A Conversation With Ayesha Jaco On Providing The Poem For Lupe Fiasco’s ‘Food & Liquor’ & Their Childhood In Chicago
Yohance Kyles (@HUEYmixwitRILEY)
(AllHipHop Features) Throughout the history of Hip Hop, there are a handful of album openers that instantly captures the listener’s attention and provides an alluring prologue to the full book yet to come. This century has seen exceptional introductory tracks such as Jay-Z’s “Intro,” Common’s “Be,” Drake's “Over My Dead Body,” Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares,” and Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” set the tone for those rappers’ respective projects.
Back in 2006, Lupe Fiasco secured his placement in the conversation about impressive rap forewords. The 1st & 15th representative recruited his sister, Ayesha Jaco, to establish the motif of the Midwest musician’s debut studio LP Food & Liquor with a poem about the environment where the man born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco was raised.
“Food and liquor stores rest on every corner, from 45th and State to the last standing Henry Horner. J&J's, Harold's Chicken, good finger-licking. While they sin, gin, sin sin at Rothschild's and Kenwood Liquors,” expressed Ayesha on “Intro” as the sounds of the city played out behind her spoken-word piece.
The Illinois State University graduate is not just a guest feature presented on several of her brother’s releases. Ayesha Jaco is also a well-established choreographer who founded the Move Me Soul Youth Dance Company and scored a year-long residency at Rebuild Foundation in her hometown.
Following Lupe’s phenomenal performance at the Red Bull Music Festival Chicago in November, I had the chance to chat with Ayesha about the M.U.R.A.L. (formerly Lupe Fiasco Foundation) co-founder’s essential contribution to what ultimately turned out to be a Hip Hop masterwork in Food & Liquor.
AllHipHop: Do you remember the initial conversations with Lupe about creating the intro for Food & Liquor?
Ayesha Jaco: He approached me and asked if I could write a poem. I knew what the album was capturing - the duality of what a food and liquor store meant in our community. It’s a place where you go for nourishment on the food side of things, but then there’s unhealthy food there. There’s also the liquor component. So you go for nourishment, but at the same time, there are the realities, and some cases temptations, of things that have to potential to be bad like liquor, cigarettes, etc. Looking at the environment surrounding the food and liquor store where we grew up in East Garfield Park in Chicago, it was a food desert. There was a lot of violence around the food and liquor store. So for me, thinking about what this album was going to do, I wanted to give an accurate depiction to someone that had never been to Chicago, never been to our block or community, what it felt like, what it smelled like, the background vocals of the kids on the block. We went to the food and liquor store once or twice a day. One time Lupe got hit by a car going to one of the neighborhood food and liquor stores. There are a lot of memories from that span of our lives. So him bringing to life a project centered around that, he wanted to tap me to help tell that story so that it’s really drawn from the perspective of our childhood memories.
AllHipHop: At the time when you were making the album, or even when it was done, was there any sense that it was going to have the impact that it did? Did you know it was going to be a classic?
Ayesha Jaco: I think the momentum from his mixtape led to people being curious about what he could do for a feature album. That mixtape was so hot, different, fresh. So I think it was a lot of anticipation from fans wanting to know what a Lupe Fiasco album would be like. For him, it was just having the opportunity to pour his heart and soul on one project that was thematic. As you know, a lot of mixtapes have themes derived from other inspirations or existing movies, in his case, Revenge of the Nerds. But to create something homegrown that was inspirational and paired with him demonstrating his ability to be a lyricist, a thought leader, it was a lot of anticipation from our side. For me, I was like, “Yeah, I’ll do the poem.” It was just bare bones, telling it like it was. I referenced 45th and State. That was an area where housing projects used to be. Henry Horner was the last housing projects to be torn down. If you came west, you ran into our hood. For him, it was like the birth of one of his children.
AllHipHop: Parts of the album leaked before it was released. Was that always the original version of your intro?
Ayesha Jaco: This was always the original version. Yeah, this is what it was when we first put it together.
AllHipHop: There was always a line that stood out to me. You said, “They keep funeral homes in business and gunshot wards of hospitals full. Prisons packed, bubbling over in brown sugar.” So much of what you were saying then is still relevant today.
Ayesha Jaco: Yeah, it’s real. There was always duality in our lives. Where we grew up, outside of our window, there was a prostitute on the corner. Down the street from us was the infamous stadium where the Bulls won their numerous championships. But there was a lot of murder and drugs. Our older brother, over a ten year period, lost twenty-five friends. That’s not normal, but to us, that was the norm. But the duality was the household that my mother kept. There were National Geographic magazines. We watched Carmen Sandiego. Then we had our dad who lived on the Southside who took us beyond the Westside. “Go to the Northside, Southside, and Eastside. Know your city because this is a world-class city, and you belong here.” We had that duality that allowed us to survive, but the death was real. In Lupe’s interview on MTV, he breaks down because he was sad that young people that he saw in his videos were now like ghosts. That’s heavy. Granted we’re all going to make a transition at some point, but not at the rate young, black men in Chicago transition. And if you didn’t die, then there was the cycle of being in prison. So that was just a way of capturing that reality for us.
AllHipHop: I found it interesting that both you and Lupe became so heavily involved in the arts. Was that something that was emphasized by your parents?
Ayesha Jaco: From the time we were born, [Nina Simone’s] “Mississippi Goddam” was playing - Nina Simone, John Coltraine, Alice Coltrane. Our father was a musician. He played the bagpipes, xylophone, saxophone, and African drums. So as children, we were oriented to music through their record players. There was a drum circle here in Chicago. 63rd Street Beach. It still happens today. We were there every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday where our dad would play drums. My mom was into literature, so we were reading Paul Laurence Dunbar, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison. We had all these great books in our house that were there for us to engage in. People would come into our low-income housing and think our house was like a museum. Our dad’s pledge or plea was to make your community better than you found it. Lupe chose music. I chose literature and dance, so a tone was set for us for sure that inspired us. Wasalu would study the dictionary and read the encyclopedia for fun. So when you think about his wordplay and ability to tell stories, it was because of what he had access to inside of the house paired with the ills outside of the house. Because of the duality of what my mom had in the house and the duality of having a father that had a trajectory on what it was to be a man and rise above, that’s ultimately what I think became fuel for him to be so creative and ultimately what saved him and my brother’s life.
AllHipHop: You got the chance to perform with Lupe at the Red Bull Music Festival Chicago. Can you talk about what that experience was like?
Ayesha Jaco: It was amazing. This was the first time Food & Liquor was done in Chicago where it was born, so it was just a powerful moment. But I didn’t even think about it until I got there and saw the theater packed. People were anticipating the album from top to bottom, and me being able to play a role in that was amazing. We’ve performed the poem before from The Cool, but it was just surreal being able to do it in Chicago. Having people say the poem with me was amazing. It was a true homecoming for Food & Liquor. Like you said, with the leaking of the album, with all the heartache, pain, and joy, it was really a nice celebration.
AllHipHop: Going by the reception inside the Riviera Theatre that night, it seems like Lupe’s fans have great respect for you. As soon as you stepped on the stage, everybody kind of went crazy before you even said anything.
Ayesha Jaco: I didn’t expect that. I was like, “Oh, okay. You guys know me too, a little bit.” I didn’t realize the impact. To me, it wasn’t nothing deep. It wasn’t an Ursula Rucker on The Roots or even a Lupe where you got to dig and find the double entendre and think about what this is and what that is. It was just spoken from the heart, raw words. So I didn’t realize the impact that my role on the album doing the intro has had over time. Honestly, if I knew that it was going to play such a heavy role, I probably would’ve went back and wrote a little harder. I would’ve tried to get my Lupe on. Like, “People are going to have to decode this.” But it’s all good.
AllHipHop: I think beyond just the rawness and honesty in the poem that people connect to, it’s also the fact that you’re the first voice that people hear. So there are very distinct memories connected to that for a lot of people.
Ayesha Jaco: For sure. Again, duality. If you think about him, duality - the balance of the male and female, the mother and father, the feminine and the masculine. It’s very interesting. When I go back and look, at least for this album, The Cool, and Food & Liquor 2, I’m like, “Wow. I didn’t even realize I’m part of the formula.”
AllHipHop: At the concert, Lupe was doing a cover of Jay-Z’s verse from “Pressure.” But he made sure to stop on the word “murals.” It made me think about how important that word seems to be for Lupe. He has a song named “Mural.” You guys have an organization called M.U.R.A.L. Is there any backstory to why that word has repeated itself throughout his work?
Ayesha Jaco: I don’t know. We’ve never discussed it. Again, it’s him and double meanings. Like the album cover for Tetsuo & Youth is a painting created by him. When you think about one way to capture the beauty and the pain in a lot of our communities, they’re rich in murals. Murals tell a story. Murals bring a collaborative process in some cases. When we think about graffiti and its place in Hip Hop, it was to beautify things that were ugly, that were disinvested. In that time period, he did a speech about how if everybody did what they’re the best at and came to work together, how powerful and dope this planet would be or the project that you’re working on would be. When I think about mural making, all of his albums have been a mural. For the organization, it was inspired by the song “Mural.” We were rebranding at the time. It’s an acronym for magnifying urban reality and affecting lives. Look at a mural, depending on where it is and the motivation behind it, it captures the community beyond the artist’s intent. It tells a story about where it’s placed. I think that’s true to his music. So if I could guesstimate, that’s what I would say, but you never know with Wasalu.