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“The Internet Is My Lifeline”: Hip-Hop Artist Jasiri X on the FCC’s Net Neutrality Vote

The political artist from Pittsburgh speaks about the importance of the internet.

The Internet is such a part of everyday life that many people don’t notice how much they rely on it. Those Skype calls to faraway relatives? Streaming music on your commute? Reading the news on a site like this one? None of it would be possible without the Internet.

That’s why the Federal Communications Commission decision on February 26 was important not only for online businesses, but for everyday users. The FCC voted 3-2 to preserve the Internet as we know it, keeping it free and open by reclassifying Internet service providers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. In other words, the FCC made net neutrality the law of the land. This decision prevents Internet providers from charging fees for faster service, slowing down unpaid content, or blocking unwanted websites. It also broadened the regulations to encompass mobile Internet use.

This is a victory for grassroots activists, who sent approximately 3.7 million comments to the FCC on the issue. And it wasn’t just computer geeks and the people who love them who got involved. More than 90 musicians expressed their support for net neutrality days before the vote when they signed a letter of appreciation to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

“Artists have endured tremendous consolidation in the media marketplace that has limited opportunities,” a section of the letter said. The musicians went on to say that reclassification of the Internet under Title II is the best way to protect their ability to “build businesses, reach audiences, and earn a living.”

Jasiri X, a hip-hop artist from Pittsburgh, was one of the musicians who signed the letter to Wheeler. And he’s brought the same activist approach to other topics—especially racial justice. He’s criticized white privilege in songs like “What If the Tea Party Was Black?” and even traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, where he witnessed police brutality firsthand during protests in August, influencing his most recent video “Don’t Let Them Get Away With Murder.”

Outside of music, Jasiri X is a cofounder of the anti-violence group One Hood and the 1Hood Academy, which teaches media awareness to African-American boys and encourages them to be conscious of how their presence on social media can create change.

YES! spoke with Jasiri X about the Internet, social change, and net neutrality. This interview has been lightly edited.

Kayla Schultz: How did you get involved in the movement to protect net neutrality?

Jasiri X: A good friend of mine who writes a lot about hip-hop and politics named Davey D. He is based in the Bay Area and has a show on KPFA called Hard Knock Radio. He was one of the first ones who got me down with net neutrality and what was happening around it.

As an independent artist who has built my career through social media and the Internet and my ability to compete on a somewhat fair level in terms of getting my music out there, it was something I immediately took interest in. I saw cable companies drawing a lot of money around it, and especially targeting the black community and the historically black organizations.

People on social media and the Internet were the ones who said that Trayvon and Ferguson and those events were things that were going to be talked about—before mainstream media started to get involved. Now we’re seeing social media used to help create movements and real change in our communities. That’s when I got even more involved in terms of wanting to prevent these big cable companies from having an extra advantage online.

Schultz: What was at stake for you as a musician?

Jasiri X: I’m a full-time artist; it’s how I make a living. And I do music that is socially conscious, so that means I don’t get played on the radio. That’s what’s been cool about social media: It’s kind of treated as democracy in terms of people deciding, OK, I like this.

So it’s important for me to have a place and not be at a disadvantage. I’m already at a disadvantage in terms of that I don’t have the resources, especially compared to a multimillion dollar corporation. It would be terrible for me if you could load the new Drake song and it loads up fast and plays regularly, but then click on Jasiri X or a different independent artist and it goes slower and won’t load.

We’re already at a disadvantage because we don’t have the resources, but then put us at an even greater disadvantage? To me, it destroys the whole essence of the Internet and what makes it cool.

Schultz: How would you say most of your music gets heard?

Jasiri X: I would say on social media. I got successful through videos that offer a kind of narrative, especially around the portrayal of young black men. So being able to throw a video up on YouTube and then on Facebook and people share it is how I became known and built my fan base.

I also [cofounded] a media academy in Pittsburgh where we teach young African-American boys how to analyze and create their own media. We were able to do that because we had that success with social media, because we’ve had millions of views of our videos and we can teach people about this.

It all came about because [The Heinz Endowments] studied the local media in Pittsburgh and 86 percent of the time they showed black men associated with crime [on television]. Eighty-six percent of the time. So we thought, why don’t we teach young people how to utilize the Internet to tell their own stories?

Schultz: Can you talk a little bit more about 1Hood Academy?

Jasiri X: We started 1Hood Media about four years ago, after Heinz Endowments, the Pew Research Center, and Meyer Communications did a study called Portrayal and Perception that looked at negative images of African-Americans in Pittsburgh.

So we decided to kind of petition the local newspapers to portray us better. They don’t get it, so instead we have the power. We can get a camera, use our phones. We got all our students iPod minis because you can take pictures with them, you can take video.

Also, we felt like these kids go to high school and there isn’t a class on social media and there isn’t a class on what’s intelligent or not to share. Who’s talking to young people about this? So we wanted to teach how to use it in a way that you’re not looking back five years later thinking you shouldn’t have shared all this shit and now it’s affecting your career.

Schultz: Have you seen a big difference in what students have been posting?

Jasiri X: Absolutely. One of my students just posted a link to a thing that happened in Pittsburgh. Somebody witnessed police brutality, and I didn’t know about it. I’m following my students, and it’s cool to see them utilizing these tools in a way that’s just not for frivolous things, but actually beginning to move the envelope in terms of things that are maybe more important.

Schultz: How do you think the FCC’s decision on net neutrality will affect your students?

Jasiri X: Now they have the ability to share their experiences, their true selves. If you take that away, you are further marginalizing an already-marginalized group of people. Pittsburgh is America’s most livable city, according to Forbes Magazine, but we also have the poorest black community in the country, according to the United States census.

So we’re already dealing with students who come from poverty. And if you make it more difficult for videos or things that they are sharing to get shown, you are further marginalizing them and further taking away their voice.

What’s so cool about the Internet now is you have not just a black community, but black women having a large voice, the LGBT folks having a voice. And I’m learning from them because these are individuals I’ve never heard speak before. If you look at the state of journalism when it even just comes to people of color in the newsrooms, it’s horrible. It’s like, we don’t need to be on your Washington Post desk or whatever you are. You can build a following just because of what you tweet and how you do it, and you become like the media.

When Ferguson went down, I wasn’t waiting for reporters to go on TV and misrepresent our people in the horrible way like they did. I was following people who were providing up-to-the-minute video and pictures—and they became the media. If you don’t uphold net neutrality, we’re back to square one, back to major corporations dictating what we should be watching or looking at, and we’re not even able to have a real critique.

Schultz: You were among the more than 90 musicians who signed a letter to Chairman Wheeler thanking him for supporting net neutrality. What do you think the implications of the FCC’s decision will be?

Jasiri X: The right wing are going to do what they do, which is lie and misrepresent, but it’s encouraging. It’s encouraging because I see hip-hop taking a turn for the better. When I see artists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole and Joey Badass and Azealia Banks coming in and using their voices in a strong way, I am encouraged by that. And part of it is that Internet artists have more control over their albums than ever—over their product, over their brand.

The artist has more control and this is why music is starting to get better, in my opinion. It allows me to continue to build on my own brand and build my audience at a steady pace. I don’t want to be signed to a major record label because I want creative control over how I say what I say and how it’s represented. So I feel like this decision helps artists become stronger and use our voice in a stronger way.

I know down the line they are going to challenge this. They already are thinking of ways to challenge, but hopefully next time it won’t be 90 artists—it’ll be a thousand artists and even bigger artists understanding what’s at stake.

Schultz: What do you think are the next steps for supporters of net neutrality?

Jasiri X: I would use the victory as a way to educate more artists. Because we know that this is not going to be the last chapter, that these cable companies are going to try to find a way to weaken this decision. But I feel like we are the generation that has grown up online and we understand how it’s benefited us and helped us. I believe if we continue to educate this next generation of artists, we can have a stronger pushback when it comes up next time.

And since there’s a presidential election coming up, these are things we should put on the agenda in terms of asking, “Is this what you support?” You know, when it looked like Obama got shaky, people were like, “Hold up, man.” Whether it’s Hillary or Elizabeth Warren or whoever, we need to say this is an issue that is important to us and it needs to have unwavering support from them or they aren’t going to get our vote. That’s how we need to roll, and that’s just not for the president, but Congress, the Senate, all of that stuff.

Schultz: You just dropped a new video with a really powerful message on police brutality. What are the next steps for your music?

Jasiri X: Because of the type of music I’ve been doing, I’ve been working with these organizations. I did the “Don’t Let Them Get Away With Murder” video with an organization called Sankofa, which was founded by Harry Belafonte and encourages artists to talk about issues of social justice. Harry wants me to come to Selma with him on March 8 for the 50th anniversary, and of course I’m excited for that.

I’m also doing a video that’s coming up soon with an organization called the Perception Institute, and their goal is to change the perception of black men by 2020. That video is done and should be coming up soon.

I’m going to try to put three albums out this year. I’m going to try. I didn’t put any out last year because I was just too busy, but I have a project coming up called Black Liberation Theology that I’m going to release. I’m just traveling a lot. I’m blessed.

You know what happens is people find me online and say, “Hey, I like what you do. I want to bring you to my school” or whatever. And I’m off. So, the Internet is my lifeline as an artist. For me, the FCC vote was almost like a life or death situation artistically. You’re playing with my ability to financially support myself through the arts and culture that I create. And so for me, I feel like it was important to lend my voice to it.