By Kate Silver
When Lupe Fiasco thinks back to growing up in Chicago, his mind goes to the powerful kicks, downward blocks, and intense focus he learned from his father, Gregory Jaco. Jaco taught martial arts classes to kids in some of Chicago’s most fiscally dire neighborhoods, and 37-year-old Fiasco, who is best known for his Grammy-award-winning rap music, earned his first black belt by age 10. “I have been molded in that tradition since I was a baby,” says Fiasco. “People don’t know that; the fans don’t know that; you do music and become known as a rapper,” he says.
For Fiasco, who’s often described as an intellectual rapper, the music is just the beginning. Just as his father offered martial arts lessons in some of Chicago’s most violence-stricken areas, Fiasco is working to make his mark on Chicago kids through his own talents and a lasting impact in his community. Martial arts play a key role in this mission. His latest project, a docuseries called Beat N Path (watch it on lupefiascobnp.com), follows his journey to China to learn about martial arts from the masters.
BEYOND THE BEATS
A FIGHTING CHANCE
For decades, martial arts have offered an escape and a refuge for Fiasco, with its demand for discipline, strength, and rigor. His father, Jaco, who passed away in 2007, fell in love with martial arts through the kung fu movies of the 1960s and became a martial arts instructor when he served in the military. He opened studios on the west and south sides of Chicago, welcoming neighborhood kids to escape the crime and gangs that pocked their neighborhoods. He allowed them to take classes even if they couldn’t afford to pay, recalls Fiasco, whose given name is Wasalu Muhammad Jaco. “For him, it was a labor of love and the duty to the community to provide something of value without oppressing people who couldn’t afford it,” he says.
Fiasco, himself, had a lot in common with those kids, who were his friends and neighbors, and he absorbed the lessons alongside them. So much so that 10 years after his father passed away, when Fiasco found himself searching for meaning and connection, he thought back to his Jaco’s words. “If you get the opportunity, go to the homeland of martial arts. Find somebody to teach you.” That’s exactly what he did in 2017, when he had a break in his touring schedule. He decided to travel to China and meet with the masters.
In the spoken introduction to Beat N Path, he sums up his quest like this: “I’ve been doing music my whole life. But you know, sometimes life is short. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The world of commercial music is not as satisfying. There has to be more out there.”
But Beat N Path isn’t just a personal pilgrimage. In true entrepreneurial style, it’s also a professional quest. In October 2017, Fiasco launched the entertainment studio Studio SV in partnership with Hong Kong marketing and media executive Bonnie Chan Woo, with the goal of creating thought provoking, cross-cultural productions. This trip became one of those productions, and a camera crew followed Fiasco on his journey as he met with experts in Beijing and beyond who trained him in different types of martial arts, as well as a traditional Chinese dance, called face changing.
In one of the nine episodes, Fiasco meets Chinese children training at a kung fu academy who remind him of his own upbringing, having been sent to the school by concerned parents. “Pretty much the same reasons we went to karate class,” he reflects. “They may have been bad in school or addicted to their phones.” In another episode, he practices Wushu — a type of kung fu — in a mosque, and the moment takes him back to his own childhood growing up in a Muslim family. “Some of our classes used to be in the mosque in Chicago,” he says in the series. “It’s really full circle.” Later, he meets with a music producer in China, who sums up the history of hip hop in Beijing. The two then work together to record a song called “Air China,” about Fiasco’s experience.
Look around, look around, everybody’s on their phones
It’s a room full of people but everybody’s alone
Looking down, looking down
I even got the monks getting down to the sound
I don’t wanna leave, I just want to brave Air China
I don’t wanna die, I just want to fly Air China
THE INTELLECTUAL RAPPER
Fiasco has long defied the stereotype of the rapper, winning instead, a reputation as a cerebral — even nerdy — artist. He grew up on the west side of Chicago, raised by an intellectually savvy mom, who was a gourmet chef, and by a father, who, in addition to being a karate instructor, was a musician, engineer and something of a Renaissance man. This combination filled his childhood home with National Geographic magazines, PBS television, and Ravi Shankar, while drugs, gangs and prostitution colored life just outside his door.
“It’s like we had all this culture juxtaposed with all this violence and the ills and the vices of the world,” he told Blues & Soul magazine, “So I kinda grew up this musical karate kid, who liked Japanese animation and whose friends were all in gangs, and who’d find drug needles when he was playing in the yard. That was kind of he duality I had
my whole life.”
A lover of jazz, especially Benny Goodman, Fiasco longed to be a clarinet player. “If I could’ve been a jazz man, I would’ve been a jazz man. I probably wouldn’t have been a rapper.” In fact, he told the site AllHipHop.com that as a kid, he considered a lot of hip hop “vulgar” and “demeaning.” But when he got to high school, his opinion changed. He’d been writing poetry, and began rapping those words. He started making mix tapes — the Fahrenheit 1/15 series — that, even today, music writers praise. On those tapes, the song “Conflict Diamonds” was a stand out.
Allow me to break down the game
behind the bracelets, earrings, chains, watches and rings, the bling
The crystal-encrusted, princess-flooded,
canary-studded, blue-colored and blood-stained
Yeah, the older brother of the drug game
The giver of fame, the take awayer of lame
The empowerer of the kings that came with claims and disease
to leave where the native people were staying
Believe, my engagement ring received
the floss at the cost of a bonded child minus pain
“Conflict Diamonds” was inspired by the song “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” by Kanye West, and led West to write his own remix, in response to Fiasco. It seems to have been Fiasco’s ticket to click with the inner clique in the hip hop community, as he went on to perform a guest verse on West’s “Touch the Sky” (2005). Not long after, in 2006, he signed with Atlantic Records for his debut album, Food & Liquor, which includes contributions from his mentor, Jay-Z (who served as executive producer) along with the Neptunes and Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda. The breakthrough song — “Kick, Push” — builds a bridge between the skateboarding world (traditionally seen as white and punk) and the world of hip hop.
In the years since, Fiasco has released about a half-dozen more albums, receiving a Grammy for Best Urban/Alternative Performance in 2007 for “Daydreamin,” a collaboration with Jill Scott, and 12 Grammy nominations. His most recent album, released in 2018, is Drogas Wave, about a group of slaves who jumped off of their slave ship and live under the sea sabotaging other slave ships.
HEAD AND HEART
Fiasco’s reputation as a “conscious” rapper also distinguishes him in his art. This means a willingness to speak his mind about the downsides of the recording business and record labels (he’s said he’s planning to retire more than once, but that hasn’t happened yet) and to delve into controversial and politically-charged topics in his songs. As a result, he’s immersed himself in issues of social importance. In 2014, The Aspen Institute presented Fiasco with the prestigious Henry Crown Fellowship, awarded to entrepreneurs and leaders between ages 30 and 45 who seek to “paint on a broader canvas” to build a better society.
His own record label, 1st and 15th Productions, Inc., makes this effort, bringing new voices into music and putting some distance between artists and the record label politics he’s spoken out against (Drogas Wave was Fiasco’s first album as an independent artist, thanks to his own record label). With Studio SV, he’s also working to create cross-cultural projects that spark conversations and get people thinking. For example, Fiasco is passionate about universal access to clean drinking water and sits on the advisory board for Zero Mass Water, a startup that creates panels that use solar power to draw potable water out of the air.
We Are M.U.R.A.L. (Magnifying Urban Realities & Affecting Lives), the non-profit organization he started with his sister, Ayesha Jaco, provides winter coats to people in need and addresses food deserts in under-served areas of town, bringing nutritious meals and nutrition education to inner-city kids. But beyond the food and clothing, We Are M.U.R.A.L. is also a hub for music, dance, art and self-empowerment.
“There needs to be a fundamental redirect on certain issues about the way people think, the way people look at their community, how people look at themselves.” Fiasco tells Air Chicago.
He’s involved with other projects, too. The Neighborhood Start Fund, founded by Fiasco and Di-Ann Eisnor, empowers kids in Chicago and other cities to hone their entrepreneurial skills and launch businesses in their communities. It provides workshops, networks, mentoring and funding to help them get started. On top of this, Society of Spoken Art, which he co-founded, seeks to connect aspiring musicians with established artists, who act as mentors.
All of these ventures connect back to his work as an artist. Fiasco says that his career success has allowed him to get to a point where he can prioritize giving back, educating others and finding his own personal fulfillment along the way. “It puts you in kind of a space where there’s nothing else to prove, and you can focus on other things,” he says.
Regardless, Fiasco sounds remarkably content with where he’s landed. So much so that if you ask him his favorite place to travel, he answers with a wisp of enlightenment and encouragement, in his own signature cerebral style. “My favorite place on Earth is wherever I am at,” he says. “Where you are needs to be your favorite place in the world, and if it isn’t, then you need to make it that.”