We asked RZA, hip-hop icon, to interview Congressional hopeful (and Wu-Tang superfan) Jamaal Bowman. The resulting FRONTPAGE feature is a riveting discourse on how we save America in this dire moment.
Jamaal Bowman’s story dares you to feel hope for our political future. Following the playbook of fellow NYC-raised progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, his landmark primary win against a 16-term centrist Democrat incumbent in New York’s 16th congressional district was a major victory for progressives. A teacher and school administrator who has dedicated his career to education reform, he is truly one of the city’s finest.
Appearing on the ballot for the first time this fateful 2020 US Election Day, we wanted to highlight Bowman for this week’s FRONTPAGE interview. A self-described Democratic Socialist who stresses the crucial role education must play in alleviating the wealth divide and empowering disenfranchised youth, we fully endorse his candidacy and his platforms. We can only hope that this race will be an assured victory lap, hailing as he does from a historically blue district.
Bowman also happens to be a passionate, lifelong fan of the Wu-Tang Clan, evidenced most brilliantly in his stellar choice of mask-wear during the pandemic. So, ahead of the election, we enlisted another one of New York’s finest — the one, the only, the RZA — to meet with the aspiring Congressman and discuss what we can expect if he’s sent to Washington this January.
In a lively conversation, Bowman and his hip-hop idol dissect our devastating moment of federal failure and the realpolitik solutions and policies still left at our disposal.
RZA: First of all, congratulations — I just wanna let you know that the Black community, and the New York community overall, are proud of you, Mr. Bowman.
BOWMAN: Well listen, man, that means a lot, coming from you. I was in high school when 36 Chambers came out and it felt like a shift in the universe. I started my hip-hop journey with KRS-One, Criminal Minded. I remember B and Rakim, Paid in Full. You know, Roads to the Riches, Kool G Rap. Big Daddy Kane, all a’ that. And that, that was my foundation. So, so, so much respect for that. When did you discover your creativity?
RZA: Creativity comes from having an imagination, right? I learned how to read when I was young, so it could’ve started from my uncle Hollis and the Dr. Seuss nursery rhymes, as well as Greek mythology and Bible stories. But around ’76 or ’77, one of those summers, I heard hip-hop, and it was my calling. By the age of nine, I wrote my first song. At the time, my cousin GZA was going by the name of Gangster G, and he had a lyric that he would say, and I would copy that over and over until I sat down and wrote my first lyric, about a girl. I guess I was too young to do that, but I did it. For most of us in an artistic mind, creativity does start young. And if you get a chance to nurture it, or you find the proper outlet from it, it can multiply you. And for me, hip-hop was that outlet. Once I heard hip-hop, I never stopped. Never stopped loving it. Never stopped trying to be a part of it. Never stopped wanting to create it. Because I always wanted to be a part of that culture.
BOWMAN: It’s interesting how you say the foundation was rooted in literacy. You say you learned to read very young, which unlocked your imagination, which then unleashed your creativity, and hip-hop became a vehicle for that. And now you’re doing a million and one different things. It’s funny — I was in education for 20 years before running for Congress. I’ve been trying to pound the pavement on early childhood literacy for our communities. It’s something we haven’t focused on over the last 20 years, or longer. Many kids enter kindergarten behind the eight ball because we didn’t nurture their literacy ability. Can you describe what Staten Island – Park Hills, Stapleton – was like as a kid?
RZA: Staten Island was one of those places a lot of families from other boroughs migrated to. Very few of the Wu-Tang were actually born there; most of us migrated. The Black community at the time couldn’t have been more than 30,000-40,000 people, but it was all concentrated between a few neighborhoods. It was an economically depressed area. As more families moved in, and as crack became the street hustle, the violence, drugs, and all of the oppression and depression started to sneak in. The racism was immense. It was strictly separated, to the point where you couldn’t go past a certain street without coming across baseball bats. It was the same for the white community; they would come to our neighborhood for drugs and get robbed. Then, of course, there was the police. So it became a microcosm of the dirt and danger of New York; it was a forgotten borough.
It cleaned up once we got to Giuliani, but our community was still left behind economically and educationally. We had maybe two schools — I went to one which gave me a chance to be integrated. Some of my best friends were white kids with Ataris; [when] I would spend the night at their house, it gave me a different insight and allowed me to build a better sense of communication.
BOWMAN: How would you describe yourself as a student in middle and high school? What sort of kid was navigating these spaces?
RZA: I was a good student, in a sense. A smart kid, you know? By the time I was in the sixth grade, I had a 12.9 reading and math level, which meant I was already ready for high school. A few of my Wu brothers were on that same trajectory. But my problem, Jamaal, was the poverty. By the time I was 20, my family and I had moved 20 times, bouncing from school to school to school, community to community, new set of friends.
I entered high school with a strong level of ambition. I made the honor roll for the first half of the semester, I became the guy that was writing for the school paper. All my friends would call me Mr. Logic, because I would answer all their problems and write all these songs and all these love letters for my friends. Like, I’d write the love letter so somebody could give it to a girl.
But by the time I get towards the end of that year, marijuana is introduced. Sex is introduced. And my interest in school was gone. If you go into our communities and see the high school drop-out ratio, you realize you have to keep the attention of a student. You gotta keep them engaged. You gotta keep them imaginative. You gotta keep challenging them. Once they lose the challenge, they gonna look for any outside source for that stimulation.
BOWMAN: So, basically, you’re saying as a child, you were a genius! The RZA was a genius! I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that headline anywhere, we gotta put it out! I wanna say that out loud brother, because so often there’s this depiction — of you, of Black people, of Black men from the hood, of hip-hop — as being ignorant, incompetent, and having a low IQ, when the reality is the exact opposite. And in many cases, even if a child doesn’t do well on the standardized test, if you give them another medium to express themselves, they’ll show you they operate at a genius level using that other medium.
You make me feel good about what we would do in our school. We took a project-based learning approach to our curriculum, where we started with tapping into the creativity of our kids. We had a computer science class, for example, with kids in sixth grade learning Python code. We built a state-of-the-art recording studio where we now have a mix on SoundCloud. Learning about things in isolation gets boring and redundant to a kid, but if they look at it holistically and project-based, they’re able to unleash their full potential. And you, and so many others in our culture, are self-taught, and brilliant through your self-teachings, because you could tap into that potential.
Where do politicians get it wrong? Or, how have politicians failed your community and other communities across the country?
/ Charlie Engman / all clothing DIOR MEN COURTESY OF NORDSTROM MENS STORE NYC
RZA: I’m more of a spiritual than a political guy. But let me try to bring this together with a few mathematics: It’s 300 million people in our country, right? And maybe 50 million is Black, right? And then you got 100 million “other,” and 150 million would be white, right? That means 50 percent of the population is not white. But does everything in American life represent that same number? Could you go to Congress and see 50 percent of the Congressmen being non-white? If you look at the 50 million Blacks, that means one of every six Caucasian brothers should be one of us there.
If we count members of our government proportionately to Blacks, does it add up? That’s a “no.” This is what’s wrong. This country was founded on “no taxation without representation,” okay? So our brothers, we’re paying our taxes, but we’re not being represented. In every country — whether it’s socialist, capitalist, communist, or a monarchy — their power in economics comes from only two places: the land and the people. That means that’s what they “represent.” They don’t generate economics — people generate economics. The problem we have is that all these economies being generated by the people are being inappropriately portioned to those who allow the system to exist.
And as a tax-paying citizen, we’re paying for these services. I’m contributing to the police salary. I’m contributing to the firemen. I’m contributing to the street sweeper, to the guy who paints the white stripes on the turnpike. I’m contributing. And if he makes those stripes crooked, he causes dismay, he causes traffic to go bad, then he should be reprimanded for the bad job he’s doing. And that has to apply to our politicians, to our whole public servant workforce. Politicians are acting without the consideration of their work for the people. They’re acting without the consideration of inclusivity for people, so they can’t understand people. The only way that happens is through proportionate representation.
What got you into politics, Jamaal?
BOWMAN: When you work in education, you also work in the political arena. Education’s very political. To your point, it’s taxpayer money that pays for education to even exist. So it’s political even in that sense. When I started teaching in the South Bronx in 1999, I saw a complete contrast between that environment and the environment in which I grew up. I lived in the East River Projects ’til I was about eight, and then I lived on the Upper East Side before I moved out to Jersey. On the Upper East Side, you got public schools that are really diverse, so I grew up in that environment.
But in the South Bronx, the schools are underfunded. They’re under-resourced. Forty kids in the class, all Black and Latino, mostly immigrant. The community doesn’t really have resources for them to develop, socially and emotionally. I worked in schools like that over the course of my 20-year career as a teacher, a counselor, and a principal. In that environment, you have kids coming with unlimited potential, unbridled energy, but a system that’s failing them by not investing in them. As these kids get older, that’s when the violence and some of the self-destructive behaviors begin to enter into the equation. And I can’t tell you how many students I’ve had in my classes who have lost family members and friends. Students who I’ve lost personally, as well. The prevalence of violence and destruction within communities of concentrated trauma and poverty is directly connected to bad policy in Washington. This is not the result of lazy kids or kids who have some type of genetic defect; this is the failure of a political system.
The tipping point happened in 2017-2018, 34 kids died within the K-12 school system in the Bronx; 17 died via suicide. My doctoral research is on the impact of trauma on all of our communities, but particularly communities of color, and I know that these numbers [are] connected to trauma. We’re a spiritually sick society, and we’re a morally empty nation if we allow this stuff to continue. The short answer is, I’m tired of our communities suffering — children are literally dying. And if I could be part of changing that, I wanna do everything I can to be a part of that.
RZA: What are you excited to bring to Washington? What’s at the top of your policy agenda?
BOWMAN: We are living through the Great Depression, the Spanish Flu, the Civil Rights Movement, and an environmental catastrophe, all at the same time. So I have a lot of areas of focus, but a couple areas really stick out in [my] district in particular. One is housing as a human right. We need 70,000 affordable homes right now. We have 40 percent of the district who are severely rent-burdened, which means they pay more than 30 percent of their salary towards rent. That’s a crisis. That’s tens of thousands of people dealing with housing insecurity.
And like millions across the country, we have tens of thousands of people in this district who deal with economic insecurity because they’re either unemployed or underemployed. One of the things this country needs right now, more than anything, is a federal jobs guarantee, to ensure that anyone who is ready, willing, and able to work is able to receive a job with universal healthcare, with the opportunity to earn sick leave, paid vacation, and family leave. These are some of the things we can do right now against economic inequality.
But if we go further, we have a system where the wealthy — and I mean the truly wealthy — are getting away scot-free with not contributing to it. We have a system where three individuals — we’re talking Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet — own more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the nation. And the one percent of the wealthiest own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Real wages have been stagnant over the last 40 or 50 years, while the cost of everything has gone up. So we have to ensure the wealthy contribute to the system fairly, that Wall Street and large corporations like Amazon pay their fair share in federal taxes. Right now, Amazon pays zero federal taxes.
And right now, the federal minimum wage, brother, is $7.25 an hour. I want to get that up to $25 an hour. If the federal minimum wage increased commensurate with the wealth of the top one percent, the federal minimum wage would be $25 an hour.
RZA: What’s upsetting is that Republicans will make this a partisan issue and argue that some of these ideas are socialist. You identify as a Democratic Socialist, and I want to know how you would describe these ideas. What does socialism even mean to you?
BOWMAN: Here’s the thing: The Republicans and the wealthy are cool with socialism when it works in their favor. When there was a financial crash in 2008 and banks needed to be bailed out, we gave two separate checks of $700 billion to bail them out. They seemed cool with socialism then. When this pandemic hit, and the country needed to save the airline industry and save the cruise ship industry, because they “have a lot of employees,” [or] when we wanted to put a man on the moon, we paid for it, right? It’s not about money — this is about values. Do we care about Black and brown and poor people enough to uplift them and give them the reparations they deserve because we’ve had a system that has historically neglected them?
I don’t know what you would call what I’m talking about, but I know Republicans use the word “socialism” as a talking point to dissuade people from being supportive of it. Yet here they are, using socialist policies when you need bailouts and financial infusion and investment. It’s just not okay when the Democrats wanna support the disenfranchised.
RZA: They’re spending our money how they wanna spend it.
BOWMAN: That’s right.
RZA: If we say we want people to be able to have good housing, proper schools, things like that — if we say we want all that, as a country, shouldn’t we be able to get it? Like, what is stopping us from getting that?
BOWMAN: We want it as a people. We want it as a country, but we’ve been so beaten down by the system that we have lost. We’ve allowed apathy to set in. And I know this feeling, because I used to feel that way myself. I mean, when you look at this country’s history, it can be overwhelming, man. Like, damn. We were slaves, and then you freed us and told us you was gonna give us land? And not only did you not give us land, but you started lynching us? And you gave other people land through the Homestead Act? So, as you expanded out west, you gave a whole bunch of people land that wasn’t us, right?
We have a history of the system cycling new forms of oppression in the form of laws, whether it’s red lining and similar policies, or allowing guns and crack cocaine to enter certain communities. And all of that is… overwhelming. What we’re going through right now is its own sort of healing and awakening. Realizing a power that I have as an individual and sharing that power with my students, with my family and others, to say, “Listen. If you want these things, if we want these things, we gotta organize, strategize, and mobilize, and demand it at every level of government.” From the school board to city council, to county, state, and federal office. We have to do everything we can to re-acquire power for the people, not just a few elites at the top.
RZA: The thing is, it ain’t the building or the system. It’s the people in the building. It’s the people in the system, right? The people who are driving this ship for us are not driving it anywhere we want to go.
BOWMAN: They don’t have our best interest at heart, at all.
RZA: Jamaal, I see this as a test to balance our own selves. Hopefully the people of America realize that we are at a crucible point in our history, one where we can actually elevate ourselves to be the greatest nation in history just by balancing ourselves with each other.
BOWMAN: That’s beautiful brother, and I agree with you 100 percent. This is the opportunity for America to really become a humanitarian leader around the world. Our bellies are full. We’re the wealthiest nation on earth. We have the strongest military. We’ve acquired so much land and so many allies and so many resources, but now, how are we gonna use that power for good? How are we gonna use it to uplift humanity? These are the things we have to figure out right now, and the things we have to stay focused on figuring out moving forward.
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