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Photo: Kalyn Jacobs

The Chicago-based educator and performer is turning lessons from past protests, and his own personal failure, into a new plan for impact

Emerge Impact + Music is created and produced by ABP Media’s parent company, A Beautiful Perspective. Leading up to the event, we’re featuring some of the musicians and speakers who’ll be performing in Las Vegas April 6-8. 

Chicago—Bathed in amaranth light, a young Malcolm London forms a heart with his hands and accepts the scattered adulations of the crowd. It is 2011, and London is about to perform his poem “Training Ground,” a scathing indictment of a school system which fails people who look like him; who look different; who look like anyone but me, really.

The first stanza is a gut-punch: “At 7:45 a.m./I open the doors to a building/Dedicated to building/Yet only breaks me down.” This is the work which will win the poetry competition, which draws participants from all over Chicagoland. This is the poem that, performed in 2013 at a TED Talk, will launch London’s national profile.

“It was definitely … one of the most powerful pieces we’ve had in the festival, ever,” Kevin Coval, poet and founder of Louder Than A Bomb, says.

There are glimpses of Malcolm London, the poet and rapper, in the performance. But it is what he says before “Training Ground” begins that better defines him.

“We talk a lot about telling stories,” London told the crowd. “And I think that is very important. But I think our job now as poets is not only to tell the story, but to change it.”

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What passes for light here in late winter is going out, and the finest culturati that the Pool Table Metropolis can produce is currently streaming in, or up the steps, or into the cloistered thorax of an elevator and up into Soho House Chicago’s blank-map members-only climes. All around, in the lobby, in the restaurant, in the publicly accessible Allis cocktail bar, are what now fills the former meatpacking and produce plants of the West Loop: creative types and young-to-middle-aged professionals, impeccably dressed, hands, Moleskins, and laptops clasped and worked, as the various and sundry creative industries beautiful and connected come, to, well, connect, connect and take selfies. Malcolm London rises up the steps to the Allis amid the soft-light-reclaimed-industrial din.

In a caramel peacoat with shearling lapels and tango pink pants, he looks like a prince on vacation. Which, in a way, he kind of is. Long defined by both his activism and his art, he has admittedly been focusing on the later, lately. Which is not to say he hasn’t been busy. He’s a few minutes late right now because he was taking a business call somewhere in the Soho House, was here just last night laying out the logistics of an East Coast tour, and will be speaking at a panel on equality in creativity hosted by the Eugene Taylor Brand in a little over an hour.

London grew up at Chicago and Cicero Avenues in Austin on the city’s West Side, before attending the North Side Lincoln Park High School, where the social contrasts that a segregated Chicago produces came into sharp focus.

“Lincoln Park I owe a lot to why I became an activist,” London says. “It was a direct mirror of what the city looked like to me.” At the time, the Cabrini-Green housing projects were still standing, and the dichotomy of seeing the well supported, toney children of ambassadors and lawyers compared to the kids coming out of one of the most famous projects in the nation made the inequality of the city inescapable.

“The real thing that taught me about inequity was the drugs in my school,” London says. “All the poor black kids had the worst drugs.” The black students would get their lockers sniffed by drug dogs and worked through metal detectors, while the better-off students introduced London to acid, shrooms, cocaine, molly.

“And they never worried about being arrested.”

Louder Than A Bomb founder and poet Kevin Coval recognized in London an aspiring revolutionary.

“When I first saw him perform at Louder Than A Bomb as an underclassman, he seemed really committed to telling counter-narratives and challenging some of the dominant tropes and themes that the city itself was bent on telling,” Coval says. He attributes London’s skill on the page to an insatiable appetite for poetry and literature, a dedication he describes as “powerful to witness.”

“A poem cannot open a school, a poem cannot close a prison, a poem cannot get Donald Trump to listen, let alone out of office.”

“He could just make righteous political poems,” says Letesha Brady, the founder of Eugene Taylor Brand and friend of London’s for almost a decade. “That’s amazing that you have these thoughts, but how are you going to change your thoughts, and be a part of that change?”

London understands the painful calculus of change, and to him, it requires on-the-ground action.

“A poem cannot stop a bullet,” Malcolm says in his distinctive rasp, sitting at the high bar of the Allis. “A poem cannot open a school, a poem cannot close a prison, a poem cannot get Donald Trump to listen, let alone out of office.” Not that the art is not important, he says; it just is not enough alone.

2013 would prove crucial to both his art and activism. Two years after his poem “Training Ground” won Louder Than A Bomb, London’s performance of it at a May TED Talk raised his profile immensely. In July, he attended the Beyond November Movement Convening, a meeting of young black activists from around the country under the aegis of University of Chicago professor Dr. Cathy Cohen.

In the midst of the convening, George Zimmerman was found not guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin. That same day, the gathered activists, galvanized into action, founded BYP100 (Black Youth Project 100), a national organization that aims to build member-based chapters of black activists fighting for equality specifically through a black, queer, feminist lens. BYP100 aims to achieve these goals in a variety of ways: through direct action organizing, electoral organizing, educational programs, leadership development, policy advocacy.

London was a leading organizer in BYP100’s Chicago chapter.

“Malcolm has always been the more charismatic, outgoing, relatable, really moving and inspiring figure,” says Janae Bonsu, an organizer with BYP100. “I was more like behind closed doors, answering emails, more organized person.”

According to Bonsu, London played a critical leadership role in numerous BYP100 campaigns, including a push to legalize marijuana in 2014-15, the 2014 National Moment of Silence in Daley Plaza following the murder of Michael Brown, and the 2015 Baltimore solidarity march to honor the lives—and bring to light the murders of—Freddie Gray and Mya Hall, a transgender woman shot outside the gates of the NSA. Bonsu describes London as an organizer capable of mobilizing thousands within mere days.

“I think our job now as poets is not only to tell the story, but to change it.”

It would be no surprise, then, to learn that he was also involved in the response to the murder of Laquan McDonald, shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer, in November 2015. In the midst of smoke bombs and struggle, London was arrested. Social media campaigns sprung up demanding his release, which was granted, and the charges of aggravated battery were dropped. But in the wave of adulation and praise fighting to free him, one voice stood out.

A woman identified as Kyra wrote an open letter to BYP100 on her Facebook page and Medium detailing London’s sexual assault of her in 2012. London was immediately placed on hiatus, and BYP100, Kyra, and London began a program of community accountability and transformative justice, a survivor-driven process wherein the victim of the sexual harm sets standards for how that damage can be repaired, and attempt to reach those goals.

“Kyra was sexually harmed by Malcolm. She wanted to see him take accountability for that harm,” Mariame Kaba, who facilitated the process, wrote in an emailed statement to A Beautiful Perspective.

“Having previously had experience with trying to address sexual violence through the courts, she felt strongly that this would not be a forum that could hold Malcolm accountable. Additionally, Kyra is committed to finding transformative ways for addressing harm and is committed to helping to build a culture where sexual harm along the entire spectrum becomes unthinkable. In order to do this, she believes that we have to create a culture where it’s actually possible for people who harm you to take accountability for those harms. That’s the spirit with which Kyra agreed to a community accountability process with Malcolm. Her thoughts about that are publicly available on the transform harm tumblr. She hopes that Malcolm continues to build on what was started in the process. She never wanted him exiled from the community. She wanted him to take accountability for the harm he caused her.”

It has been a little over a year since London and Kyra met and officially ended their community accountability and transformative justice process.

“Sexual assault is something that happens way too often for it to be so rarely examined,” London wrote in an email to A Beautiful Perspective. “As a cis-man I’ve been taught to dismiss or ignore harm. I did not want to reinforce these traditions.”

London sees his situation as a chance to lead by example yet again.

“I am accountable to the communities I serve and strive to continue making amends to Kyra,” he wrote.

That accountability will grow as London’s audience does. His choice to dedicate his time more to music—including a spring tour and appearance at Emerge Impact + Musicis a dovetailing of his love of music and his desire for social change. Adopting the more popular art form is a chance to meet people where they live and engage in spaces different from poetry, which he points out can be seen as inaccessible or intimidating. Dominated by white men and academia, poetry carries with it the connotations that haunt all canonized forms of Western art for those who were not allowed to shape them: this is not for you.

“I realized that the people and the kids I want to talk to listen to music, and it’s a lot easier to get somebody to listen to your song than try to go to every single classroom in Chicago to convince kids that poetry matters,” London says. That being said, he still writes, performs and advocates for poetry. The crucial thing is reaching as many people as possible with his message, to affect social change. And what message is he trying to send?

“I think it’s ever-changing and ever-learning for myself,” London says. “But that you have autonomy over your own life, and that freedom is being able to choose and figure out what that is. And when that’s challenged or taken away from you, you also have the power to fight it.”

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