When Jasiri X started rapping, he was told that nobody wants to hear music with a message.
So when his track "Free the Jena 6" — about six black Louisiana high-schoolers charged with the beating of a white student — started getting national play, he was a little surprised. "I'd been told so much that people didn't want to hear it," he recalls. "It was like, ‘Oh, y'all lied to me.'"
As a young teen, the rapper, born Jasiri Oronde Smith, moved from Chicago to Monroeville. His childhood dream was to become a lawyer — a goal that he now seems to find somewhat amusing, but one that points to a life-long interest in social justice.
"I grew up in a household where [my mother] stressed the love of being black," he says.
He started making music when his best friend, an aspiring DJ, received turntables as a Christmas gift. His first attempts were terrible. "But I just kept writing, and the people around me encouraged me instead of dissing me," Jasiri says. "So, eventually I got better."
These days, Jasiri — who cites Nas, Wu Tang Clan and Lauryn Hill as major influences — is known for his political activism as much as for his music. (He also ranked in the top three in CP's Best Activist category.) His political consciousness — which he's been expressing in his music since the mid-2000s — would seem to place him opposite of artists singing about their party exploits. But Jasiri says that in the wake of Ferguson, the tide is turning away from pure party music, and politically conscious artists like Kendrick Lamar are coming to the foreground.
"I feel like rappers are really coming out and talking about what's happening right now," Jasiri says. After the killing of Michael Brown, for example, people started tweeting, "Do We Need to Start a Riot?" a song Jasiri had released a couple years earlier. "I think the movement has caught up with the kind of music I was making," he says.
Jasiri is a founding member of anti-violence group 1Hood Media, which works to unite neighborhoods while challenging police brutality and other systemic injustices. This year, in particular, has been a successful one: Jasiri received the competitive Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Artists and Activist Fellowship, and a fellowship from BMe, an organization which focuses on black men as community assets.
All of that will help to support 1Hood Media's programs, including a media academy, which offers education and resources to young artists. One of Jasiri's workshops, not surprisingly, is entitled, "How to Succeed in Hip Hop Without Selling Your Soul."
"[Hip hop] requires a real heavy grind. You have to market yourself," says Jasiri, who will release his new record, Black Liberation Theology, this fall. "But I feel like if you do it in a way where you can be honest and true to yourself … you can be successful."