How do we measure the distance between art and activism? This week’s look at Liverpool’s less ordinary has us dancing to the rhythms of the diaspora, as we chat with Malik Al Nasir – star of LIMF 2015 and the artist and activist who had his life changed following a chance meeting with the legendary Gil Scott-Heron. What’s the word? Roots. By Alan O’Hare.

Gil Scott-Heron had two novels in print before he ever recorded a note of music professionally. It’s an important footnote to Gil’s story that often gets overlooked. But not by his protégé, Malik Al Nasir.

Malik is a Scouser who was saved by Scott-Heron in every way a person can be saved. Born in Liverpool, to a Guyanese father and Welsh mother, the poet/activist/songwriter was heading for a life outside of society until the day fate, and the curiosity of one of the world’s greatest artists, intervened. “I met Gil at the Royal Court in 1984 – I had managed to sneak backstage and shake his hand. I said thank you for the show and turned to leave, when he stopped me and asked about the riots we’d had in Liverpool. I offered to take him on a tour of where the riots had taken place and the next day off we went together. Shortly after that, he asked me to come on tour with his band.” That was the first day of the rest of the 18-year-old’s life – with books, recordings and films all to follow…

Malik had been in the care system since the age of nine and had never really had his rudimentary reading and writing skills developed beyond what he would describe as being “semi-literate”. Scott-Heron changed all that and filled the young Scouser up with righteous words and aspirations. We had a chat with Malik to find out how he continues to work artfully and tirelessly to spread the gospel of Gil…

You’ve just returned from a tour of Canada. How was it?
Fantastic. I had been over in February with The Last Poets founding member, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, and we had visited Ottawa and Toronto for Black History Month. Jalal and I played gigs, presented workshops in communities for kids and did Q&A sessions at screenings of my documentary, ‘Word Up’, which both he and Gil feature in. It all went down so well, that I was asked back in March for a series of workshops about spoken word performances and we also got to play live, too, with the brilliant Rita Carter putting a band together for me.

Sounds busy! Not just gigs and promo, then?
I’m part of a movement of artists as activists and a natural consequence of this is to make yourself as available as possible. That’s why I’m here… because another artist did that for me. So, when you’re in places like Canada – where, in a lot of cities, artists have set-up their own organisations within the community – I relish the opportunity to get involved at grass roots level and connect with people.

Your work, and the way it is presented, is very much part of a tradition, then?
It is. There is a need to connect with people, as my art was borne out of necessity – poetry made me literate and gave me the ability to absorb and understand the things that were going on all around me. The ultimate destination for all of this may well be the stage, but it is something that goes all the way back. The West African griot tradition is the root: passing down information, generation to generation. I had 27 years with Gil and I’ve also been alongside Jalal for 22 years now. I’ve learned about the unique responsibility artists and activists have to their culture – be it musical, academic or historical.

Both Gil and Jalal have been massive influences on your life. What else have they taught you?
To work smart and strategic… and to always be amenable. If someone, somewhere, takes something from your work and tells somebody else, then you have done your job. Helping mankind is the ultimate reward – but there are multiple components that need to be put together for all this to happen.

You’re a great example of an artist who doesn’t need anybody else’s approval to get your work out to the people…
Being on the road for all those years with Gil gave me the capacity to do all of the things you need to get done: I can book gigs, sort record releases, deal with distribution, publish books, make films and demonstrate that they are viable… I look for vehicles to convey messages to others who may not have the access otherwise. You don’t need permission for any of that.

Inspiring words. What was it about Gil Scott-Heron that inspired you so much back when you first met?
Gil would always stop and talk to people. He was extremely accessible and disliked the trappings of fame… so he would always make himself available. But he was an activist first and foremost. His first album was recorded and released to encourage black people in the southern states of America to vote – he had no intentions of becoming an artist and releasing records. At the time, the atmosphere in the south was too hostile towards black activists, so Gil and his friends would book a tour as musicians and make sure they got to speak to the people of the towns during the day and spread the word that way. The band’s performance would just be a cover for the message – they’d really be there to walk around the town and encourage black people to vote and they were prolific in doing so.

It was similar for your other mentor, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, and The Last Poets, too, yes?
The Last Poets started on the basketball courts… and then people began to listen and take notice. Really, these happenings were the prelude to block parties and the rise of what became hip hop. In my film, ‘Word Up’, Jalal talks about this and corrects some of the myths! Don’t forget, Gil was still in college when he first saw The Last Poets, so we all have a lot to thank them for.

Indeed. They certainly have left quite a footprint.
That’s my mission, too, to leave a footprint. These people taught me about roots and how vital it is to get back to what those roots are and were. I’m a spoken word artist and although we emanate from that same root, it’s very different to what hip hop is now. Kendrick Lamar, Common, Michael Franti and Talib Kweli are all artists I admire – they make conscious hip hop. The music industry has been destructive and discredited a lot of the other things the media call hip hop today… the glorified ‘prison industrial complex’. I see the role of artists and activists like me as one of reconfiguration.

You’re doing a great job! Tell us about your latest album as Malik & The O.G.’s…
We dropped the last album around the time of last year’s Liverpool International Music Festival. We worked on a series of events – including ‘Poets Against Apartheid – The Legacy of Gil Scott-Heron’ at the Liverpool International Slavery Museum for UNESCO International Slavery Remembrance Day – culminating in the big St George’s Hall show for LIMF: ‘The Revolution Will Be Live’. That was fantastically well-received and things developed from there. The album is called ‘Rhythms of the Diaspora Vol 1&2’ and features both Gil and Jalal… it’s derived from by book, ‘Ordinary Guy’, which I published myself back in 2004 and dedicated to Gil and The Last Poets. We followed the book with a film, ‘Word Up’, which was the story of the book and the journey my life took to that point. The book tells the story through poetry – this album combines both aspects of my creativity: challenging songs and a spoken word set, too.

We’ve loved what we have heard, especially that night at LIMF… that was special. Do you have any special memories of Gil’s music?
Too many to mention! But the song ‘Cane’, from his ‘Secrets’ album, always provides me with a strong memory… it was the late eighties and Gil had just played a gig at The Jazz Café in London. We had done the clean-up and there was only Gil and I left in the room. He was at the keyboard and asked me about songs, so I mentioned that one. He played it to me, just him and I, and it was so special… it has always evoked thoughts of my mother and father, a white woman with black kids and a man working in the cane fields in Guyana when he was young.

Malik & The O.G.’s
‘Rhythms of the Diaspora Vol 1&2’
Out now on iTunes
Watch the official music video for ‘Africa’

Pic by Peter Chin