Tyson Amir is a rapper blessed with a poignant message, electrifying cadence, and enlightening lyrics. It combines to form music with enough heart and soul to move a generation, which is exactly what Amir does for students through his hip hop pedagogy curriculum, which was recently included by the San Francisco school board as part of the new Black Studies program they’re building.
Talk Dat Real Sh*t host Tanesha Peeples interviewed the Bay Area poet and activist Amir recently on the CitizenEd Network. This is a lightly edited Q&A of their discussion, which can be found in its entirety here.
PEEPLES: Let’s talk about your upbringing.
AMIR: My mother, she’s originally from Mississippi. I come from seven generations of folks from Mississippi, and you know, our ancestor, Nina Simone, she had the song “Mississippi Goddam.”
Mississippi was rough, it was hard and the ways that it treated our people, how it treated indigenous folk. My father was from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. [My mother and father]met up in the Sacramento area and then eventually, late ‘60s, early ‘70s, came to the Bay Area.
What attracted my folks to the Bay Area was, of course, the political and the revolutionary activity that was happening centered around the Black Panther Party, the Black Panther Party being founded in Oakland. All of that becomes part of the foundation for my sister and I, because the elders that, were raising us up, they were exposed to all of those different things. And I wanted to make sure that as the next generation comes up, we had that tied to our history, our culture, our tradition, especially the revolutionary aspects of it.
PEEPLES: How does music come into what you do?
AMIR: Being raised up in the ‘80s, I’m having the old folks in the neighborhood, exposing me to hip hop. So I get this revolutionary understanding of my history.I [was] getting this, this really dope, beautiful cultural artifact that [was] blossoming in the community and [I] put all that stuff together.
PEEPLES: What was it like being raised Black in Silicon Valley?
AMIR: When it comes to school, when it comes to just different institutions that existed in San Jose, and how those things discriminated against Black people, that stuff was real. I witnessed that by having a community behind me, I’ve benefited from that. And I know that’s not the experience that all of our brothers and sisters have throughout the country. But I’ve benefited from having a strong, well informed community that came from a revolutionary tradition.
And so when something impacted an individual in the community, we raised it up as a collective. And seeing that was very important to me to create. If I was going to be in a space, an individual in our community would never be allowed [to experience something alone]. You were going to feel the full force of the community responded to that.
PEEPLES: How have white supremacist ideologies manifested themselves in our public school system? And how is your curriculum working to dismantle those?
AMIR: In what I call my colonial educational experience, I was never, never inspired to want to write, I never thought about being an author. But since the age of 5 or 6, I’m rhyming. So I’m writing and I’m creating in my own way, but I never viewed myself as someone [who would] write a book one day.
But in revisiting the work of my elder Richard Wright I [thought], ‘I got to do something like this for my day and my time to speak to what is happening to us now, and also to focus on what he was talking about, because he was focused on the freedom and liberation of his people.’ So I knew that I could do that. And I could do it in a way that fit the 21st century. And that’s why the hip hop and the spoken word had to be featured in the work. So I did that.
PEEPLES: Talk a little more about the curriculum.
AMIR: I have some experience teaching in schools in different parts of the country. [People around the country] want to label Black boys, Black folks in general, as the most learning deficient when it comes to reading and writing when it comes to math and science. We’re brilliant. It came from, “I’m not gonna wait for the school system to the school system that created the problems in the first place to correct those problems. I’m gonna go ahead and start developing what needs to be developed right now and put that out there.” So our young people have what they need.
PEEPLES: How do you see the state of Black activism and how it impacts our students?
AMIR: I’m saying, we got to come off Twitter, you got to come off Instagram, you got to come off Tik Tok. You got to come off Snapchat. You got to come off Facebook, and you got to meet with real folk and show support to people in their everyday struggles, build our independent institutions and move forward. And if we ain’t talking about that, then we ain’t really talking about revolution for the people.
To learn more about Tyson Amir’s work, check out his appearance here.