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Tef Poe And Phillip Agnew Talk With Us ‘Black Men Build’ And Making Juneteenth A National Holiday

When Tef Poe and Phillip Agnew tell you they’re collaborating on an initiative, called Black Men Build, you listen. Though they’ve operated in different lanes, the two men are both widely known as fierce intellects, tenacious organizers, and big-hearted leaders. They met in Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown, and have each earned a place at the forefront of the modern protest movement in the United States — Poe working with HandsUp United and Agnew with The Dream Defenders.

Poe and Agnew are also both poets in their own ways. As a musician and rapper, Poe has added significantly to the “conscious hip-hop” genre, while simultaneously helping expand the conversation about what that phrase even means. His latest release, Josephine, offers a series of bright, optimistic, reflective raps spit over the sprightly guitar of Daniel “Monkh” Horrell. Meanwhile, his solo albums skew harder and darker — lyrics sizzling with the MC’s clear-eyed distrust for our failed systems while also reflecting his sincere belief that things can improve.

On the flip side, Agnew has defined himself as a once-in-a-generation orator — his words brimming with the potential he sees in humanity. He was a national surrogate for the campaign to elect Bernie Sanders and his speeches across the country often went viral in progressive political circles. Though his passion is always on display and his delivery is powerful, it’s the delicate nuance that Agnew captures, the turns of phrase that open the door to higher levels of solidarity, that make his addresses resonate so deeply.

Together, in launching Black Men Build, Poe and Agnew are developing a platform for black men to “engage this country as an organized force.” Their first major piece of content in the initiative, Wartime: Black Men’s Survival Guide, offers vital advice for navigating both the coronavirus and the current protest/ defund movement. On Saturday, June 20th, they’re hosting a national kick-off call to discuss the role of Black men in the current socio-political moment.

In advance of that call, I spoke over the phone with Poe and Agnew about Black Men Build (social media toolkit here), the “dismembering nature” of white supremacy, and the push to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

So let’s get right into this initiative that you two are rolling out, Black Men Build. You have a national call on June 20th and — for people in the social justice community, this is two legends combining. This is the Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star album. This is Voltron.

Phillip Agnew: Black Men Build is at least five years in the making. The seeds began when I traveled to Ferguson, trying to get down with the uprising that had already kicked off, and was then fomenting in St. Louis and in Ferguson. And Tef and I have been in contact and been friends and comrades — traveling to other countries together — since then. Black Men Build is based on an accumulation of our individual and collective experiences — being community organizers and strategists and artists for our entire adult lives.

The beginnings of Black Men Build recognize that there is no place right now where black men can engage this country as an organized force that is in service of our community and the global community. Tef and I are both internationalists. So we know what happens in the United States, what happens in Ferguson, what happens in Miami, what happens in Chicago has serious repercussions for what happens in Brazil and in Haiti and Palestine. And so we’ve baked a lot of that into Black Men Build. It’s a place for black men to engage the country as an organized force, and it’s not a self-interested group. It’s not black men for black men, but it’s really based on the understanding that a black man needs to be taught to reach out, to challenge, to question, and even, frankly, to listen in a different way if we’re going to actually be able to win something in this country and around the world.

Tef Poe: Yeah, man, what I can add to that is when I realized that this was going to go from being an idea to being a reality, I quickly shifted into how dangerous of a concept this was as well. Because what we’re quintessentially talking about doing with this prospect is building actual, organized collective power. And we already have collective power, black men, in the United States of America and the global diaspora at large. But what we don’t have is organized collective power. That’s a totally different concept.

People have been trying to accomplish that since Fela Kuti. He was pushing the United States of Africa. Or Patrice Lumumba. What we are, in my opinion, is just another extension of the baton. Some brothers kicked off the race a long time ago. Centuries ago. Those same men who stood with Queen Nzinga when she went against the colonialists and supported the women’s armies. We come from that same lineage. I’m only in the United States of America because my people was most likely a rebellious person within the village that got sold to the white folks. So I’m linking up with the rest of the rebels with this project and trying to build something. I think it’s just an extension of that legacy.

And as far as how that’s going to manifest in the day to day, what effect do you want the project to have? How would you see it? You know, shifting conversations and shifting culture and what do you see the rollout looking like, essentially?

Phillip Agnew: There’s a lot of content out in the world, but there’s not a lot of context. There’s not a lot of people who could combine the historical moment that we’re in, the present moment that we’re in, and a vision for where we go forward.

This is a collective effort, right? It’s us bringing in our creativity, but also our knowledge and our skills of communication to break down this moment and put it in context. There are so many people sharing information, sharing videos, sharing headlines for our young brothers, our young sisters. For anybody who is coming across any of our information — you’re going to get the context behind it. You’re going to get an understanding of how we got to this moment and understanding of all of the factors that are influencing this moment, currently. And then once you have a clear assessment of that, we’ll talk about how we go forward.

That’s what you’re going to see manifested in our content, through our social media, in our national kick-off call that we’re having on Saturday, June the 20th at 2:00 PM Eastern with thousands of brothers from around the country. A plan that’s rooted in history but also a clear analysis of the moment, not just one slice of the pie.

Tef Poe: And you know, also for me I’m kind of like the MC Ren of the crew. You know what I mean? That’s kind of how I view my position.

Phillip Agnew: Cube, bro! Cube!

Tef Poe: I’ll take Cube! And not disrespecting Ren, just saying Ren was the cat that wasn’t a rapper. He was the shooter for real, you know what I’m saying? So it’s like a part of me in revealing this rollout — outside of the schematics of the actual rollout — is revealing the relationship and the textures of the relationships within the network. I think what makes BMB really different than a lot of spaces where folks are doing similar organizing is that we’re really not calling favors in from people that we don’t know. We really are leaning our brothers we know, and that extends itself from me and Phil all the way up to Cornell West. We’re not going through Cornell’s PR team. We’re not talking to his assistant. We’re talking directly to him like, “Hey, we’re trying to shake the country up. If you want to sit at the table we for real, we serious. If you don’t, then this ain’t for you.”

That’s really how we’re coming at it. It goes back to the deeply intentional organizing and the deep revolutionary principle of being brothers at arms. I stepped to the table knowing that if Phil got opposition and obstacles and enemies, well guess what? His enemies are my enemies now, too. You know what I’m saying? And I put that hat on and those shoes on completely knowing that that’s what time it is. And I think that the call on Saturday, outside of the politics, culturally, is going to reveal to the country that we’re ready for the smoke.

Black Men Build

Is that a response to how white supremacy has attempted to divide black people and, in this case, black men?

Phillip Agnew: Absolutely, but let me actually broaden that out. White supremacy is a divisive ideology in every way. It divides up the mind, the body, the soul. It divides up people by race, it divides up people by language. That is why white supremacy is the ideology of conquering and exploitation — because it teaches you that there is only one way to be. Right? It teaches you that your mind, your body, and your spirit always have to be in separate domains.

That is why we always say that it is a “dismembering.” White supremacy is a dismembering ideology, right? And so when you re-member, when you bring the different pieces… that’s what we’re doing with Black Men Build, that’s what the larger movement is doing. When you bring in the different pieces — the dismembered pieces of black people that have been thrown across the country, thrown across the water, thrown across the South, thrown across the world — and now we are re-membering. That reconstruction of identity is one of the crucial strategic ways to fight against a white supremacist ideology. Yes, it is about race. It’s absolutely about racism, about the racial dominance of white men, but it is also inherently a divisive and a dismembering ideology.

That’s why we think Black Men Build is important. Because we have been taught and instructed that men, that women, that people of other identities, that people of other sexual orientations all have to be at odds and that the self-interest of one group is at odds with another. And we’re saying “no.” As Tef said, we are actually from the lineage of men who followed the leadership of women, who followed them into the battle and when they called us to be generals, those men were generals. When they were called to be soldiers, they were soldiers. When they were called to be agents and covert agents, that they did that. That’s what we’re recalling — that memory, now.

That re-membering that you’re talking about — the unification of black people — has historically, obviously, struck a lot of fear in the hearts of people who have a vested interest in white supremacy.

Tef Poe: Definitely, definitely. That’s partially because white supremacy is a straight-up patriarchal stronghold. So it’s expected that we, as black men, would replicate the patriarchy or seek to aspire to be in alignment with the patriarchy. And part of the reason why we’re able to have this coordination and be so honest with each other is because we are eliminating the liberalism and the patriarchy, even amongst ourselves. Even within dealing with each other, we’re trying to address it.

Phillip Agnew: At its most core level, Black Men Build is seeking to reassert a “new man.” And it’s really, as I said, we are recalling the pieces of us that were already there and were already present, that were beaten, enslaved and churched, you know, via religion. All of these institutions that were built from the root of what this country is, took those pieces away from us. That’s why history is important. A lot of the things you hear brothers talking about today as “inherent to Africans” or “inherent to black men” are actually European ideas. And so the a-historic nature of even the composition that we have around manhood is debilitating and it’s foolish. And it’s just reinforcing actually, a European form of manhood. And so for us, bringing history to bear is a part of what moved us forward. We’re redefining what a man is, as we move forward.

Tef Poe: Also, I want to offer that this isn’t solely a program to “save the black man.” This is also a program that will straighten up humanity. Because as we’ve seen throughout history, through the work of Elijah Muhammad, through the work of the Black Panther Party, in its initial conception… before the government comes in and tampers with these things, these are vices that straighten the black man up. And, in consequence, also straighten humanity up because humanity can’t straighten itself up until the original man and woman are able to stand up and walk with full pride, full honesty and full transparency about who we really are within the context of not only this planet but the entire universe,

Bam. You guys just took it from the microcosm of a kick-off phone call to the entire universe in how long? 8 minutes? That’s the fastest I’ve ever had a conversation go that wide and I’m here for it.

Phillip Agnew: That it, man. That’s what we do!

Your kick-off call is the day after Juneteenth. There’s been a vocal push over the past few years to turn this day into a national holiday. This year it has particular heat behind it, with businesses declaring the day a holiday and giving people time off. Do you see that as the next step for America — reincorporating some of its painful history and learning to reflect on the past while moving forward?

Tef Poe: I think that this is the problem with the United States, man. We’re the country that wants to get credit for the bodies that we don’t collect. And we don’t want credit for the bodies that we’ve actually accumulated, but we want credit for the bodies that we didn’t do on our own. And that’s what Juneteenth is kind of like for me. When I witnessed what happened at large with the, I guess the grand reveal that this is the day that we got to walk off the plantation. I feel as if people aren’t doing the work to repair the relationship before they start celebrating.

I personally can’t protest with white folks who don’t believe in reparations. Because you can’t come to my house, steal all my stuff, and then I leave and come back with 150 people and say, “Hey, can I get my stuff back?” And instead of giving me my stuff back, you come outside and join me in yelling at the house. This course is backwards. Can you go back in the house and get us our stuff? Then you can come out here and celebrate with us all you want, because we got our stuff back.

That’s what I see happening with Juneteenth. We haven’t had any repair, but white folks want to be out popping fireworks and balloons talking about “yay, yay, yay!” I’m confused.

Phillip Agnew: This is a country that has given national holidays to murderers of Indigenous people; given national holidays to destroyers and slaveholders and murders of black people. So maybe a national holiday means something, but it’s not far enough toward where we need to go.

Here’s where I will say a national holiday for Juneteenth means something. It’s based on what Dr. Angela Davis says, which is essentially that, “White supremacy requires national amnesia. You are supposed to forget the wrongs and the things that happen to you and the devastating things that people did to you and your family and your descendants in the service of building this national American project, this beautiful land of the free.” So a reassertion of Juneteenth as a national holiday, in some segments of society, will force a reckoning with what the country did. And if that is one thing that it accomplishes, it will accomplish a great thing. But until there is a legitimate attempt at truth, at reconciliation, and at recompense — for the people and for the wrongs that have been done — then a national holiday is a satisfying thing, but it’s very, very insufficient.

Tef Poe: It’s a finesse job, man. I’m in the ghetto right now. I’m literally — my feet are touching the soil in the hood. I don’t give a damn about no damn national holiday if I’m still poor bro. Especially if the holiday is in service of poverty. And it’s in service of capitalism to begin with. All they want to do is dangle this national holiday in front of my face, and then all the Negros go out and buy Nike’s and bratwursts and sodas, and then we catch the Coronavirus and you go, “Well, guys, you got health complications, it’s attached to the shit you’re eating!”

No, it’s attached to the shit you’re selling me, not the shit I’m eating.

It’s such a large, expansive, inclusive philosophy that you two bring to this.

Phillip Agnew: There’s a bigger picture. If you don’t have a consciousness that encompasses race, gender — that is effectual and understands all of these things together. If your consciousness isn’t about reuniting the mental, the spiritual, and the physical world that we’re in, then you’re only doing a half thing. Then me and Tef are only playing games with y’all.

We have to give people the full picture. We’re going to talk about how the Indigenous people were slaughtered alongside the black Africans in this country. We’re going to talk about how the white man was created. That Irish people, and Italian people, and German people, at one time, were hated by Americans. We’re going to talk about how people, white people who have no dirt under their fingernails, are getting these poor white people to do all manner of things for them, just because they taught them that they’re just like them. So we got to talk about that.

Tef Poe: That’s why I say this program is a program for all of humanity. We have a right to organize ourselves because we are black men, and it’s quite painful for people to tell you that you have no right to take ownership over the political destiny of your own identity. That’s the most painful thing about being a black man, to me. So I think this project within me internally will help eradicate a lot of that energy, and I hope a lot of other brothers do try and do that as well.