Malik Al Nasir’s life has been nothing short of extraordinary. Taken into care as a child then taken under the wing of Gil Scott-Heron as a teen, Al Nasir has taken his life into his own hands and is now a self-published poet and musician. Glyn Akroyd speaks to him about his beginnings and the influence of the incomparable Scott-Heron on his life’s trajectory.
I meet Malik Al Nasir on a sunny Bold Street and ask him if I can get him a coffee. “No, I’m fasting, but you go ahead, fill yer boots,” he grins. Malik’s life is something of a modern-day parable, a rags-to-riches story, where the rags represent a childhood of hardship and the riches an emotional, philosophical and intellectual maturing throughout adulthood. Formerly Mark T. Watson, the son of a Guyanese father and a Welsh mother, Watson suffered a Liverpool childhood of poverty exacerbated by semi-literacy and racial abuse, against which he railed. After his father suffered a stroke, at the age of nine he was labelled a troublemaker and taken into ‘care’. A fourteen-day stint in solitary confinement was his welcome; two weeks, which, he says, are still vividly etched in his mind, as if the bars still covered his windows.
Perhaps little wonder, then, that when his older brother Reynold introduced him to the politically charged, socially conscious poetry of American artists Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets the seeds of salvation were sown; seeds that flowered in 1984 when Gil Scott-Heron played Liverpool’s Royal Court and Malik met his hero backstage, and bore fruit over the coming years after Malik took “about two seconds” to consider Scott-Heron’s invitation to “get on the [tour] bus and come with us” (you can just hear his jazzy delivery of that line). Malik leapt on board and changed his life forever.
Malik is a big, gently spoken man and when I meet him he seems to know exactly what information he wants to impart, but he also takes a spontaneous delight in storytelling. Once on board the tour bus, Malik spent the next few years alternately on tour with Scott-Heron or travelling the world’s shipping lanes as a merchant seaman. “I studied under these guys, I studied everything: the music industry, poetry, politics, civil rights, religion, what was happening in America, what came out of the black arts movement, the Harlem renaissance, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, everything.” If that education laid the foundations for his burgeoning creativity, his seagoing encounters with people and places proved to be a trove of literary treasure. Encouraged by Scott-Heron and The Last Poets (particularly Jalal Nuriddin and Suliman El Hadi), he began to write and initially produced poetry both as a means of convincing himself that he could succeed at university and also as a personal catharsis. Suitably assured, he put the poems to bed and they were only resurrected when close friends and family convinced him of their worth. The poems are littered with references to the casual and institutionalised racism, inequalities and injustices of life in the UK (Freedom Is A Funny Thing, Power) and the more exotic backdrop provided by his life in the “merch” (Bourbon Street, Elena, Mediterranean Sunset, Cartogena).
As he warms to the recounting of his story, I ask Malik about the first time he ever performed his poems live. “I was selling advertising space on The Buzz magazine and they did a live event with bands, and one [member] of Gil’s band, Robbie Gordon, was playing. There was a technical problem and I’d introduced the band, and Robbie said ‘You do poetry, give them a poem’. So I dropped this poem, Power, and the crowd applauded so I dropped four or five while they sorted the tech out.” His self-belief was further boosted following a second impromptu but well-received performance, where he introduced himself with the predictive words, “I’m not a poet, I’m just an ordinary guy who wrote some poetry.”
Having heard the applause, performing was added to his growing portfolio, alongside record producing, publishing and promotion. Indebted to Scott-Heron, Jalal and Suliman El Hadi – who were also responsible for his embracing of Islam – Malik finally published his poems in 2004 in a book titled Ordinary Guy, through his own publishing company Fore-Word Press. A decade or more after they were written, Malik finally brought the poems to light as a dedication to his “literary brothers and mentors.”
Fast-track to 2015 and Malik – still performing with and promoting The Last Poets and performing with his own band, MALIK & THE O.G’S – has released a recorded version of his dedication entitled Rhythms Of The Diaspora – Volumes 1 & 2. The O.G’s, I surmise, stands for ‘Ordinary Guys’, but Malik, not for the last time, refers to the layers of meaning that lie behind his words. “Some people also think it stands for ‘Original Gangsters’: people regard Gil and The Last Poets as OGs. But it’s actually a triple entendre: my father was born in Guyana and Guyanese people are known as Guys, so by heritage, I’m just an ordinary Guy.”
Recorded at Wyclef Jean’s Platinum Studios in New York, the music on Vol. 1 reflects many elements of the African diaspora, from the New Orleans marching-band drumming of Bourbon Street, the reggae lilts of Africa and Cherish The Good Man, the RnB stylings of Fruit Of My Love and the D.C. go-go triplets of Blues.
The original poems were arranged as songs by “adding choruses and bridges”, and are interpreted by a number of guest vocalists, most prominently J.D. Smoothe, whose clean, light tone is reminiscent of Stevie Wonder and Charmaine Radcliffe, who delivers a soulful rendition of the poignant Fruit Of My Love. Gil Scott-Heron himself delivers a typically cool vocal on Black And Blue and there’s a lovely moment when, during the fadeout, after delivering the line “There’s more to being black than feeling blue”, Scott-Heron ad-libs “I really like that”. Using only percussive instruments, all recorded live, the rhythm section of drummer Rod Youngs (Gil Scott-Heron’s Amnesia Express), percussionists Larry McDonald (Amnesia Express) and Marivaldo dos Santos (Wyclef Jean), and marimba player Kenyatte Abdur-Rahman (The Last Poets) are eminently capable of realising the complex and varying structures and rhythms of Malik’s songs.
Vol. 2 sees Malik himself delivering his poetry, with a guest appearance by The Last Poets over a sparse percussive backing from drummer Swiss Chris (John Legend), who masterfully switches styles across the spectrum of the diaspora. All of it is done in the style of early Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron’s formative albums, which allows the alternately fiery and plaintive spoken-word pieces to breathe freely. Despite the anger expressed in many of the poems, it is Malik’s belief that justice lies in the hands of the creator. Passage Of Crime “is about the Judgement Day,” explains Malik. “Nelson Mandela called for no revenge, no retribution; we don’t want to swing the pendulum the other way and become oppressors, we need balance. People are not born to oppress.”
Fittingly, as part of its Music Migrations theme, Liverpool International Music Festival 2015 have commissioned Malik and business partner Richard McGinnis (Chibuku) to produce a tribute to Gil Scott-Heron, entitled The Revolution Will Be Live. The event is one of the cornerstones of LIMF’s Commissions activities this year, and is taking place at St. George’s Hall on 27th August. The same diligence that Malik brought to his selection and execution of the album tracks has been applied to the live show. All the artists performing have a connection to Scott-Heron, either musically or politically: Aswad performed at the Free Nelson Mandela Concert (anti-apartheid being a cause long espoused by Gil Scott-Heron); Craig Charles devoted a whole BBC 6Music Funk And Soul Show to Scott-Heron after his death; The Christians covered Scott-Heron’s The Bottle; Sophia Ben-Yousef’s song Carry On soundtracked the Libyan revolution; and headliner Talib Kweli is an artist who, Malik says, “has remained true to the conscious roots of hip hop” – which neatly brings things full circle and back to Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets’ origins as socio-political protesters. Scott-Heron’s son, Rumal Rackley, and Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Ndaba, will be in attendance at the event as guests of honour.
And then there is Malik’s own band, the O.G’s, which feature Rod Youngs and members of the acclaimed Jazz Warriors. “This is a coming out for us,” states Malik. “I’ve left it late, I’ve learnt from the masters. I don’t want to be ripped off like The Last Poets, fighting legal battles against the record companies like Gil Scott-Heron. I’ve set up and run my own record company, my own publishing company; I write and produce my own material; I do my own PR; I can maintain control and not get ripped off by the shysters who have permeated the music industry since its inception. I attribute the ability to do all that to the guidance of Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets. We’ve had a phenomenal response to the idea of the concert, to its credibility as a tribute to Gil.”
I ask Malik if he’s still writing poetry. “Yeh, I’ve got loads.” He picks up his phone, says “Here’s one, still a work in progress, no title,” and, leaning closer to my recorder, delivers a beautifully lyrical performance, another verse in the extraordinary life of an ordinary guy.
“It’s like we’re living in the Matrix,
knowing of the truth,
not an option for society.
In the Matrix,
politicians manufacturing conclusions,
media moguls’ propagation of illusions,
there’s no escape – lost in the confusion.
In the Matrix,
invasion of your mind,
configuring your thoughts,
to render you as blind,
to the Matrix,
don’t even know you’re there,
you think you’re in control,
while you’re trapped in your armchair.
They tell you what to think.
They show you what to do.
Rewards if you buy in,
if not they’ll punish you.
They choose you by your race,
transfiguring your mind.
They tell you who to hate,
while bankers rob you blind.
In the Matrix,
they’re still searching for the one,
hoping he’ll appear,
so that they can go home,
from the Matrix,
manufacturing a dream,
where ignorance is bliss
and power is extreme!
(copyright: Malik Malik Al-Nasir, 2015 all rights reserved)
Rhythms Of The Diaspora – Volumes 1 And 2 is out now on iTunes and on Mentis Records.