Kal Balavenkatesan is like a modern day Clark Kent. By day, he teaches writing courses at UC Berkeley; by night, he carves metaphors within the lines of his notebook.
Better known as Professor A.L.I (formerly Black Steven), Balavenkatesan is also a local hip-hop artist who has been perfecting his craft for over a decade. He’s worked with legendary Wu-Tang Clan MC Raekwon the Chef, as well as many other pioneers of hip-hop.
A member of the Bay Area duo Stormshadowz, Balavenkatesan recently released his second solo album, Emerald Manifesto, which features socially charged and politically poignant calls to action layered over neck-breaking beats. The record includes a host of independent rap stalwarts, from Bay Area street rapper Tha Jacka and Oakland underground legends Zion I to Seattle's Blue Scholars and Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon, who serve as guest speakers for his lyrical lectures.
Union City Patch caught up with the professor to talk about the role hip-hop plays in education and where being an artist and educator converge and diverge.
What made you want to begin doing music?
Music has been an important part of my life. My earliest memories are of my mother singing. Perhaps it's in the blood as she was an established choral singer in her day, or perhaps it's the admiration I've had for those who write deep song lyrics ... I'm not sure there is an answer to this question, that I can specifically remember, I had and have a passion for it, which is why I do it.
What/who inspire you musically?
Besides my mother, there are several artists who are inspirational to me. It may sound cliche but Bob Marley, 2pac and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan all (through multiple genres) have been very inspirational to me on a personal level. Chuck D and Ice Cube were the first two individuals that I tried to actually emulate in style. I'd also add Nas to that list.
But beyond artistry I'm truly motivated by social issues, in particular issues of inequity and social justice. When those issues come up and I feel powerless to stop them, I try to preserve my emotion through poetry and music.
How long have you been doing music?
I wrote my first rap in the 9th grade. And since then I went back and forth, juggling the practicality of a life in music with the reality of what life demanded so before long I became a teacher. Just before I was going to stop music entirely, E-40 met me and my partner from the group Stormshadowz in the studio and that began this most recent push which pushed me to try my first solo project, "Carbon Cycle Diaries".
Why do you do your art?
I believe creative expression to be therapeutic. My life has been filled with a lot of death and turmoil and I've found my art [to be] a nice way to process and deal with otherwise emotionally draining events.
What’s the difference between Black Steven and Professor A.L.I?
Black Steven is a caricature of my rage, it is a pseudonym and persona I adopt when using angry and sometimes unforgiving language reflecting on truly unjust scenarios in our world. Black Steven is a name based off of Esteban the Moor, who I learned about back in 6th grade, and was enamored with from that day to now. He was a polyglot and could speak in many languages, and was taken as a slave by the Spaniards to help them conquer the Native peoples of this land. He was a Muslim and his story resonated with me.
I am Professor A.L.I., an educator, who uses Hip-Hop as a language to communicate his message Authentically, with Love, and Intellect — A.L.I. Black Steven is a character played by Professor A.L.I. I did that so my fans and students could understand the angry voice is a part of me but know me at the same time.
What role does hip hop play in education?
Hip-Hop is a language and any and every language can be used to communicate ideas and to educate. There are several pedagogical studies looking at the intersection of Hip-Hop and education and my last album, Carbon Cycle Diaries, has been used at both the high school and college level for educational purposes as part of innovative curriculum to great critical response.
Do you incorporate music in your lectures?
I try to keep the fact I am a Hip-Hop artist and poet a secret from my students, but after E-40, its been much harder. But I hold fast to the rule that education is about students first and rarely if ever bring in my own art into the classroom. I do use the Hip-Hop artistry of my colleagues and have used artists I've collaborated with and their artistry in my class.
Why do you think it’s so powerful?
Music? I think music is powerful since it is a reflection of the music we see in nature, at its core, every instrument even our singing began as an emulation of natural sounds. It communicates an idea and an emotion and speaks to the human soul. Even the human body has a beat and without it there is no life.
What’re your musical goals?
I'll continue to do music as long as I'm inspired, I'd love that it becomes more erudite than it has and hope to collaborate with a few more artists. Ultimately I love the fact that I've been able to connect with so many good and positive people through music and I hope that I'll be able to do so with more people and help build a community of awareness of the issues I address.
Why did you record your most recent record?
My most recent record is called Emerald Manifesto and, like my past albums, is an exploration of the social ills in our world. I see myself as carrying the torch of the true fathers of this art known as Hip-Hop, namely the West African griots, who were storytellers and repositories of history in oral poetic form. As a modern day griot, I try to document and speak on what is happening both for posterity but also for the purposes of helping to spark dialogue which addresses the ills.
Emerald Manifesto has a permaculture focus, it's not about pollution and environmental degradation but speaks about a paradigm shift through which the planet can be regenerated and renewed.
Where do you currently teach?
I'm currently teaching a college writing course at U.C. Berkeley as part of the PCA program. It's a writing course with emphasis on African American Literature and Poetry. During the regular academic year, I teach at the Athenian College Preparatory School located at the base of Mt. Diablo in Danville, CA.
Aside from college writing in the summer, I am a Humanities instructor teaching seminar courses on Vikings and Mongols, Middle Eastern History, International Relations and World History.
What can we learn from Professor A.L.I?
We can learn that through dialogue that we can come up with real solutions to problems that plague us, that the world is not a black and white construct, but one of many shades of gray and that through a spiritual focus one can navigate that gray, Authentically, with Love, and Intellect or A.L.I.
I'm still promoting Emerald Manifesto, which was released a few weeks ago. My first solo, Carbon Cycle Diaries, is available for free download off my website, www.professorali.com, and I am currently writing my new album which will be entitled Das Ka Rebel and is slated for an early 2013 release.