The rapper, poet and activist lives up to his first name on his hopeful, powerful debut
From an early age, Malcolm London understood the power inherent in his first name.
“I've got a helluva name to live up to,” he raps near the onset of his debut full-length, Opia, from 2016.
“My mom watched ‘Malcolm X' in the theater as I was growing inside her belly and she said, ‘That's what I'm going to name my baby,'” said the 24-year-old Chicago-born rapper, poet and activist, who visits the Basement for a concert on Saturday, April 29. “Even at a young age, I knew who Malcolm X was, and that name and legacy is a powerful one.”
But that power didn't translate to action until London turned 16 and discovered the Louder Than a Bomb poetry festival, which was co-founded in 2001 by fellow Chicagoan Kevin Coval, who served as an early mentor to London, introducing the teenager to black authors like James Baldwin and Gwendolyn Brooks. “[Coval] taught me to study other writers and see how the personal connects to the political, and how the political ultimately connects to the global,” said London, who, after discovering the form, regularly took the bus 40 minutes from his West Side neighborhood of Austin to Wicker Park on the North Side in order to attend open mic poetry events.
This connection weaves its way through Opia, which finds the rapper embracing his story as a means to talk about larger social and political issues. Witness the atmospheric “Charlie,” which opens with a sample lifted from Charlie Chaplin's “The Great Dictator” speech — “Don't give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and slave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel” — before London details his arrest at a Black Lives Matter protest, placing it within the context of a larger global struggle for human rights. As the song closes, singer Christian Jalon swoops in with a verse that doubles as a raised fist: “We're gonna rise up/And we're gonna shut them down.”
“When I dropped that song, there was a young man in Madison, Wisconsin who had just been recently killed by police. I think even in this moment people have to understand we're all affected by this thing, whether you're a cop or [a citizen],” London said. “As the [Chaplin] speech goes, there are bigger things at play. Essentially, we're all a part of a game that's being played.”
London initially took up poetry at 14 as a means to impress girls, developing a greater understanding of the form's potential once he started attending open mics.
“I figured out that all the questions I had as a high schooler and a teenager could be answered or at least explored through poetry. Why does the world look the way it does? Why is it that where I live looks a lot different than other parts of the city? Why are the people that look like me disadvantaged?” said London, who was born to a telemarketer mother and a father who works for the Chicago Transit Authority. “Oftentimes we're OK with the falsehoods we're taught, but I refused to believe that the people that I grew up around and that I knew and loved were just inherently violent or were supposed to fail. Poetry helped me ask those questions and allowed me to articulate those ideas.”
From the onset, London employed his work as a means to tell his story, offering a window into a neighborhood and a culture he often viewed as missing from the conversation.
“Being from the West Side of Chicago, I grew up thinking my story was misrepresented or underrepresented,” said London, who counts fellow neighborhood dwellers like Chance the Rapper, Nico Segal (aka Donnie Trumpet) and Noname among his biggest musical influences. “That inspired me to want to tell the story of the West Side. … I think stories often become history, and history is too often told by one homogeneous group. And that has to be disrupted in order for the truth to live.”
Opia, in turn, delves into issues of racial inequity, poverty and loss — on “Get It Right” the rapper mourns the loss of an aunt, an uncle and a close friend, all of whom died within a year. Other songs deal more explicitly with race — “I am a profound, pro-black pronoun/Malcolm X raised on that straight Motown,” he raps in a raspy cadence on “Westside in the Rain” — a concept London said cemented itself after he enrolled in high school on the city's North Side.
“I went to school with mostly Latino and black kids as a young person, and then I got into Lincoln Park High School and I was one of eight brown faces,” said London, who acknowledged he'd always known the differences between the races because growing up in America white people are generally seen in places of power, be it “on my TV or on my dollar bill.” “[But] when I went to Lincoln Park High School, that's when I really learned what inequity looked like. Seeing all my friends, who were white and who I loved, I just noticed our narratives were different. They'd talk about their summer trips to Italy, and on my side of the city we talked about whose funeral we just went to.
“Seeing those things, I started to see how race and classism were intertwined. I think seeing the two sides of Chicago, it made me want to bridge that gap. It wasn't that I wanted anybody on the North Side or anyone I went to high school with to have any less, but it was only natural that it occurred to me we didn't have enough.”
Despite London's willingness to wade into these weightier issues, his music is still imbued with a deep optimism, the more somber moments balanced by fluttering cuts like “House Party,” a good-times tune that lives up to its joyous, confetti-strewn title.
“I don't like feeling helpless, though often I do,” London said. “It's easy to get bogged down and feel like things aren't changing. But, for me at least, when I'm in classrooms educating, and I see young people who are discovering themselves — even in all this darkness — it helps me realize our humanity is stronger than everything else. Or at least I like to think so.”