Written by Barb Powell
In a world of complexities, M.K. Asante sees and says it succinctly.
"If you make an observation, you have an obligation."
A best-selling author and an award-winning filmmaker, Asante added spark to an already-fired-up gathering of 2,500 at the opening ceremony of the United Church of Christ’s National Youth Event, July 10 in the Elliott Hall of Music at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
"I felt obliged to tell people what hip-hop really is," said Asante, referring to his latest literary success, It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop. "The book was written with a generation in mind that sees beyond mainstream rap and is building momentum to change not only the face of pop culture, but our way of life."
Walking the length of the stage and back throughout his 20-minute address –– as if symbolic of the pent-up anger and energy that once plagued him –– Asante shared that he had been kicked out of several schools before ending up at an alternative school.
"I thought, 'I better make it here or else.'" Then a teacher at the school posed him a life-changing challenge –– a writing assignment. Asante stared at the blank pages before him, not wanting any part of it.
"She said, 'OK, so write whatever you want –– anything.' So I wrote a bunch of curse words and showed her. "She said, 'Good, keep going.' I thought she was nuts."
Asante kept going. Those pages proved to be the catalyst for blasting through barriers of personal pain and family despair. The more he wrote, the more the barriers collapsed.
"As I look out among you tonight, I see a lot of blank pages," Asante challenged the engaging audience. "Write whatever you want. You can do anything you want to do, be anything you want to be."
Asante then relayed a powerful experience he once had visiting a man named Jordan in prison. "I noticed the bed in the cell had been rolled away, so I asked him what he slept on. He said, 'The floor. I sleep on the floor, I sleep against the wall, I sleep on the steel frame. Anything, but not the bed.'"
Then, Asante said, an intensity permeated Jordan’s face. "I don't sleep on that bed because I can't trust comfort in a place like this. Comfort in a place like this numbs me to the reality of where I am and why."
Asante said he took home two messages from that conversation.
"On the one hand, it told me never to be content, never be satisfied, always keep your eyes on what’s going on around you," he said. "On the other hand, as a writer and a filmmaker, the purpose of art is to snatch that mattress from underneath our slumbering selves."
W. Mark Clark, the UCC's associate general minister, welcomed NYE participants and invited them to join him and the rest of the UCC's national officers this week via twitter. "Send me a tweet at #UCCMark," he said.
The 15-member Tribe of Judah Anointed Reggae Band and Show opened the gathering with an array of songs of inspirational spiritual revelations, and hip-hop minister J.Kwest performed twice, including a service-ending rendition of "Crazy in the Streets," decrying escalating street violence and loss of young life throughout the country.
As the crowd began to exit, a young man, surrounded by friends and passers-by alike, knelt in the corner of a stairwell. He wept openly, overcome by the memories of a friend recently lost to gun violence. The message hit home.