Being one of a few white faces in a sea of beautiful, powerful, and passionate black men and women, sitting under the weight of Tyson Amir’s words shared from his poignant, socio-political, freedom fighter’s memoir, his magnum opus (at least to date), Black Boy Poems, was uncomfortable. And that’s good. Those moments have made me who I am, they make us who we are, and prepare us for who we are becoming. Hip hop music has a similar effect on listeners; it forces those on the listening end to dwell in the environment created in and by a song, in an album, and it provides an opportunity to build empathy and to expand one’s understanding. Unfortunately, it also causes those not ready to grow to further harden the callouses on their hearts, on their minds. That’s not the artist’s responsibility. The artist, in many cases, simply must share her/his truth(s). Amir was relentless. Each word spoken, and each purposeful pause seemed to be less about denotative meaning, and more about how each was a subtle contributor to a bigger call to action. His work is distilled art. Tyson Amir is focused on the essentials of his movement – which I’ll let him define below – and works hard to keep the peripheral pursuits of artistry at bay. The Bay Area native’s art is amazing, yet it is eclipsed by an unwavering commitment to the liberation of all people, and embedded in that commitment, is a commitment to the people. My eyes have welled up multiple times as I’ve read and re-read Tyson’s answers below, feeling the weight of the work before us, and the absence of any such weight in the presence of hope simultaneously. I hope and pray that everyone reading takes to heart the inspirational words of Tyson Amir that follow. Read. Enjoy. Share.
SDLHH: Who is Tyson Amir?
Tyson Amir: First of all, I appreciate the opportunity to share with y’all. SD has become a place that is very important to me. I respect the energy of the community here. I see great things in the future for SD. I really hope y’all are able to keep building it up.
Who is Tyson Amir? I’m a freedom fighter. I take that very seriously. I’m a byproduct of the struggles of my people, the time and place that I was born in, and the fight that I’ve been raised/trained to carry on. That fight is rooted in the historical struggle of black people in America, and the goal is the freedom and liberation of my people and all peoples on the planet. That’s who I am.
SDLHH: Man. That’s powerful. Can you tell SDLHH a story about how hip hop has changed your life?
Tyson Amir: There’s no singular story that represents hip hop being a force for change in my life. It’s been a constant presence as I’ve grown and matured. What it really did for me was allow me to understand the lessons that my elders were attempting to instill in me in a way that made sense to me. I had the honor and privilege of experiencing hip hop at a time when numerous artists rhymed about social, political, and historical matters. That meant everything to me. It allowed me to be fully immersed in a lived experienced that was predicated on love for one’s people and resistance to the oppression that they face. Hip hop helped me understand that lesson. And now hip hop allows me to carry on that tradition.
SDLHH: So we met when you were the feature at Blck Xpression’s, Xpress !t. You stole the attention of everyone in the room that night; I have never seen such a singularity of focus and mind in an open mic setting like that, before or after. When performing your work in a live setting like that, what do you feel in those moments? Maybe you could even tell us about a memorable performance when you really felt in the moment sharing your work.
Tyson Amir: That was a great night. I’ve had the honor of sharing my work in SD before but it had been a few years. I ended up at Blck Xpression’s open mic that evening because I met Ronald and Sakea in NY back in Dec. 2016. I was out there doing an east coast run for my book tour. We crossed paths at the Nuyorican. It must’ve been the California in us that brought us together there that night. They told me about what they were doing in SD and I said I’d love to come out and support. That’s how I ended up there that night.
When it comes to sharing my work, I think I approach it differently than most people. I don’t perform. As I mentioned before I consider myself a freedom fighter so whatever I do is representative of that. I don’t do hip hop or poetry for the sake of “the art” or “the culture”. I do it because it’s a valuable weapon in a revolutionary struggle. I don’t share the goals of most of my “colleagues” in the hip hop world. I don’t care about being the best MC, or having the most views/likes. It’s not about becoming rich and famous. None of those are my goals. I care about creating quality content that inspires my people as we struggle for freedom. That’s what you see when you see me in front of a microphone. I know my mission and I go in there and share what I’ve been given with the people.
One of my mentors is the only woman to have ever led the Black Panther Party, Elaine Brown. She was, and still is, an amazing musician. She was tasked by Huey P. Newton (Co-founder of the BPP) to record two albums that came out on Motown records for the BPP. The party understood that culture is an important weapon in a revolutionary struggle. Elaine used her artistic ability for the sake of the people and the struggle. That’s the example that was set for me, and that’s the example that I do my best to follow.
SDLHH: I bought your book that night; I couldn’t not buy it – I was sold. Now my wife and I have been reading it and the intro is worthy of being a book in and of itself, really sharing how your upbringing has shaped the man I met at thChrch in Barrio Logan months ago. What was one of the most shaping memories that comes to mind when you reflect on how you got where you are today? What was a moment when you can remember hip hop, in particular, altering the trajectory of your life?
Tyson Amir: History and tradition play a major role in my life. I reference a memory early on in my book when my father piled my older sister and me in his car and drove us up to West Oakland to attend a vigil for Huey P. Newton. He had been killed earlier that day. I was extra young at the time but I could sense some of the seriousness of that space. It was a tangible moment that meant to me the tradition of resistance has to continue. Our elders are transitioning but our struggle isn’t over; the next generation has to carry on the fight. I began to understand that then.
Hip hop helped crystalize that understanding over time. I was always moved by artists with dope lyrical ability and high content. There was never a shortage of artists here on the west coast that were able to do that effortlessly, especially in the Bay Area. As I continued to grow as an MC, that was the type of hip hop that was organic and the most authentic to me.
SDLHH: Thanks for that. I want to transition a bit more to the here and now. What have you been up to recently? What are some of the things most heavy on your mind as you navigate the day to day?
Tyson Amir: Black Boy Poems is what I’ve been up to recently. The book has been doing extremely well since it came out on Oct. 15, 2016, on the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. I’ve been traveling all over the country sharing my work with colleges, schools, community organizations, the youth, and our brothers and sisters locked up in institutions. It’s truly an honor to be able to give something of value to your people.
I do my best not to lose focus on what I feel I’m here for. Those are the things that stay in my heart and mind. They guide me as I do my best to properly strategize and implement tactics to make change. What also sits heavy in my heart is the desire to be true to the struggle. Che Guevara is credited with saying, “words are beautiful but actions are supreme”. The hip hop world has lost focus on that reality. It’s become too much about the words, the cars, the clothes, the swag, the money, the drugs, and a whole list of other things with no accountability and no actions that move the people forward. It’s [all on the] surface, and we live in a time and place where we have to live lives of depth and meaning because real change is needed.
SDLHH: Now that I feel we have gotten a good sense of who you are, I really want to dive into why you do what you do. You have set out on a path that few are willing to take, putting your life, well-being, and most importantly in America, your comfort, at risk in order to take a stand for your convictions. What, if you can possibly distill them down for us, are your convictions? And, akin to your convictions, what is your why?
Tyson Amir: I’ve eluded to this in some my previous responses, for me it’s what I inherited from my ancestors. I was born to a people who have been placed in the center of a struggle that has lasted for centuries. I have to do my part to honor those that came before me, and those who will come after me.
I’ve been strongly influenced by the history and philosophies of the Black Panther Party. Dr. Huey P. Newton spoke quite a bit on the subject of fear and how it paralyzes a people who should be fighting to make their lives better. Fear in that way is not an option for me. We all will die. My livelihood and well being are already at risk because of the skin I was born in. I am a descendent of people who have overcome some of the most outrageous living conditions in history. My people are strong and if I have to give my life to help make things better for the people that I love, then it is a great sacrifice.
SDLHH: Everything you share, whether in this interview, or in your book, or in a live setting, is like a boulder in a river, causing some to go one way and others to go the opposite direction. I happen to be drawn in by it, but I know that you cause/create/bring out harsh, opposing responses as well. How do you handle the backlash, the haters? Also, what have you found to be one of the biggest misconceptions those who oppose your movement have about you and the movement?
Tyson Amir: I don’t spend much time contemplating those who might not be in favor of what I create. I’m not here to please everybody. I have a message and the ability to get it to people and communities that are open. That’s a big enough task for me. I focus on the things I can impact and let the other stuff be what it is.
There’s a long list of prejudices and misconceptions that exist when it comes to me and my work. I’m fine with that. The communities that welcome what I stand for and what I create know who I am. They respect what I do and they are the ones who are the most impacted by what we are resisting against.
SDLHH: Conversely, others are eager to be a part of the solution, but it can be difficult to know where to put your efforts. What is your advice to those who want to support/join/contribute to the Black Liberation Movement, to fighting for justice in general?
Tyson Amir: The reality of the Black Liberation Movement is that there is no liberation of Black people without the liberation of all people. That’s something that my elders in the BPP and other aspects of revolutionary movements of the late 60s and 70s understood. Hence the phrase, “Power to the people”. Allies are important but there is a real science to ally-ship. Sadly, that “science” is not well understood in the present moment. We need to fight together if we are sincere about freedom and liberation for all. There are many places where our work can intersect and compliment each other. That would require deep understanding of current context, an unwavering commitment to the struggle, and strategizing for effectiveness in a particular locale.
SDLHH: I hope that readers reach out to you after that answer, to begin/continue dialogue on what that might look like. During your performance, and in the book as well (if I remember correctly), you recognize hip hop as integral in moving toward justice and peace in America. What role do you feel hip hop plays, and why do you believe that to be true, especially in light of what you shared earlier regarding the BPP’s understanding of culture as an integral tool in the movement?
Tyson Amir: Revolutionary struggles belong to the youth. Hip hop is the language of the people, especially the youth. Hip hop was born out of the black experience in America. Everything black people have created for themselves in the American context has been to further their quest for freedom and liberation. Meanwhile, capitalism has devoured the cultures and the peoples of this world. Hip hop has become one of the latest casualties. Its revolutionary underpinnings are now well covered by consumerism and global capitalism. What we hear today in both “mainstream” and “underground” spaces couldn’t even be considered a distant relative of the spirit that produced hip hop. It’s more akin to commercials, jingles, and anthems of hedonism and glorification of ignorance these days. Yet and still, you can try to kill the body of hip hop, but you can’t kill its soul. The soul is where that revolutionary energy resides. The youth today are in need of that because of the world that they live in. Hip hop will play a major role in delivering that message and the more hip hop is connected to a broader understanding of a revolutionary struggle the more potent it will be.
SDLHH: Can you share a story, an example, of how you have seen that play out in the real world?
Tyson Amir: The most relevant examples are how music played a role in the black liberation struggle and the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Both of those examples reflect larger movements that we focused on real social/political change in society. As a result the music of the day began to reflect the struggles of the people and provided the soundtrack for the revolution. That hasn’t been the reality here in the states in the lifetime of hip hop. We’ve had moments of resistance and hip hop would rise to the occasion. Hip hop went fully corporate in the mid to late 90s and hasn’t ventured anywhere near that type of political stance since, despite the struggles of the people in the street.
SDLHH: In recognizing hip hop as a vehicle, a medium to be harnessed and used by those fighting for equity and equality, I am curious if you create music? If so, where can we find your music? Are you working on anything right now?
Tyson Amir: I create music. I consider myself a freedom fighter first, if I’m asked to describe myself as an artist, then I’m an MC not a poet. I was raised in cyphers on corners with homies beatboxing and freestyling for hours. That’s where I honed my skills and learned to master my craft. I’ve toured internationally as a recording artist and I still work on music. My next project, Tradition, will hopefully be out in October of this year.
It’ll take more than hip hop to accomplish change in our society though. The vision of corporate hip hop is too small. It needs to be controlled by the people and embedded in the struggles of our people.
SDLHH: What’s something you’d like to share with the hip hop community at large?
Tyson Amir: It really is bigger than hip hop. A culture is nothing if it’s not attached to a people who know themselves and what they’re supposed to do. As Marcus Garvey said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.” This is what hip hop has become today. It has no knowledge of the people it came from, their past history and origin. Thus, it’s susceptible to being used by anyone with enough force to push it around. We need to become rooted in something real. And hip hop needs to be more than words. It must become manifest into actions that create change.
SDLHH: One emphasis of SDLHH is to see a heightened level of unity in the Hip Hop community. Can you point to some other artists/poets/authors/activists who you see as comrades and who you also see as helping to progress the scene/movement?
Tyson Amir: This will be a long list. I’m thankful because I’m surrounded by such amazing and incredible people who do dope work. My folks Ise Lyfe, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Ryan Nicole, Joy Elan, Azariah Cole-Shepard, Malik Wade, Amir Sulaiman, Prentice Powell, Erik Rico, Alia Gabres, Poetic Pilgrimage, the community of artists that I’ve met in SD, all my comrades all throughout the states who I organize with, and especially my folks at techactivist.org
SDLHH: Finally, where should readers go to connect with you?
Tyson Amir: if folks are interested in being connected to what I’m doing, they can tap in on the website www.tysonamir.com or follow me on twitter: @tysonamir IG: @tyamir
I appreciate y’all for granting me this platform. Let’s get back to building for the people.
I know that you probably don’t need any coaxing to click the link attached to the first reference to Tyson Amir’s Black Boy Poems, but if you simply want further confirmation that you ought to buy, read, and gift a copy of the book, enjoy some of it “performed” by Amir HERE.
Peace, Love & Hip Hop,
#SDLovesHipHop exists to carry on a conversation about hip hop music and culture as a catalyst for change in individuals’ lives and communities. If any of the artists above, or this article has struck a chord in you, SHARE THIS and PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT explaining how.