Where Art, Culture, and Now Come Together
Hip-hop artist and educator Jahi resurrects themes from Public Enemy, surfacing life-affirming messages for our time.
Hip-hop artist-educator Jahi sees himself as a cultural preservationist and brings his messages to unusual places for experiencing hip-hop.
Photo by Carl Posey
What this article really needs is a soundtrack, a multimedia presentation.
Because to really understand the artist Jahi and what he represents, you have to experience him with all your senses. You have to hear his message in real time as he delivers it to a captive audience of young, African-American men gathered at Oakland High School. You have to feel the rhythmic emphasis of his lyrics as he threads one powerful thought into the next and then hits you with a phrase that stops you in your path. You have to see him translate his insights with seriousness and intention from the stage or watch him move effortlessly against a backdrop of photos of Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers as he draws connections with the spoken word within the corridors of the Oakland Museum of California:
Remember we the people with the power
no time to move as cowards
move as unified
across artificial lines
sign of the times
no sleep walking wide awake
a-oh, our future’s at stake
love power over hate
we can’t wait
born true freedom now
need it now
speak it loud
universal sound drum
Africa is where I’m from
America is where I’m at
check my history, man
I’ve seen this trap before
I stay smart and adapt
It take a nation of millions to hold us back
I still see a lot of pride
Remember my worth
Remember Earth is my home
Freedom fighting this song, come on.
Here we go again …
“My role with hip-hop culture is to be a preservationist,” explained Jahi, who lives in Oakland and refers to himself by his last name only. “Culture is how you relate to each other—how you eat, the language you use, how you bury your dead. People have gotten too caught up in the music thinking that’s all that hip-hop is, but it’s not. It’s about uniting people of all different races and demographics. Yes, it’s rooted in the African-American culture, but it’s so much more.”
Jahi’s efforts to preserve the culture of hip-hop are some of the most remarkable aspects of his work. A successful solo artist in his own right, Jahi joined forces in 2007 with Chuck D, leader of the iconic hip-hop group, Public Enemy. Together they began the work of revisiting songs from Public Enemy’s repertoire, giving them fresh meaning in the context of current events and interracial dynamics, while also developing new songs over classic Public Enemy tracks “to bring new consciousness, culture and spirit” to hip-hop sound in the present times. The result is aptly named PE 2.0.
“PE 2.0 reintroduces current generations to the idea that this has been going on for decades. I cover songs like ‘Louder Than A Bomb,’ ‘Riot Starter, What Side You On. But the message has a different context now. I think that you hear a sense of urgency in my work and seriousness. But there’s also a joy and peace.”
As a cultural preservationist, Jahi has brought hip-hop to the most natural and yet unnatural of settings: art museums. Through The Intersection, he leads workshops and performances in museums that bridge the world of art, education, and hip-hop. His most recent endeavor at the Oakland Museum of California was masterfully timed to coincide with the Black Panther’s exhibit there.
“Hip-hop is art. But all too often, that art is reduced to being in clubs, as if that’s the only place you should experience it. I want to disrupt the idea that hop-hop only belongs in clubs. It should be placed inside of museums, too, because they have a vested interest and appreciation for preserving things. When you go there, you check out colors, textures, tones, angles, and perspectives. I want us to do the same as it relates to hip-hop music and culture.”
The same sense of purpose that emanates from Jahi’s musical expression also translates to his work as part of the lead team that builds the African American Male Achievement, or AAMA, program within the Oakland Unified School District. He manages the Manhood Development Program for K-8 students to take part in AAMA in nearly two dozen schools across the Bay Area.
“It’s been one of the best experiences of my life. I serve young boys, kids who look like me, inside a public school system and teach them classes in mastering their cultural identity. I help them make the transformation from boyhood to manhood.
“I love Oakland. I love the people of Oakland,” Jahi continued. “Whatever I’ve done artistically, Oakland has helped it to grow. Being a man with principles, values, integrity, in an industry where they say that this doesn’t matter, this has been the saving grace and purpose for my entire life. This moment, and this place, and these people are helping me to refine my humanity.”
Published online on June 21, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.