.

So here’s the young freedom fighter Fred Hampton Jr. in jail, and my job became to work for the campaign by getting signatures, writing leaflets, and going door-to-door to let people know who this young brother was. We worked to free him. We campaigned for nine years and finally got him out.

What’s your take on the relationship between art and politics?

My music is a direct reflection of my life. Some people say that life imitates art but I know that art imitates real life. That’s as true as it gets. Without real life, we wouldn’t be able to make the vibrations in our music. In the turbulent times of the sixties many of us rioted in the streets, but there were certain people who didn’t want riots in the streets, so they wrote music. Instead of having us on the streets throwing Molotov cocktails, they would have us dancing in the streets. Instead of using “Burn baby burn!” as a slogan for Black Power, they would use it as a slogan for Disco Inferno. This is the importance of music. This is the vibration that music bring us.

Without the Black Power movement, we wouldn’t have James Brown who used to be notorious for wearing a perm down to his shoulders and gators and sliding across the floor. Now he was holding up his fist and picking out his Afro and saying “I’m Black and I’m proud.” It would not have happened without our movement. It couldn’t have happened without our people. It was life that was influencing art and I like to say that’s where I come from. That’s where Dead Prez’s music is from.

They like to call us conscious MCs because our music addresses the reality of our community. But I have a problem with this term because it’s divisive; it’s used to make people think that Dead Prez is conscious while the Ghetto Brothers aren’t, which is totally untrue. They may say that Talib Kweli is conscious but Trick Daddy is not conscious, which is totally untrue. People make social statements that matter to our community, and we just need to put these things out and listen to them. The same people who control the prison system and the crack cocaine system and the health system are the same people who benefit off of hip hop and they don’t want to hear the kind of hip hop that is good for change.

There seems to have been a shift in tone between Let’s Get Free to Revolutionary But Gangsta (RBG). In the first you seemed to be addressing politics in an ideological way while, in the second, there seems to be a focus on relating to gangs and making an intervention within that scene. How do revolutionary politics relate to gangs?

Those albums were made, respectively, between 1990 and 2000, and between 2000 and 2002. I think they both spoke to their own particular times. They were both relevant to street organizations. The Black Panther Party was a mode of transformation for a lot of the street organizations. The Vice Lords, the P. Stone Rangers, and the Black Disciples all became politicized by the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Those albums represent our attempt to do the same: to entrench our politics in working-class peoples’ everyday lives. I think it’s great to put out the ideology, but if you’re not able to grasp that and transform it into practical work, then what’s the point? Kwame Ture would say that theory without practice is blind, and that practice without theory is useless. If you practice and you have no reason for why you’re doing it, it’s futile; so we try to balance the two.

I think the idea was to aim Let’s Get Free at the most gangster section of our community as a trajectory of what we learned: nothing has changed, we are still the same Africans, we are still dealing with the same oppressed conditions from Let’s Get Free on to RBG. It was our attempt to find the level of sickness within our people – the level to which propaganda had penetrated – so that we could position ourselves to give the right kind of medicine. We had thought that Let’s Get Free would be that medicine, but then found out that it was part of the same system, the same media, that puts out The New York Post and that hates on Black people. More than anything, we garnered the support and recognition of college students and a huge white following, which is cool. But that definitely wasn’t where Let’s Get Free was aimed at.

We tried our hardest to aim the trajectory of our next album towards the Black working-class community. It’s not aimed at gangs. Our whole community is ganged up. It was the phenomenon of gangs in New York that made us name the project Revolutionary But Gangsta. But the term “gangsta” was live even before there were traditional street organizations in New York. What we have left is the ability to organize ourselves in little sectors that can fight for small pockets of relief because if that’s all we find in gangs, then that’s what we’re trying to speak to with RBG. It wasn’t to hide the ideology at all; it was to communicate it in a more practical way for people to digest it.

Your albums and your work have received positive responses, but has this been translated into political or organizational developments? Are you still involved with the Uhuru movement?

No, that’s changed a lot. I led the Uhuru movement until 2002 in New York. I was the president of the local organizing committee and also a member of the African People’s Socialist Party. I haven’t been doing that for the last five years, although a lot of people still attribute that to me. To set the record straight, the Uhuru movement is the same organization that it was when I joined it. We are still part of the same African liberation movement, along with the All African People’s Revolutionary Party, as well as some white Socialist organizations that are also striving towards a common resistance.

I’m still down, I’m still here doing the same work. It has a different complexion now that Dead Prez has taken root in a lot of lives, because my primary work changed from community organizing on a daily basis to being a propagandist through hip hop. Hip hop not only pays my bills, but puts me in city after city. I’ve had to learn how to juggle that in my life as an organizer, and how to use it for political ends. Hip hop is really only the vehicle for the organization, but I had to figure out how to do it. I’d only known the traditional way to organize, which is that you make a leaflet and you go out to the people. You get people out to the rally, you build the community organization, and then you get a center and a power structure. With hip hop, I was able to reach so many people at a whole different level – I could organize a whole nation, I could get to 50 states in 40 days – I could never do that before.

But isn’t there the reality that a single charismatic leader can be taken out and doesn’t necessarily leave a functioning movement or a cadre behind?

At the end of the day we have to create training centers and we have to create ways to train revolutionaries. No ordinary school is going to teach you that. I learned from the OG’s but they didn’t have enough time to teach us all we needed to know as they were too busy dealing with the 20 year-old contradictions that they faced in their organizing. We need to create intensive summer freedom camps for our community so we can train future revolutionaries. If not, the state will snatch them up and turn them into students or some silly shit like basketball players. The most important jobs in our community that we need to fill are for revolutionary community organizers, and so that’s my job – to create trainings, so that if they cut off the head we’ll still have our bodies, and our organizations can create a new head. We need resilience in organizations which is something I learned from the Kenya Land and Freedom Organization led by Dedan Kimathi.

I have not created a national organization. My job has been to connect all the organizations that are active. I have been doing that for years and I finally realized what my role needs to be. I can’t allow the same divisions that splinter our organizations to happen like they have so often before. So I reach out to the leaders of different factions and I get them in the same room so we can meet and be down with the same program instead of building a new organization because I feel that’s going backwards. But I do believe that at some point a new organization does need to form. We’re going to see quantitative and qualitative transformations that develop into a new level of organization led by people who’ve been trained. Rappers have not been trained to do this which is the reason why they say the bullshit they say. It’s going to be the people who are trained that are going to be able to really take command, whether it be in music, dance, politics or education. We need to train people who are able to say, “okay this is how we respond to the most intense needs of our community.”

What would you say to white radicals and to white fans who like your music? How should they relate to the Black Power movement?

The struggle is for the empowerment of the oppressed people of the world. You have to identify with us, and you have to be able to unite and work under the leadership of the Black and brown community. If you’re a white radical and you call yourself a radical, you have to be willing to understand that the system has been based on the exploitation of Black and brown people for 500 years. On the edifice of capitalism and imperialism, they built an empire on which they said the sun would never set. The only way you can change that is to change the relationship we have with resources, with the soil, with technology.

We are 500 years behind because we were set that far behind. We have to put that energy right back into our community. Teach us what we don’t know, even the basics: how to build our own houses, how to build our own websites. The white community is able to do this because they’ve had the resources and the ability to collect this kind of stuff for years and years while we haven’t – it was even illegal for us to learn how to read. This is still affecting us today. I’m not saying this as a judgment; this is just the way that history stacked the cards.

So at the end of the day how do we put that together? To be revolutionaries we have to work to empower Black people. The aim of Black Power is not to smite white people. It is to say that white power has come at the expense and exploitation of Black people. Black Power is the total opposite of white power – it’s about love. It doesn’t mean that we want to go back and try to oppress other people of the world; it’s about self-determination. White people have to be able to take a principled stand to unite with Black Power not because they love Black people, or they listen to rap music, but because they believe in our right to have the self-determination that we’ve never had. I’ve fought beside white people who’ve been in the movement longer than me. I know white people who’ve been in the movement 17 or 20 years who have taught me many things. Read up on Penny Hess – she wrote a book called Overturning the Culture of Violence that condemns Americanism and the white power that has spread around the world. The most important thing that you can do is take responsibility for organizing. Organize, organize, organize! Build relationships with the nearest Black community organization. There’s a way we can bring white organizations to a Black Power perspective, and if you’re not organized to Black Power then you have a problem and we have a problem.

How do you think we can apply your “Revolutionary But Gangsta” ideology in doing peace work and gang truce work in a city like Toronto?

What I would say is don’t get caught up in terms. We have to work on redefinitions. Even Tupac replaced “nigger” with “nigga” to mean Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished. It may be bullshit, but at least it gives us a chance to redefine the term. It’s not a prison, it’s a concentration camp; this isn’t food, it’s poison. You have to be able to redefine the term, which is what we did with RBG. Don’t get it confused, the whole movement comes off the back of the Honorable Marcus Garvey who created an international organization for Black Power around the world back in the 1920s. RBG means Red Black and Green, and we made it Revolutionary But Gangsta. You have to make it mean something other than that – Real Brothers Grinding, Real Black Girls, Ready Bust Gats, Rice Beans and Grits. Redefine your RBG!

But the term “revolutionary” comes with certain codes of conduct. If you’re not following the code of conduct, then you can’t be united with our movement. Revolutionaries are accountable to, and responsible for, our community. You’re a revolutionary because you want to set up institutions that are able to empower the people.

What’s your sense of the international scope of Black struggle today?

There’s a revolutionary process going on in every community that I’m in. I just left Tanzania and Kenya. I just left Dar es Salaam and Nairobi after going through fantastic meetings with some OG members who used to be in exile in Africa in the same way that Assata Shakur is in Cuba. Their names are Pete O’Neil and Mama Charla O’Neil and they are letting us know that there’s a chance for us to still live and fight. There’s a resurrection afoot everywhere and we’ve got to be a part of it. I’m proud to be a part of the process. The job, from Santiago, Chile to Caracas, Venezuela – wherever you are in the world, is to change the identification that African people have with people in the rest of the world. They think that here in North America the streets are paved with gold and that you have no problems. That you here in Toronto have life made and that there’s really no need to struggle. But the reality is that resistance is just as important here as it is in Kenya or Brazil. It’s just as important here as it is in Brooklyn, in Watts, in South Africa. That’s why we’ve got to put in the work and take responsibility for our lives now.

Mutulu Shakur, who is my mentor (and also Tupac’s stepfather), said that the most important thing we can do now is to sacrifice. Sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice. Take responsibility while you’re young. Like Fred said, don’t be out here talking about being too young to join the movement. You got too much life to live. If you talk yourself out of it, what you do is murder yourself. You commit suicide. Now is the time to make sacrifices and take responsibility so we can change the future.

Notes

1 Fred Hampton Jr, former head of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, was convicted of arson in 1993. He was given a sentence of eighteen years and was released after nine years.