MK Asante Jr. is a modern day renaissance man. Overcoming a difficult childhood in North Philadelphia, he has gone on to accomplish countless feats by age 31. After graduating from Lafayette College, and earning a Master of Fine Arts at UCLA, he became a professor in Morgan State’s English and Language Arts Department when he was 23. He wrote and produced the documentary, “500 Years Later,” then made his directorial debut with “The Black Candle,” winning several film festival awards for both. He is the author of four books, including his recently released memoir, “Buck.” A spoken word artist and poet, he has added MC to his resume, after making a guest appearance alongside Talib Kweli and Bishop Lamont on Ras Kass’s “Godz in the Hood.” MK sat down for an exclusive interview with The Spokesman.
The Spokesman: I think you can tell a lot about an artist from their influences. Who is your favorite author? Filmmaker? MC? Poet?
MK Asante: My favorite author is Sherman Alexie. He’s a Native American writer, and he’s one of the people who gave me confidence to do what I’m doing now. I saw him read from his work when I was a freshman in college, and if there was any doubt about what I wanted to do, after that performance, there was no doubt. He’s a fiction writer, a slam poet, a filmmaker, and he’s brilliant. His writing is fresh, dope, unique, and he captures the Indian experience in all of its beauty and ratchetness. I like Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danticat. Then there’s old school writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Paulo Coehlo.
When it comes to music, my range isn’t just hip-hop. But in hip-hop, hands down, the best rap group in history, definitively, is The Roots. There’s really no doubt about it, if you look at all that they’ve done. They have made so much music, and they never compromise. They never dumb it down for the radio. Everything they make is custom and amazing. It doesn’t matter if people on the streets haven’t heard this, haven’t heard that from The Roots. Time will tell. They’ve made timeless music for the last 25 – 30 years, consistently. I love Jay Electronica, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and Nas. Jay Electronica is the only rapper that says things that I honestly thought I was the only one who knew about. But I like so much other music. I love Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, and obscure music you never heard of like Rokia Traore from Mali.
In poetry, it’s Saul Williams, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but my favorite is Rumi. So my favorite poet is Rumi.
My favorite MC at the moment is Jay Electronica; Black Thought from the Roots is probably my entire Top Five. My favorite writer is Sherman Alexie. And my favorite filmmaker is Spike Lee, but I rock with Woody Allen too.
The Spokesman: You recently released your memoir “Buck,”and inside it you explain all the meanings that word holds, but why’d you chose that title over, say, Malo, which was your childhood nickname?
MK: It just hit me. It’s a hard title. It smacks you in the face. Like BUCK. Whereas Malo, you don’t know what that means. If you read the book, eventually you see, Me Against Law & Order, that’s what they used to call him. But it’s not something that you see on the shelf, and you want to necessarily know about it. With Buck, people look at it, and they can be like, “is he talking about a young deer, responsibility, bucking the system, guns, going buckwild, a black buck, is he talking about money?” I feel like I hit more cylinders with that. And I just like the way it sounds, BUCK, one syllable. I’ve had books, It’s -Bigger -than -Hip -Hop: The-Rise-of-the- Post- Hip-Hop- Generation. Like-Water-Running-Off-My-Back. The titles were too long. I’m done with the sub-titles, I’m done with the da-da-da-da-da. Just BUCK.
The Spokesman: Did you have any reservations about revealing so much of your personal life, and things that went on within your family to the public?
MK: Initially, maybe. But you got to get over that so quickly to write something like this. Once I started, I was like “It’s ALL going in here.” It’s no point of doing it otherwise. You can’t whitewash a memoir. You can’t make it safe, neat, and comfortable. You have to not care about how anyone is going to feel. Even towards the people who are in it. Or you’re not going to write anything worth reading. If I have to get co-signs from everyone in it, they’re going to take out all the stuff that might be critical of them. It doesn’t work that way. So I had to get to a point where I didn’t care about what other people might say about me, or what people in it were going to think. But not in a bad way. I just had to tell my story in the best way possible.
The Spokesman: One of the things that stood out in your book, whenever you use the word nigga, you spell it ngh. Can you explain the significance behind that?
MK: The first time I saw that done, was Saul Williams. I did it that way for a couple of reasons. I have no issue with the word. It’s like the word, Nigeria. Or Niger Delta. I’m not offended by those words, because it’s not the word, nigger. Just like nigga aint the word nigger. It’s different words, different meanings. Nig-ger, I never say. That’s a whole different experience, a whole different history. Are they similar? Sure, but they’re not the same word. There’s a word in the dictionary, niggardly, and it has nothing to do with nigger. So I use the ngh to pay homage. When I looked up the word and did my research, it took me to the Nile Valley. You have the Nubians and the Ethiopians, and they use this word spelled N-E-G-A-S. In Ethiopia, negas means king. And the ancient Egyptians didn’t use vowels. So I took out the vowels and paid homage to the divine, royal meaning of that word. So when I say my ngh, I’m talking about KING, you know what I mean. King Ngh.
The Spokesman: Some pivotal moments from the book were your mother kicking you out the house, your best friend Amir getting killed, the life advice your uncle in Texas gave you, you having an epiphany after being arrested. Was there one moment in particular that changed you from who you were then, to this different person now?
MK: I’m not that different. At the core, I’m still that rebellious little kid, that doesn’t want to listen to authority, and wants to do his own thing. I still feel that Malo in me. But I transitioned from being self destructive. From being involved in things that destroyed my community. I’m not into things that will get me killed, anymore.
The Spokesman: But was there one incident, where it’s like “I’m just leaving all of this behind?” Because there’s so many life changing events in “Buck”.
MK: It’s kind of a culmination of the moments. Each moment builds on each other, like a snowball. As it’s rolling, it’s building up more snow. So by the time it’s at the bottom of the hill, it’s this huge thing, even though it started out little. So there was the conversation with my uncle, the fight with my dad, the moment I had in jail where I talk about the “elephant story”. Those moments are pretty big. Amir dying definitely made me think about the whole senseless element of violence, and guns, and trying to be a thug, when in reality, so much of it is unnecessary.
The Spokesman: A huge part of the book was you displaying some of your mom’s diary entries. You gained a better understanding of her through reading those. You have a son now, Aion. You’re on the road a lot, so if there were a writing piece you’d want him to read whenever you’re away from home, which would it be?
MK: There’ so many. There’s not one piece that just sums up everything. There are a few that stand out, though. There’s a quote by Buddha that tells you to “challenge everything, and if it helps you, then embrace it.” Another one is the Whitman quote about “never taking your hat off to anything known or unknown, and walking freely and making your life a poem.” But if it’s something that I wrote, it’s “if you make an observation, you have an obligation.” That means he’d be aware, and know he’s not just living on the planet, but he’s a part of shaping it. You observe things and get involved. Whether that means making something better or stopping something that’s problematic.
The Spokesman: You were in a car accident earlier this year. I know that was a big thing at the time, that could have played out a lot worse than it did.
MK: That shook me up in the sense of, “wow, life is crazy.” I could have died. It just makes you get on your grind. Because I felt like, “whoa, I could have died.” So what’s important in life? That means every moment I live, I should live it fully. I should live it in the moment, to the best of my ability. My life should be a poem. Because I could walk out of here right now, and that might be it. So if I didn’t give you energy, and I didn’t do the best interview I could possibly do, then now I’m dead and I don’t have the chance to do it anymore. So it’s just maximize the moments that you have.
The Spokesman: One special thing about you is your academic track record. You were a professor here at 23, and tenured at 26. How were you received by students and the faculty? Was there any negativity towards you?
MK: This is just part of my personality. It’s something I developed intentionally. I don’t care. I don’t think about how people receive me. I’m not trying to be accepted in any way. I’m just trying to do my work, contribute, and do what I love to do. Sometimes people think about what things are going to look like. What if I show up like this? What if I don’t do that? People are always concerned with, “what’s it going to look like?” I’m concerned with “what it be like?” Forget what it looks like. That means not worrying about things I can’t control. I can’t control how people perceive me, or what they think. All I can control is what I do. The students received me great, since I’ve been here. I love teaching. It’s interesting, I learn, it’s fun. There’s connectivity. I’m a part of this generation. I listen to hip-hop. The faculty has accepted me. The school’s President has been rolling with me, helping me, being supportive. It’s been love. But I will say, I don’t think about it a lot.
The Spokesman: Your directorial debut, The Black Candle, was a documentary about the holiday Kwanzaa. What made you pick that for your first feature film project?
MK: I was surprised there’s never been a film about it. I’m interested in doing things that have never been done. I was like, “there’s no films about Kwanzaa?” It’s an interesting holiday, with an interesting history. Then you think about all the things connected to it. I felt it was an important project that needs to be done. I made that observation, so it’s my obligation to do it. And I knew Maulana Karenga, the creator of it. I was in the same city as him. So I figured I can just go interview him, and make the first movie about Kwanzaa. And I went into the history, talked about hip-hop, got Maya Angelou to narrate. I got to go out to all these big cities, and tell this story, but in an intimate way.
The Spokesman: You’ve spoken about how you want to direct a biopic about Tupac Shakur. Morgan Creek Productions is supposedly in the process of making one, with Afeni Shakur on board. Is that still something you want to do?
MK: There’s always talk about a Tupac movie, literally. Especially for the last five years, there’s been a lot. At one point John Singleton was supposed to do something, but that fell through. With movies, things fall through a lot. But yes, that’s the dream project of mine. Like how “Malcolm X” was for Spike Lee. It’s something I would love to do. I also would love to do a movie about Assata Shakur. I have a script for the Assata Shakur movie already.
The Spokesman: Is it true you’re developing “Buck” into a movie?
MK: Yes. We just got financed last week. We got money to develop the movie, and to do production. I met with Don Cheadle’s production company a few weeks ago, and they were interested in acquiring the film and TV rights. They’re really excited about the project. I’m writing the script for the movie now. Then I’m doing the Buck soundtrack, that’s going to come out sometime between now and May. I’m really taking my time on the soundtrack, because that’s going to be really special. It’s original music married with the literature. Like hooks for the songs will be excerpts from the book. So it’ll be spitting on a song, and then all of a sudden the beat will change, and something from the book drops; “we ride through the night.” And then the beat drops again, and there’s more spitting. Then there’s interludes and there’s movie clips. It will be a real experience, so I’m taking my time with it.
The Spokesman: You recently made your rap debut on Ras Kass’s “Godz in the Hood.” How did that come about?
MK: He wanted me to talk on it. Like, “Hi, this is MK Asante. You are now listening to Godz in the Hood. Stay black yall.” But my homeboy Dwight Watkins knew I had been writing rhymes around that time. He was like, “you going to spit on that joint, right?” I told him no, he asked me to just talk on it. Dwight was like, “but you going to spit on that joint, right?” And I was like, “yeah, I am! I am going to spit on it!” This is my opportunity. I can be rapping on the song. I wanted to smack myself for not thinking of that first. That’s how you’re supposed to look at life. Life is too short to not be taking risks. If you feel like you should rap on it, do it. Don’t be scared, don’t be hesitant. We’re all human. Everyone is the same. Yes, some people might be “celebrities”, but they’re regular people. They get nervous, they get scared, they’re not good at everything. You really have to have a mentality of “go for it, try it.” What’s the worst that can happen? They don’t like it. “Dog, we really just wanted you to talk on it?”
The Spokesman: Are you working on your solo music debut yet?
MK: I’m just working on getting better as an MC right now? I’m taking my time. Art is very serious to me. I’m not in a rush. Music is something I love. Right now, I’m listening. I’ve been trying to think about my sound. I listen to a lot of world music, things that are different, that you don’t usually hear. Even the samples that I would use, would just be different. The whole arrangement. I’m not a 19 year old kid that wants to buy gold chains. I have a very different reality. What I choose to do musically is going to be very important spiritually for me. I’m not making music for the radio, the clubs, the parking lot. I’ve been thinking a lot about my purpose as an MC and an artist. And being successful in other areas gives me a freedom. It means I don’t have to write something to get on the radio because I need to pay my rent. And I’m not dissing those people. It’s their craft, and they have to figure out there going to make money at it. They want to support their families, and the record industry rapes them. So they have to figure out ways to generate income. But, that’s not my situation. Mine is to figure out how to make the most inspirational music, the most true to hip-hop. That takes us to a new place, sonically. I don’t want it to sound like a beat and a rap. I want to marry the literary and the cinematic with the music. So you get a whole other thing when you listen to MK. That’s all I’m worried about. Not when’s it coming out, what photo to use for the cover, how to market it. That’ll come later, once I’ve found the artistic soul of the project.
Find out more about MK Asante Jr.:
Godz in the Hood Link
An excerpt from Buck:
I think about this show I saw on the Nature channel the other day about elephants. About how despite weighing up to twenty-five thousand pounds and standing thirteen feet tall, they can still be chained. How? I wondered. It starts when they’re babies. Some asshole puts a metal chain attached to a wooden peg nailed into the ground around the baby elephant’s foot. The baby elephant struggles but fails to break free and learns at that very moment not to struggle, that struggle is useless. Later on, even when the elephant can easily break free, it doesn’t. I look around the jail at all the sad hard gray black faces and see elephants.
-Buck (pg. 213)