Photo by Brian Cohen
Profile by Estelle Smith
With a quick internet search, you can find all the basic information about Jasiri X. He’s a Pittsburgh-based rapper, activist and co-founder of the social justice organization 1Hood. He has gained wide recognition for his songs, including “Free the Jena 6,” “Trayvon” and “Strange Fruit.” He’s received numerous fellowships and awards and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2016.
But what really defines Jasiri X is not something you can get from glancing over his bio or listening to a couple of his songs. What has made him successful in both the hip-hop and activist worlds is his commitment to something often lost on social media: dialogue. Rather than putting people in boxes and diminishing voices he doesn’t agree with, he seeks to understand them. Rather than getting defensive, he seeks to learn and grow.
This open attitude has led him and his social justice organization, 1Hood, to do a lot of work with the Jewish community in Pittsburgh to fight antisemitism, especially after the 2018 attack on three Pittsburgh-area Jewish congregations: Dor Hadash, Tree of Life, and New Light. For this work, Jasiri is a recipient of a Righteous Among the Neighbors award.
But reaching this point of social consciousness was not a short or straight road.
Jasiri is originally from Chicago’s South Side. When he moved to Pittsburgh, he went from a school that was 100% Black to the Gateway School District in Monroeville, which was almost 100% white. This was the first time he experienced “in-your-face-racism.”
Being from Chicago, his first response was to fight back, but Jasiri’s mom put a huge emphasis on education and “was like yeah, you can’t do that.” So Jasiri instead got into activism, forming a Black club at Gateway and getting the school to teach Black history, and soon after that, he got into rap.
“It was therapeutic for me to write about what I was going through,” Jasiri said. “My raps fell into social conscious territory because I was talking about what I was experiencing as a Black student in a predominantly white space.”
Although it helped him navigate at Gateway and in college, he was told social justice rap wasn’t marketable, so he stopped rapping and got a job with the Pittsburgh Public Schools to counsel teenage fathers. His job allowed him to go around to all the schools, where he met other people doing similar work and they started talking about issues they faced daily in their communities.
“We’re dealing with unemployment, failing schools, lack of affordable housing, community violence, police violence,” Jasiri X said. “We’re taking our frustration out on one another.” Jasiri and other activists “felt like in coming together in unity, we could deal with the systemic issues.”
“That was the Genesis of 1Hood,” which has grown from there, putting on events, supporting teens through the arts and doing a variety of social justice work. Over the years, it has built up a relationship with the Pittsburgh Jewish community, creating a dialogue particularly with the Pittsburgh Holocaust Center and Bend the Arc.
In 2018, the Pittsburgh Jewish community and the Pittsburgh Black community stood in solidarity with each other during the aftermath of the police killing of a Black teenager, Antwon Rose, and the attack at Dor Hadash, Tree of Life, and New Light. Both hung purple roses and Stars of David from trees for each other. That solidarity has only grown since then, facilitated by 1Hood and multiple Jewish organizations. Jasiri’s openness to learning and having a dialogue has been central to this.
In 2021, Jasiri was asked to be on a panel hosted by former Steeler Zach Banner called “Athletes Against Antisemitism,” but his invitation caused a lot of backlash over Twitter due to a song he wrote back in 2014.
Jasiri had been getting back into rap, and as his popularity grew from “Free the Jena 6,” he began making more music in the social conscious genre. After he visited the Palestinian territories and Israel in 2014, he created a song and video called “Checkpoint” describing what he saw as the harassment of the Palestinian people at military checkpoints.
Jasiri said that when he wrote “Checkpoint,” he was coming from the perspective of one oppressed people to another, “thinking of it as more like a civil rights thing, like freedom of movement.”
Jasiri hadn’t realized that his support of the Palestinian community’s freedom from Israel’s occupation had antisemitic connotations for many Jewish people, who see measures such as checkpoints as essential for Israeli security.
“I didn’t know certain words or terms that I was using would be classified as antisemitic,” he told the panel. “And so I had to do that work on my own self, to say, ‘OK, I want to be a better ally.’”
Reflecting back in the interview, Jasiri said he used to think “Jewish people are white,” so he had wondered why they were so sensitive to language.
“Anti-blackness is so prevalent, you have to decide, is this going to be the thing I’m gonna go against today, or am I just gonna let it slide,” Jasiri said.
But he learned from dialogue with Jewish partners how much words matter and can lead to violence.
“So you’re ultra careful,” Jasiri said. “If you let something slide, it could lead to somebody being killed.”
Jasiri is grateful he was kept on the panel. During the panel discussion, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life praised Jasiri’s words, calling them “a public teshuvah,” which is rooted in the Hebrew concept of repentance.
From there, dialogue has only increased. The more there is, the more they look out for each other and help each other build up safety for their communities. 1Hood and the Pittsburgh Holocaust Center in particular have built a strong relationship, having discussions around the history of antisemitism and community safety, which have even impacted Jasiri personally.
A few years ago, the then-executive director of the Pittsburgh Holocaust Center, Lauren Bairnsfather, saw that a man was sharing Jasiri’s picture and office information on a white supremacist website, threatening to spread personal information and calling him the n-word and anti-white. She knew this man because he had gone to prison for violence toward the Jewish community, so she warned Jasiri.
This is just one of many examples of antisemitism going right along with racism, homophobia and other forms of hate. “The way the political discourse is becoming so violent toward Black people, Jewish people, Queer people,” Jasiri said he’s getting worried.
“It is something where it is almost like we’re bracing, but I think we can be vigilant around,” Jasiri said. “I think that’s probably the next collective meeting we gotta have.”
1Hood has been meeting with other Jewish organizations and Shawn Brokos, a 24-year veteran of the FBI and current Director of Community Security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Brokos has been helping to extend safety measures in the Jewish community to the Black community as well.
“For us, it’s like, how do we keep one another safe more intentionally,” Jasiri said. “Tree of Life was a tragedy. Out of that tragedy, we built so many positive relationships that I don’t know if we would have been as intentional about and same with Antwon being a tragedy. Through these tragedies came some real solidarity that exists to this day.”