By Kennedy Mapes
On Tuesday, April 6, Grand Rapids Community College’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion continued its Diversity Lecture Series with guest speaker William Michael Griffin Jr., better known as hip hop legend, Rakim.
Rakim, also referred to as “The God MC,” “The microphone fiend,” or “The R,” is an American rapper and record producer from Long Island, New York, and is also one half of the popular, golden age of hip hop duo Eric B. & Rakim. His work as an MC continues to be recognized as one of the most skilled and influential in history.
Rakim sat down with moderator Bakari Kitwana, 2020 Nasir Jones Hip Hop Fellow, to discuss his music and the influence behind it as well as his critically acclaimed book “Sweat the Technique” co-authored by Kitwana.
The lecture was prefaced with commentary from hip hop fans, scholars, practitioners, and other artists to highlight the impact Rakim had on the industry and on the city of Grand Rapids, and also to introduce him to the audience.
To begin the conversation, Kitwana started to discuss the inspiration behind Rakim’s book, part autobiography and part writing guide, that delves into the creative process of Rakim’s music and aims to show readers how he turns words and concepts into music while also sharing personal experiences and his unique influences.
“I was really trying to capture Rakim’s voice as a sage of hip hop,” said Kitwana. “And what he (Rakim) was wanting to do was to do a book about creativity and his creative process and not so much get consumed in a traditional rap autobiography.”
Before completely delving into the topic of the artist’s memoir, Kitwana directed the conversation toward Rakim’s song “Black Messiah” which is a bonus track for the recently released movie “Judas and the Black Messiah,” an autobiographical film about William O’Neil, an FBI informant who infiltrated the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to gather information on the Chairman, Fred Hampton.
Rakim discussed how he came to be a part of the project and how the song came together. He explained that he got a call from Fred Hampton Jr., asking him to create a song and be a part of the project, but that they needed the song the next day. Rakim expressed that the time constraint was difficult because, with a topic of such substantial importance, he wanted to make sure he did all of the necessary research to fully understand and pay homage to the project.
“The movie hit all angles, so I just wanted to facilitate that and see if I could add to it, and at least tell the story if (somebody) didn’t know.”
Kitwana then went back to the topic of the book as they discussed Rakim’s writings of his wide range of musical influences as well as people who directly influenced him. Rakim said that he owes his broad musical range to his mother, who was always singing every kind of music from jazz to opera, and his father also shared a love for a wide variety of music genres.
After touching on his life growing up, Kitwana directed the discussion towards what it was like for Rakim to try to make it as an MC in a city saturated with hopeful musicians attempting to do the same thing.
Rakim explained that New York City was the epicenter of hip hop.
“Being from Long Island, I always felt like an outsider looking in…” said Rakim, “…But I think that’s what made me hungry.”
Rakim pointed out that one of the key differences between him and the other MCs he grew up around was that he could play the saxophone and appreciate and understand not only all genres of music but everything about musical composition.
“I was the only one listening to jazz, I was the only one who understood different music, time signatures, and all of that. I knew how to read music,” said Rakim. “Knowing that, I used that as like something I got up on y’all.”
Rakim also discussed his spiritual journey and the impact it has had on his creative process. He explained that he owes so much to his Islamic culture. He mentioned that just before he met Eric B., the other half of the famous hip hop duo, he got the book “Knowledge of Self,” a book that delves into the concept of self-discovery. The writing inside of this book pushed Rakim to question his current music.
“I got “Knowledge of Self” and it made me rethink the way I was writing rhymes,” said Rakim, “It made me rethink what I was speaking on, the words I was using. It definitely gave me a deeper understanding of myself, the world, and how things work, and being able to have that foundation, man, it guided me through my career just as it guided me through life.”
The conversation then shifted to the passing of Rakim’s father and the effect that had on him and his career.
Rakim explained that he was on tour and traveling a lot when his father was sick and that he didn’t get to spend much time with him. Once he passed, Rakim said he was bitter and that it affected his career immensely. He didn’t want to even hear hip hop, much less write his own music.
“It took a while for me to accept that, and I had to start realizing how much my pop loved music and how much he admired the fact that I was in music and becoming who I was becoming, and it took a while to get back at it. The passion was gone.”
Rakim explained that a meeting with Paul C., a hip hop pioneer and producer is what got him back in the mix. After listening to an impressive mix Paul C. wanted him to hear, Rakim said he heard his father talking to him, telling him it’s time for him to start again.
“By this time, I know what I gotta do now, man. This brother just woke me back up. made me fall back in love with the process of listening to music, and ideas coming to you, and your brain just taking off, and that excitement.” said Rakim.
The lecture ended with a Q & A from the audience.
If you are interested in viewing this lecture, it is available for viewing on GRCC’s Vimeo page. Click the link here to be redirected.