Interview By Misty Sol
It’s a steel skied and rainy evening when I meet Gabriel outside the Philadelphia Printworks studio in North Philly. He gives me a warm hug but I don’t have his full attention yet. He’s on a call. I’m ear hustlin. He’s making arrangements to give a talk to the Black students at Penn State. We both went to that school. We were there at the same time and didn’t know eachother well. Since graduation we’ve connected at the intersection of art and activism. He’s one of those brotha’s that always correct and connected. He ends his call. We sit and I thank him for his time.
You’re probably very busy… I begin…. I wanted talk to you about what you do. I guess activism is the term. Is that the term that you would use?
But I think that it's one of those types of words like democracy or freedom that can mean many things. So I want to start with a definition...It doesn't have to be a dictionary definition. How do you define it?
I think, for me, activism is actualizing one's purpose and passions in a public space and often times against a particular status quo.
Wow! That’s a good definition.
...just off the top of my head
I can't imagine if you had rehearsed it.
I've never been asked that question before...
I originally knew you as a musician.
I kinda want to know if you are still doing that and what role culture plays in activism.
...still doing music. I was in the studio last week. Still have the Soundcloud up. I'm actually working on two projects as we speak, an ep. Putting it out with my good brother Nat Turner Tables....aka Gabe Carion...You know brother Gabe and brother O? You might know brother O...perhaps. They are both djs...
I may know them by face.
They are also both producers. So we are putting together an ep project. Then I'm working on another project... like a solo project... as well, with some other beats. For me, my thing is: I'm not doing it because I'm trying to get on.
I feel like music for me is an outlet. It's therapeutic for me, first of all. Second of all, I know that our music needs a message; needs a balance. Whenever people tell me still, "Yo Gabe I'm still listening to your cd from years ago...”, it still trips me out. It makes me know that I just need to keep doing it, not out of ego or out of chasing anything, purely out of the love and the art of it, and what messages can come out of it. Part of it...at Penn State when I was an undergrad. I majored in journalism…
So that's to say I've always been a writer. My goal when I was in undergrad was to have my own magazine this that and the third. But obviously mags have gone digital. So there's no magazines anymore and everything’s kind of shifted. So I've always been a writer since I was a kid. It's to the point now where lyrics...I can be walking down the street (and I'm sure as an artist you know)... you just get bars... you just get lyrics... things come up ...so you know I'm constantly putting things on my phone...gotta do something with it. I still do my art. I take it seriously. So yeah I love the culture.
I know you do your own art but you’re also really big about bringing artists together around a common message.
Yeah all the time.
I remember one of the last events I came to and did some stuff...
The Sundiata Acoli Event?
Yeah, we did the poetry for Sundiata and that was an opportunity for us to have some serious discussion but in an art way, about what Sundiata can mean for us...You know, for me, bringing together folks is always important, because you have to have that dialogue or else they're all on the gram or they're all on facebook on twitter... social media...and they’re losing that touch, that sanctuary of touch.
Yeah personal interaction...
I really want to build interpersonal ideas around freedom and liberation ...and that really comes through touch and speaking.
That's what you do as an activist you think? We talked about what it [liberation] is...
but how do you manifest that specifically?
I think it's one of the things I do. I like doing that. I think that's an excellent question because my best attribute has been bringing folk together, like minded folks, who feel ostracized based on their politics. Then they realize: wow there's this whole group of people in the city who think like me, dress like me, and want the same things I do. And you know, I'm not alone. And I think that creates community. And I think I've always tried to create community with folks and be a conduit for community to be created.
I want to talk to you specifically about some of the issues you work for because you talked about “one's purpose and passion in a public space.” But, what's the opposition that you mention? I think we all KNOW what it is but... like how do you name it, what we're up against? What's going on?
It's funny I just left my job where we were having that conversation.
Well where do you work?
I do behavioral health work. I'm doing two initiatives right now. One's called Engaging Males of Color (EMOC) and the other is Youth Move Philadelphia. So on one end, I'm trying to increase access and awareness of behavioral health services for men and boys of color, throughout the entire city of Philadelphia. On the other end, working with my young people,14-26, to get them to be peer educators and peer trainers, to reduce stigma amongst youth, of people who have health issues or behavioral health issues. And [at work] we were talking about just the way manhood has been so distorted and totally warped. And it kinda made me think, based on your question, of this concept: a man can't really be a man anymore because a man doesn't know what a man is...
Do you mean men across the board...or?
Across the board. But certainly black men. Certainly men of color for sure. I'm talking about even my brown brothers, you know what I mean, latino men who are here and get codified, boxed in, and compartmentalized into spaces that are really not for them. But we say “corner boys”. A man is not a corner boy; he's more than that. He's not just sitting at the corner of 9th and Dauphin. He's more beneath the surface. And you have to peel back those layers to get to it. We are up against white supremacy. No question. We are up against norms that are alien to us which is why we always tend to as the old heads say "act outside of ourselves".
Can you give me an example?
Well sure just look at a parent or guardian who chooses to not provide the best possible sanctuary for their child, not based on need or [lack of] resources but just based on bad decisions...you know “I'm going to Trilogy ‘til four in the morning while the baby's locked in the car seat, sitting on the living room couch”...Things that I have to deal with on my job.
Exactly. Those are the things where it's like: wait a minute. I'm talking about these behaviors of men who are totally being irresponsible about ambition, drive, grit, not figuring out what they want to do. And it's a conditioned response of course, don't get it twisted, but it's still something we need to approach and figure out how to get ourselves out of. We always say: crabs in a barrel, you can't get anybody out of it. Well one thing I’ve been saying recently is that well the barrel isn't the original habitat for a crab. And if you understand that reality then, you understand the condition of Black people in America. We should be out in the ocean. We should be out doing our thing in our natural habitat and when we're not like that...you can't blame a crab for trying to claw or do whatever he's trying to do to get the hell out of there.
I guess that metaphor makes me think: what does outside of the barrel look like? Do you mean leaving America?...
I think it's much more spiritual. I always think of the movie Sankofa when Shango was like-
I think Lola wanted to leave "we need to leave the plantation" and he says "where you wan go? Where you wan go? You just gotta fight. Where you wan go?”.
You see what I'm saying? Shout out to Mutabaruka who was playing that character. But, I think what he was saying was:
Maybe we could go to Israel where the black people are fighting off mass racism.
Maybe we can go to South Africa where they are fighting off mass genocide.
Maybe we can go to the Middle East where they are fighting off mass genocide (the so called Middle East).
Maybe we can go to France where there's uprising every other year by the youth .
His point was: We going to have to fight everywhere. For me it's less about the physical space right now anyway. It'll probably come to that at a certain point but right now it's mental. It’s about returning to a space of personal and communal liberation, and what that means for me is I'm doing things that make me happy. Not in a anti-structured way but that's like yo: I'm returning into a culture that defines my ancestry and my lineage. You know, I think there's power in that there.
Right now we are in this barrel and all of our norms are just all out of whack. Get up. Wake up. Have a dream go to college. Work for somebody else. Work for them for 40 years. Retire. That's why those ideas are becoming null and void. Young people, even innately, are saying ”you know what that's not quite what I want to do”.
They are even seeing on a subconscious level that it's not feeding the soul. That process is not feeding your spirit, which is why you see more entrepreneurs. You see more parents and guardians looking to alternate methods of teaching and learning because they are realizing that you have some folks who are kinesthetic [learners], some folks who are more visual, and not everybody's going to be able to learn the same way. And for some cyber school is better or homeschool is better. You see it's on the rise. The same thing that MOVE was doing 30 years ago.
That's crazy. It's definitely got to do with skin color. Gentrification...one of the ugliest things about it is that a lot of the so called services they bring to our communities, we provided organically, by ourselves and for ourselves. These compost toilets, urban gardening, and off grid...that's what we got bombed for.
That's what we got bombed for.
If it hadn't been for MOVE I couldn't let my kids walk around with their hair all over the place.
MOVE set the standard for urban gardening, homeschooling, homesteading...
all that man...they were even anti zoos...
They were so next.
Before PETA was even doing their thing. I mean this was ...for real for real, they got bombed in 85’ but they had been doing it since the early 70’s
Could we even have these locks and walk in mainstream Philadelphia without being attacked if it weren't for MOVE?
Nah. So it just goes to show you that they wanted to return to the source. It wasn't physical. They didn't say were all going back to Africa on a plane. No. They were saying Africa is here. Taking on the name Africa, everyone taking on that name meant, in a spiritual sense, wherever we operate (as far as space and land), we are going to make that our liberatory space.
This is kinda obtuse but just why? Why you?...Like why do you...
Do what I do?
It's funny. I've been trying to get at that question for a looong time so I'll say it this way:
My parents were involved in the movement. My dad has some affiliations with the black panther party and the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). My mom through my dad got involved as well.... something I didn't realize til later. I think some of the turning points include for one, growing up hella impoverished. My parents worked but they got caught in the bubble of parents and guardians for whom the projects used to be good, but then... crack hit. Then the project that used to be good went downhill in a matter of months. The next thing you know it's like crazy, which is what my parents always said happened and I remember myself growing up. Guns everywhere, shootouts every night, sex workers on the steps and the rooftop. All types of stuff a child shouldn't see. And I think a lot of that made me say there's gotta be something better or bigger than this. This is not natural.
I remember seeing Malcolm X the movie (shout out to Spike). I went with my best friend at the time, my man Dorian Parker, and his mom (shout out to Miss Parker) and it changed my life. It blew my mind. I was 13 years old. I went home and I immediately read the book. We had a tattered copy which may or may not have been liberated from my brother's high school… (laughter)
It was where it needed to be...
I'm just saying...it was where it needed to be. And it just blew my mind. But, even then I wasn't all the way all the way in. I was still you could kinda say a jock. But also, I was in the Black Organization for Student Strength...going to meetings. I think in college was really when things started to hit the fan for me...
Yeah Penn State'll do that to you...
Yeah really. That whole situation. The climate of madness that was around during those years from 99-02. It changed my life. I think I was on a trajectory to be somebody else. Had those things not happened, had I gone to another college, my life would be a lot different. I may not be in Philly.
...like if you had gone to an HBCU?
Oh yeah...definitely. I may not be doing the work I'm doing. But, I think my destiny was to be there, have those experiences and to be able to bring those experiences to my current life. And now here I am 15 years later still continuing to carry on that work. And I think I'm doing what I'm doing because I've seen results. Often times people get out of the work because it feels hopeless. They get immobilized by the gravity of the situation. I think sometimes if you stare at a problem too long, you can get stuck. It's the waiting.
That's a positive note. What do you mean by results?
I've seen, being an educator over the years, young people shift the paradigm of how they think about life and how they pursue life. And it's different from what their parents, guardian or society told them to do. I've seen women want to wear their hair a certain way not because society told them to do it but because it worked for them and made sense and it was natural. I'm not saying anything about hair. For them, the power in that, I'm talking about girls now, that's a positive result. I've seen boys shift their views on being hyper sexual, being hyper masculine and hyper violent. Those are the anecdotes we don't hear about in movement work, which we should be talking about more. These are the little anecdotes that carry our families and neighborhoods. On a larger level, I've done work around gentrification and saved homes for elders who didn't know the process of imminent domain, sheriff sale laws or about corporate development coming into a neighborhood and taking their homes. I been a part of movements that have saved peoples’ homes. I've seen those things happen. I've seen, just in the past 6 months, for Mumia Abu Jamal...They put this muzzle law against all prisoners saying that prisoners couldn't write or respond or be in papers. We fought against that tooth and nail for the last 6 months and it was actually reversed in the court literally 3 weeks ago. A senate bill Governor Corbett signed into law in October just because Mumia gave that damn speech commencement speech at Goddard.
...again my alma mater.
They used that as a means to say, “Oh well, because he gave that speech at Goddard, which he is actually an alum of, we can't have prisoners give speeches.” Which is absurd
because it extended then to prisoners who write books. Often our best information about the prisons has come from prisoners. But, again that got squashed.
It's tangible work and we've had tangible victories through it all. And I think that's kinda what keeps us moving. I often say: people can say what they want about the NAACP and there's definitely contradictions. But, the reason they have survived over a 100 years is because they've mastered having small victories. They are small but people can see them. The reason why they keep membership at x level for all these times, whether it's been the youth or other people, is because they focus on small victories. They are not thinking about the grandiose things that some folk who are farther on the left are. They don't see results. Those folks get jaded and move further to the center. They don't see what this freedom is that you are barking about in a bull horn or in a cypher. They don't see it materialized quick enough so they'll say, “Oh, ok. But, they just fought to get more jobs in the union so...I'ma bang with them…” So even in Mumia work we have to think about how we shift our goals and priorities to keep people engaged. I know that I said a lot there.
The other important thing I wanted to ask you is who do you study or who inspires you?
Excellent. I'm gonna be honest. When I came to Philly and started Sankofa Empowerment Philly Chapter I really tried to follow the work of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). And if I'm honest about myself, the individual who should have their own holiday and the individual every young person should know, the individual, who in my opinion, is the most uncredited individual possibly in the history of the human rights struggle is Ella Baker. Ella Baker, who from 1923 or so to 1973, was a part of sooo many organizations. In other words, there's no reason why her name shouldn't be out our people's mouth beside Martin Luther King. How many leaders she made first off. Her job was to make leaders. I always looked at that as an example for my leadership, whatever it is to be. I want to make leaders. I want to make folks understand their own power. This is a power game. This is about power. This is about struggling for power and that tug of war of power. For me Ella Baker is a phenomenal example of, even being older, how you engage young people and do it fiercely. But don't tell them what to do. Just let them do what they need to do and provide them some guidance when necessary. Still hold a hard line but know how to organize and know what organizing means. She always talked about organizing. She'd say strong people don't need strong leaders. Right that was one of her most famous quotes. And so her whole thing was let's just build strong people. I would say Ella Baker without question is one of the individuals and then on some real stuff: Malcolm definitely is somebody who just made it plain he could speak to the phds and the geds and get it right.
His evolution as a man was a brilliant illustration of just allowing yourself to open up to different ideas. He could have easily said "I'm in the Nation of Islam. I'm not trying to do that other Islam…” He could easily have said, “I'm a criminal I don't know what they talking about that crazy stuff in jail…” There were so many moments when he could have just said, “Nah…” But he opened himself up. And those lessons for me, as a man, always help me to keep my [head level]. I don't know everything and just keep pushing for whatever truth is out there.
Ok …[smiles]...I'm inspired. Finally, if people want to get involved in one of the many initiatives you're involved in or people want to help or give back how can they contact you? Where can they go? Is there a website?
Great question. Yeah. Definitely. I'm a part of several organizations. But, primarily, right now,
Sankofa Community Empowerment Sankofa Chapter you can find on Facebook. You can also go to that page and contact me. Leave a message for Gabe. I'll be sure to get back to you.
I also work on the campaign to bring Mumia home, which is important to me as well. Political prisoners. You know we want all of our political prisoners released. We demand that actually. Being in Philly I've always thought that Black folk must take the mental more serious about political prisoners. One thing I was thinking about before when you asked a question.
One brother said, “Well Gabe, I can't really bang with the Mumia campaign.”
I said “Why?”
“Oh uh there's too many white folks in the organization…”
And I'm a tell you even as a person it took who is race first, you know Marcus Garvey… [laughter] you know is for Black people like liberation, it made me sick to my stomach. So what you are telling me is: one, you don't understand allyship but two, what you're saying is you don't understand the art of war, yet. You're willing to let one of our generals, our warriors, our master scholars, our master teachers... you'd rather them suffer and ultimately die and be exploited, than be inconvenienced for a few moments? You see? You'd rather, because you see white folks, as opposed to joining in and maybe figuring out a way to work and maybe bringing more black folk into the organization...which is what we did, myself and several other people in the organization, I remember us speaking to Pam about that, “You know we want to be in this. But, our goal is to bring more black people in and find a way to do that…”
But it just made me...I was so upset. Because there's white people in the room I can't add on? You would rather Mumia sit? Oscar Lopez and Herman Bell and Jalil... just let them continue dying and sitting in jails all day long because you don't want to be around white people? Really? That makes sense to you? When I heard that I had to go into this hour long thing, diatribe, because I was just pissed. It just made me understand we're not ready for war. We're not. Because we keeping talking this b.s. but we're not really serious...anyway www.bringmumiahome.com. You can get more info about Mumia's case and also about other political prisoners that we are supporting as well. I would say those two places are the best....
What about your music?
Oh ...one more organization. I'm also a member of, just started, Philly Coalition for R.E.A.L. Justice. And real stands for racial economic and legal. The Philly Coalition for R.E.A.L. Justice was birthed in the post Ferguson energy of police terrorism and murder of black men, women, and children in this country and abroad. So work is being done in the city to create a change around policing not only in Philly, but, around the world. Music wise you can go to Soundcloud Gabriel Prosser, which is still my name, Gabriel Prosser. Yes I do take our ancestor’s name. And Gabriel Prosser on Bandcamp you'll find it…