He’s won five Grammy Awards and his friends include people like Kanye West and Common. But back in the fall of 1996, Malik Yusef The Wordsmyth was just one of 26 young Chicagoans who were starting their journey together as new members of Public Allies.
Malik has since gone on to great critical and commercial success as a producer, writer and musical artist, as his many Grammy, Emmy, Peabody, ASCAP and Tony awards attest to. But unlike a lot of other successful musicians, all of his work — starting with his debut album “The Great Chicago Fire: A Cold Day in Hell” — has always had a strong social component.
In a keynote address at Public Allies’ National Leadership Institute in August, Malik credits his Public Allies experience with giving him many of the vital skills he’s needed to be an effective advocate for societal change.
“At the core of me is a champion of change,” says Malik, who was raised in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood known as “Wild 100’s.” “I don’t think I enter any situation in my life without thinking how it affects the majority of the people. And a lot of those skills I learned at Public Allies, being with a group of people who were all working toward the same goals.”
For Malik, those “same goals” mean being community minded and — as he puts it — “climate changing.” “By climate I don’t mean the temperature, but changing the environment that people have to exist in.”
Malik, who regularly rubs elbows with the music industry elite, gave many examples illustrating that to be successful at anything — or even to have a chance at success — talent simply isn’t enough. You need to work hard.
“When Kanye (West) was 15, 16, and 17 years old, he sacrificed three whole summers making five beats a day,” Malik says of his longtime friend. “I’m going to assume the first five beats he made weren’t that good. But he failed forward. He failed going toward the prize.”
“And that’s not the story you want to hear,” Malik continues. “You want to hear this guy is different than us. You want to believe in the Superman. We all do. That in case something goes wrong someone will swoop from the sky to save you. But you’re the salvation, you’re the hero, you’re the champion.”
Malik closed with a special message for everyone in the Public Allies network who works with youth or young adults. It boils down to having integrity.
“These kids are in tune, they’re looking, they need, they want, they deserve, they believe in what you’re saying,” Malik says. “People’s victories are dependent on your actions. And they’re going to hold you to what you said you were going to do. In this place, we have no luxury. There are no days off. There are no plays off.”