A conversation with KRS-One and Michael Lipscomb for Black History Magazine, completed in 1992 at the request of the of the Publisher, Bill Singleton, Jr.
ML: It’s obvious that history is important to you. History is self-esteem to you. But it strikes me that you deposit history into politics, and that may not always work. Why should history be merely used as a political tool?
KRS: Because it’s through the distortion of history that some people have become politically powerful. So it definitely is a political tool. It is the fabric our lives. Your culture is you.
ML: But there are many ways to look at America. There are some who would say, and I am one of them, that America is, in important respects, a cultural extension of Africa. What’s ironic is that when a middle class white wants to be considered cultured, he or she goes to the blacks.
ML: Which, in a way, contradicts what you’re saying, Their political dominance isn’t matched by cultural dominance. How do you feel that politics relates to cultural knowledge and how can one use cultural knowledge as a way of uplifting self-esteem?
KRS: We have to look at our history. To understand nature of the beast you have to understand his history. American history is not at all like African culture. This is African culture after it’s been made insane. This is African culture after it’s been murdered, robbed, beaten. Before colonialism, Africa ran its own civilization and had its own culture. They dressed, acted, talked, did everything totally differently. I use history as a political tool to trace how people came into power. They didn’t overthrow Africa because of color prejudice. It was economics–and it was also a question of power. Culture is self. There is no such thing as the individual.
ML: In African culture?
KRS: In correct culture. The individual is a part of the masses. The masses come first and the individual comes last. In America the individual comes first and the masses come last. When the individual is last and culture is first, you have self. You are a part of a collection of people that have learned and striven for years on end, The struggle is your culture. This is what fills you up. This is what makes you the African, the Asian, the Japanese: that your culture has taught you to act and think a certain way. When that culture is stripped from you, you’re left with nothing. You’re like an empty cup. And people can pour anything they want into you.
ML: I was taken aback, incidentally, that W.E.B. DuBois, was missing from the reading list you promulgate, because he is very important in dealing with this. I doubt that we were totally stripped of our culture. Look at American history in the mid-19th century, at writers such as Emerson and Thoreau. They were preoccupied with Europe and the task of getting out from under a notion of European antiquity, so that they could forge another cultural identity. There was profound ambivalence on this matter. At the same time, the southern aristocrats had sent their children to Europe for “culture.” So in that sense, we were the only true Americans, because we had to grow up here. We had to deal with this reality. This seems to contradict your thesis that we had been stripped of our culture. You seem to forget that we are totally …
KRS: Not necessarily. I feel as though America doesn’t even exist. The true Americans are the American Indian, and they don’t call this place America So what is America?
ML: America is the shadow; I think that is what you’re trying to say. For many, America is a kind of bastard Europe; certainly many Europeans have perpetuated that notion. The black made it America. As James Baldwin often said, “We are Americans because we’ve known nothing else.” Consequently, you have complex cultural formations such as jazz, which is not African music…
KRS: Jazz is African music.
ML: It has African elements like polyrhythms…
KRS: Anything created by a black man is African. People divide things up differently because of the way we’ve been taught, We’ve been killed, mentally. If a cat had kittens in the oven, would you call them muffin’s?
ML: I think that dealing with Africa, and with people, is always going to be little more complicated than that. After all, Africa is deeply heterogeneous assemblage of different cultures and ethnic groups. Yoruba culture is distinct from Ibo culture is distinct from Hausa culture, and they don’t exactly coexist in perfect harmony. It’s like Europe: there isn’t a substantial amount of unity in Europe, either, as a couple of world wars will attest, and a stroll through the Balkan republics will confirm.
KRS: Even so, the title ‘Afro-American is a false title.’ It is a slave title. Anything hooked onto “American” is an endorsement of dropping bomb on Hiroshima, of slavery, and the annihilation of the Indians …
ML: We’re talking about two different types of America. I will agree that there is one segment of America that is attached to a European conception of colonialism. But in Africa, one sees the same thing. Below the twentieth parallel there are more than a handful of nations that have black dictatorships and whose citizens can’t vote.
KRS: Well, that’s today, after neocolonialism. Africa in its ancient history, before the invasion of Persia and Greece and Rome, was economically and psychologically stable; racially and culturally it was a stable place to be.
ML: There was still fighting, still conflict, still the expansion and contraction of indigenous empires.
KRS: No, not before the invasion of Greece and Rome.
ML: That Is a dubious conjecture.
KRS: As a matter of fact, the reason they were defeated is because they didn’t have the sophisticated weapons Rome and Greece and Persia had when Egypt was invaded. Africa didn’t evolve to that stage of technology because they had achieved a stage of civilization that was leading away from way. Clearly, our time and money were going into education and knowledge. That’s where I find the decline of African people: when they ere introduced to Europe. In fact every race that has been introduced to Europe had been destroyed.
ML: I think that’s simply superstition. Even Chancellor Williams (Destruction of Black Identity and Civilization) conceded that among his main sources, Herodotus, the father of history, was someone who admired Africa. He admitted that he had to go through the “enslavers” in order to get the story about Africa. What he did was just to pick through various sources to see the ones that had good things to say about Africa and which had bad things to say about Africa. So he simply and tendentiously selected; that is what white historians have done. You create an official history, and then begin to build a historical culture around that, emphasizing whatever supports your story and dismissing the rest. The danger is that many rappers can fall into a counter-identification with another official history and end up doing just what they condemn the Europeans for having done.
KRS: I’m looking not to make that mistake. My whole take on history comes from a logical point of view, really not a historical point of view. If you go to another land and loot, rape and kill–both mentally and physically for your own benefit, you are a murderer and a thief.
ML: You’re saying that Africans never did that? Egyptian culture did it constantly. Much fault with African culture: but African culture, unlike European culture, was clearly moving away from that. We were going through a stage of what’s actually called capitalism. On television, they show it as slavery, but in its political sense it was capitalism. Egypt was going through and evolving into a state of universal harmony or unity–because Africans traveled the world. In any place in the world, if you wanted to learn, you had to come to Egypt.
ML: But I even question this whole idea of Egypt as a cultural cradle. The historiography is still evolving. I believe that Egypt is important in that white historians refuse to give up Egypt as black. Have you read Martin Bernal’s Black Athena?
ML: He traces the cultural issues in part through the development of the Greek language. And what you get in looking at Greek is something with both Phoenician and Semitic influences. And there’s been a growing amount of archeological research into the ancient civilization buried beneath the Sudan. S o I’m uneasy with this prevailing idea that depicts Egypt as Africa’s sole beacon of enlightenment.
KRS: I place emphasis on Egypt because it was one of the major places of learning. This was the first place Greece attacked; it was probably one of the most populated areas for scholars. But Africa as a whole was part of the entire learning process. My point, getting back to history as a political tool, is that the subjugation of others is how, people, gained their political power, and they did this by taking away our history. Knowledge is to know, it’s the collection of facts; intelligence is the ability to know, to assess and to question. Obviously if someone is giving you knowledge, and you don’t have the intelligence to assimilate it, you are ultimately a slave to the person who gave you your knowledge. They dictate how they want you to be and act. What has happened is that the African has be en stripped of knowledge, not his dates and facts and numbers, but of his intelligence. His ability to assess what is around him has been snatched away.
ML: African Americans are often depicted as more confused, or less liberated, than their African counterparts. And yet Afro America has had its share of modern movements. Marcus Garvey couldn’t start his movement in Jamaica, He had to come to America. Interestingly, his hero was Booker T. Washington. So what I see are different levels of Africanness. Where are you positioned in this? Part of what makes your music distinctive is the variety of reggae sounds you employ. Like Bob Marley, you play reggae into a rock tradition.
KRS: My father is Jamaican. My mother is American or born in America. I totally denounce that title, America.
ML: I think that has a lot to do with the fact that black West Indians have never been able to except that blacks are a minority in America. And you even deal with that in one of your own songs. But don’t you think it’s interesting that Jamaicans flee the island where they are the majority ‘as’ rapidly as white Cubans fled Castro?
KRS: Well, the reason is the wretched poverty over there. Everyone is chasing the material item. Jamaicans are no different. They want a house, a car, a girl or a man. America is presented to them on television as being the land where streets are paved with gold. So naturally they leave their poverty-stricken land to come over to America to get themselves together. I just think that Africans all over the world should be Africans, to call themselves and acknowledge themselves as Africans. Just as Italians should acknowledge themselves as Italians.
ML: Why? America is a different phenomenon than Italy.
KRS: But America doesn’t exist.
ML: Yes, it does: it does in that the Italian American has created a culture that’s distinct from what we see in any given region in-Italy. Historically, the people who come here have wanted to get away from their homeland–for various reasons, as you said, and often motivated by the prospect of new opportunity. But often they simply wanted to get away. To start anew.
ML: Often they weren’t interested in maintaining their culture, their ties to an older existence. That’s what D.H. Lawrence may have had n mind when he said that America is a recreant Europe. But part of What’s basic and distinctive to the culture is the experience of slavery; the interracial drama that James Baldwin speaks of, that created not only a new kind of black man, but a new kind of white man as well. By this reasoning, then, who can say that black Americans are not American?
KRS: If black Americans were Americans we would not have come here in slave ships.
ML: You’re denying the reality of the transition. We’re here.
KRS: It’s how we got here. Everybody else came here looking for a better way of life. Africans came in shackles. We didn’t ask to come here. So now that we’re here, and you adapt and generations have grown here in America, we quickly call ourselves American. When, in fact, America is what has been killing us for five hundred years.
ML: Conversely, we’ve been buoying up America for five hundred years,
KRS: By force.
ML: Legally, we’re in America, And there’s the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments on our aide. Since 1865, we’ve been taken as part of the American polity.
KRS: Look at the Emancipation Proclamation for one. It says that from January 1863, all persons held within a state or part of a state in armed rebellion was free. The states that were in armed…rebellion was in confederate states. The northern states were not in armed rebellion. Ultimately Lincoln tricked the African people into believing that they were all free when in fact he said in his contract, all persons held as slaves within a state that is in armed: rebellion. So all the states of the South, all the slaves of the South were free when in fact that was a totally different government. The North had slaves.
ML: Exactly. There were certain border states.
KRS: He didn’t deal with those slaves. Ultimately Lincoln won the war, so that means ultimately, legally we’re still slaves, because the slaves he freed he conquered.
ML: Except that the slaves in those marginal states that were not formally freed constituted sixty percent of the blacks that fought in the Union Army. So in other words, they found out through word of mouth that there was a Civil War and that it was over them, over their body, their bondage. So isn’t it ironic that they constituted the majority of the black Civil War soldiers? The Civil War did, in fact, signify the end of slavery. The Civil war was fought, at least in part, because the South wanted the expansion of slavery and Lincoln raised the aspirations of the country by abolishing it. So Lincoln is, in fact, a great hero. He’s great because the exemplified the notion: “I don’t have to be for you to do right by you…” It’s possible to be great and not imagine the significant consequences of your action. But Lincoln knew the major consequences psychological and otherwise. He knew that the Emancipation Proclamation was perhaps the most important document of the nineteenth century
KRS: But for whose good?
ML: Ultimately that doesn’t matter.
KRS: Yes, it does. That’s a major point. Who does it benefit?
ML: Lincoln could not live for the slaves. He gave us opportunity, an opening. It was and is up to the blacks to interpret his act. Just because he wasn’t looking out for all of our interests doesn’t mean we deny him credit. In the same way, a growing fraction of blacks deny the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr. I Simply because he espoused a notion of integration does not mean that his achievements were not extraordinary.
KRS: Right. But why do you say the Civil War marked the end of slavery? Why not the birth of world slavery? Knowing the vicious system in which we’re under, when you’re making a million dollars a year off these Africans working for free, you wonder how much more money can you make by enslaving everyone? So, in other words, it’s not that they freed the slaves or even wanted to. I’m saying they wanted to enslave the world. The birth of capitalism is the death of slavery.
ML: But you see, almost everyone in America, including blacks, wants to be capitalist…
KRS: We’ve never been given anything else, According to popular consciousness right now, capitalism is the best system. According to our consciousness, right now neither socialism nor communism would work. That’s how the system works, by dictating not in a physical sense, but a mental sense. Which means that if someone is giving you America, you’re not American, you’re something else.
ML: One of the reasons I say that black Americans are morally Americans is that when you look at American history, they are the only ones for whom the Constitution mattered the most, and the ones who, in a moral sense, have taken responsibility for the Constitution. The Constitution is actually a freak document, because the framers created this document almost despite themselves. And we are the ones who insisted on the importance of this document, on trying, ultimately, to make it faithful to the most basic principles it enshrined. You wouldn’t have a W.E.B. DuBois, a Frederick Douglass, without this posture. Frederick Douglass is a good example here of someone who combined militancy with a desire to be an American, with the rights this entails.
KRS: He was insane.
ML: Frederick Douglass? You think so?
KRS: Absolutely. An African wanting to be American is a crazy man.
KRS: Because ultimately America is trying to kill you, has killed your people, and made billions of dollars off you and now says, let’s be friends. Well, give me back my land. That’s what I want. I don’t want to be here in America. Give me back Africa.
ML: It seems to me that a lot of Africans want to be Americans, because they’re emigrating here in large numbers.
KRS: Because Africa is not Africa. Africa is American.
ML: Come again?
KRS: That is probably the most profound fact Africans are Americans due to neocolonialism, missionaries, the works.
ML: But why American? Why not French?
KRS: Because we threw the French out, the Germans out, we threw the Portuguese out.
ML: I, think you’re underestimating the influence that the French had on, say, the Algerians. When you’re in bed with somebody, for years and years, your cultures commingle. And this what a film like Chocolat is about.
It is a French film, about neocolonialism and what it says, basically, is that, yes, the French were in love with their African captives. It was a love-hate relationship.
KRS: But that’s sickness. Besides, France is part of America. They’re all one, the big five: France, Switzerland, Germany, Britain and America. And these people are the South African government, which is a world power. These are the only groups you will see in Africa. It’s called being allies, No country in the world could exist unless America told them they could exist. The only exceptions are what’s called America’s enemies.
ML: But you left out completely how it was the former U.S.S.R. that financed many of Africa’s uprisings.
KRS: The cold war, the conflict between the U.S.S.R. and America, sic [was] nonsense. That’s presented through television for the American people. The real war goes through Africa, as a whole. If Russia gave too many weapons to the freedom fighters to shoot at an American-supported government, that’s where the war came in.
ML: W.E.B. DuBois talked about that sixty years ago. But France has had a different type of colonialism than America.
KRS: But why do they try to overthrow Africa. If you’re In love with a country, you come in peace.
ML: All they saw were minerals, cobalt and gold.
KRS: They saw the people. But France has become a bit more civilized. You can see it in their relations to the Arabs today. France has been the most progressive of all the European nations in this respect. America and England are upset with France because they go easy on Khaddafy, they negotiate with terrorists. In fact, one can argue that France has been leading Europe into a kind of humanism. At the two hundredth anniversary of the Bastille Day, it was Francois Mitterand who wanted some of the third world leaders to sit with the superpowers. It was Bush and Thatcher who objected. So there is a kind of friction. Today, England finds herself with a shrinking empire. America finds her empire also shrinking. Many see a slow decline of European influence. But it’s your contention, and you said this on the Arsenic Hall Show, that no black man is free until Africa is free. I’m sure that Arsenio looked at you knowing he was going to his beach house, and wondering what your idea of freedom was.
KRS: Exactly. But Arsenio Hall’s insane. Because ultimately every black man on this planet is African. They were spread out through the slave trade, But even if you explored other continents as Africans did, you were still African.
ML: No, you changed. That’s the problem.
KRS: You don’t change.
ML: Of course you do.
KRS: If you keep your culture you change everybody around you.
ML: Cultural diffusion is a two-way process, for sure. And of course, you change another way through the process of intermarriage.
KRS: But if your culture is true, intermarriage doesn’t come into play.
ML: Are you against intermarriage?
KRS: I’m against the destruction of African culture. Now if intermarriage helps to preserve this culture, then I’m all for it. I haven’t really studied the psychology of intermarriage enough to know whether I’m against it or for it.
ML: But, as you like to say, speaking logically: What is wrong with marrying someone you love?
KRS: These days, it is absolutely wrong, because the black man doesn’t have his own land.
KRS: No, Rockefeller owns the world banking system. It’s called the Trilateral Commission. They are ruling this world. Africa is just another high paid ho’. As a matter of fact, Africa is a slave still. Japan would be a high paid ho’. The six most powerful banks in the world are Japanese banks. The other four banks are European banks.
You don’t overthrow countries with guns, any more. You buy their banking system. When you buy the economics of the country, you bought the country. You bought the education, you bought the police, the government. You bought it all. I was in Japan, strangely enough, and to see Japanese kids in high school learning about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln…what do they have to know about them for?
ML: It’s the internationalization of trade, and that many of them are going to come to America.
KRS: Why do they have to come to America and be a part of America?
ML: Because of what America represents in the world market.
KRS: America represents theft, murder, lies, deceit, kidnap, slavery and prostitution.
ML: But is also represents a kind of freedom.
KRS: America is, first of all, murder, theft…
ML: Name me a country that has not been founded on that?
KRS: There is none. But America has conquered because of it. I can name you countries that have conquered in a civilized manner. Africa, for one.
ML: Africa isn’t a country, it’s a continent.
KRS: I know.
ML: Which nations? Which groups?:
ML: I think we’re seeing a kind of a romanticization of Africa here.
KRS: Give Africa what it’s due.
ML: Africa is not immune to corruption. If you were, living in Uganda under Idi Amin, we would not be having this conversation. We probably would both be murdered. In the same way, Malcolm X blindly idealized the Chinese Revolution under Mao Tse Tung; and now look at the results of that cultural revolution so admired by many black and white Westerners, When the students wanted freedom of speech they were murdered. And Malcolm saw in it, mistakenly, a black revolution, Strangely enough, I haven’t met any Chinese nationals who see themselves as related to me.
ML: But Malcolm x went on record as saying this, So one has to take each country and break them down according to their own circumstances. Afro-American are American. Jamaican are Jamaican not only because of their relationship with the British, which has its own peculiarities. We have to start dealing with the distinctions.
KRS: But those distinctions were placed on us by force. We have to look at why they’re there. If those distinctions were a complete denial of our history and we said we wanted to look for a better way of life and become Americans, I would be wholeheartedly for it. But we were dragged here and elsewhere, misplaced, a slave for everyone else. That’s why I say we have to look at why they’re there.
ML: Do you think that rappers are the leaders of the black community?
ML: Why? Is it because there has been a monumental failure on the part of black leadership, let’s say, in the last twenty years.
ML.– If rappers are the leaders of the ghetto Communities, then who must they work with to achieve a social and psychic regeneration in America’s cities? Who do you think are your allies in black culture–and in white America as well?
KRS: It’s basically a matter of organizing the masses of the people that will be your greatest ally. Organizing white and black, Asian, Indian, everyone united for justice. When you come from a humanistic point of view, when you look at justice, just human justice, everyone can fall into place. When you come from a pro-human point of view, why should one man be lower than another? Why should one man be without land and culture? Why should he be forced to denounce his own culture to become a part of this culture? That’s a human thing. I come from a humanistic point of view. That’s why I try to stay away from a pro-black, pro-African point of view. I’m really not a pro-black sort of activist.
ML: So you’re not involved in nationalism. I remember what you said in the song “Bo Bo Bo.” You were talking about Chuck D. of Public Enemy as the nationalist and you as a kind of mediator. Are you then for reforming America to accommodate multiple ethnicity or are you for a back-to-Africa movement?
KRS: I’m for destroying America and going back to Africa. America needs to be destroyed and rebuilt if this place is to be the America we’d like to think it is
ML: Are you talking about a violent destruction?
KRS: Both. First mental, then physical. The former means that you’ll denounce this educational, political and economic system. Then you must protect yourself, for America will come after you. And that’s when it becomes physical.
ML: I’m interested in your critique of the educational system in the song “You must Learn.” But how then do you see the possibilities of the educational system as it is today? Or are you for the erection of another structure, functioning like the traditional Schul or Yeshiva among the Eastern European Jewry?
ML: To teach black culture.
KRS: One hundred percent. But not in that way: I’m not for alienating a culture. I think that every man should know every man’s culture. If you’re: black and I’m white and I’m telling you I know all about your culture as an African, then you will respect me more. I will respect you more. I know your achievements, you know my achievements, we’re not slouches. We’re sitting here fully showing respect for one another. What happens today is you only are taught European history and you’re not taught African, Indian, Spanish…
ML: On what level are you talking about grade school?
KRS: I am talking about kindergarten and up. Teach the straight line of history.
ML: It’s in the universities.
KRS: And it’s twisted in the universities.
ML: Actually, there’s plenty of revisionist history and cultural studies around on campuses. There are Afro-American historians and literary critics who are part of this. Think of John Hope Franklin or John Blassingame or Nathan Huggins. You have Houston Baker, Jr. at the University of Pennsylvania, who has written important books, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance and Blues Ideology and Afro-American Literature, challenging the prevailing paradigms. So you do have people who are working at new interpretations and theories of black history. It also seems to me that your polemics discount art all together.
ML: Richard Wright…
KRS: What do you mean by art?
KRS: Richard Wright is excellent.
ML: Then why isn’t he on your reading list? Or someone like James Baldwin.
KRS: The reading list was for my audience, really. The books I gave them are the books they would have to read first to understand where I’m coming from or to understand James Baldwin. If you read any one those books, it will lead you to a Baldwin
ML: Not necessarily. You remind me of a kind of Bigger Thomas on the edge of popular culture.
KRS: Whole Bigger Thomas?
ML: The protagonist of Native Son.
KRS: I’ve never read Native Son. That brings me back to the beginning of our conversation. I concentrate a lot on intelligence and not really knowledge, which I feel again is the root to the evil we’re in right now. The reading list was to spark intelligence, not so much to provide the knowledge.
ML: Really? You list historical books brimming with information.
KRS: But my audience won’t see it like that.
ML: Who’s your audience, then?
KRS: My audience consists of graduates, college students, professors and probably half the black market. I have a large white audience.
ML: I was about to say.
KRS: Black kids don’t really get off on this. They get off on the music. They come to the show. I might interject some history into my songs. But from a concrete stance, my views of revolution are not accepted by everyone, my views of the drug dealer in the community are not accepted by everyone. I said one day at NYU that the drug dealers are right, in America. I meant that America is all about selling drugs. America is the biggest drug capital in the world. We sell the most drugs to our people. And I say that because everything in America is a drug. Everything. Eighty percent of American business was created by illegal money, which would be drugs, prostitution, gambling, and slavery. But the drug dealer, lacking the intelligence and the ability to know other things, has ten million dollars and often lives in the projects. Drives a hundred thousand dollar car around the ghetto. My point is that the drug dealer should take his money and open a supermarket.
ML: The more sophisticated ones do that sort of thing. In fact, one group of Queens drug dealers opened up a chain of cleaners. They have to launder their money.
KRS: But the question is, how are you going to get to that level? Most of the knuckle-head kids on the corner, just selling, they don’t know. They get the first five thousand and it’s like: Wow! Let me do this, let me do that. And finally they’re dead. I feel they’re wrong. But I feel the FDA is more in the wrong than they are. The FDA Is more in the wrong than the crack dealer on the corner. I would lock up the FDA administration’s executives.
ML: Paranoia aside, these local drug dealers destroy their own neighborhoods rapidly, violently, leaving the community with little or no choice in the matter.
KRS: Same with the FDA.
ML: They’re not forcing you to eat bacon.
KRS: Yes, they are! Meat is addictive. There are twenty-one different drugs in meat and four of them are addictive.
ML: How addictive can the stuff be? You’re a vegetarian now, but you used to eat meat?
KRS: In the type of life that I had growing up, we didn’t always have meat to eat. So when I got to eat it wasn’t like I was craving it. But the average American who is used to meat is like ‘I gotta have meat in the morning, meat at lunch, and meat at dinner.’
ML: You sound like Jane Brody.
KRS: Like caffeine, it’s addictive. Sugar is addictive. Alcohol is addictive. These are drugs and the FDA allows 21 different forms of drugs to go into the American consumption of meat knowing four of them are addictive, three of them are cancerous and the others age you quicker. They know this. This is a scientific fact. And they put it out in the community anyway. They’re killing the community just as the crack dealer is. And quicker…on a larger scale. People die every day from heart attacks at a faster rate than crack.
ML: But they usually have lived fifty or sixty years. And it is matter of choice.
KRS: No, according to the system of propaganda, you’re considered weird if you’re a vegetarian. That’s what I’m saying. You’re forced by the strength of the status symbol to eat meat. The intelligent man has those choices.
KRS: The average man doesn’t. If you don’t know any other way, you’re trapped. And this is it for you. I don’t think that’s right.
ML: But that would occur anywhere. In Africa as well as America.
KRS: But America is what is ruling right now, America rules the world.
ML: And not that badly either, when you compare it to other dynasties.
KRS: No. America is not all that bad. In fact, America is probably the greatest nation in the world. At least, according to the popular consciousness of people here. But America outside of the county is the most hated nation in the world. More hated than Libya’s Khaddafy is. The CIA is so wicked that when you go around the world and say that you are from America, they say: “Yeah, really…” That’s my whole point. True, America is great and all…
ML: Don’t you think that some of that resentment stems from jealousy?
KRS: No, no, no. It’s out of historical misconception. My resentment is that I may be an African with African culture and I’m not taught it. My people are not taught it. And we’re forced to call ourselves by our killer’s name. That’s what I resent. History is not being taught correctly. Africa is where we’re supposed to be. Not as black Americans, which is a false title. As I said, there is no such thing as America. It’s called the United States of America. Now, New York is more real than America, because it’s a state. What the flag represents is the United States, these states that have united. America is a collection of individuals that own the United States. You pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to I the republic for which it stands. Now to me, that is blatant disrespect. If you’re not from America and you’re in school, learning American history and you’re black or Puerto Rican and your history is not being taught to you, that is a crime. That is a major crime. Especially if you’ve arrived here in shackles…
ML: You’re assuming one thing: that white kids, from whatever ethnic group, are learning their own history, But when, say, Jewish students sit in the same class, they are not learning about “their” own history.
KRS: They don’t.
ML: And to tell the truth, when the Anglo-Saxon sits down, he does not learn all that much about Thomas Jefferson either.
ML: So then nobody’s learning “his” own…
KRS: You hit the nail on the head. Exactly. Nobody is learning anything about anything and that’s wrong. Every man should know every man’s culture so that we may respect each other more. Italians call themselves Italian Americans, Greeks call themselves Greek Americans.
ML: And so they are.
KRS: They are not. They have Greek culture. American history doesn’t even exist. Except as lies and murder and theft.
ML: Every country, as you agreed earlier, has a bit of that in their history. As James Baldwin put it, the history of any people is not pretty.
KRS: No. But analyze that word “pretty.” Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, too. There were civilizations leading away from these evil. There were certain cultures that elevated civilization about technology. When this twisted society places technology ahead of civilization, You can invent an x-ray machine for civilizations and it turns into an atomic bomb to destroy its like practicing barbarism.
ML: One can say that rap music is a way of bringing technology in line with the body. The whole idea of the scratch and the insertion of non-musical elements is a way of giving technology a pulse, a beat, and bringing it in line with the dance. So technology is nothing more than an integral part of civilization, something that is constantly assimilated.
KRS: We have to control it.
ML: But the people who think that technology is going to destroy civilization simply lack imagination. I’m not going to be afraid of something because it’s new.
ML: I’m just going to try to take it and be creative with it.
ML: So what this analogy, this historical fact of the assimilation of the new, demonstrates is that blacks, and not just African Americans, either, have shown a high level of creativity in assimilating the unknown into what they knew. Look at rap. They started with practically nothing: they took two turntables…
KRS: And just started. That’s in our genes. That’s in African genes. Africans are the most adaptive. Africans adapt the most out of any culture in the world. Africans in Africa clearly showed that level of creativity. If they had been anybody different in America, they would have lost that creativity, because attaching America to the end of Africa clearly means that you are now your own murderer, which means that you now destroy yourself. So ultimately, we still are African out of our creative point of view, even though we live in America.
ML: You’re contradicting yourself, since you now agree that African Americans are not culturally dead. Now, there’s a book by Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, in which he does trace the American manifestations of Yoruba culture, Hausa culture, Kongo, and some others. But these manifestations took on a completely different formation. You yourself said that we were extremely adaptable.
ML: So the spirit of the griot has been transformed, after three hundred, four hundred years of slavery, into the spirituals and work songs…
ML: But with a twist, a European twist.
KRS: No. An African improvisation.
ML: Yes. But inside of a European…
KRS: Racist system.
ML: But as I say, this invocation of European culture as a monolith won’t withstand scrutiny. Just contrast Catholicism and Protestantism; there are monumental, differences.
KRS: Oh, definitely.
ML: If it wasn’t for Catholicism we would not have had a city like New Orleans, where you had this great creativity. The Catholic whites, say, in the nineteenth century, allowed black people to retain their rituals. In fact, in New Orleans it was not unusual in Congo Square to have dance rituals with black slaves dancing nude, joined by the white female aristocracy. The police, under the control of the French and Spanish, looked the other way. It was when the Protestants took over that they started to clamp down and institute all sorts of prohibitions. The Catholics allowed the slaves to learn trades, gain advanced skills, So you had, in effect, different types of slaves. You had slaves who had skills and were prepared for freedom and you had those who, under the Protestants, were completely subjugated. They weren’t allowed to use the drums, so they used, say, the guitar instead. The different instruments they used paved the way for other musical innovations. Spiritually, too, the American experience of bondage was what gave rise to the blues. So that, to me, is a true American product, though it’s a fact many whites would resist.
KRS: From that point of view, you’re absolutely right. Due to American racism, these things came definitely came out. You could say it was a product of America. At the same time, I feel the improvisation is an African product. Maybe that’s when an Africa American title might come in to play. If you were taught the original knowledge of how to learn, much your culture would be given back to you.
ML: It was because the European scale is based on an eight note series. The blues scale is based on five notes with the third and the fifth different from the equal- or well-tempered intervals of Western music. So that opened up a tremendous amount of possibilities that whites were not a part of till later.
KRS: But there are two types of culture we’re dealing with: there is culture by improvisation and there is culture by way of natural culture–things from Africa that you cannot escape. They are you and it makes up culture. Those things are denied. We have been poured into a melting pot and formed. Yes, we are still steel, but we are formed into this new type of steel.
ML: Exactly. You’re getting it now, But it wasn’t really a melting pot; that is a myth of America. It is just an amalgam of immigrant cultures surrounding and intertwined around a kind of bastardized African culture.
KRS: Exactly. So does that make us now American in the sense of fighting the Indiana, dropping the bomb on Japan…
ML: But blacks have also created a Martin Luther King, America basically can be seen as a loose amalgamation of immigrant groups some of whom have contributed in various arenas. From a “contributionist” perspective, the Anglos have contributed the concept of liberty and a literary tradition that is distinct from European literature…
KRS: Math, astrology, all eight subjects were studied in Africa. So why isn’t the emphasis placed on Africa and not America?
ML: Obviously if the political, economic, and social systems are controlled by Anglo Saxons, they will give you their story. And you’re absolutely right to say that there should be other sides taught; with the United States becoming more “colored,” more diverse, the future will see us shifting, our educational emphasis toward diversity. The Hispanic population is growing, blacks are distributing themselves around the country and growing…
KRS: But, see, that’s bad for Africa.
ML: Why do you say that?
KRS: If Africans become black Americans.
ML: The Africans can learn from us and from the West. Think of Mandela’s tribute to Afro-America …
KRS: Africa isn’t free and we’re accepting America? This is not our home, this is our jail cell. We were brought here from Africa.
ML: As an Afro-American, I don’t feel imprisoned here in the sense you speak about.
KRS: Now you don’t. But the original slaves were clearly trapped. It’s just that now the culture has widened. The slavery became capitalism and everything seems to be a lot freer. It’s how we feel now. But I’m saying that when you look at it from a historical point of view, leading up until now, everything the African does in America will benefit America is not our home. America is the home of the Indians.
ML: For the most part, they’re not here anymore. We have to deal with that.
KRS: Right. They’re on reservations.
ML: I have family friends who for forty years were black, and when the land out at Shinnocock became a reservation, they claimed their Indian heritage. The phenomenon is too complicated for neat categories. Blacks intermingled as well as fought against the Indians. I have Indian blood. Many American blacks have Choctaw blood, The Puerto Ricans usually have either Indian or African ancestry. You have all of these new mixtures, new creations in the Western hemisphere. When I see Brazilians I don’t see Portuguese or African. I see the whole spectrum of mixtures.
KRS: But it was imposed by force.
ML: You seem to think that everything comes down to choice. I wonder if we can ever explain the way culture works, any culture, through a notion of pure volition.
ML: Changed, often, or hidden.
KRS: But why should you hide? That’s insane.
ML: To survive. If Richard Wright had marched around in Mississippi talking “stuff,” he would have been lynched. So you had to harness your knowledge and impulses. Growing up in Mississippi did not stop Richard Wright from becoming Richard Wright.
ML: You see, all I am saying is that one just learns, in the course of history, new responses, a new defense.
KRS: By force.
ML: Perhaps, but it doesn’t mean that the changes would not have come about anyhow.
KRS: Yes, it does.
ML: We’re not the great molders of our fate that you think we are.
KRS: We’re not?
ML: But in your analysis, choice masquerades as supreme to the elimination of all else.
KRS: You do have a choice. What if everyone asked: why am I calling myself Afro- American when the white man is not going to call himself Euro-American? Calling yourself Afro-American logically says to you every day that you’re not down, that you’re a minority. When clearly people of color of the world are the majority.
ML: You’re still thinking about using a live band on your tours?
KRS: I wanted to, but everybody else started using the same concept. I wanted to use a live band, number one, because I’ve been practicing with a live band. And I do a lot of live band work. But at the same time I want to be unique. When somebody else comes out with the same idea, then it’s ruined for me, personally. But I was seriously considering going out. And I still might, it’s just that everyone’s doing it. Everybody. All rap acts are going out with live bands now. It’s like the circle is completing now. First it was rap taking the drummer’s paycheck away. Now it’s rap coming back as well, the live musician, sort of thing.
ML: In a way that’s necessary for the art form. Because it becomes restricted when you stay with the turn table.
KRS: Or visa-versa. It becomes restricted when you stay in a live band. Stand. It definitely has to move around…But had it been by force, rather than by choice, it would have been a different situation.
ML: Even though your performance might have been the same?
KRS: No, I might have improvised. If I was being forced to play at SOB’s tonight for a certain type of people, I might not have given the show that I’ll give tonight. I might not say the things that I say tonight. It depends on survival. Back to what you said about Wright in Mississippi, if you said certain things, then you could be killed. The ones who defy are killed, at least career-wise. They are either ‘controversial,’ or dead.