Yusef Salaam Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Yusef Salaam

Yusef Salaam

An interview with Yusef Salaam

A note from Dr. Yusef Salaam on his book Punching the Air, poetry, and his own wrongful conviction.

When I initially started writing, it was because, like many young brothers, I wanted to be a hip-hop artist. I had been writing rhymes since I was eleven or twelve years old. The "Central Park Five jogger" case happened in 1989, during an era in music when message-driven hip-hop songs were hot. Self Destruction, KRS-One's Love's Gonna Get'cha, and Public Enemy were some of the artists and songs that were shaping my style as a writer and were essentially the soundtrack of my life. I especially gravitated toward Public Enemy, who came out with a flow that sounded less like rap and more like a speech.

When I was convicted, it was the start of me realizing that I needed to say something. I wondered how I was going to speak my truth. For the first time, I realized that this art form I had been honing since childhood, hip-hop, was going to allow me to get my message across at this most critical point in my life.

On the day I was convicted, I remember being in and out of the courtroom. I had my shades on, head up, trying to feel and look confident, trying to be strong in the face of a very serious situation. At the same time, and still after everything we had already been through, I'd held out hope that the system would not fail us, that justice would prevail. If you look back on the footage from that day, what you will see is a young man who was sure he was going home that day. When the verdict came down and we were convicted, I was completely devastated. Never in a million years could you have convinced me that the system was going to do us like this, and then, the system did us like that.

Now, there I was in the courthouse, waiting for my sentence and being told that I should throw myself at the mercy of the court; that I should plead for the least amount of time possible. But I had been reading about Malcolm X and others who were in the struggle. I had been inspired by hip-hop acts who were using their art to spread powerful messages about our experiences, and I started writing instead. The words literally flowed through me like I was a vessel. And when our sentences were handed down, and I was given the stage to speak my truth, I read a poem entitled "I Stand Accused."

I wrote it in that moment and it summed up everything I felt and knew I needed to say to the court and to the world. As time passed, not only was art something that allowed me to escape the harsh realities of imprisonment, but being able to write about these experiences really saved my life. Being able to share my thoughts on paper gave me an out. It was a way to keep my mind free, even though I was physically locked up. It provided a relief that I couldn't find in any other way.

My mother used to always say to me that everybody —everybody—has gifts, and these gifts are the way to freedom. I didn't always understand what she meant by that, but I knew she was trying to encourage me and make me see things in a positive light. I have since learned to see, embrace, and even build on those gifts—drawing and writing poetry and rhymes.

Punching the Air builds on some of the poetry I wrote while I was incarcerated. When Ibi and I started to discuss what kind of story we wanted to tell, we started with a name—Amal, which means "hope" in Arabic. It was important that whatever this teen boy was going through, he should always have hope, and we should write a story that instills hope in readers. It was also important that we make Amal's mother a prominent figure in his life, in the same way that mine was. While Punching the Air is not my story, Amal's character is inspired by me as an artist and as an incarcerated teen who had the support of his family, read lots of books, and made art to keep his mind free. Amal has to grow up really fast in a juvenile detention center, just like I did. But in his heart, his faith is strong. Ibi and I wanted people to know that when you find yourself in so-called dark places, there's always a light somewhere in the darkness, even if that light is inside of you. You can illuminate your own darkness by shedding that light onto the world.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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