Professor A.L.I. Revealed: Humanities Teacher Kal Balaven

Professor A.L.I. Revealed: Kal BalavenkatesanAfter five years at The Athenian School, humanities teacher Kalyan Ali Balaven has finally revealed his alter ego: Professor A.L.I.  As the Union City Patch proclaimed, Kal is like a modern day Clark Kent–a teacher by day and a hip-hop M.C. and spoken word artist by night.  Kal explains that Professor A.L.I is “an educator who uses hip-hop as a language to communicate my message Authentically, with Love, and Intellect.”  Kal previously kept his alter-ego private, as he wanted his teaching to be student-centered and feared knowledge of his personal artistic expression would derail his classes.  However, in the last year, the word has slowly gotten out about Kal’s alter ego (thank you, Google).  He decided to make the most of it and collaborate with a student who was also making a name for himself as a rapper.  Kal is now proud to share this other side of his life with the Athenian community.  Kal describes the evolution of the collaboration in his own words:

Native Sun by Professor A.L.I.

I remember when I first met Carter [Wilson ’12] five years ago; it was hard to miss him since he stood out as much as I did amidst our new peers.  I see him in my mind vividly, standing awkwardly in the sunlight upon a beach as part of an in-coming student orientation; and I’m sure he visualizes me in similar fashion.  He, a freshman, and I, the new teacher on campus, at a unfamiliar school were clearly feeling nervous about the community we were being enveloped in and showed it through our uncomfortable body language.  We clearly felt, then, like outsiders, like shadows cast in the light of the sun.

Four years later, as the June sun beamed down upon our heads, Carter would walk across the stage; and in the Athenian School tradition he picked an instructor to give a one-minute graduation speech on his behalf.   Carter chose me and I chose to deliver the speech as a rap, sans beat; it seemed appropriate since Carter’s alter ego was the young, up and coming rapper Captaincy and I was Professor A.L.I.

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As Carter was nearing his impending graduation, the elephant in the room was a potential collaboration between the teacher and student, between a Professor and a young Captain.  Carter had joked with me about the possibility in years past, but I shook it off with banter for I rarely admitted to anyone on campus that I was Professor A.L.I. and knew such a collab would’ve blown my identity out in into the sunlight.  For so long, I’d kept my artistry hidden in the shadows of my professional world and seeing the two worlds collide was, at the time, unsettling.

Yet, at the same time, Carter represented everything I strove to be an educator for.  He was a brilliant young man with deep inner-reflections who also thought out of the box.  He was the laid back freshman who’d emerged from the shadows of obscurity to embrace the lamp of learning.  And to top it off, unlike many young people, he possessed both knowledge and reverence for the true pioneers and “teachers” of hip-hop like Brand Nubian, Public Enemy & KRS-One.

So motivated by that realization, I showed Carter a song in which I sought to promote hip-hop as it once was, the art of expression of social/political issues that were relevant to the community at large.  The song had a natural intersection in the realm of equity and inclusion, a theme that was central to both Captaincy and Professor A.L.I.; it also spoke to our time at Athenian together, to community building and education.  We had embraced the light of our true selves on this campus, let down our guards, and allowed what we do as artists respectively to become a part of the landscape like the sun in the sky. It was the most appropriate intersection for a collab, and Captaincy laid the second verse on the song, and lo and behold, “Native Sun” was born.

The song was born of a reverence for Richard Wright’s seminal work, Native Son, and the language of hip-hop with the elevation of self in the speak of the Nation of Gods & Earths community; the same NGE community that gave hip-hop its slang and cadence.  Imbued with both “science & math”, the track is a metaphor of the passing of a torch; of a Professor taking his own light to elevate another, a student to become a “Sun”, to give off his own light, to embrace the highest expression of self, one that is celestial in nature.

The song’s journey is one that begins in the classroom, through the lecture of a Professor, sparking the imagination of students, and of one student in particular, Carter (Captaincy) who presents his own reality.  This should be the nature of any art, to spark more creativity, and to create more artists.  So like a sun that shines upon all and gives life meaning, by the light of the moon, its warmth and radiation, so too do the lyrics of the song give life meaning by shedding light upon the importance of equity and point out societal inequities that we live and breathe in on a daily basis.

“Native Sun” is a song off of the Emerald Manifesto album and the beginning of a new movement for me as an artist.  Up until now, as Carter, my peers, and many students will attest to, I’ve kept my artistic life and life as an educator separate.  However. I now see the empowering role that hip-hop artistry and lyricism can play in education and also vice versa.   Merged together, hip-hop & education shed light on issues that are not touched upon by popular media or given attention because they do not further the status quo.  It is the unexplored realm of voice, the subaltern, and as an educator I see the importance of the voice of the M.C.  After all, as I’ve said in the past, “a Professor has knowledge, but an M.C. has the audience.”

To that end, on Emerald Manifesto, I created songs that spoke to issues that didn’t see the light of day.  I spit verses about the social inequities of the caste system still in practice in South Asia, the movement of permaculture, the genocide in Bahrain, the importance of localized spending and the similarities rather than the difference between people living in the Middle East.  All of these issues are rarely addressed, yet are issues relevant to our world and more importantly the world inherited by our children.  The sun diminishes darkness, vanishes obscurity, and makes all things erudite.  I was seeking to do the same as an artist; in the end I was seeking to become a sun.

At Athenian, both Carter and I had become suns; we found a supportive community, one that encouraged artistic expression and explored ways in which educators and students could be learners outside of the traditional classroom setting.  In four years the icy wall I had created between my artistry and role as educator had slowly melted.  The Google searches that easily reveal the presence of my alter ego and calls to recite spoken word and a capella poetry had blown my carefully constructed cover as a mild-mannered educator along with my icy wall to bits.

When this happened, I saw an immense swell of support and love from a community that stood by its own.  Carter saw that too, and as he started to take the lyrics from his notepad to the mic, he too found his strongest support coming from the Athenian campus family.  Artistry thrives when it is cultivated with love, and we both found that from our respective peers.  So we too began to shine in our own right.

We also discovered, after five years at Athenian, that our initial reaction to being on the other side of the tunnel, in a city (Danville) that was really different from our respective homes of Union City & Oakland, was not what we expected.  In our time on campus, we discovered we were not outsiders but integral parts of the community as if we had always been there.  We felt like we were natives of that Mt. Diablo setting and it communicated in our body language that we had ascended to become part of what makes Athenian shine as a community, that we were “suns” in the NGE sense of the word. We were Native Suns.

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I am currently working on my new project entitled Das Ka Rebel, taking the exploration of hip-hop and education to another level.  I will explore themes that make education truly innovative and experiential—while at the same time discovering all of what hip-hop could be.  Hip-hop after all was born in the West African griot, so I will seek to imbue the spirit of that oral historian as I weave the tales of our world as a testament to later generations, and, like the griot, impart lessons that will help them preserve our values while avoiding our mistakes.

I seek to shine like the Native Sun and give light to the “earths” and their seeds–so that they flower with knowledge and grow to regenerate this planet and allow it to flourish with love.  In the words of Tupac Shakur, “I’m not saying I’m going to change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.”  I feel the same way, and I will seek to move through this world with Ollin Tonatiuh, with the movement of the sun, riding the chariot in the sky of life-like Apollo, facing its demons like Surya, for I am Ra in Kemet, I am the Native Sun.