“If you grew up struggling, then you my audience,” says Jahi Salaam, an 18-year-old rapper and a poet. Jahi is from New Orleans. His first name, Jahi, means dignity in Swahili. His last name means peace. When Jahi talks about poverty, school, and prison, he says: they’re all intertwined.
This is Unprisoned. I’m Eve Abrams.
There is a racial word and other language in this story that some listeners may find offensive.
“Like I don’t even just mean black people necessarily. Like, cause I know everybody go through it – like Puerto Ricans, all them Hispanics, like Mexicans and everything, and not even just them, there’s white people too, you feel me?” asks Jahi. “It ain’t just black people, but if you grew up struggling, then you my audience.”
“And when you say struggling you mean financially, socially?” I ask.
“You grow up – you living in a shitty house, like your house broke down, you go to school, your school broke down, you feel me, like there’s people getting shot, there’s people getting locked up. That’s what I mean by struggling,” Jahi answers. “You know, it’s hard to grow up. Like it ain’t just – it ain’t no plan set out for you or nothing. It ain’t no road you can just walk down, like, ‘Oh, I know I’m going to be straight.’”
Jahi has bounced around a lot. He was seven when Katrina hit New Orleans, and afterwards, he went between California, Houston, and back to New Orleans. When he was in the second grade, Jahi won awards for essays he wrote about Katrina, but as he got older, he started getting in trouble at school. In the fourth grade, he was caught on the computer, without permission, doing eighth grade algebra work. He was getting all the answers right, but he got a Saturday detention anyway. Jahi’s family is full of educators – his grandparents, uncle, mother, great-grandmother – but still, school made no sense to him.
These days, Jahi spends most of his free time writing or working on his music. Whatever’s on his mind, he turns into rhymes, scribbling the words down on sheets of paper. There are stacks of these papers in his house, all in different categories. One stack is about stress or pain; another is about girls.
On his dresser are a few books about home recording, for music, along with a biography of Assata Shakur. He lives with his grandmother, a veteran educator, and there’s a bookcase in the living room full of books, but he’s read those long ago. When Jahi was younger he would get lost in books. His dad often found him at two in the morning with the sheet over his head, reading by the light of his phone. In school, he’d finish his work and then read to keep from being bored.
“At first I was reading, like, you know the little books that they would give us at school – Walter Dean Myers and stuff,” says Jahi. “I like stuff like that because that was the only books with black people in it, so I was interested in what it was talking about. I think the last book I probably read was The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.”
For those of you unfamiliar with The New Jim Crow, it chronicles -- with exacting detail and references -- how mass incarceration has created a caste-like system relegating African Americans to a permanent second-class status, in effect replicating the stronghold of the Jim Crow era.
“You know, the stuff she was saying, it was real,” Jahi continues. “So it made me think: all right. Like, let me try to find a way to say that, but you know, in rap. Like if I learn something, I want to let people know, so other people will know, you know?”
“Do you think that the people who would listen to your raps are going to be a different audience than maybe would read Michelle Alexander’s book?” I ask.
“Right. Yeah, because you know, like my little partners and stuff they not going to sit down and read a big ass book like that. You know, so, I figure I probably just -- I don’t know if you want to call it translate, or I don’t know how to say it but just -- take what she said and if I learn, I’m going to say something about it, but the way I say it, they’re going to know what I’m talking about.”
Jahi reaches into his pocket and unfolds one of his poems.
“Tell me why my high school feel like a prison. They got security guards and metal detectors at the entrance.
Plus the teachers don’t care if I fail. I know they probably think that I’m a end up dead or in jail.
The teachers can’t reach us cause there’s barriers in between us. We be on two different pages, like we speak two different languages.
And the ESL kids probably got it worse. Trying to learn a whole other language plus stay on top of they work.
Everybody fussing, everybody getting heated and mad, and most of the time it be starting over the pettiest misunderstandings.
Situations escalating cause everyone’s instigating. Too late to stop it now because it’s spiraled out of control.
People dropping out, getting killed, and getting incarcerated. I wonder how many of us going to make it to graduation?
The system ain’t built for any of us to be winning. And these schools ain’t nothing but pipelines to prison.”
Near the end of the 5th grade, Jahi’s family sent him back to San Diego to live with his dad. But the trouble at school got worse. It was stupid stuff at first, like trying to be the funny person in class and arguing with his teachers. Jahi says his dad was strict, and looking back on it now, he thinks his dad was trying to keep him out of trouble with the tough love thing. But it didn’t work for him. Jahi’s dad worked for the navy and was going to school at the same time, which meant Jahi was out with his friends a lot, without supervision. In the ninth grade, he was kicked out of four or five schools – one for stealing and dealing drugs – before his dad sent him back to New Orleans.
In the next few years, there was more bouncing back and forth between New Orleans and San Diego, where he eventually entered the Juvenile Court System following a burglary arrest. When he was sixteen, Jahi was escorted by child welfare authorities back to New Orleans to live with his mom and his grandma.
Right now he’s trying to finish up high school here in New Orleans, and graduate.
“Does it matter to you to graduate?” I ask. “Is it important to you?”
“Yeah, cause I know my grandma would like if I graduate and stuff,” he answers. “But actually to me, no. Like, do I actually care? Not really because then I be thinking: then what? You know what I’m saying, like: what I’m going to do then? I’m going to go to college – cause it ain’t like I been doing good like since I was little or something – that’s what you really got to do, like you gotta play sports or be good at academics or both of them so you can get a scholarship or something. Cause it’s like how I’m going to go to college?”
If you look at his life, he says, like it’s a math problem, or science, he could end up a cliché, like a character he raps about: dead or in jail -- what Jahi calls a statistic.
In order to not end up a statistic, a person really has to go against the grain, he says. You’re not going to make it by just showing up at school. You have to have a plan. And be determined. And you have to start much younger.
“If you give a little kid something, like if you give ‘em an option, he’s going to take it,” Jahi tells me. “Like, don’t nobody want to grow up and be shooting people and be selling dope. You catch somebody when they a little kid they still interested in stuff. Like when I was little, like every day was some new shit like I just seen this movie, I used to come home to my grandma – like, Nana, I just seen this little documentary at school. There’s these people called paleontologists, they dig bones up. I could do that right? She’d be like, yeah, you can do that. But, come on? Like, how you gonna do that realistically?”
It’s hard to say how Jahi’s life would have been if Katrina hadn’t been a factor, sending him elsewhere and away from his extended family, at a time when everyone was recovering from having their lives tossed around. Between Katrina, the detours, and the disconnect with schools… it’s been a long road for Jahi.
“I’m really old,” he confesses. “Like, I might not be old for someone to look at me, like: ‘you 18, you not old.’ But it’s like dog years or something. I don’t feel like I’m 18. I feel like I’m 100 or something. I feel old as hell, like it aint’ like there ain’t no hope for my generation, that ain’t what I’m saying. I’m saying if you going to worry about somebody, if you going to do some programs or something, do it for these little kids because these little kids still got more of a chance cause they still young.”
At one point it might have looked to some like Jahi was heading to prison, but not anymore. Now he’s rapping about the justice system that once threatened to swallow him up. And he raps in pretty stark language.
“Private prisons that they build just for us niggers; it’s a new form of slavery ain’t nothing but a plantation with barbed wire fences.
They profiting off our pain, capitalizing off our struggle, disaster capitalism – it aint’ nothing but a hustle.
They ain’t nothing but opportunists, they call us thieves for looting, but what about what they doing?”
Jahi doesn’t think music by itself will change anything. But hopefully it will inspire people to change things, he says.
“They say a change gonna come but I’m tired of waiting, ya’ll. I’m tired of being targeted. And honestly, I’m tired of marching. Cause all respect to Martin, but I’m tired of turning the other cheek.
They hate me for what I represent: ghetto but still intelligent. They want to keep us separate, label us domestic terrorist.
We ain’t a gang, we jamaa (community in Swahili), we a community. We a tribe, we a family, we got to have unity.
Special thanks to Dancing Grounds for help with this episode.
Unprisoned: Stories From The System is produced by Eve Abrams and brought to you by New Orleans Public Radio and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.