Smooth Talking

Jay Smooth talks to about hip-hop, the Women’s March and being detained

Image: Youtube – Jay Smooth

It is without a doubt that Jay Smooth, cultural commentator and hip-hop expert, takes his passions and strengths with him to work. Founding and hosting New York’s longest running hip-hop radio programme, WBAI’s Underground Railroad, when he was only a teenager, to producing social commentary about politics, race and pop culture for his video blog The Ill Doctrine, Jay speaks and delivers his messages with humour and emotion, saying that: “I use the voice that hip-hop gave me to speak on the issues I care about and contribute to the public discourse on social justice and especially racial justice issues”. I’ve found that this resonates deeply in the way Jay uses his words to make you pause and think about ongoing social and racial issues in the community and how we can address these issues and strive for change. Hip-hop traditions have inspired Jay with lessons he can draw upon when discussing social and political issues. Most notable of these is hip-hop’s ability to “carve out a community where everyone can be seen and heard and the work of communicating across differences that is required to maintain that type of community.”

Jay reflects upon the fact that in the 1970s, hip-hop was born specifically from the need for a community and from times of hardship when resistance was paramount especially in the smallest, poorest of counties, South Bronx. Jay describes that one of the most “underrated challenges” people faced was the need of a social space, a place where people could party on a Friday night and “embrace each other’s human presence and create a community.”

Upon speaking to him about hip-hop at Heslington East’s Goodricke College, Jay tells me that he doesn’t want to “feed into the stereotype that hip-hop is only valuable because of its ability to propagate political messages.” As well as its origins in developing and building on community, Jay believes that hip-hop is “powerful as a musical form first and foremost and it speaks to us in a way that any jazz, blues or classical composition would. I think it’s important for the world’s understanding of hip-hop to be grounded in that respect for it as a musical form.”

On top of this, Jay believes in the emphasis on verbal expression, which comes from the tradition of personal storytelling started by disenfranchised people in the poorest county in America as a creative outlet. Hip- hop is always about speaking to experiences and giving voices to marginalised people, which is what Jay conveyed in both his interview with me and his lecture to students at the University of York.

Jay delivered a lecture at the University of York on 1 February on race and social identity. He began by talking about his video blog, an on-going web series called The Ill Doctrine which he describes as a medium that he uses “to yell at people to be nicer to each other” before adding that he talks about social justice and racial justice issues. He’s looking to make ‘those’ conversations about race “a little less exasperating and a bit more productive, trying to think about how we can inform and challenge each other on all those issues, in a way that is kind and empathetic as it needs to be as well as being real and honest as it needs to be”.

Jay explained how to go about challenging the people around you about topics such as racism, sexism, transphobia and how to “shift the weight from the defensiveness people hold to understanding that sort of challenge as a gesture of respect and confirmation that we are all different people.”

I was getting only the tiniest taste of what immigrants face every day when they come to the border

He highlighted this by playing his best known video called ‘How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist’, made during the 2008 American election in response to certain comments about Barack Obama. The video has now reached over one million views on YouTube. Now, in 2017 with the election of Donald Trump, the video is more relevant than ever. In the video, Jay explains the difference of a ‘what they did’ conversation and a ‘what they are’ conversation, with the former being strictly about a person’s words or actions and why only what they did or said is racist. The latter conversation is using what they did or said to conclude what type of person they are.

During our conversation, I ask Jay if he could reflect on the video and explain how people should deal with racism in day to day life. He begins by saying, “it is important to say there is never one correct way or never one rule to apply to all situations; it is always going to depend on what is the relationship, what is the potential harm done to you and what is your objective in the interaction.”

He continues: “there are times to not speak at all, there are times when you need to tell someone not to treat you a certain way, but sometimes you need to understand why sometimes there’s going to be an unteachable ground. I think it’s for each person to determine their skill set and what the situation is.”

Jay believes that the way people discuss racism is being broached a lot by the American public in the aftermath of the election with much focus of showing empathy towards racists. Perplexed, I ask him in what sense. He explains empathy, in this context, as a notion that “if you look past the bigotry they expressed and you show empathy for their financial hardship which is really a resentment of losing their white privilege”.

Jay says that some people think that if you listen and show empathy then they will come around, but he doesn’t agree and believes it to be a waste of time. He goes on to say that around the election there are “progressive minded people who are entrenched in the opposition who have a progressive outlook and there are fence sitters. There is a much bigger return in trying to communicate with fence sitters than trying to make people who are entrenched in the opposition have some kind of epiphany.”

When looking at it from this angle, it is difficult not to agree with Jay. It is an easier and more productive use of our time and energy to appeal to the people who haven’t completely made up their mind. While this is the case, in a number of his most recent videos he encourages his audience to “ask questions you’ve never asked before”.

I ask him if he could clarify what he means by this and he responds by saying that, “now we are under this regime because they have set a new standard of abandoning all the old norms, we need to start asking questions that we’ve never asked before about whether we should stick to norms because in some abstract way it is the right thing to do, or whether we should adapt to this new game. There’s a lot of, what I think to be, overreaction and a feeling that we’ve been pressing too hard on those social justice issues and that we need to avoid causing discomfort in potential Trump voters by bringing up those issues.”

Image: Flickr – Jason Alderman

Jay’s words ring true especially when considering that in the last couple of weeks we have heard from celebrities such as Matthew McConaughey who has said that the entertainment industry has no choice but to ‘embrace’ Trump. To put aside political disagreements and be “constructive, because he’s our President for the next four years – at least”. Whether the actor appears to endorse Donald Trump’s presidency or not is not the issue, whereas his passive acceptance of Trump and his regime is.

Jay pinpoints a similar problem with the media and how they need to start asking questions they’ve never asked before on how to deal with the President. This clearly stems from Donald Trump’s first press conference in January where the President-elect at the time shut down a CNN reporter who attempted to ask a question. Following the event, a number of journalists and writers have more or less reached a consensus on the fact that when one journalist’s question goes unanswered, the rest should ask follow up questions and give off a strong unified approach until the question is answered.

On this topic, Jay says that “there are a lot of journalistic standards with the President that are based on assuming the President will reciprocate that level of respect, and if you’re dealing with someone who is literally declaring war on you and his rhetoric you just have to ask basic questions like ‘what is the value of maintaining access to this President and his spokespeople if they are just making things up and deceiving as they go along?’ ‘What is the journalistic value of carrying your favour so you can maintain access?’ Maybe you just let them do a press conference in an empty room, report from a distance and analyse.” He pauses to laugh. “Especially when he sets up press conferences so he has his own applause section and berates you so other people can applaud. You need to ask yourself, are you going to let yourself be a part of that theatre piece because it’s always been a rule that we always came to press conferences? Is this even a press conference anymore?”

However, Jay believes that the press is beginning to ask those important questions we need them to ask. He says some networks have stopped showing press briefings live and he believes slowly they are coming around. Quite similarly, we have begun to see and hear speeches and movements of solidarity in the media, from Meryl Streep hitting hard on Donald Trump in her Golden Globes speech, to the Women’s Marches all around the world. Both of these events have been heavily talked about on the internet and having attended the march in Washington DC.

I asked Jay about his opinion on the controversy surrounding it given some women of colour did not want to attend. He began by saying he was reluctant to attend at first as he had the impression that it was a “white women’s march that had come out of that Pantsuit Nation Facebook group which has a lot of inspiring stuff in it but also has problems with inclusion and representation, but over time did a good job of hearing people’s critic and bringing women of colour and centring them in leadership positions.”

Linda Sarsour, who has worked with Jay before, Janet Mock, and Tamika Mallory, all went and led the Women’s March at Washing- ton DC did an amazing job of bringing it to a much fuller representation. “What was presented on stage was most effective,” he continues, “in being inclusive and having a comprehensive representation.”

Despite this, the crowd at the march was not as representative as one would have hoped, with Jay saying that the crowds were predominantly white when he was there and at certain times he was very aware of it with others being possibly more aware than he was. He says that “it’s important to have those critics, it’s important to listen to the women of colour, transgender women who didn’t show up and why they didn’t feel comfortable coming. So I hope that the lesson that people take will be that this became a success because women listened to those voices and brought them to the table and centred them and listened to them. That’s how the march became this big, even though it was a little uncomfortable afterwards.”

Jay finishes the topic of conversation by saying that “it’s important for those who have done all this social justice work and for those who have learnt all the terminology to have some patience and recognise that you’re either going to have a march with a hundred thousand of us or a march with three million people most of whom are new to these ways of thinking, and that’s what you want to happen, which can eventually lead to something powerful.”

It’s important we listen to women of colour, to transgender women

Ultimately though, Jay asks everyone to at least think about listening to criticism with humility when in a position of privilege. He wants everyone to recognise the term and not shy away from it either. He stresses that some people have it more than others in different circumstances, and it does not have to be a representation of shame. Jay uses his experience of trying to make it to England, three months ago as an example.

He was scheduled to make the trip from New York City to England in order to deliver his lecture to the University on Wednesday 16 November. He explains that according to the law as an expert speaker addressing a university you don’t need a Visa, but if you come without one it is up to a subjective assessment of a border agent to assess whether you look like an expert speaker. Jay says that his speakers agency sends people to England regularly and have no problems getting through, however, he believes it is because unlike him they are “well to do, older white people wearing a suit and tie who fit some people’s description of an expert.”

In contrast to the hoodie and trainers he was wearing at the time before telling them that he was an expert in hip-hop and looking, in Jay’s words, “ethnically ambiguous to many people.” He continues by saying that he still doesn’t know which one of those cues prompted the agent to make her judgement, but she made one very quickly which led to the process of being detained.

Image: Youtube – Jay Smooth

When describing what he went through, Jay explains that the border agent was “manipulating the conversation so that I didn’t have the chance to state my case and I could have easily gone online and showed her credentials, but she had decided in her mind that I was going to sneak in the country… I don’t know what. So I spent a couple of hours being humiliated, having them go through my luggage, look through my wallet and ask why I don’t have more money, am I able to support myself financially and mind you I don’t have enough money in my wallet because you use a different kind of money here. I didn’t know we were going to be shooting a rap video in the corner and make it rain” he addressed the audience eliciting laughter once again.

After a couple of more hours of this, Jay was sent back on a plane to New York which he describes as one of the most humiliating, degrading experiences of his life. He says it was “one of the stark instances I’ve ever faced, but once I got home and had the opportunity to sit with it I also had to temper that knowledge with a sting that I was getting only the tiniest taste of what immigrants face every day when they come to the border.”

Jay is trying to convey a message about humility and privilege. Even as an “ethnically ambiguous” man, he understands that his American privilege kicked in as soon as custody was given to American airlines. Jay says he was immediately given the option of bumping up to first class on the flight back. “That’s not going to happen to 99 per cent of people who get turned away at the border, whose lives and futures will be on the line.”

There’s a much bigger return in communicating with fence-sitters

Jay describes his experience as humbling, and asks everyone to remember that it is only the tiniest sliver of what so many people go through. He describes the “trauma of being shamed and being treated as less than human” as something that stuck with him for weeks after. “Every time I pulled out my wallet I remember them looking through it, passing their judgement.” Jay still emphasises, however, that his experience was not surreal and that it is still normal for millions of refugees for whom the stakes are so much higher than his own. Jay concluded the lecture by saying that he took a vow when he was sent back to America that he would return to speak to the University of York like he had meant to do in November, but this time wearing the document showing his denied entry on a t-shirt, which he showed the audience to a roar of applause.

As a woman of colour, the concept of challenging or explaining race and racial issues has always been a reccurring factor in my life. Is it my obligation to consistently teach or tell other people what to say or be the voice of my race when I’m the only person of colour in the room?

In the workshop the day after the lecture, similar opinions were voiced, and mat- ters were discussed on how to improve racial and social issues around the University. The lack of integration between home and international students and controversial events hosted by Derwent College such as ‘Bollywood D’ were flagged up as aspects that need to be worked upon for better community cohesion and a generally better atmosphere around the University. When asking Jay if he, as a person of colour with a strong social media presence, has responsibilities to talk about race and representation he says that he doesn’t believe every public figure has a responsibility to talk in depth about these issues.

“If these issues are a focal point in things that you’ve studied in and you are able to have a public voice then it’s important to use that voice as best as you can while still being wary and not abusing your privilege and speaking on other people’s issues.” M

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