malcolm london

Malcolm London on Activism and Using Art to Create Change

After his arrest kicked off the #FreeMalcolmLondon hashtag, the Chicago artist opens up about using his music and poetry to affect change in Chicago

by Shannon Powell, November 4, 2016

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malcolm london

Malcolm London

My introduction to Malcolm London came at the first protest I ever attended. Hundreds of Chicagoans gathered outside of the police department headquarters to stand in solidarity with protesters in Baltimore who were mourning the death of Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody.

I stood and watched as a young man in his early 20s commanded the stage with a powerful speech before leading us on our march. Co-chair and organizer within the Chicago chapter of the Black Youth Project 100 and an award-winning poet, he was certainly known around town. However, months later, Malcolm London would become more than a household name when he was arrested while leading a similar protest, this time in support of Laquan McDonald, who had been killed by Chicago police.  After his arrest #FreeMalcolmLondon quickly became an international trending topic on Twitter, with supporters phoning in to the Chicago Police Department demanding his release. The next day he was set free and all charges were dropped.

London has since continued to organize, while devoting the remainder of his time to working on his poetry and volunteering alongside his close friend Chance the Rapper. In honor of their beloved Brother Mike, who played a big role in both of their love for words, the two hold monthly “Open Mikes,” inviting youth from around the city and suburbs to share their art. Most recently, London has taken his passion for poetry and transformed it into a new art form—music.

With his latest project Opia, London is continuing to speak his truth, addressing the issues that matter to him, while also showing the complexities of what it means to be Black in America in this moment. EBONY.com recently caught up with Malcolm London about his poetry, activism and debut album Opia.

EBONY.com: When did you first start writing poetry and what spurred that passion in you?

Malcolm London: I first started writing poetry to impress this girl I had a crush on in high school. It was initially some roses are red violets are blue type of poems, but then I got involved with Louder Than a Bomb and won access to different stages and things sort of just took off for me. I eventually ended up sharing one of my poems about education at a TED talk.

EBONY.com: How did you first become involved in activism?

London: When I first started writing poetry, it was about the education system in Chicago. I was writing about everything that was wrong with it and realized I needed to take action against those problems, so I started protesting, and started giving my poems feet. I quickly learned that a lot of these issues are systemic and overlap and I met a good friend of mine, Asha Rosa, and she began showing me what organizing meant.

I don’t really like the term activist, because it is often associated with people like Al Sharpton. I don’t want to get recognized or paid for doing what is right. When I think of “activists,” I think of my mom and pops, who worked hard to raise me. I think of my grandma.

EBONY.com: Let’s talk about #FreeMalcolmLondon. What do you remember about the night you were arrested?

London: It was at a Laquan McDonald protest [in Chicago] that I was helping to organize. I was tasked with leading people downtown. At one point somebody blew off a smoke bomb. And somehow, the police thought that I was the one who did it. Next thing I know, there are eight police officers tackling me to the ground, putting a zip-tie around my neck. I felt like this was the end, but I felt like it was expected. When I thought of Fred Hampton and Assata Shakur, I thought that was just what happened…they say you see the light, but I just remember yelling at the top of my lungs. I remember yelling and being dragged down across the street by police.

When I arrived at the jail, I do remember meeting cops of color who showed their support how they could. There was a Latino brother in processing who refused to put handcuffs on me and a black woman who said she couldn’t believe that Laquan was shot 16 times. She knew it wasn’t right.

That sort of proved to me that though it’s a Black and White issue, it’s a White supremacy issue, it’s not all black and white. It’s more complicated than that.

EBONY.com:  You were trending internationally on Twitter. How did it make you feel to realize that so many people were out there supporting you and what you were standing up for?

London: As an organizer, I always want people to be as involved as possible. I always ask people to come out to protests, but not everyone is cut out to be standing on the frontline with megaphones. But I still feel salty when my friends don’t show up at a protest or come out to organizing meetings. Once I left the jail and saw so many people show up, all my work felt validated. It all felt really good to see that so many people came through.

EBONY.com: So you’ve done the poetry. You’ve done the activism. What led you to try music?

London: After being arrested, I got inspired to make an album. I wanted to make something honest. You know? So if something like that happens again, I have a living document that’s my own and it’s autobiographical.

Also, everybody is a rapper. But in my heart, my job is to show poor kids of color that poetry and writing is important. Kids already love music. And while going into a classroom is cool, it doesn’t always live with them at home in the same way. It’s a lot easier to gain influence by dropping a good album, which is ultimately what I want. Whether I’m a poet, or an educator, or an organizer, I want to be able to influence and be a cultural worker and shift the culture. I was inspired by my peers and realized that the medium of rap was an effective way to do it.

Ebony.com: What would you say is the theme for Opia? How did you come up with the name?

London: In Chicago I’ve always been a multi-hyphen. I’m an activist-poet-organizer-teacher. I wanted people to know that it’s possible to do all of these things.

I’ll go to a party and roll up a blunt and people will be like, “oh, you’re an activist, you smoke weed?” and I’m like, “yeah, I’m still the same West side n****, I just care about the world.” Or I’ll go speak at Princeton and still be my West side unapologetically black self. Being all of those identities, I wanted to create a project that exemplified all of those. I like to turn up and I like to be serious. 

EBONY.com: Nina Simone once said it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live. Do you think that’s the case for all artists, or do you think there’s a space for more light music?

London: I think a good artist is able to articulate the human experience. I love to turn up, so I’m going to make turn up music. I love to talk about my hopes and my dreams, so I’m going to do that in my music. I love to fight for what I believe in, so I’m going to do that. I think the organizer in me always wants people to do more, and my mental health sometimes suffers because of that feeling that I’m not doing enough.

I think as a Black man, when I think of oppressed people, or my queer friends, or my Black women friends, they’re not just making poems about flowers for the sake of making poems about flowers. Art is more of a necessity.

I think as an artist, we have a greater responsibility to leverage our access to power to folks who don’t have that same access.

Check out Malcolm’s latest project Opia, featuring Vic Mensa, Jamilah Woods, Donnie Trumpet and more here.

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