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.
“What I'd really like to do is jump over this table and beat your fucking ass!” KRS-One is screaming. It's Saturday, March 4, and the legendary MC is pointing at Banjoko, who sits motionless in a conference room at Stanford's Wallenberg Hall. Banjoko takes his jujitsu practice seriously and advocates nonviolence; although more than capable, he will not fight unless attacked first.
Today is the official release of Westside Rebellion, and Banjoko was hoping for a lively panel discussion between hip-hop scholars, journalists, and artists at the “Know-the-Ledge” conference. Instead he is threatened by the founder of Boogie Down Productions, who claims Banjoko has slandered his name in public after KRS' refusal to answer a debate challenge from Banjoko from two years earlier. Banjoko has said publicly that KRS “ducked” the offer, which was rooted in a dispute with KRS' view of the Temple of Hiphop as an institution equal to ancient religions. Banjoko's arguments are reprinted in full in Westside Rebellion.
To the surprise of everyone in the room, KRS-One — an acronym for “Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone” — is advocating physical force today, shouting his own slanderous accusations at Banjoko, including calling him “an FBI agent in disguise,” “an enemy to our culture,” and “a fraud.” (KRS-One did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this piece.)
The outburst is in sharp contrast to the letter KRS sent Banjoko a few weeks after the initial challenge: “I truly thank you for such intellectual nourishment,” KRS wrote. “I can always count on you for some real discussions on the state of our Hiphop community. You are truly a much needed architect on the scaffolds of Hiphop's cultural development.”
Banjoko insists he has never slandered KRS' name, and continues to be vocal about the MC's huge influence on him from his teenage years.
“The 'enemy of the culture'/'FBI agent' shit [said about Banjoko] is absurd,” retorts Paris, the local rap heavy who provides one of the livelier interviews in Westside Rebellion. “Adisa has been down for over 15 years and is one of the few who consistently put hip hop's collective best foot forward in the media.”
A few tense days later, amid concerns of violence from supporters of both sides, Banjoko and KRS hammer out a truce moderated by hip-hop legend Afrika Bambaataa and writer and radio host Davey D of KPFA and Breakdown FM. Actually, it sounds more like detente: they agree to disagree for the sake of keeping their fans calm.
“The peace is real, but I can liken it to China and Taiwan — and I'm China,” Banjoko explains. “China and Taiwan look very much alike, but have very different customs and are doing the best they can to not fight. But no one should be looking for me and Kris to be doing joint lectures or kicking it any time soon. Not saying it won't happen, it just won't be soon.”
Banjoko's steely reserve in the face of what quickly became an Internet hip-hop scandal has garnered hate mail, but has mainly won him new fans across the world, most particularly in the Bay Area. At a recent Public Enemy in-store appearance at Berkeley's Rasputin Music a few weeks ago, Banjoko actually found himself signing autographs alongside Chuck D and Paris. He doesn't know if it was just because of the KRS incident, because of his writing, or both, but he does know he enjoys an overwhelmingly positive response every once in a while.