By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
It's 10 a.m. on the last Saturday in February and local activist Adisa Banjoko is on one hell of a book tour. Inspired by renowned area rap vets hawking their albums out of car trunks, Banjoko sells his Lyrical Swords series a collection of essays, interviews, and political ideas related to hip-hop, martial arts, and even chess mostly hand-to-hand on the streets. For the release of his latest effort, Lyrical Swords Volume II: Westside Rebellion, though, he's forgoing the pavement to visit a place few big-name authors tend to tread the California prison system. After speaking with Muslim inmates in Vacaville earlier in the month, today the San Jose resident is working the exercise yard at San Quentin. His goal: to educate the public about the importance of black and Latino unity, an issue especially important in light of tumultuous race tensions behind bars in this state.
"The black man is not the only one with a struggle worth remembering," Banjoko says to men of various ethnicities. He's been invited here by KMEL's Tony Ng and Rudy Corpuz Jr. of the SF-based youth violence-prevention organization United Playaz; they're hosting a day of culturally diverse speakers and live performances that includes San Francisco rap star Messy Marv and East Palo Alto's Hoodstarz. "You have to understand yourself before you understand the value of others," Banjoko continues. His sermon gets mixed reactions some are listening attentively, others are busy catcalling the females in our entourage. To make matters worse, approximately two minutes after Banjoko and I leave the gates, a fight breaks out in the yard between Norteno prisoners and a rival group of black inmates. Desks are thrown, at least one person is critically stabbed, and nearly half the prison goes on lockdown for the next 48 hours. Danielle Steel never had a book signing like this.
But then Banjoko isn't your garden-variety writer. For one, he has a proclivity for being misunderstood. His nickname, "The Bishop of Hip Hop," is a tribute to the diagonal chess piece; it never moves in a predictable direction and neither does he. Banjoko has caused much controversy over the years for his critiques of hip-hop culture, most recently in pointing out the community's failure to defeat Bush in the last presidential election. To complicate matters, Banjoko cannot clearly be defined as liberal or conservative; as a Muslim man, he has opinions that veer toward both ends of the spectrum.
"I don't walk in lockstep with anybody because I'm trying to get solutions to many different problems out there, and I'm trying to be open," he says. "I don't mind being the unpopular guy with my opinion today if tomorrow someone is going to live better because of it."
Banjoko's dedication to scholarly thinking was inspired by the work of Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions. Listening to those artists encouraged him to read about Malcolm X and black nationalism (themes that continue to affect his work today) and piqued his interest in writing. An early incarnation of rap magazine The Source gave Banjoko (born Jason Parker) his start as a journalist. By 1990 he had a recurring column in the Black Panther newspaper The Commemorator, for which he interviewed Chuck D and a young Tupac Shakur. Banjoko also got involved on the music side of things, forming the rap group Freedom T.R.O.O.P. 187 with friends and opening for Onyx, Organized Konfusion, and Yo-Yo.
He's spent the past two decades using the power of the independent press to spread the word on deadbeat dads, the prison-industrial complex, the failures of both major political parties, and the weaknesses of hip-hop activism, which have run alongside his interviews with rap icons.
"Because of the teeter-totter thing I do between hip hop and academics and hip hop and activism, I'm in a situation where [no] group is sure they can roll with me," Banjoko admits after the San Quentin visit. "I'm a little too hard for the hip hop academics and a little too soft for some hip hop Ôpurists.'"
Difficulties aside, the public is responding to Banjoko's work. In its first few weeks of release, Lyrical Swords Volume II: Westside Rebellion nearly sold out its initial run of 500. It's an impressive feat for a publishing upstart whose book business was born out of adversity.
In 2001, Banjoko was contracted to write Chicken Soup for the Hip-Hop Soul for Jack Canfield's popular, Oprah-endorsed book series. He worked on it for almost two years before the deal dissolved. His wife Mieko suggested starting their own company to publish his writing. "Rather than making 90 cents per book, we could make 50 to 100 percent of the book," she explains. "You're doing all the work anyway. All the publisher was gonna do was own it, and print."
Mieko's brainchild officially launched as YinSumi Press in 2004 with Lyrical Swords Volume I: Hip Hop and Politics in the Mix, a collection of essays and profiles of hip-hop, yoga, and jujitsu masters. Its follow-up, Westside Rebellion, is about twice the length and features pieces on several East Coast greats (the late Jam Master Jay, RZA, and Nas) and up-and-coming West Coast artists (including the East Bay's Balance and Frontline and G-Unit rookie Spider Loc) alongside profiles of chess champion Maurice Ashley, Islamic leader Imam Zaid Shakir, and local jujitsu hero Dave Camarillo (with whom Banjoko trained) among others. Westside Rebellion includes its share of controversial essays, too. Among them: one urging readers to register Republican and then to vote for issues regardless of party affiliation ("No Republicans ever complain about not having their votes counted," he writes). Another chapter, "Terrorism: An Act of Lost Faith," has Banjoko carefully explaining the difference between the tenets of Islam and the actions of suicide bombers, an issue certain to raise hackles in this post-9/11 world.