In the news world I have learned that every day can turn on a dime. You can be sitting at your desk for one minute then get a breaking news email that will tell you someone will be having a press conference in two hours or that the person you have been wanting to interview for weeks now finally has time tomorrow at six in the evening at his hotel.
The day I met Malik Yusef was yet another example of how this field keeps you on your toes because the interview came as a surprise to my day.
Malik Yusef is first a Chicagoan, then a poet and Grammy Award-winning artist. I first heard about him during junior high school.
I came to understand Malik Yusef as an artist that delivered more than just his playful and recognizable line on “Wouldn’t You Like To Ride,” “Malik Yusef bet your baby momma know the name.” It was when I heard his line, “now the former slaves trade hooks for Grammys” on his feature verse on Kanye West’s “Crack Music,” I knew that I was listening to someone who spoke with conviction.
That particular line talked about the journey through art from slavery to the pinnacle of the music world. But in general it was as Yusef took his life experiences, good and bad, mixed it all up as one would do when cooking crack, and made music. Like the crack that is made from the harshest chemicals and sold to the streets, so are his lyrics that are then sold to the masses. He was an artist who embraced his surroundings to later deliver his observations to the masses in a digestible way.
Before leaving from work Jeff Kelly Lowenstein and I had discussed the possibility of having a sit down interview with Malik Yusef that week, but we didn’t know when that would happen. So for the rest of my week I’d have to adjust to any time Yusef said he would be free.
I had to leave early from work on the afternoon of the interview to drive my mother home to rest after a surgery she had undergone earlier in the day. I arrived at the hospital knowing that for the rest of my day I had to slow down and go at her speed of recovery.
When we were allowed to leave we had started on our way to grab food because my mother had not eaten since the night before. Then while driving, Jeff called me to let me know that Malik Yusef was only available to talk that day in a few hours. My day had to turn on a dime once again.
We had heard that earlier that week Malik Yusef would be meeting with people from Vice President Joe Biden’s camp to discuss gun control. Hearing that Yusef’s insight had been sought out for advice intrigued us. We wanted to understand the mindset Yusef had that made him someone that Biden’s camp wanted to hear out.
We asked Yusef about the solutions he would propose for the gun violence in Chicago’s streets.
What he proposed was inspired by a simple question his son asked when he was seven years old: “What lives in lava?”
“Nothing,” Yusef answered. “Heat destroys everything.”
“Why I really want to be able to get these kids into these safe havens is [so] that they can have a chance to think,” Yusef said. The safe havens he proposed would be a platform outside of that ‘lava’ that sparked his son’s question.
“Kanye always says, ‘As your options increase your ideas will change and increase,’” Yusef said.
Yusef has understood this from his own life and the transition process from being a local artist to someone who has won a Grammy Award.
“It was definitely an evolution and being around people who have more experience than you,” he said.
Yusef wasn’t only speaking about his current peers, but others who offered him experience outside of the Hip-Hop world.
It did not take someone to tell him, “I gangbanged, too” for him to listen and learn.
Rather he surrounded himself with people who extended him an invitation to come with to a fundraiser for the Republican Party. His options increased in that moment. His ideas changed and increased, too.
“Through that, the law of transitivity, I learned by just being in that environment” Yusef said. “I pick up that new information. And that new information is important. And that’s how I got involved in the Republican Party because the people I wanted to do business with were Republicans.”
It was interesting to hear that the man who later went on to collaborate on a song called “Promise Land” with Kanye West and John Legend that would be featured on an album that would be sold to help fundraise for then-presidential nominee Barack Obama would be involved in the Republican Party.
Later Yusef said there was even a time where he liked John McCain, citing because “he voted against the war, his environmental policies were incredible.” But although he supported McCain until the election, he explained that he couldn’t vote for him because of his choice for vice president.
From talking with Malik Yusef, the common phrase that I have heard that you are the people you surround yourself with held much more weight. His ideas and thoughts have grown with the many life experiences he has been fortunate enough to have. Yusef’s hope for the South Side of Chicago and the “South Sides of the world” is that they have “a better landscape, a richer, healthier landscape, to choose things that we consume, information that we consume, people that we can be around.”
At the end of it all, it made sense that I had to adjust at the turn of a dime to meet Malik Yusef. After all, you can’t expect to meet an extraordinary man in ordinary circumstances.