This Is America
Until Freedom host a politically charged and much-needed conversation with this year’s Freshmen.
Interview: Bianca Torres
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
This year’s COVID-19 pandemic might have kept people in their homes for March, April and May, but racial injustice helped get them back outside. On May 25, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died while being arrested by the Minneapolis police. The following day, brutal security footage was released, showing a White officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck while three other officers watched or assisted in holding him down. This occurred for over eight minutes before Floyd died. The officers have since been arrested.
In the months leading up to Floyd’s death, the public saw video of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old unarmed Black man, gunned down while jogging through his Glynn County, Ga. neighborhood. A White ex-police officer and his son were arrested for Arbery’s murder two-and-a-half months after it happened. And, a 26-year-old EMT from Louisville, Ky. named Breonna Taylor was shot and killed in her own home after police acquired a “no-knock” warrant, broke down her door and raided her house while she was sleeping. Breonna was shot at least eight times. As of press time, no arrests have been made despite much public outcry.
On May 26, people who were enraged and disgusted at the murders of Floyd, Arbery, Taylor and the many other past (often Black and Brown) victims of police violence, headed outside to demonstrate. Wearing masks, chanting and holding signs, residents of over 2,000 nationwide cities and 40 countries took to the streets in droves to support the Black Lives Matter movement. The demonstrations raged on for over six weeks with polls estimating that as many as 15 to 26 million people united to show solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement, making it the biggest protest in U.S. history.
Some of the demonstrators that hit the streets were rappers. Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Kanye West, Lil Baby, Lil Yachty, T.I., Wale, Trae Tha Truth, Bun B, YBN Cordae, YG, Machine Gun Kelly, Casanova, Swae Lee, Bow Wow, Vic Mensa, Ludacris, Sadat X and 2020 XXL Freshmen Chika, Lil Tjay, Mulatto, Jack Harlow, NLE Choppa, 24kGoldn, Fivio Foreign plus more all joined the protests. One group that hip-hop artists have reached out to for guidance and alignment during these times is Until Freedom, a social justice organization that has been protesting around the country—occasionally with rappers. Formed in 2019 to strive against systemic racism and racial injustice, Until Freedom was founded by Tamika D. Mallory, a well-known face and voice in the fight for civil rights and social justice. Other founders include activist Linda Sarsour, activist-lawyer Angelo Pinto and rapper-activist Mysonne Linen.
With their connection to hip-hop running deep, XXL invited Until Freedom to come and talk to the 2020 Freshman Class about their feelings on the political climate in today’s society, how the injustices seen on the news every day has affected their lives and their personal experiences with racism. The Freshmen were open, eager, honest and offered spirited conversations. The videos and more can be watched at XXLMag.com.
Here, the Until Freedom founders discuss their thoughts on what the Freshmen had to say and hip-hop’s involvement in the movement. No justice, no peace.
XXL: When was Until Freedom formed?
Tamika: Until Freedom is a year old—the organization. But the leaders of the organization are longtime activists, leaders, organizers and strategists. When I talk about Until Freedom, I like to say that it’s a social justice organization that works to fight for the disenfranchised. I think the most important principle that we live by is that people who are most impacted need to be at the center of all the solution-making strategies.
How did the actual name Until Freedom come about?
Mysonne: That’s how long we gon’ fight. Until freedom is acquired. When I sat and thought about what we embody, when I look at my team, when I look at Tamika’s 20-plus-year history of fighting, Linda’s 20-plus-year history of activism and organizing. Angelo’s extensive career, and being on the frontlines and fighting through law. Me, being a rapper who morphed into an activist. We represent every segment of our community. We represent those who are disenfranchised. We represent males. We represent women. We represent everything. We represent the culture of hip-hop because what you see right now, hip-hop is our culture. How do we figure out how to make hip-hop something that stands for civil rights?
You guys said in the interviews with the Freshmen that rappers have been reaching out to you guys during these times. Can you talk a little about that?
Mysonne: They did. We met with several rappers. A lot of them really wanna do something. We just finished hearing a lot of artists are feeling like they need to utilize their voices. We sat down with them and we came up with something called Artists For Freedom. We want to utilize their voices and their platforms and we put out a justice call. When there’s things that need to be done, we put out a justice call and those artists have pledged to uplift those voices and do certain things. Snoop [Dogg] reached out to me and said, “I wanna be on the board of your organization. I wanna raise funds for this organization. I wanna do whatever’s necessary.” And he did. He put his money where his mouth is and he’s been right there ever since.
There’s a lot of other artists. Rapsody has been right here with us, daily supporting us. T.I.’s been supporting us. There are a lot of different artists. Trae Tha Truth has been right there with me, hand-in-hand. There’s so many different artists who want to do something in this moment and they see themselves in Until Freedom.
Linda: I think there’s a lot of fear amongst artists when it comes to cancel culture. They want to participate, but they don’t want to say the wrong thing. They don’t want to undermine the community. They don’t want to undermine the message of the movement. The idea of the partnership between the artists and Until Freedom is that we give you the content. We help you through your political education, so that you actually understand what the asks are of the people on the ground, and use your platform to uplift those demands. So, it’s not artists that are speaking on behalf of the people, they are just carrying the message of the people. I think that a lot of the artists have recognized that Until Freedom is a place where we can get the right information. These are trusted activists who have been doing the work for a long time, and that we could not only protect ourselves from doing or saying the wrong thing, but we can in fact have concise, accurate information that can uplift the people.
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A lot of rappers come from the communities that have been or are oppressed. People are really speaking out now and we are seeing more rappers be a part of that. Why do you think that is happening now?
Angelo: I think we’re in a moment where everyone is being forced to take a closer look at themselves. It’s almost mandatory that you have something to say about the moment that we are all experiencing. So many things have stopped: sports, concerts and many of the things in which folks are entertained have stopped, so the distractions have stopped. The world is saying, “Listen. Black people are dying at the hands of police every day. Frequently. And, we haven’t shifted this at all. So, where do you stand? Because we want something to be done and be done quick.”
It’s a part of kitchen conversation. Every house in America, probably every platform, every institution in America is talking about the role that’s shifting in police resources to the community, defunding the police, going after cops that kill Black folks. It’s becoming a normal part of the narrative of America and globally and that’s a huge shift that can begin to shift the landscape of America.
Tamika: I think right now, being as Black as you wanna be is cool, right? It’s a Blackity, Black, Black, Black moment. So, folks who are generally afraid to speak out, they find shelter in the fact that everyone’s talking about the same thing. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a trend so people are on the wave. Will it last? I don’t know, but I know that oppression is not going anywhere anytime soon. I think it’s powerful…because every household is talking about it, but everyone is not having the same conversation. Until Freedom’s job is to help people reimagine what public safety looks like.
How do you think hip-hop can play a role in the growing movement that is going on now? What can they do?
Tamika: A big part of our strategy is to ensure that hip-hop…we are hip-hop heads. That’s our generation. That’s our era. That’s our music. That’s our soundtrack for life. If we feel it, we know that most of the folks that we’re trying to reach, they feel it, too. And, hip-hop has a way of transcending age and race and so, I think it’s the universal language that brings everyone and everything together. Which is why we rely so heavily on Rapsody being a very conscious artist to support. When I say conscious artist, I don’t mean that all her lyrics are conscious. I just mean she’s very aware of her role and we lean heavily on her, and Trae Tha Truth, and others, T.I., to be a part of the support system around Until Freedom.
Mysonne: I come from hip-hop. Being in this game for over 20 years, that’s where my basis is. I realize that my message, being on BET’s cypher, giving the message that resonated with so many different people. Doing Funkmaster Flex’s [freestyle]. I always tried to utilize those platforms and hip-hop to galvanize a message that these kids will get, you know? Hip-hop is the voice of this culture. We have every intention of making sure we are aware of that. That we grab onto artists that I feel are giving that message. Or we grab and give tutelage to artists like… Calboy. You see they have what it takes to…
Common said, “[It takes] the wisdom of the elders and [young people’s] energy.” And, they have an energy that a lot of us been fighting so long, we need their energy to fight. We don’t wanna change the hip-hop artists. We would rather them not call women “bitches,” that would be something… If that’s what you do and you save 100 lives, then we gotta figure out how to balance, you know what I’m saying?
Tamika: I’ma figure out how to get you to stop calling women “bitches.” But, I wouldn’t exclude you from being a part of the movement just because you’ve done and said things that we don’t agree with. Folks don’t agree with us about everything. We have ideas, ideology that’s not always popular, so, you know, we live in a world where no one is gonna agree all the time on all things. And, I think that’s one of the pitfalls of the movement is trying to get everyone to fit into a box. It just doesn’t work. The box has to be expanded and in fact, I think the walls of the box have been torn down so that every single person can see it, feel it and get in.
The Freshmen had a lot to say during the discussion you guys hosted. It just shows that they care about this conversation.
Tamika: They’re at the heart of our strategy. We feel like if we don’t have young people around, we’re doing something really, really wrong. Today’s conversation was special for me because I already know what’s in them. I think we are in a time where clearly these young people who are here with us today, they are passionate because it’s an eminent threat. We in the state of emergency and they know it. They see it. So, of course they have a lot more to say. Because it’s not the same old mundane conversations. Who has the best cars? What’s your personal goal in life? That’s a cool question, but shit, I hope I live.
Mysonne: We set the fire. They lit a fire in us and we set a fire in them. I think that’s what it takes. Like [Tupac Shakur] said, “[I’m] not [sayin’ I’ma] change the world, but [I guarantee I will] spark the [brain] that [will change the world].” And, you know, hopefully…they already seemed in-tune. When I walked in here, Fivio [Foreign] was like, “Yo, I’ma get with you. I got my organization.” You wouldn’t think that listening to his music. A lot of these kids are in-tune. They talk about what they live. They talk about what’s going on in their communities, but a lot of them care about what’s going on. They care about real sensitive issues. We just bring it out. We have to let them know that it’s cool to have these conversations. People are transforming what cool is. It’s cool to be conscious. It’s cool to care about what’s going on in your community. It’s cool to speak up.
“Just to say an example, when I was 12, I was already like, a felon. Basically, before I was 16, I kept on getting locked up. Not to say I wasn’t doing my own fair share of negative things, but a lot of the things I used to get locked up for shit I ain’t even have nothing to do with. But it came with it. I can’t play innocent ’cause I was doing my own thing, but it’s just to say, Damn, what if I wasn’t ready to accept that? What if I was just somebody who wasn’t even in that life ’cause I dead-ass got sentenced for a robbery charge and I ain’t even do nothing.”
“They’re doing it on purpose, though. That’s the whole thing. The reason that Black kids are criminalized from the beginning is because they know that with giving these kinds of harsh punishments, when you move on in society, it doesn’t matter what level you reach, certain rights are taken away. Not even just stigma, literally voting, if you’re a fuckin’ felon…everything about the shit is systemic. It’s supposed to work that way. It’s not just, Oh, we wanna criminalize these kids ’cause they’re Black. Fuck that. It goes into every other facet of your life, even into adulthood.”
“I ain’t never met [a cop] who ain’t racist. Even one who try to act like he cool and down. Just for you to even come at me about that, that make me look, you know what I’m saying? You singling me out. I never really understood what it was until I got older. I thought running from the police was regular. Shit, it’s a cycle. Getting caught, slammed on your shit. I thought that was normal.”
“I feel like there be a lot of controlling going on with the media and shit we be seeing because it’s just funny to me. I feel like a muthafucka sent an email to all these big companies and said, ‘Make sure you all show some love to all the African-Americans and say something about Black Lives’… out of nowhere. Netflix. Everybody wants to say something. Some people be like, ‘He ungrateful ’cause if they wasn’t saying it,’ shit…”
“I feel like the police protect and serve everybody else, but for a lot of officers or a lot of police departments in general, it just feels like there’s open season on Black people. My experiences with the police when I’m with my Black friends versus when I’m with my White friends is completely different. Completely different.”
“A lot of times being biracial and being around my White family, I have to educate them so it’s a sensitive subject ’cause how do I teach somebody that don’t know nothing about that? How do I teach somebody Chinese when they never even heard of China? They don’t know, they don’t know. So, it’s like educating them in a light that they can understand it without having experienced it. It’s hard.”
"I feel like, not all cops is bad cops, feel me? The ones that's good, they fuckin’ up because they not like [telling] they friends, or they coworkers or whatever, 'Ya buggin‘, you wylin'" or whatever. Or they not making them feel like they buggin'."They probably are accepting it, you feel me?”
“Honestly, I think we could have protests and boycotts go [for] long if we had a little more structure. Even though everybody is feeling the same way, ain’t nobody listening to the leader. Who is the leader?… I just think people tend to follow suit… It is up to us, people like us to like start that. I’m actually thinking about it as we sitting right here ’cause I know a lot of shorties that’s like, ‘Who do we look up to? Who the leader of us? Who gon’ teach us?’ They don’t respect no OGs, no big homies, no none of that. So, who gon’ teach them? It’s gotta be entertainers and all ’em.”
“I feel like it’s my responsibility as a rapper, like we’ve been saying, knowing that it’s so many people listening to you or following up behind you, just to make some type of change in the world. If you a voice or you a big-time rapper, even if you known on a smaller scale and you just local, you still got people looking up to you or really paying attention to what it is you gotta say. I feel like messages in music, making sure you the influence towards change in music ’cause it can’t just be all about the good side of life or the flashy parts of life. You gotta really be saying something.”
“I grew up surrounded by Black people and they would tell me about their experience. But being a White person, like, there’s no way I can ever truly feel it. I can know it’s there, but I can never truly know what it’s like and know how real it is. I think that’s given me a certain responsibility because there’s a lot of White people out here that I feel like deny the reality of it. Deny what Black people experience. So, if anything, I try to listen more than speak ’cause my opinion only holds so much weight. I think I can influence a lot of my White fans, but other than that, I need to understand what’s going on so I just try to absorb.”
“This been happening for like, years and years. It’s just now getting the type of attention that it need, that it deserves, ya feel what I’m sayin’? I’m glad that everything goin’ on, however it goin’ on. That’s how it supposed to go, you know what I’m sayin’? We have a voice, so we should let it be heard.”
Check out more from XXL magazine’s Fall 2020 issue including our 2020 XXL Freshman Class interviews with NLE Choppa, Polo G, Chika, Baby Keem, Mulatto, Jack Harlow, Rod Wave, Lil Tjay, Calboy, Fivio Foreign, Lil Keed and 24kGoldn, a Hip-Hop Junkie conversation with Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, read one of Pop Smoke's final interviews, the making of Young Jeezy's classic album, Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101 and find out what's going on with T.I.'s upcoming album and movie roles.
See the 2020 XXL Freshman Class