Hip-Hop Fridays: Exclusive Q & A With Reverend Conrad B. Tillard, Interim Pastor, The Eliot Church Of Roxbury, (Part II)
Today we continue BlackElectorate.com's exclusive interview with Reverend Conrad B. Tillard, Interim Pastor at The Eliot Church Of Roxbury. This portion of the Q & A focuses on Hip-Hop. Yesterday's Part I dealt with Theology.
Cedric Muhammad: Reverend Conrad, I wanted to move right into kind of a synergistic conversation focusing more narrowly on Hip-Hop and politics, but of course the spirit animates everything so I am not in any way trying to be exclusive. Brother, you have been referred to, for years, privately, publicly, and in the media as the “Hip-Hop Minister”. How did that originate?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: (laughter). You know the interesting thing about that is that it has been written that I was the ‘self-appointed’, ‘self-annointed’ “Hip-Hop minister”. And it is always funny to me when people write that because the reality is I hated the title when it was first given to me, for it was given to me by Peter Noel of the Village Voice when he would write stories about the Nation of Islam. And many times he would be writing critical stories of the Nation and things that were going on. He would always refer to me as the ‘Hip-Hop Minister’. And early on I interpreted it as a sleight or dis because I am not a rapper, I am a Minister. My vocation is in the ministry. So at first, I rejected it, but as I said someone very dear to me helped me to see back in the early ‘90s how God had really prepared me for such a time as this because not only was I of a certain age but I was in tune with, and could articulate the concerns and the issues of the Hip-Hop generation. You have to remember, as I said, I was a student-activist in the early 80s. There was just a few of us out then. Sister Souljah, who was Lisa Williamson, then (was a leading activist). There were a few around the country who were active. But we all knew each other, we were activists. So when I first started going to college campuses speaking, or speaking at rallies, in many instances I was younger than the people at the rally. And then of course, it has been twenty years now since I have been out here, and I am able to say, which is interesting to me, what Kwame (Toure) and others used to say when I would go hear them speak, twenty years ago. So I believe that God brought me to this place, this critical nexus or meeting with destiny, that I would be an activist in the era of Hip-Hop and that my ministry would be focused in New York City which is the epicenter of Hip-Hop. That was nothing that I could have planned. It was God’s hand. And I think that as a result of God placing me in the epicenter of Hip-Hop, really during the golden age of Hip-Hop, it became a natural relationship. So over time, people just started referring to me like that, well Peter first started writing the ‘Hip-Hop Minister’ so after a while I stopped fighting it. And then when I started A MOVEMENT FOR CHHANGE, I actually embraced it and began using the title myself. You’ll remember at one point Jesse Jackson wore the title the ‘country preacher’ but eventually his ministry grew in different directions and he grew out of that. But it was a moniker that I imagine was given to him by someone and he used it and it helped him to relate to the people that he was working with at the time.
Cedric Muhammad:Yes Sir. Now Brother please tell us about the organization you founded, A MOVEMENT FOR CHHANGE and its current status.
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, right now, A MOVEMENT FOR CHHANGE exists only in this regard – the young people who helped get the organization up off of the ground are still very much hard core, committed believers. Most of them are in New York and we talk frequently. And one of the things that we have concluded, and we realized and I realize, Brother Cedric, is that A MOVEMENT FOR CHHANGE was really only supposed to be the spark that set off the explosion. And I believe, I am very happy to say and competent in saying that we in fact did spark a revolution in the Hip-Hop nation. If you remember, if you go back to 1998 and 1997 it was a novel issue, it was unheard of, well, not unheard of. It had been heard of, in isolated situations, there were people like Chuck D., there were people like KRS-One who were positive and active on certain levels. Professor Griff. People don’t realize he played a very important role in politicizing that group (Public Enemy). But (there was nothing in existence) in terms of an actual formation that was organized by the Hip-Hop nation and dedicated to the goal of challenging the sleeping giant of the Hip-Hop nation to wake up and get politically involved. And so A MOVEMENT FOR CHHANGE is alive. When I see Russell Simmons out talking about ‘get involved in politics’, or Puffy saying ‘Vote Or Die’, I know that movement is alive because I know that when neither of them were involved politically, I took the gospel of A MOVEMENT FOR CHHANGE to them and urged them and implored them to get involved. In fact, people don’t know but Russell Simmons and I collaborated for a brief time when he asked me – it was very brief – to head his political organization. So I look at the political activity in this nation today among young people and among the Hip-Hop generation – people that I have known and I have touched, as a victory for A MOVEMENT FOR CHHANGE. And as long as the change is talking place that was our stated objective. The acronym CHHANGE stood for Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary For Global Empowerment. And I see that happening today in ways that it was not happening prior to 1998 and much of it is coming from New York City. And much of it is coming from folk that I taught the subject of politics and the gospel of A MOVMENT FOR CHHANGE. So I count it as a victory. I don’t have to be patted on the back. I just thank God that He allowed us to be used us as a vehicle to help spark that movement.
Cedric Muhammad: Now in the context of Hip-Hop, could you offer your critique of what you have witnessed of the worldview, activism and engagement of the Hip-Hop community by three figures: Russell Simmons, Rev. Al Sharpton, and P. Diddy?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Ok. Well, first of all I don’t consider Rev. Sharpton a member of the Hip-Hop generation. Rev. Sharpton, I respect as a leader of African-American people and because Hip-Hop is an important cultural phenomenon I can understand why he would get involved. I also helped Rev. Sharpton to understand the importance of the Hip-Hop political potential. I remember the days when Rev. Sharpton told me he thought Usher was an usher in somebody’s church. I remember that. And so I had the responsibility. And I think that there was probably only one other person that really understood the nexus between religion and politics and the movement and dedicated themselves as much to the awakening and the involvement with the African-American and Latino culture called Hip-Hop. I think there was only really one other person and that was Khalid Muhammad. And he was on the West Coast at first and I was on the East Coast. And I think that Khalid, authentically, like myself, understood the potential power and importance of engaging the Hip-Hop generation. Many have come subsequent but I think that it is only logical now. I mean when I see the NAACP and the Urban League engaging rappers I mean that, I guess is only logical at this point. But Russell and Puffy, I think are two important and authentic figures in Hip-Hop that deserve some analysis. I have tremendous respect for both of them. I have more respect for Puffy because one of the things I respect about Puffy is that he was always willing to listen from the time that I met him in the late 80s. He was always willing to listen. I think Russell, because he was a leader in Hip-Hop and he had given birth to that culture, did not - at first - respect and understand the complexities of politics and what it really took to spark and lead a movement. I think he initially felt - and this is where we fell out - that Hip-Hop politics could be marketed like you market records or clothes. But I didn’t believe that and I still don’t believe that. And even though I have seen him go in that direction and I applaud him for the successes that he has, the problem with that approach is that what you do is you are able to draw young people in large numbers to events that you have made an event because of celebrity presence but you have not really engaged in political education nor have you really politicized the young people. And that is what I was trying to warn him against. What good is it to have 50,000 young people come to a rally because you have got thirty rappers there and all they are asking for is an autograph or trying to meet some girls, or some boys? I respected Russell’s tremendous business acumen. I felt he did not respect what I brought to the table in terms of the movement side of things. And I think that he ultimately had to find a partner in Ben Chavis to do what I told him had to be done, but the question I have and this is a general question I have for our generation, which I think makes us a lot different than the people who grew up in the 60s – why can’t we put together in one formation people of our generation working toward a common goal? I mean, when you think about the Black Panther Party For Self-Defense, Huey, Bobby, Eldridge, Kathleen, David Hilliard, Fred Hampton, Geronimo Pratt, I mean leaders everywhere in that movement. When you think about SNCC, Marion Barry, Diane Nash, John Lewis, Stokely, Cleve Sellers, I mean leaders everywhere in that movement and one of the things that we have not been able to do, and we have all failed at this - is we have not been able to put a (Sister)Souljah in the room with a Ras (Baraka), or with a Kevin Powell, but then with other people that are not in their group. We have tended to work with ‘our people’ and we have not been able, as a generation, to work together in a broad sense. And that is a failure really on all of our parts. And to the credit of people in the ‘60s they were better able to do that, so you know it was ironic to me that Russell could work with Ben but he could not work with me and I guess vice-versa. So I respect him, I do. I read that he wrote in the (Village) Voice afterward. He hurt me, certainly, because when he attacked me and said that I was an enemy of Hip-Hop - that flew in the face of my record of service to the Hip-Hop community. You see, I was always there for the Hip-Hop community. When people got killed and when people needed support I was there. And I felt that that was a betrayal of my dedication to that community. That because I raised an important critique of Hip-Hop he tried to turn people against me. But I read in the (Village) Voice where he said that was one of the worst things that he ever did and he said that out of all of the things that he has ever done he acknowledged and admitted that that was a terrible thing and I appreciated that and I wish him the best. And again, lastly, on Puffy. I have a lot of respect for him. I was very sad to hear the things that he has gone through with his baby’s mother, because I think that not only has he distinguished himself as a business leader and somebody involved in social action and all kinds of positive things, but he has shown himself to be a great Black father and I was very hurt when I read what I consider to be the inaccuracies, the lies, that were being told about him in the paper and I hope that one day at least he and I can collaborate on the issue of fighting for justice for fathers of every race. I think he is going to be a leader in that movement too. So I respect him. I just hope that, you know, one of the critiques that I had of Russell and I hope that he just slows down a bit and realizes that when you talk about the lives and the destiny of people as far as I am concerned, and I think that I helped to coin this phrase if I didn’t coin it - the Hip-Hop generation is not just about rappers it is about the tens of thousands of kids and millions of kids that are influenced by these rappers, who will never sign a record deal, will never drive a Bentley, but have these dreams, but yet they have to negotiate life as Black or Latino, poor and largely uneducated in America. And the thing that hurt me more about the leaders, Russell and the Black leaders, that in my judgment looked past the kids that are suffering in order to curry favor and have a relationship with them (the rappers). Most kids are not rappers they are not celebrities and they never will be and if we cater to the celebrity and forget about the kids that make up the Hip-Hop generation and allow the celebrity’s bad behavior to continue to influence kids down a negative road - you know 50 Cent and The Game can fight on the air and they can even have their posses shoot guns at the studio and the army and battery of lawyers that the record company can employ will basically, if they (50 Cent and Game) don’t go too far, will keep them out of trouble. But the kids in the Bronx, in Queens, Roxbury or Harlem in South East Washington or in Liberty City that imitate these guys, they are going directly to jail or dying. And my position to Sharpton to Minister Farrakhan, to Jesse Jackson, to Marc Morial, to Tavis (Smiley), to all of our leaders is that it is one thing to have a relationship with these artists, but it is another thing to remember that most of these kids will never have a life similar to these artists but they have been set on a course where they will actually, many of them, die or go to jail trying to get to where these artists are in terms of stature, station in life and material wealth. And I just felt that we needed a strong message to say to the kids to rival, if you will, the thought that the only two jobs in the world is to either be a rapper or a drug dealer. For that, many got angry with me.
Cedric Muhammad: What do you make of the problem of “beefs” in Hip-Hop and the issue of the surveillance that rap artists are under by local and federal agencies?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: I have always said, on those issues, that if you tell somebody you are a gangster, you are a killer, you are a pimp, you are a thug; you walk around in New York City with an unlicensed gun and you are bragging about it with a baggy coat on, smoking reefer, you are directing attention to yourself and you are in fact going to go to jail. John Gotti, the biggest gangster in the history of the Mafia had sense enough to say he was a plumber. Even he didn’t say he was a gangster and yet we have allowed our young men today, listening to rappers, who incidentally Cedric, this is the hurting part, and what hurt me so much was that every major leader in this nation should have backed my position because my position was the position I learned from them. The reality is 50 Cent is the property of a record company. They are going to take good care of that property. He is a money maker for them. Alright? So he can go around talking about how he got shot or having a beef with this one or fighting this one or that one. It is all a part of entertainment. But African American and Latino and all too often inner-city youth that don’t have good parenting, are far too often influenced by pop culture. Why would the leader of the Urban League, or the leader of the Nation Of Islam, or the leader of (Rainbow) PUSH support or even permit that kind of thing to go down and not realize that it is going to put thousands and millions of kids at risk who are going to imitate these people but for them it is not entertainment it is real life. And my position is if we love the masses, as we say, and we love these kids how do we make excuses for these guys and allow these guys to project this image like pied pipers of death killing African American young people? And I am telling you every leader disappointed me on this question. Every one of them.
Cedric Muhammad: Brother Reverend pardon me, now when you say ‘the question’ and then you gave a reference to 50 and what 50 promotes , could you just state for the record what is the fundamental question so that we are clear?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: My question is how come when Black exploitation movies came out in the 1970s, Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH boycotted them, but in 2005 Jesse Jackson is at The Source Awards? My question is how could the Minister (Farrakhan) be such a strong advocate against using drugs, a lifestyle of death – he’s built his life on preaching against it, and believe me, I know these men have dedicated their lives to this, but in my judgment there was a blind spot with them on this issue of Hip-Hop culture, because many older people were trying to understand it, trying to get a handle on it, and in my judgment, in doing that, allowed the rappers a pass. And the rappers, generally speaking, won’t go to jail and die – the big stars anyway. But how many young people right now are sitting in a prison? How many young people are in a cemetery right now because they imitated or emulated a rapper’s lifestyle? And I know Tupac said, basically, that they blame us for the condition of young people as if they can’t see the misery in which they live. But I will tell you something Cedric. Black people have always died, and always suffered. But there has been nothing like Hip-Hop that has accelerated the rate of death and destruction and the undermining of our belief systems and our higher ideals. And I’ll tell you something I have been an advocate against this. And when I say Hip-Hop there is a tendency to overstate because I am so passionate about this. But I don’t think I should have to qualify. I think that my years of service to rappers when they were in trouble, in jail or struggling, should absolve me of the need every time I criticize Hip-Hop to qualify it by saying , ‘but there is some positive Hip-Hop’. Of course we know that. And I spent time in the studio with Q-Tip and Lauryn Hill and I know Common. I know all of these people. And I know those who are speaking messages of life. Wyclef, (for example) I know these people, man. And I love them and their work speaks for themselves but we are not talking about that. We are talking about the rap that sells and the rap that has possessed the hearts, soul and mind of these young people. And there is no way of getting around it that that is rap that advocates violence, death, that advocates an excessive materialism of which we have not seen ever in the history of even this capitalist country. And my question is how is it that Conrad and Sharpton, and Minister Farrakhan, and Jesse Jackson and Hugh Price and all of the people I met with and talked to about this - how is it that we were not at the common table and Russell Simmons could slide and get in between that? That’s what I want to know, that’s the question that is yet unanswered to me. People I have known for twenty years in the movement. I mean I have heard of nationalists, I am talking about Black militant nationalists flying into a city for two hours to meet with Russell and he not showing up. It got to a point in my judgment that folk believed that they were going to get some money and they suspended their principles and they suspended what they had staked their lives on and essentially allowed the entertainment industry to take over our children. Because that is what Russell Simmons represents. He represents (that). He has no independent money that he has made. He has no independent fortune. He is an agent of the entertainment culture and industry of this nation. And I am passionate on that issue.
Cedric Muhammad: Now Brother Conrad?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Yes.
Cedric Muhammad: To paraphrase a little bit of what you just said, and I want to narrow it down, that last point,
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Don’t paraphrase it too much, because now we are getting into stuff that I will stand on what I say.
Cedric Muhammad: Well, fortunately with an interview (as opposed to an article) I get to paraphrase in front of the subject…
Rev. Conrad Tillard: I understand…
Cedric Muhammad: …so you can agree, correct, or refine.
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Alright.
Cedric Muhammad: Now you made a comment about Russell sliding in on one side and then you listed a group of leaders on the other, I think you mentioned the Minister (Farrakhan), Rev. Sharpton, and yourself…
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Yeah, Rev. Jackson, Hugh Price. I’ve met with Hugh Price on a Friday to have a summit to talk about the destruction of our young people. Hugh Price told me that everything I said is what they had seen around the country in their chapters. I had a summit scheduled for 5 o’clock at the Urban League and at 2 o’clock they called me and told me that we couldn’t have it there and then two weeks later Russell Simmons gets an award from the Urban League? My question is you had someone in this generation that stood up. Someone who had been nurtured by these very men. Someone that brought the gospel that he had learned at the feet and the table of these very men, (and) brought it to his generation. And from my personal point of view, I was tremendously disappointed by the response of my elders in the movement who I knew, who nurtured me. None of them knew Russell Simmons.
Cedric Muhammad: Now, in light of that my question is that on one hand you have stated the question as it relates to the elders and your relationship, and Russell interacting with them. On the other hand, and I just want to be clear on this, do you think that Russell has obstructed your ability to independently reach out to the artists, form a relationship, and kind of offer a counter?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, let me say this, I want to put this in a context, where we are talking now before. And we are talking about some things in chronology. So as I am talking about them I don’t want it to be construed that I am not open to the possibility of reconciliation and rapprochement. I am talking about things as they happened. And what I will say to you in response to that question is five major rappers called me and told me before my summit that Russell Simmons was applying enormous pressure on them. You have to remember someone anonymously e-mailed me a letter that Russell sent to the industry which said, ‘Do not support Conrad Muhammad’s summit. He is an enemy of Hip-Hop. He is Bob Dole and C. Delores Tucker. I am having a summit and I am bringing Minister Farrakhan in’. Now this is what someone anonymously sent to me. I sent it immediately to the media. Because I was not going to allow a $400 million man to work behind the scenes to undermine the work that I was doing for my people. And so some of the media wrote articles about it. And it became a major conversation. One that he had not anticipated. So as you know the summit took place. I had my summit. Of course it was not reported on like his. But to me the fact that Afrika Bambaataa and KRS-One and Chuck D. and Rev. Butts and people who I knew had spent years fighting to bring about a change in the stuff to save our young people. The fact that they stood with me meant everything to me, so it did not matter to me that it wasn’t as well attended or that he had sought to stop it. What I was proud of was the people who stood with me. The quality of people who stood with me. I was hurt. I’ll be honest with you. It hurt me that Russell would so blatantly in an in-your-face sort of way send out an e-mail in the industry saying do not support his summit, I am going to have one and bring Minister Farrakhan. Of everything that I had learned of Minister Farrakhan was that he was not a man that would allow someone to use him for their own purposes and it hurt me that someone that I had loved and spent so much time with and serving and learning from and I believed, even at that point, that my work was really just an extension of some of the things he believed in, the stuff he had built his life on and I have very serious questions about how that could happen.
Cedric Muhammad: Now Reverend, let me stop you because I am trying to get the chronology tight with a couple of facts.
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Alright.
Cedric Muhammad: OK you got the e-mail anonymously.
Rev. Conrad Tillard: I got it anonymously. I know who sent it to me but I won’t say. Somebody that Russell sent it to sent it to me.
Cedric Muhammad: Ok, I want to verify that one, you are certain it was genuine but two…
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Oh, it was genuine. He didn’t dispute it… Russell didn’t deny it, he sent it from his office.
Cedric Muhammad: Did you think to call Russell to check if it was accurate or you all weren’t talking at all before you sent it to the media?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, we weren’t talking then. I called Minister Farrakhan. I did. I called him. And I kept calling, and I kept calling. And I was not able to speak to him. Now he may have had his own reasons. I cannot say. But I can say that it was a fact that I called because I wanted to make sure that he knew what I was trying to do and what my message was. And I didn’t know if he knew about the e-mail. Maybe he didn’t know. I don’t know. But I know I tried to reach him. And I felt that the strength of my relationship with him was such that I could call him and say, ‘Brother Minister I am trying to fight for these young people, and raise issues that you have raised and that Jesse has raised and you know, that the Church has raised. I am just standing on what I learned from you.’ Now I can’t fight this guy with $400 million and I certainly can’t fight him if he can send an e-mail out saying don’t come to my summit, I am having one and bringing the Minister in. But I felt it was very cynical, as far as I was concerned because it was to use a man who had been my leader in an attempt to sort of undermine or cut off what I was saying. And the interesting thing about this Cedric is, you know how this thing came about – the summit?
Cedric Muhammad: No Sir.
Rev. Conrad Tillard: First of all, the summit came about – my summit came about because I was Shyne’s spiritual adviser and when Shyne got convicted after being with him throughout that whole trial, I saw as I had seen a hundred times that the industry was not investing in these young people. They were no more than property that they would give them these advances and let them make these records and the more they got in trouble, the more they went to jail the more they got killed, the record company enjoyed that, because it made the product seem more authentic. And so they liked the fact that these kids, they were indifferent to the fact that these kids’ lives were being destroyed. But with me it was an issue that human potential was being destroyed while record companies are making this money. Shyne, this is a nice kid, man. His father was a trial attorney in Belize one of the biggest, a former prime minister. And I talked to him and I was with him, with his family – his mother, grandmother, and when that boy was convicted, I was in that courtroom in Manhattan, I went back into that cell in the tombs with him, to get his jewelry and so forth and so on, to give it to his mother and we prayed together. We had prayer together. But when I came out of that court out of that back, all of the hangers on, all of the people had gone out of that courtroom with Puffy and it was sad to me to see that boy in that holding cell. And it wasn’t but a few people that stayed around his mother. Some of his tight boys and some of his really faithful people. And I said you know I am going to challenge the industry and I called a press conference, A MOVEMENT FOR CHHANGE. And we said, look, we ask for three things, we said first of all we are talking mostly to African Americans, Cedric. I grew up in a time probably like you, where we used to complain, as a people, about the negative images on the news about Black people. The news would show a Black man in handcuffs we would always say, ‘the Whiteman’s always showing us in a negative light.' But I had grown to see an industry in New York where 90% of the creative people in Hip-Hop, or the major players, put it that way, who were defining this art, who were saying what was going to be, they were Black. They were young African-Americans. And so I called a meeting so that we could discuss these issues. That we are the ones presenting ourselves this way. We are the ones destroying young human potential in our community and I called for more artist training and development. I pointed out how Barry Gordy had invested in these artists. I called for an end to derogatory images of African Americans. And it was a call to have a conversation with an industry that I knew everybody in the industry. It wasn’t like they didn’t know me. I first met Russell Simmons - his first contact with the Nation Of Islam was with me, years ago, when he was having some problems in California with some of the Brothers. Years ago. So it wasn’t like they didn’t know me. So I felt confident and strong, I said well wait a minute, I said, now I know they can’t make me a C. Delores Tucker or Bob Dole. I mean I have worn out shoes on the pavement working with rappers. I have made a relationship with these people outside of the camera. I have been at their funerals I have been into prisons for them. I have gone with them to surrender for crimes that they have committed. I fought to get them out of jail. They can’t make me a Bob Dole. I remember when Suge Knight was flushing people’s heads down the toilet and Russell Simmons was calling me back in the early ‘90s. So I know you won’t say that about me, Brother. And so to make a long story short, and as we move forward, we are talking about what happened, I was hurt. I will be very honest with you. It tremendously hurt me, and it taught me a lesson about life, and politics and money. And it was a lesson that quite honestly was one I did not want to learn, but one in fact I did learn.
Cedric Muhammad: Ok just to wrap it up, you said you read, what in effect was an expression of regret on Russell’s part, was that in the Village Voice?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: I did yes, it was in an article.
Cedric Muhammad: But you all still haven’t spoken?
Rev. Conrd Tillard: We have not spoken. We met one time. James Mtume set up a meeting. And then Jaimie Brown from Sista 2 Sista magazine has taken messages between the both of us. I have been really busy in terms of my ministry and my transition in the Church and quite honestly, my attention has sort of turned away from Hip-Hop, except for the fact that, wherever I turn I am forced to deal with it because you have young people in the society, young people have been dying in Roxbury, I have been doing a lot of funerals. I have been meeting with young people. You are ultimately forced to confront it but there were some things I had to do in terms of my process of ordination which required a lot of my focus and my time so to be honest with you that is where most of my energy has been. I really wish the best for Russell. Listen, he is a giant there is no question about that, in the world of business. He has become a cultural icon and I don’t take that away from him or begrudge him of that. It is just that all that I really was saying to him is that, ‘Brother when you deal with the lives of God’s people, you cannot look at God’s people as commodities.’ The struggles that we are talking about. The principles that we are talking about you can’t approach them like you approach, package, and market an artist. And I think at that time I was not the person to help him to see that. He could not hear that from me. I am sure that if he spent time around people like Ben, the Minister (Farrakhan), and the people he has been around in the last four years, I am sure that he has had a great political education process. I think he hurt me tremendously in that Russell Simmons is a major figure in Hip Hop, and if Russell Simmons goes against you in Hip-Hop it will have a chilling effect. And many rappers stood strong and said, ‘hey man you have been my Brother no matter what.’ Fat Joe, Q-Tip, Chuck D., KRS-One. I mean there are people who stood with me who said, ‘look, I respect Russell but he can’t tell me about you Brother, I have been there with you in the trenches.’ Afrikka Bambatta, Kool Herc, look, I mean, even Noreaga. Hey, when I came to the Hip-Hop Summit, Brothers gave me tremendous love. When I came in there with my people from A MOVEMENT FOR CHHANGE. I was not afraid. I did not see that as somewhere I should not be. I was not permitted to come into the main lecture with the Minister although some Brothers snuck me in and I got in, but the point I am making is this: there is room for everybody at the table but I just wanted Russell to know then and I want him to know now that I take my ministry and the lives of African-American people, very, very seriously. And keeping young people from dying and going to jail means a lot to me. Because as our kids die and go to jail not only is there human potential destroyed but our ability as a people to move forward and to empower ourselves is limited. 50% of Black men in New York City are unemployed. The rap industry is not that doggone powerful because it is not employing those men. They have got to go into the job world. They have got to go into the workforce. And we have got to create a space for these young people where they can get education and they can know that their life is probably not going to be like a rapper’s life. And I believe that we cannot abandon that mission, Cedric. We have got to make sure that these young people are going to college. Black men are in lower numbers on college campuses now than they have ever been before. We have got to fight that. 70% of the inmate population is Black men. Now can I go make a video that is going to make some teenager do something to go to jail and sleep good at night just because I am going to get rich? Is that right? These kids are following what they see on television. It is one thing when your enemy does it but it is another thing when you do it. I am through with that.
Cedric Muhammad : Just for the record, because you raised that scenario and I was there I wrote about it. I was the first person to write a synopsis on Minister Farrakhan’s speech at the Hip-Hop Summit so when you were in (the room) you were right behind me.
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Yeah, I had been snuck in. Chuck D. tried to bring me in with the S1Ws and I was told that in no uncertain terms I could not come in.
Cedric Muhammad: Now I remember because you were about four rows back from me and I remember the Minister raised the issue of you and Russell’s disagreement and then the Minister thought you weren’t there and then the people who were with you who were behind me were shouting “He’s here!”
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Right.
Cedric Muhammad: And so the Minister became aware of that, you waived to him, the Minister acknowledged your presence and then he stated to both of you, I think Russell was standing with him, that he would like to see both of you reconcile, and you nodded and Russell nodded his head. So I guess my challenge to you, because I am speaking to you, and I know you have been busy of late. You have been busy all of the time, we all are. Is there anything in the form of bitterness or in the form of justified on your part, some righteous indignation even, that has contributed to you all not getting together, on your part?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, let me say this…
Cedric Muhammad:…because it has been four years now.
Rev. Conrad Tillard:..well let me say this. There is no bitterness. There may be a sense of righteous indignation. No differently, mind you, than the Minister had, when many in the African American leadership circle excluded him because he stood for certain principles. I remember there were many forums and many gatherings of the family of leadership, and often the Minister would be excluded, not excluded because he didn’t deserve a place at the table but excluded because of the political factor. And you know and I know that that was not right that was wrong. And that precluded the unity. That undermined the very statement that the leaders were making, that we were calling the family together. So I issued the same challenge to these who have now taken up the Hip-Hop movement. You can’t exclude someone from the table that’s earned a place at the table, helped to craft the table, and frame the conversation of the table, but because I won’t bow down or change my position, and I continue to raise the issue that you cannot make videos about killing and selling drugs and then tell people to go vote and say you have fulfilled your obligation to the people who are our young people. Because I say that I am excluded from the table and I am excluded from the table not because I couldn’t get a place at the table but I refuse to not raise that very important issue. I refuse to simply say the thing that would get me a place at the table. Because for me it is not about money. I am not trying to get money. I am trying to raise the issue of our generation. And that includes people from Russell down to The Game. We have the responsibility of saving African American and Latino and urban and poor young people and suburban young people that look to these celebrities. And I will continue to raise the moral inconsistencies. I don’t raise it in condemning. I am a sinner saved by grace. I am not the moral superior to anyone. But I raise that tissue and I will continue to be a voice and raise that issue. That you can’t on Monday talk about killing and shooting and pimping; and Tuesday, (talk) on get-out-the-vote, and think you are going to save a generation. You can’t do it. You can’t do it. Snoop was at the Minister’s house for the summit, then came back and he made a worse CD. He was at the summit in 1997 [Editor’s note: Minister Farrakhan hosted a summit in Chicago after the murder of Notorious B.I.G.], he came back and made a worse CD. So at what point? To me, stars don’t come first. I come from a tradition where the community of leaders, the preacher, the ministers, the head of our organization, they have to determine the direction of our people, not the stars. Because the stars work for the entertainment company. The stars are employees of an industry that doesn’t care anything about our direction and our future. Are we going to hand our entire people over to people who are employed by the entertainment industry - the global entertainment industry and not raise contradictions and not challenge them? And not give our young people even the option? We have to have clarion voices. We have to have people that are willing to raise these questions because what’s at stake is the survival of a generation. A generation that is going to be around when Jesse is not here anymore, when the Minister is not here anymore, when Sharpton is not here anymore. These young people will still be here. I feel very passionate about this Cedric. It is not about me. There is not enough nights of the week for me to go places that I have been invited to. I don’t care about that. I am talking about the survival of a generation, Cedric. And we all know, KRS-One said at the summit, I am just saying what no one else wants to say. And the biggest problem we have is that we have allowed the culture, and it is not even Hip-Hop (anymore), because Bambaattaa, Herc, and all these guys will tell you that when they created the genre of Hip-Hop it was to save these young people. What an irony that now that very gift has been turned into a curse. And that is because it no longer belongs to the people. It doesn’t belong to these kids. They are just consumers and unfortunately, this is one of the areas I part with Russell and even to some extent Puffy, although, but you know, again, I think he has been better on this, I understand as a businessman he sees the average teenager as a consumer, and he is trying to figure out how to put those jeans on them; how to sell him his product. I understand that . But for me it is a different kind of conversation. I see a future Doctor, a future Lawyer, a future Preacher. I see somebody that may cause and create a cure for AIDS. I see the first Black president so, for me, because of where I stand as a minister, I look at young people differently than he does. See the entertainment industry, they are trying to figure how are they going to get this $20 or $100 out of a kid’s pocket. I don’t look at ‘em that way. For me, you have to understand, it is not about me being jealous of Russell Simmons. I mean let’s get real. I am not in his field, you know. Have we been reduced to such silliness? Russell Simmons has more money in his pocket than I am worth all together but he has more than Martin Luther King ever had, he has more than Malcolm ever had, so don’t reduce my stance to sour grapes because I am not an entertainment figure. To do that is to discredit a whole tradition of people who have raised these issues. And if you wouldn’t do it for them don’t do it about me. I’m raising issues that are about the life of our people.
Cedric Muhammad: Well just to be clear on what my position is…
Rev. Conrad Tillard: I am saying that rhetorically, I am not directing that at you, cause others have raised that.
Cedric Muhammad: But no, this is very important because I think that you have also been very clear about the importance of unity, and the point I was driving at in raising that question is, you are spiritual, Russell is, and has described himself that way, you understand the process of reconciliation, atonement; and I am just a little bit taken back that in four years two men that I have gotten to know their minds and their words and I have seen some of their actions can’t come together, when it even has been requested by people that they mutually respect (Minister Farrakhan), and whose principles would call for that. That is what I meant for the record, but I understand and appreciate what you just said.
Rev. Conrad Tillard: And I hope you will carry that part because I think one of the most disheartening things through all of this, for me, would be for somebody to say, my raising these issues, and that is why I sent you those articles, and I think if you go back, even, to when I was a Minister in the Nation of Islam, I am not saying anything different than I have always said. That’s what’s so interesting about it. When I was a keynote speaker at Time Warner Records, two years in a row, 1992 and 1993, I preached the same message. When Tupac was killed and I called the world of Hip-Hop together, I preached the same message. When Biggie was killed and Russell called me and asked me what were we going to do, and I went to the Minister, that’s how the summit happened in 1997. See, people don’t know these things. But my message has been the same.
Cedric Muhammad: Now I want to take a little bit of a look at external forces, and I know you are familiar. You just mentioned both murders. Do you believe, from your study and review of the evidence, that there was a hidden hand in either of the murders of Tupac and Biggie?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: No, no I don’t. Not at all. And I think to lead young people down that road is tragic. I think that if you go back and listen to Tupac and Biggie. Listen to their music, they preached death. They called death into existence. And unfortunately we have allowed our young people, particularly our young urban males to believe that this has become acceptable to allow them to live out their lives in a culture and a conversation of violence. You see, why is it OK, Cedric, for our men to walk around a community that is a battle zone? Why is that OK with us, Cedric? Doesn’t it bother us? Why are our men in jail and the White boy is in college? Why are we producing rappers and the Asians are producing mathematicians and doctors? Is there anything wrong with this picture? And so what I am saying is if you have got Black people, Black men talking about killing each other, why would anyone have to put their hand in any of that? Just hang around and eventually we are going to kill ourselves. And I am telling you I believe the fundamental issue that nobody wants to deal with, because far too many people have accepted the inevitability of the Black male being criminal-oriented and having to exist on a criminal plane, and until we address that fundamental issue and start talking about how come our boys are not in college; why have we stopped talking to them about becoming lawyers, and doctors and businessmen? Why have we ceased those conversations? Why don’t we talk to them anymore? And it is not just about money. It is not just about becoming a rapper or a businessman so that you can make money to enjoy a certain lifestyle. But it is about keeping the continuity and the continuum of Black males and Black people building for a future. And what we have done in Hip-Hop and I hate to even use (the term) Hip-Hop, I should use the term the rap industry, which unfortunately has overshadowed Hip-Hop culture – what we have done is allow a few commercially successful artists to dominate the imagination of our young people, with violence and negative imagery. And everybody is trying to get $250,000 from here or $100,000 or $10,000 and people are not willing to stand up and tell the truth. Every organization is trying to get a program; trying to have them (the rappers) over here for this. And while we are courting these stars and entertainers the very kids that are buying their records are dying and going to jail. And I wonder, have one of these leaders actually spent hours listening to what messages are being sent out to these young people. And if these leaders, in my judgment – they have always stood for the dignity of Black people, and they have always fought to stop oppression of our Black people, but I cannot imagine that you can hear what some of these messages are from some of these very artists that are talking about get-out-the-vote, and the leaders themselves not be angry. It is not that they don’t know better, you know, that is where it has gone. Tupac knew better. We know better but we are not dong better. And we are not doing better because it comes down to this - in the industry there is money to be made. And if you are willing to sell out your principles, that’s where all of the money is. And I have seen people who I never would have thought – I am talking about principled artists, principled creative people, people who stood for something. I have seen the entertainment industry make prostitutes out of them. It all comes down to money, Cedric. Follow the money. We wouldn’t tolerate this from anybody in our community. Why is it wrong for D W Griffith to make The Birth Of A Nation but State Property is not wrong? C’mon man talk to me. You have to understand this created a crisis for me. Because everything I had been taught and believed in from all of these leaders was under question and under fire. Because if we fought all of these institutions that have tried to destroy us how are we going to allow some of these same institutions to now, destroy our young people? Just because they’ve got Black faces in the front offices. And in many respects you know, many of the leaders talk about ‘Black managers of White industry’ or ‘window-dressing Negroes’. Well, that is not much different than what is going on in the entertainment industry.
Cedric Muhammad:Now in light of your critique and what you just said Brother Conrad, what was or what does your political Hip-Hop platform, if I could use that phrase, look like? What would be the principles, issues and policies that you would stand on, raise, and advocate, respectively?
Rev. Conrad Tillard: Well, let me say this. Listen, the one area that I will stake my life on, that we cannot compromise on, is we have to have an understanding. We have to challenge these artists and businesspeople to understand as African Americans, that the promoting of criminality, murder, self-destructive behavior, degrading images of African-American people is a point we simply cannot compromise on. We cannot make a movie like State Property and sit at the head table of the Nation Of Islam dinner, or the Urban League dinner or the NAACP dinner. We cannot have that kind of moral gulf between what we say we stand for and what we will permit. Kids looked at State Property and went out and killed people. OK? We cannot permit that. From the African American perspective we have enough of that coming in on us from the outside. We can’t be contributors to that so we start there. Look, I am not a businessman. And I respect business people. Barry Gordy sold records to kids. I understand. I don’t begrudge Puffy and Russell those things. They are in business, they are successful and the Lord has blessed them with success. But do you have to sell them records about somebody killing somebody? Sell records, man. Sell clothes. Those are good things but don’t sell them lifestyle. Don’t tell them they are nobody unless they can buy your jeans. Don’t do that to these kids and if you do it, as a minister of the gospel and as a community leader, I’ve got to stand in the gap for these kids. And that maybe a creative tension that will exist between the business people and activists and that’s fine. But on the issue of killing and murder and criminal activity and glamorizing images that we know are going to lead our kids to death – that we can’t compromise on. If you do that we’ve got to raise that contradiction. Now that is important. And then once you get past that fundamental issue, which is critical, and which, I think keeps me from being at the table. Then you can start talking about voting. We had a 6-point platform in A MOVEMENT FOR CHHANGE. First was spirituality. We’ve got to encourage young people to regain it. Do you realize that for most young people today, for all too many, their god is the entertainment industry? And that’s why many of our young people are making bad choices and doing things that are self-destructive because these entertainers and this lifestyle has rivaled a relationship with God, for these young people. And we can’t permit that. Number two, family. We’ve got to emphasize these connections. And that is why I support Puffy and in anything that I may disagree with him on, I support him and stand with him. He has been an excellent father and an excellent symbol to young African-American men on how to be a father and I think that is to his great credit. But we have got to deal with family. Then, (Number three) positive cultural images. Man, all I am simply saying is the same thing that Malcolm said, we can’t have a culture that destroys ourselves. That can’t be acceptable. And then of course our fourth one – we’ve got to stress education. I mean, do you realize the number of young people in 2005, Cedric, are deciding in elementary school that they don’t want to go to college, because they want to be a rapper? Do you realize what we are doing to ourselves 50 years down the road? When I got to college in the early ‘80s, we wanted to be lawyers, doctors, ministers. We had role models of people who had made a difference for African Americans. I go to colleges now, I was at Atlanta University center the other day, and I saw Negroes on campus with pit bull dogs. On the AU Center campus, the bastion of Black intellectualism. So we have got to have a resurgence of the idea that we have to gain greater education and get away from this destructive culture, and then of course (Number 5), they have done great with the economic piece, and that is important but then (Number 6) the political piece and always a fight for social justice. And the last thing I want to say on that is this. And this is important. This is where I disagree with people. You see, when you talk about Malcolm X or the Honorable Elijah Muhammad or the Church, we have historically always accepted everybody. If you were down you could be embraced by the Black church, by the Black religious establishment and movement. But you had to change. And those organizations yes, Malcolm was a criminal, but he didn’t continue, as his public career grew, and as he gained esteem in the community, he had reformed. He was a different person. And all I am simply saying Cedric is, we have gotten away from that man. We have gotten into star worshipping. The movement has gotten into star worshipping. And we have got to come back from that. I believe that the movement, and what I mean by ‘movement’ is the Black Church tradition and Black political organizations are the light of the world. Both are the finest tradition in the African-American community. We have to delineate again and have a conversation about what our role is to this next generation. And just because young people see you with a rapper, that is not going to make them deal with the principles you stand on. In fact it may undermine everything you have ever done. Because instead of you being the counterpoint to that, challenging that, giving them an alternative, they may say if you are over there, I am going to stay over here too. I mean this is something that has troubled me for four years. I want to go to the table. I don’t want to be ostracized but I’m telling you my principles; and I have studied this thing, Cedric. I’ve watched these young people go to jail. I watch them every day imitating this stuff. And what good is it if I’m at the table but I can’t say anything? I don’t want to be at the table that bad. How do I sit down with you and I am trying to get you to see that you are getting rich but you are killing these kids. You’ve got money you can determine who is at the table. But maybe I don’t need to be at your table. You are not the only one with a table. God has the biggest table. And I am trying to stay true to what I believe, continue to echo these sentiments, continue in my ministry, which is all I have ever done and continue to be a voice for principles that I believe in the long run will be vindicated.
End Of Part II
Part III: Politics Mondays March 28, 2005, Rev. Conrad Tillard Discusses His View Of The Black Electorate And America's Two-Party System
Friday, March 25, 2005