Lumumba Carson, the hip-hop artist known to fans as Professor X who used music to impart a vision of black nationalism and instill pride in the culture through his work with the group X-Clan, died March 17. He was 49.
Professor X died at a hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., of spinal meningitis, a spokeswoman for the group said.
The son of New York activist Sonny Carson, Professor X took elements of his father’s message -- a call for African Americans to stand up for themselves in the face of injustice -- and used it as the philosophical underpinnings of X-Clan’s music.
Professor X came of age musically in the days before hip-hop had become associated -- at least in the minds of some -- with violence and gangster life. The late 1980s and the 1990s produced hip-hop artists who infused the music with a serious dose of hard-edged political content and social commentary.
“Professor X had a foot in the black power movement and hip-hop, so when their album came out it was a very, very important record,” said Jeff Chang, author of “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation.”
X-Clan recorded only two albums: “To the East, Blackwards” in 1990, followed by “Xodus” in 1992.
Members of the group saw themselves as following in the tradition of the Last Poets, a collective that formed out of a Harlem writers workshop in the 1960s and went on to produce politically charged recordings that were, some have said, a precursor of today’s rap music.
The CD cover of “To the East, Blackwards” was a pictorial tribute to black heroes and heroines, a black-and-white collage of faces around a pink Cadillac. The title piece challenges existing notions of black life in America:
They couldn’t comprehend when I brought the word,
A stick called verb, a black steel nerve,
Teachin’ those actors and actresses,
Who write a couple of lines on what black is, really?
Then they label me a sin,
Cause a brother just speaks from within,
I guess I’m darker than the shadow of the darkest alley, that
they always scared to go in, Boo!
A Washington Post writer called X-Clan “overbearing and annoying” and accused the artists of spending more time “insulting white people” than making any “cogent critique of society or passing along some kind of useful knowledge.”
But the group carved a niche for itself and a devoted following who could recite Professor X’s signature phrase, which evoked the flag of black nationalism: “Vanglorious! This is protected by the red, the black and the green, with a key, [sissy!]”
Born in Brooklyn, Professor X traveled to Europe with his father to attend political rallies. As a child, he met Malcolm X. In his teens he was involved in a gang, and was shot, stabbed and jailed, according to a 1990 Newsday article.
By the time he turned to music, Professor X was more concerned with the aims of his father than with violence. “Professor X’s legacy was basically bringing his father’s principles into hip-hop,” X-Clan member Jason Hunter -- who is known to fans as Grand Verbalizer Funkinlesson Brother J -- said in an interview Wednesday. “He is the evolution of his father through hip-hop.”
Professor X began his hip-hop career as a promoter of early groups such as Whodini. Hunter wrote the lyrics to X-Clan’s music; Professor X was the manager of the group and, as the oldest, a mentor to its members. Later he began performing with them. Members of the group named him Professor X after a comic book character. Like the bald Professor X of the “X-Men,” he was intelligent and a mentor.
At the height of its fame, the group included Professor X, Hunter, Claude Gray, known as the Grand Architect Paradise, and Anthony Hardin, known as the Rhythm Provider Sugar Shaft.
Professor X often noted that the group had a “purpose that continues beyond our records.” That purpose was the uplift of African Americans through self-awareness and historical knowledge
He had formed the Blackwatch Movement, “a school for young poets, musicians and producers who were loyal to the mission of liberation,” said Brother J.
The movement captured “the rising sentiment on the street that there needed to be a lot of change,” Chang said. “This is a time when you have the killings of Yusuf Hawkins and Michael Griffith.”
Both African American men were killed in racially charged incidents in New York. Hawkins was shot to death in Bensonhurst; Griffith was in the Howard Beach section of Queens when a group of whites chased him into traffic.
People heard songs such as “A Day of Outrage” and “literally were inspired to go out and do something to change their communities,” Chang said.
The fashion style of the group was as much a tribute and nod to the past -- in this case their African roots -- as their lyrics. Members performed draped in African medallions and wooden beads.
They wore the colors of black nationalism: red, black and green. In a 1991 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Professor X described the philosophy of the group as a call for African Americans to “clean up our home.”
“All I know is we want to bring young people to this state of mind -- see that we are in control of our destiny,” he said.