Malcolm London, an activist, poet, educator, and rapper from Chicago, isn't asking for permission to be the artist and the man he believes is capable of becoming. On his latest EP, Right Away Series, he's seizing the moment.
“I wanted to give myself permission to be a poet,” London tells me over the phone. “With this project, I feel like I could do something that’s just authentic to me and not too focused on proving anything.”
Comprised of six songs, which are more like emotional labyrinths, the EP nestles into the natural intersection of hip-hop’s musicality and the ethereal beauty of written poetry. A song like “Talking Too Much” operates on a series of skillfully crafted pivots, moving from image to image, to a final destination that was unexpected but the furthest from jarring.
London's 2016 album, OPIA, was a bid to prove to everyone that he could rap with the best of them, but this EP revolves around the harmony of his many avenues of expression. In that same breath, London is no longer chasing a crown or a mountain peak; he is chasing self-love and self-improvement.
“[I’m] always asking, ‘Am I better than I was?’ I think that’s a constant space for artists to be in,” London explains. “You can find comfort in knowing you’re better than you were yesterday, as opposed to knowing that you’re the best out.”
Throughout our interview, London expresses the same sense of freedom that is heard clearly on the final track, “All The Towns People.” A drop more vibrant than the rest of the EP, London explains that the song is meant capture his ideal world: “A world of imagination… a world of hope… a world that constantly says we have permission to dream.”
Malcolm London has finally given himself permission; we should all strive to do the same.
I spoke with Malcolm London about his writing process, how he juggles his many hats as an educator and activist, and his pursuit of musical honesty.
DJBooth: Your delivery is always so measured. How do you maintain composure when rapping about such heavy subjects?
Malcolm London: That comes from being a poet and wanting to translate and really communicate things that are hard to talk about. From a young age, I’ve wanted to formulate words about what racism means, or what sexism means, or what all of these -isms mean. For me, as a rapper, it’s just trying to do the same thing but improve the musicality of it all.
This EP seems to be focused on balance and presentness, per the title Right Away Series.
It came out that way. It started with me wanting to write more poems. I have a lot of friends who are writers and authors, and I’ve been working on a book for a long time. For some reason, books are still intimidating to me. So I wanted to write more poems, so I came up with the title because whatever it was I was writing, I wanted to share it with people. Typically, a series is associated with a book, so I wanted to give that to an EP.
Do you ever struggle to balance rap-writing with poetry?
Oh, all the time. All the time. I definitely have to shout out EB and Timmy V, and Marcus Anthony, who’s on the project, too. They helped me pick out the music. The words are never the hard part, right. Sometimes, to my fault, I’ll write before hearing the music. For me, it’s always hard to find that harmony, but it’s also the fun part.
Does a poem ever become a song and vice versa?
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I felt a lot of that on this project, and that’s kind of why I wanted it to live. I wanted to give myself permission to be a poet. With OPIA [London’s 2016 album], I was really focused on showing everybody that I could rap, and sonically explore a range. With this project, I feel like I could do something that’s just authentic to me and not too focused on proving anything.
There’s a lot of permission-giving here, especially regarding toxic masculinity.
That was actually one of the first joints I wrote, “Just To Be Clear,” and when I wrote that… You know, I’m a poet and I feel like if I can’t translate that world to people who aren’t academics or who aren’t poets, then what am I doing it for? So I wrote that and [London’s production team, BAD CXMPANY] were like, ‘Oh, shit, this resonates. This is dope.’ I felt like they gave me a lot of permission.
How do you give yourself permission?
I just kinda do it! [Laughs] Nah, I think it’s like… Kiara Lanier, she was on OPIA, on “Cigarettes and Coffee,” she also dropped a project last year… One day in the studio, she sang that riff on “Cigarettes and Coffee,” and the last time she did it, her voice cracked a bit. She said she was gonna go with that take. I asked why, and she said, ‘It was an honest version of myself.’ I heard that and thought, ‘Damn! That’s real.’ You want the art to be good, but as long as my art is honest, people can’t really be mad. I mean, they can, but at least it was honest.
I hear bits of that on “Work While You Sleep.”
I wrote that in the reflection of how I am in intimate relationships. I was able to really be honest with myself and with how much more I need to fall in love with myself, and not fall in love with people who fall in love with me.
On “iSearch,” you reflect on making a name for yourself but still feeling low. How do you reconcile those two feelings?
It’s a time thing. As an artist, there’s a time and space to be in, and I think the more you accomplish things, the more potential there is for insecurities. Always asking, ‘Am I better than I was?’ I think that’s a constant space for artists to be in. You can find comfort in knowing you’re better than you were yesterday, as opposed to knowing that you’re the best out, or constantly chasing some form of hierarchy.
Was that reconciliation crucial in order for you to continue making art or vice versa?
I think it’s a little bit of both. Sometimes, I won’t even know what’s hurting me until it comes out in the song or poem. Sometimes, I’m not strong enough to address it in real life until I can let it go on the page. Inversely, until I talk it out with somebody, it can be scary to see in terms of the art. I think that reconciliation and redemption come when it comes, and you have to prepare for it.
When you’re not making music, you’re also an activist, an educator, and of course a poet. How do you balance the intersection of these spheres?
I think last year was me trying to figure that out. I don’t wanna be good at a lot of things, I want to master a few. I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to be my whole self at all times. When I’m on stage, and I’m a rapper, I don’t forget that I’m an educator and that there’s young people watching me. When I’m in a classroom, I don’t forget that I’m a poet or activist, and I make sure my lesson plans match what is happening in the world. I just bring myself to those spaces and realize that even though I’m wearing those hats, they’re still going on one head.
Is it ever exhausting to occupy all of these spaces at once, and how do you recharge?
The beauty of it is, I’m recharged in the doing of other things. A lot of sleep, a lot of friendship helps me recharge. I’ve learned to appreciate my ADHD, you know? When I’m bored with one part of myself, I can just distract myself with another part.
As a final note, what one song on the EP would you point to and say ‘That is Malcolm London’?
I think that’s hard… Maybe not ‘That is…’ but I think the last song on the project, “All The Towns People,” that’s what ‘Malcolm London’ aspires to live in: a world of imagination. In a world of hope, and in a world that constantly says we have permission to dream.