A Cultural Manifesto: Raafiq Alim talks Hoosier Zulu Nation

Raafiq Alim with Killah Priest

You may know Raafiq Alim by his MC name Merc Versus. Or perhaps you know him for his work with the excellent underground hip-hop trio Bedlam Brethren. You may have even know him as the former host of P.O.W.z. Radio on Earlham College's station WECI 91.5 FM . But these days you're more likely to hear Alim's name in connection with the Universal Zulu Nation.  

The Zulu Nation was founded in 1973 by DJ Afrika Bamambaataa, a man often labelled as the godfather of hip-hop. Alim established a Central Indiana chapter of the Zulu Nation last year and he's been putting in work to increase the organization's presence in Indianapolis.

I recently spoke with Alim via phone from his home in Muncie. We discussed his work with the Zulu Nation and his vision for the newly founded local chapter Chakra Zulus.  

NUVO: Tell us about the Zulu Nation and how you got involved with the organization.

Raafiq Alim: I've been involved in the hip-hop scene for about fifteen years. I ended up building with a b-boy from Fort Wayne by the name of Coda. About four years ago he approached me about getting down with the Zulu Nation chapter up there called the Tomahawk Zulus. I was with them for almost three years and then decided to branch out and start another chapter for the 317 and 765 area codes. Our chapter is the Chakra Zulus which is an acronym for Cultural Heritage And Key Resource Advocates. We've been a chapter for about a year.

I started out in the Zulu Nation as a rank and file member, but I moved up to Vice President of the Tomahawk Chapter in a relatively short amount of time. Right now I'm considered a chapter leader in the Nation.

The Zulu Nation is a global grass roots community activist organization. We have a set of principles and rules that we abide by. We consider ourselves not so much a hip-hop movement, but a life movement. It just so happens that we use hip-hop as a tool for peace, love, and community. The word Zulu itself in the South African language means the heavens, we relate that to the concepts of peace, love and community because those things are heavenly.

I respect my connection to the Zulu Nation becuase that's where hip-hop culture was named and defined. According to our history Afrika Bambaataa said "ok, these four elements are hip-hop: MCing, DJing, b-boying, graffiti." And then he added the fifth element which is knowledge or what we call the Infinity Lessons, which are teachings from every culture, nationality, and religion throughout history.

A big misconception about the Zulu Nation is that it's a Black movement. Zulu itself is a metaphor for strength in numbers. Shaka Zulu turned a bunch of disjointed tribes into an empire. That's the way we view hip-hop culture. We strive for unity and fun. We want to bring fun into hip-hop through unity. Unity with different causes and within hip-hop itself. Zulu Nation seeks to bring everyone together through our similarities, but respecting our differences. In our chapter we have Black, White, Asian, Hispanic and Bi-Racial. It's across the board.

NUVO: Tell us about some of the community projects Zulu Nation has developed in Indiana.

Alim: Some of the causes we align ourselves with are food drives, clothing drives, we've done a Christmas toy drive. This year we're having our third annual Weather the Elements winter clothing drive in Muncie. We accept coats, hats, gloves, scarves, and mittens. This is third year we've done this at Village Green Records, and we've invited a b-boy crew from Fort Wayne called River City Breakers to do a b-boy showcase for the last two years.

We use hip-hop as a tool to bring people together and entertain, but we also want to tie these events to a charitable cause. It's good for the preservation of the positive image of hip-hop culture, and also for the sake of educating people about hip-hop. A lot of people see b-boying or breakdancing as old-school, but there's a global subculture of b-boys. Graffiti and breakdancing are the lost arts of hip-hop and a lot of people don't realize they're still alive.

In the future we'd like to have discussion panels on community issues and the music business. We're also planning to do a book giveaway.

NUVO: What about branching out in Indianapolis? I understand you have an event here on Saturday.

Alim: We're still trying to get a foothold in Indianapolis so we're holding the People's Mic event, which is an open to the public rap cipher at Vibes Music in Broad Ripple. We're incorporating that into a winter clothing drive as well. We'll be giving the donated clothing items to the Wheeler Mission shelter.

The event is a call to MCs to come through and spit their best bars, and we'll put together a highlight video and help put your name out there. Basically I want to present the Univeral Zulu Nation as an entity that's not on some elitist or separatist type stuff. We're a platform for the artists.

NUVO: Clearly you're investing a lot of energy in building community with the Zulu Nation, I'm curious how you see hip-hop's relationship with the struggle for social justice?

Alim: One example I could give is this, a couple years ago I posted a picture of the autobiography of Malcolm X on the internet and said "Don't call yourself an MC if you haven't read this book." A lot of people asked what I meant. The activist world of the 1960s gave birth to the attitude of hip-hop. Hip-hop was born out of the chaos and struggle of the '60s and '70s. A lot of the founding fathers of hip-hop were embroiled in the social justice struggles of the ghetto. I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man, but some of the higher ranking members of the Zulu Nation beleive hip-hop has been turned into a weapon against the youth where as the founders like Afrika Bambaataa were looking for a way to give the youths a forum to get all their energy off their chest without hurting each other.

The Zulu Nation wants to encourage people to take time to look into what's going on in their own community. People say, "What can I do?" It may be as simple as this, if you live near a park and it's full of trash get a group of rappers together and go pick up the trash. I don't think it's corny to put in that type of work. Picking up trash in the community, or collecting coats in the winter is a more honorable use of the hip-hop workforce than getting together to brag about what we have and pop some bottles. Celebration is great, part of the b-boy culture is built on celebration. But celebration should come after a victory, and you have to have that victory first.

NUVO: I heard the Chakra Zulus recently recognized Wu Tang member Killah Priest as an honorary member. How did that come about? And how can interested NUVO reders get involved with Zulu Nation?

Alim: I opened for Killah Priest around 2009 and we maintained contact. We were talking after his recent show at the Hi-Fi and I was telling him about the Chakra Zulu chapter we founded and what we stood for. He said, "Why don't you put me down with the Chakras?" So it's up to the discretion of every chapter to name an honorary member and we put him down as an honorary member.

As far as official membership goes, if there's a chapter near you contact that chapter. It's basically a three month evaluation process. You have to agree to participate in three monthly meetings and four events. We'll give you some of our literature to study and you'll be tested on Zulu knowledge. After the three month period we'll decide if you're right for the chapter. Not if you're good enough, or great enough, because we're looking for all types of people who are down with our principles whether you're a doctor, lawyer, or janitor. We're open to anybody who stands for our principles. 

A Cultural Manifesto is now available on WFYI's HD2 radio. Tune in Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 3 p.m. as NUVO's Kyle Long explores the merging of a wide variety of music from around the globe with American genres like hip-hop, jazz, and soul.

Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.