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Name: Adam Bernard
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About Me: Entertainment journalist with 15+ years of experience. Supporter of indie music. Lover of day baseball, fringe movies, & chicken shawarma. Part time ninja. Nerdy, but awesome.
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Artist Of The Week – Amir Sulaiman
Monday, June 04, 2007

Great athletes oftentimes have their actions described as poetry in motion. A fitting description for emcee Amir Sulaiman's work might be poetry in rhythm as he’s been creating his own unique brand of Hip-Hop since 1996. He debuted with the a capella album Cornerstore Folklore in 2001, following it up with Dead Man Walking, Broad Daylight and the just released Like A Thief In The Night. He’s appeared on Def Poetry Jam twice, once in 2004 and again in 2005, and was on the Breed Love Odyssey Tour last year with Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch and K-Naan. This week I caught up with Amir to talk about the development of his style, how his Muslim faith plays a role in his work, and what type of rappers he feels are a waste of time.

Adam Bernard: Your rhyme style seems deeply rooted in poetry. When did you first get into poetry and at what point did you make the transition from poetry to Hip-Hop?
Amir Sulaiman: Actually I was emceeing before I was doing a capella poetry. And I don’t really think the poetry is separate from Hip-Hop, it kind of gets convoluted when we start talking about genres, but for the sake of the conversation when I was doing a lot of Hip-Hop I never went real overboard with the gangster thing, or on the real big drug thing, or the women / pimp / hoes thing, but it got to a point, even as a young man, I started to feel kind of silly that the main focus of my art was just about how dope I am. I’m so this that and such and such, and all the metaphors and similes and all the poetic devices I was choosing were really all just creative ways to say that I’m better than you. I thought to myself I don’t really talk like that in real life, I don’t meet people and say I’m better than you and these are the reasons why, and I would listen to some of the people who were even my favorites at the time and I would say this person spent their whole career, like four or five albums, and the thesis, the opus, the meaning of what they’ve written is an argument on why they’re better than everyone else, and I thought that was kind of silly. So I thought to myself what do you really think about? What really is on my mind for real? When I started to write that it started to come out a little differently, the rhyme scheme and the manner in which I did it, and I started doing it a capella. It wasn’t a conscious thing like OK I’m gonna start writing poetry now, it was a little more subtle than that.

Adam Bernard: What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome when you changed your style?
Amir Sulaiman: It wasn’t a big deal because I was just an amateur that was going to open mics and what not, so I didn’t have any obstacles, there was no one who was really just hating because of it, it was just a matter of me going to these poetry spots. The first thing was when I started going to these poetry spots my rhyme schemes were so sophisticated because I was used to rapping that they were all really impressed, like wow this is crazy. It was new and fresh to them, so it was always very welcome. It was real cool. There was a time for a while, I made like a commitment to myself, really almost like a spiritual commitment, where I said I don’t want to spend my whole life writing about just being silly, and I’m Muslim and Islam doesn’t really congratulate egos, just like most religions they’re not really big on boosting the ego and to make a career of it. At first I didn’t know what else to write, I really didn’t know how to write anything else, so there was a real lull in my creativity. Slowly but surely it became more comfortable and now on this album, Like A Thief In The Night, I have some things that are kind of in that vein, but they’re coming from a different place, they’re coming more from a place. Like these rappers who really think they’re something like oh I’m a big important person, I’m like you’re a waste of time. Some of that stuff came back out, some of the not necessarily ego driven stuff but me speaking to MCs in a way that MCs speak to MCs, some of that came back. I felt like some ideas and some types of people need to be checked and put in their place a little bit. That’s not the general theme of the album, though, the general theme is dealing with social issues, introverted issues, dealing with the self and things like that.

Adam Bernard: Talk to me about some of that content. What were some of the ideas you were looking to get across?
Amir Sulaiman: When I was writing the album I didn’t have a clear mission, like I’m going to write an album about this. The album before was about revolution and death before dishonor, a martyr’s opus type thing. This one is more about life’s victory and entertaining the possibility of victory in real life and for human beings to enjoy real life instead of this simulated, suffocating, destructive, toxic type of environment that we live in now. So there was a transition for myself and there was a big artistic transition because I’ve dealt with music in a different manner on this album than I have on any other album. I was creating songs which I didn’t do as much before. At first I was just doing a capella poetry, then I was doing poetry accompanied by music and now I’m creating poetry in song structure with choruses and bridges and hooks.

Adam Bernard: What do you feel needs to be done in order to get messages such as yours into the mainstream?
Amir Sulaiman: You need to be dope. That’s it, really. I think if it’s powerful and it’s magnetic then the people will come to it, but any other means to it I think is kind of superficial and it doesn’t really fit in the culture of Hip-Hop. The culture of Hip-Hop doesn’t function by way of censorship. Like this whole situation with Don Imus and Snoop Dogg and Oprah, you’re not gonna be able to censor Hip-Hop, it just doesn’t work like that. There has to be some sort of internal mechanism in the culture that accepts things or rejects thing, so if the Hip-Hop culture says this thing is unacceptable then it will stop because it’s unacceptable, but Hip-Hop was built out of rebellion, even myself, I’ll say I don’t like these types of things but I can’t you can’t say that anymore, Hip-Hop was build on saying things that you can’t say. NWA’s whole catalogue, Public Enemy’s whole catalogue, was built on things that are not culturally acceptable. So if you want to change what Hip-Hop is doing create music and create content that is magnetic enough, that is powerful enough, that earns the ears of the people. There’s no free position in Hip-Hop, you have to earn it.

Adam Bernard: Finally, if you could affect one change in the world through your music what would it be and why?
Amir Sulaiman: That the irresistible reality that God is one, because, in short, if there’s a firm understanding, a knowledge, the knowing that God is one and that conversely that there’s only one God, it will remove fear from the hearts of the people because they’ll know that all power has a source and the different tentacles of power are not as powerful as its force, so there will be no fear in the hearts of the people concerning tyrants and oppressors. Similarly, there will be no hope for the people except for hope in the goodness, which is God. So the people will not fear tyrants and their fearlessness will be rooted in hope, in an irresistible, indestructible hope, hope that’s not hinging on a character like a hero. They may love that hero but they know that the beauty and the power and the inspiration they find in this hero has a source and that they fall in love their source and that source cannot be destroyed, it neither has a beginning nor an end, so they become hopeful and they become fearless and they become patient and they become grateful and this leads to excellent human life. That’s the chief objective of really everything I do.

For more on Amir Sulaiman check him out at amirsulaiman.com and myspace.com/amirsulaiman.


posted by Adam Bernard @ 7:49 AM  
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