Fighting Racism in the Deep South Is a Family Calling for Rapper-Activist
Genesis Be's family has fought against white supremacists for decades and she’s not letting up anytime soon.
Photo via Marcelitte Failla.
Genesis Be (born Genesis Briggs) carries herself with the peace of mind of someone who has faced down fear and hatred, but has the earned selflessness from understanding the feeling of vulnerability when being threatened. Be is Mississippi native, hip-hop artist and activist who intertwines her passion for community, social justice, music and art towards her family's decades-long fight against racism and white supremacy.
Long before the events at Unite the Right in Charlottesville, Be campaigned against Confederate monuments, most particularly the Confederate flag (her state features the last state flag in the nation to blatantly proclaim pro-Confederate imagery), and against Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant support for April as Confederate Heritage Month. At a performance last year, she led a bold protest on stage, invoking the Mississippi state flag in protest of Bryant that caught the attention of a number of mainstream news and right wing outlets, causing her to receive death threats. She was also the subject of a mini documentary from the Moral Courage Project.
These hostilities haven't deterred her, and this summer she relocated back to the South to continue organizing against the Mississippi state flag, Gov. Bryant and to foster what she sees as much-needed dialogue between all stakeholders.
VICE Impact caught up with Be by phone in late August to talk about her family's history, personal activism, and what's next.
VICE Impact: Tell us a little bit about your background and where your point of view comes from.
Genesis Be : A lot of my world view and ideals come from my upbringing. I was raised in a very diverse household: my mother's a white Catholic woman from Wisconsin, my father is a black country baptist man from Mississippi. They both converted to Islam before I was born, so I was raised Muslim. My parents fostered an environment of freedom of thought and wanting us to be really critical thinkers.
Back a little further than that, my grandfather was Reverend and activist Clyde Briggs. He was a pastor at several churches , was very involved with education reform and was murdered at age 42 because of his work. There were a lot of things going on back then, a lot of tensions. My grandfather actually made a transportation convoy to voting centers and voting polls to protect people from the Klan, and as a result he was targeted. When my father was a kid his home was shot up by Klan members. So this was the atmosphere which my father group up, and it made my father into an activist as well. Some of my earliest childhood memories are going to Klan rallies as an opposing voice with my father. I didn't fully understand what was happening at that time, but these were the images I remember: Seeing my father standing up, speaking truth to power against white supremacy and trying to fight for unity and racial reconciliation in the state of Mississippi.
Do you see a conflict between your work as an artist and an activist? How are you using your platform to push a certain perspective and agenda?
There's really no distinction because when people think of an activist, or people that are political, there's not much room for rawness and just being a human. But that's really what activists are. They're people who are tired of what's going and want to do something.
I see hip-hop as a conduit and vehicle for evoking emotion. I see a lot of orators like Obama and old footage of MLK who are able to speak on stages and tap into the core of people's psyche and empower them with words, and that's similar to hip-hop. It's a way to bring people together and also mobilize people. I don't see a difference at all.
Were you surprised by what happened in Charlottesville?
When I did my protest last April against Confederate Heritage Month and took a Confederate flag on stage I got a lot of scrutiny and threats and harassment. But that's something I grew up with, so threats were not surprising to me. What happened in Charlottesville was definitely not surprising because I know how alt-right and white supremacists think because they attacked me after I stated what I believe to be wrong in terms of the that Confederate emblem flying in my state.
"I see hip-hop as a conduit and vehicle for evoking emotion."
There are people who don't really understand the consequences of white supremacy because they are not the ones affected by it, but I think after Charlottesville, after Heather Heyer -- may she rest in peace -- was killed by that neo-Nazi -- it woke America up. We can no longer sit on the sidelines while our brown and black neighbors are being victimized and brutalized by white supremacists. The white supremacist in Charlottesville made it that much easier for people to choose a side, and not be on the fence, because when you sit on the fence on a conflict that fence is going to come down, and eventually you're going to fall too.
What are some common misconceptions about what Southern heritage is and what are some of the frustrations that you feel about assumptions that are made about it?
When I tell people I'm from Mississippi they're like, "Oh, that's terrible, your childhood life must be so hard." Mississippi has a lot of issues, but the people of Mississippi are not bad people. Bigots and white supremacists have hijacked the Southern brand and are putting this negative stereotype and stigma out into the world. It's depressing our economy greatly.
Growing up in Mississippi I had Vietnamese friends, white friends, black friends -- all great people who would give you the shirt off their back if you asked them to. It's just really unfortunate that Mississippi has the stigma that it does. We need to move on with the new narrative that we can keep the history because that's not going to change, but we can learn from that and move forward as a more united Mississippi to show what we're capable of instead of continuing to let this Confederate curse effect generation after generation.
What are some of the underlying issues that affect all people in Mississippi regardless of race or skin color?
There's a lack of resources and access to critical education that allows us to grow a mindset for kids to see their potential. There's a lack of agency among the youth who feels disempowered and complacent with what's going on. They feel they have no power to really change anything.
What are your next steps in Mississippi and your work elsewhere?
To facilitate racial reconciliation in Mississippi. I want to bring the descendants of Confederate soldiers, white supremacists, and bigots together to the table with activists who are fighting for progress and try to facilitate dialogue that leads to compromise and reconciliation so we can move forward.
"Growing up in Mississippi I had Vietnamese friends, white friends, black friends -- all great people who would give you the shirt off their back if you asked them to. It's just really unfortunate that Mississippi has the stigma that it does."
I would love it if the sons of Confederate veterans, or Governor Phil Bryant and those trying to keep the state flag as is to be part of the process of creating a new design that they think does not disrespect their heritage, but also doesn't disrespect mine.
I want this to be the opportunity for Mississippi to come together and to really make some decisions to create a future narrative together.
Outside Mississippi, my collaborator Aunjanue Ellis and I are hoping to curate an event in New York to bring national attention to Mississippi with our state flag.
This interview has been edited from brevity and clarity.