VBAK Interview


[Before you read this interview, I strongly suggest you go listen to Vishal Bakshi’s music (put out under the name VBAK). I advise starting with “Breathe.” Here is the link where you can find him on SoundCloud.]

Okla Elliott: Could you tell us a bit about your upbringing and background? Where are you from, what kind of family were you raised in, and so forth?

Vishal Bakshi: I was born in Maryland on the outskirts of Washington D.C. but was raised in the small town of Fairfield, Iowa from the age of four. I grew up in a traditional Gujarati-Hindu family with parents who were concerned about the preservation of our culture while living in a rural Midwestern town. I am the youngest of three children and have thus witnessed a variety of different life experiences just by observing my older brother and sister. We owned a family restaurant so from a very young age my natural habitat was the kitchen. As a result, the emphasis on a disciplined work ethic was part of our daily lifestyle. Both my mother and my father have masters degrees so the expectations of a professional education were very strongly enforced throughout my childhood.

OE: You mentioned professional education. You’re about to complete your degree in structural engineering at the University of Illinois (generally considered one of the two best schools for the field on the planet). How did you get interested in the subject? What excites you about it? And, to begin tying this into your music, what inspiration do draw from it?

VBAK: I was always interested in science, mathematics and physics in high school. Originally I aspired to be a high school physics teacher but was shepherded into the field of engineering as a more financially secure alternative. My journey with engineering has gone through an odd path. I started out as an undeclared engineering student after which I chose Mechanical Engineering as my focus. A couple semesters into it I started to lose my initial passion and was considering a switch to Architecture, being inspired by both my father and brother, who were architects. Instead I remained on the technical side of building design and thus added on a second major of Civil Engineering and that led me to pursue the current Masters degree. My excitement for Structural Engineering comes from the fact that it is the act of creating something that has both functionality and aesthetic. I saw it as form of art derived from the laws of physics.

I have written and recorded some form of poetry and rap since I was in 7th grade. Some of the pieces were used as literary academic assignments and others for recreation. In my junior year at Iowa State I took an honors elective focusing on Slam Poetry where my passion for writing was rekindled. The first poem I wrote with a serious intent was titled “New York City Structural Engineer”, written after I had job shadowed at three of my dream firms in NYC. During the winter break before starting my graduate degree I wrote a few raps and recorded them using a basic computer microphone. From that point on I saw potential in my art and continued writing and recording, having accumulated about fifty songs over this past year.

OE: Why did you gravitate toward hip-hop as your choice of musical production? Do other genres interest you? Some of your recent work involves traditional Indian songs. Do you see yourself doing more blending of musical traditions in the future?

VBAK: My interest in hip-hop was birthed from an identity crisis. My family followed strict Hindu-Indian traditions and paradigms but my school day was filled with mainstream American culture. As a result, music become a third party escape that did not judge my lifestyle or habits. I grew up listening to a heavy dose of hip-hop and conscious rap as well as a steady interest in heavy metal, alternative rock and devotional Indian music. I fell in love with rap due to the ability of lyricism to deliver emotions and experiences with an attractive rhythm and attitude. My lyrics and my music are the artistic form of my life, and since my experiences have many cultural influences I seek to blend many musical traditions in my work. The further I develop the understanding of my own morals and principles, the more seamless that blend of traditions will become.

OE: You mentioned morals and principles. Your songs often have a moral element or are lyric depictions of your own convictions. Would you share with us some of your principles — be they work principles or ways to live your life day to day or whatever. And one thread in your recent work is religion and atheism, or as you phrase it “becoming your own god” instead of following one promoted by any of the established religions. How does this intersect with your thoughts on morality?

VBAK: In terms of choosing a direction in life, in the form of a profession, the most uncomfortable question I asked myself during my undergraduate career was “what is my purpose?” My parents rose from poverty in their childhood to achieve a strong middle class lifestyle so I always felt a sort of debt to them for giving me a healthier and more stable upbringing than they had. It is of course impossible to repay them so I intended to use my professional career to pay it forward and help those in need. The application of this purpose to make life decisions was not as clear. The fundamental core of any education system that is built to make someone successful in a capitalist industry is to train them to instrumentalize their skills to fulfill the clients needs and make a profit for themselves and their employer. The principle of humanitarianism is not a central component of any commonly taught engineering academic curriculum. So while my interests in math and physics were being fulfilled by engineering, the purpose that I lived for was being neglected.

At the same time I was reevaluating my own morals in life, more prevalently in the last couple of years. I am raised as a Hindu but my fundamental disagreement with the belief in God is the lack of ownership for one’s actions. If a positive event occured in my life, I was trained to thank God for creating that occurrence. If a negative event occurred, I was trained to defer its cause to the the theory of Karma. I began to see that the result of this type of thinking was that good people were not being credited for their good deeds, and evil individuals were not being held responsible for the harm they caused. So I was using two arbitrary ideas, God and past life Karma, which were outside of the realm of action that I could control, to justify my life experiences.

There are practical explanations to most events that happen in our life which can be traced back to specific decisions we took in the past. In order for me to progress I have to accept responsibility for my mistakes, analyze them, and learn from them. In order to improve my mental health I have to appreciate and celebrate the positive things that I do which bring me success. Instead of appreciating an imagined God for its prowess and admirable characteristics I want to reflect on my own flaws and pursue the necessary improvements needed for me to become a better human being. Instead of worshipping an external God I want to focus on becoming a highly efficient and productive human being who uses a diverse set of skills to improve the wellbeing of other humans.

OE: Tell me about the inspiration of the new mixtape. Tell me about the goals of your work.

VBAK: The inspiration for the mixtape came from the fact that my morals have changed significantly over the last year and I wanted a set of songs to act as a sort of biography or introduction to who I am and what my fundamental principles are at this point in time. I am in the middle of an ongoing effort to lose my dependency on other people’s validation and realize that there are no ultimatums in life other than death.

The goal of my work is to use my lyrical and musical abilities to inspire my generation to view themselves as great forces of change and apply themselves in life to reach their maximum potential. My goal is to spread truths about the state of society through analyzing social and political phenomena in my songs. I want my listeners to think more and believe less. The more attractive I can make that message sound, the better I can reach young minds like mine. In order to solve societal problems we must first reveal them. Societal issues will be revealed only through analysis and not with faith or belief, since they don’t use reasoning based on evidence. My goal is to analyze life and pass on my observations in lyrical form so that we can start thinking on how to resolve the issues we reveal.

OE: Last question. Where are you heading now and why?

VBAK: I am fortunate enough to have been accepted by Teach For America and will be teaching secondary mathematics in Detroit starting this August. I have always sought to find a career where I can make a positive difference in the lives of those who are under-privileged, and this is the first milestone towards that goal. My initial dream of becoming a teacher took a path that traversed through six years of engineering, and as with all life experiences that challenge us, I’ve become a better human being because of it.

Musically I’m starting to gain a feel for my style and I plan to release another mixtape sometime this summer. My focus is to dive into the trenches and thoroughly analyze the social issues that are of great importance to me and the people I love. I want to discuss the uncomfortable realities of sexism, classism, and racism that inconspicuously find their way into our everyday lives. I want to use reason and logic to cut through the fog of religion and faith that have blurred the decision making capabilities of the human race. I also feel a great amount of responsibility and obligation to my parents, grandparents, and ancestors to share my Gujarati heritage by incorporating its cultural music into my tracks.

Intellectually I am starting to build a framework of philosophical thought by studying the works of Bertrand Russell, Sam Harris, and other beautiful minds. My formal education lacked a sufficient training in the liberal arts, so I do as much as I can by reading on my own time. Why am I doing all of this? I think it’s crucial to understand how to interpret the world around me before I can make any significant contribution to improving it. I need to learn how to identify morals that help human well being, and those that harm, since they are often veiled by those with ill intentions. There is no destination of intellectual competence that I seek to obtain, I simply want to improve my ability to analyze the world around me every day so that I can help those who suffer from injustice, and prevent those who spread it.



The first publicly supported secondary school in the United States, the Boston Latin School, founded in 1634, in its current location in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood.


Why is Obama continuing the failed conservative & corporate-driven “education reform” policies of George Bush?

by Horatio Guernica

It’s not been a great few weeks for Obama’s education secretary and basketball buddy Arne Duncan.

In USA Today on July 12 “Chicago schools report contradicts Obama and Duncan,” he took a hit for padding his resume with false triumphs.

A new report shows that the so-called Chicago Renaissance 2010 that happened on his watch as “CEO” of Chicago’s public schools for seven years before being tapped by Obama didn’t actually happen as stated. Writes Greg Toppo:

The Civic Committee of The Commercial Club of Chicago, a supporter of Duncan and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s push for more control of city schools, issued the report June 30. It says city schools have made little progress since 2003.

Its key findings stand in stark contrast to assertions President Obama made in December when he nominated Duncan as Education secretary.

Uh oh.

Toppo continues: In December, Obama said that during a seven-year tenure, Duncan had boosted elementary school test scores “from 38% of students meeting the standards to 67%” — a gain of 29 percentage points. But the new report found that, adjusting for changes in tests and procedures, students’ pass rates grew only about 8 percentage points.

It would appear that many measures President Obama touted to explain his promotion of Duncan to top edu spot have turned out to be false.

The article likens this story to a similar tale of trumped up “improvements” that happened in Texas on Superintendent Rod Paige’s watch, who became George Bush’s education czar. Unfortunately, Obama’s education guy and Bush’s education guy share more than padded resumes.

In fact, through Arne Duncan, Obama is pretty much continuing the failed No Child Left Behind mindset and policy of the Bush era, which lashes everyone to the whipping post of standardized testing, blames teachers for all of schools’ (and by extension, society’s) ills, and quashes pretty much all chance of creativity, ingenuity in the classroom and, essentially, happy kids and schools. The so-called “education reformers” are now comprised of an unholy alliance of conservatives and neo-liberals who meet on the board of the Broad Foundation or their indoctrinating retreats. They preach the gospel of the business model as the panacea for all that ails our public schools, and are frothing at the mouth to privatize one of our last remaining public assets, public schools. They weren’t able to convince the nation of the virtue of vouchers so now they demand charters –or else!– which follows a similar scheme: public funding gets rerouted into private hands.

Until recently, Duncan was on the board of directors of the Broad Foundation, the pro-charter, pro business-model organization of AIG billionaire Eli Broad, which practices what it labels “venture philanthropy,” along with Obama’s checkered economic advisor Larry Summers, KIPP charter’s CEO Richard Barth, Teach for America CEO Wendy Kopp, and controversial reformite school superintendents Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and Maria Goodloe-Johnson.

It’s the “or else!” part of the equation that’s the most disturbing and, frankly, offensive. Duncan has said he will award grants from the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund, education money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, only to states that implement merit pay for teachers and allow charters into their public schools. (The 10 states that currently do not allow charters are apparently SOL.)

President Obama and Arne Duncan are essentially dangling money over funds-starved school districts and saying “Do it our way, or no stimulus money for you!”

The problem is, it’s becoming more and more evident that the reformers’ “solutions” don’t work, and above all, may even harm the very kids whom they claim to be concerned about.

In fact, according to a recent (6/15/09) study by the Center For Research On Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University (ironically funded by the pro-charter Dell and Walton foundations), charters schools do not necessarily perform any better than public schools. In fact, 37 percent perform worse. And 46 percent perform no better than public schools. Only 17 percent of charter schools performed any better than public schools.

Education Week reported, “If this study shows anything, it shows that we’ve got a two-to-one margin of bad charters to good charters,” said Margaret E. Raymond, the director of the center and the study’s lead author. “That’s a red flag.”

Apparently charter schools have long had a mixed record.

The CREDO results are not surprising when you consider that the media is peppered with fairly constant reports of negative or disturbing stories about privatized charters (including the reformers’ ballyhooed KIPP model), like “Charter school faces withdrawals over punishment” or even this supposed “success story” in the L.A.Times.

Faced with such evidence, Duncan himself was recently forced to make a distinction between good charters and bad ones.

Even fellow reformite Bill Gates’ School of the Future has failed. The bookless, pencil-less, high surveillance (Gates proposed video cameras in the gym for instant replays– okay, but has also proposed having cameras in classrooms so principals can monitor teachers—creepy), high tech experiment for poor kids of color in Philadelphia hasn’t produced great results. For one thing, the kids are afraid to take home their Microsoft donated laptops for fear of getting robbed on the way.

Actually, let’s pause for a moment on this simple image: a school without books or pencils. Is that a school that anyone would like to go to? That doesn’t even sound like a school, but some kind of sterile institution. It would seem that Gates and his allies want to prepare our kids for a life as computer drones.

Meanwhile, Duncan’s record in Chicago is more troubling the deeper you look.

The disturbing alliance between private charters and the military has brought multiple ROTC schools to Chicago, also on Duncan’s watch. This makes Chicago’s school system “the most militarized in the country,” reported writer Andy Kroll back in January when Duncan was first tapped by Obama. In “The Military-Corporate Legacy of the New Secretary of Education,” from Tom Dispatch, Kroll wrote of Duncan:

“He was described as the compromise candidate between powerful teachers’ unions and the advocates of charter schools and merit pay. He was also regularly hailed as a “reformer,” fearless when it came to challenging the educational status quo and more than willing to shake up hidebound, moribund public school systems.”

“Yet a closer investigation of Duncan’s record in Chicago casts doubt on that label. As he packs up for Washington, Duncan leaves behind a Windy City legacy that’s hardly cause for optimism, emphasizing as it does a business-minded, market-driven model for education. If he is a “reformer,” his style of management is distinctly top-down, corporate, and privatizing. It views teachers as expendable, unions as unnecessary, and students as customers.

Disturbing as well is the prominence of Duncan’s belief in offering a key role in public education to the military. Chicago’s school system is currently the most militarized in the country, boasting five military academies, nearly three dozen smaller Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs within existing high schools, and numerous middle school Junior ROTC programs. More troubling yet, the military academies he’s started are nearly all located in low-income, minority neighborhoods. This merging of military training and education naturally raises concerns about whether such academies will be not just education centers, but recruitment centers as well.”

In March, blogger Kenneth Libby at Our Global Education also cast doubt on Duncan’s accomplishments. At Ariel Community Academy, for example, kids are indoctrinated in the glories of capitalism. They are given a $20K portfolio to manage. When they graduate from eighth grade, they are expected to hand over the profits to the first graders. This past year, their investments have suffered the ravages of the economy and profits have been scarce. Talk about a “teachable moment.” Maybe the Ariel kids are learning a valuable life lesson after all, about the empty values and promises of capitalism.

Meanwhile, over in D.C., the accomplishments of another “education reformer” have come into question recently.  According to the Washington Post on July 16, a report says D.C. School Chancellor Rhee tweaked test results too. Writes Bill Turque,

“These include intensive test preparation targeted to a narrow group of students on the cusp of proficient, or passing, scores, and ‘cleaning the rosters’ of students ineligible to take the tests — and also likely to pull the numbers down. Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee described some of these approaches as the pursuit of ‘low-hanging fruit.’”

The practice is not illegal, but it does spike test results and create the illusion of student “improvement.”

The saddest part about this is that the kids who need the most help are not getting it from these schools district chancellor/CEOs/superintendent “reformists” who appear to care more about test scores and their own self-aggrandizement than actually educating kids.

So why is Obama forcing bad policy down everyone’s throats? Moreover, why is he continuing the conservative NCLB policies of George W. Bush? And why does the president persist in dashing everyone’s hopes with policy capitulations like “education reform” and by consorting with discredited recidivist capitalists who helped bring our economy down in the first place?

The original idea of charter schools was a much more organic one. Parents, community members banded together to create schools that can have some independence in curriculum while still open to public school kids. Most public school parents I know have no problem with that idea. But that model has been hijacked by the free marketers who want a piece of that public funding action, and think they know better how to run a school, or can at least feign it long enough to cash in before they ship out. They talk about “eliminating the achievement gap” but measure that solely, it appears, through test scores. But their real results are questionable. There are too many reports of charter schools that limit or don’t admit special needs kids (that’s one way to keep test scores up, right?) or throw challenging kids out of the school mid-year, after they have cashed in the kids’ per-pupil state funds, and sometimes before the testing season so these kids’ scores don’t sully the schools’ records.

Do these kinds of practices help the most needy kids at the bottom of the gap? Obviously not.

Is it good business though? You betcha—it makes these “enterprises,” which are run by CEOs, by the way, so much more “efficient.” Why, after all, waste resources on a troublesome product (or is it “customer”)?

This is pretty damn unconscionable.

It appears that more and more of these ‘miracle’ charter corporations are discovering that educating a child takes something other than a laptop, a uniform, rigid discipline or an energetic young teacher with a shallow education background who is easily spent and replaced after a couple of years.

Educating kids is hard work that takes a long time. A lifetime, even. Results are not always immediate or tangible. Sometimes the most significant measure of a child’s development is that spark in their eye when they understand something for the first time, and not by how many little eggs they can fill out correctly on a Scantron test card using a No. 2 pencil in a set amount of time. Knowing how to teach well doesn’t happen immediately either. Time, experience, familiarity with what comprises an inspiring curriculum, a deep understanding of the ways and wiles and woes of children–these conspire to make a teacher great.  And yet another mantra of the reformists is that all older teachers are bad and need to be replaced. This of course has more to do with the privatizers’ mission to break the teacher’s union, than actually support of good teaching in our schools.

President Obama should can No Child Left Behind. He should sic his basketball pal on the harder task of listening, observing, talking to local school communities and finding out what really works, what parents really want, and expand and duplicate those models.There are terrific public schools out there giving kids a great and nurturing education. They should not be destroyed in the name of “reform” or because they represent someone’s idea of “the status quo.”

If Obama is going to play the conservative game, then why doesn’t he honor state’s rights and let each state decide for itself, each school district, even, how it will spend the stimulus money, with a plan and goals that are germane to the children in their community?

And how many more signs of the Apocalypse will it take for these “reformers” to see that the American way of doing business is not necessarily the best way to run things? It hasn’t worked well for our economy, has it, so why foist it on our kids’ schools?

Right now, schools and school districts are being ravaged or short-changed in the name of “education reform” from Oakland to Antioch to Seattle.

I am willing to believe that if Barack Obama were to listen to the parents, teachers and communities of America’s public schools – instead of just the Gates, Broads and Walton billionaires who have no background in education, but financial incentives to meddle with education — he would not continue with this failed agenda.

The president should read ex-Microsftie Scott Oki’s book Outrageous Learning in which he says things like: “When it comes to education, one size does not fit all. Despite our highly-industrialized modern society, there is no way to automate learning. Even today, every child’s education should be hand-crafted, with knowledge patiently passed from the teacher to the mind of the student.”

President Obama should read and heed Herb Kohl’s insightful “Open Letter to Arne Duncan”.

“It is possible to maintain high standards for all children, to help students learn how to speak thoughtfully, think through problems, and create imaginative representations of the world as it is and as it could be, without forcing them through a regime of high-stakes testing. Attention has to be paid to the richness of the curriculum itself and time has to be allocated to thoughtful exploration and experimentation. It is easy to ignore content when the sole focus is on test scores.

Your administration has the opportunity, when NCLB comes up for reauthorization, to set the tone, aspirations, and philosophical and moral grounds for reform that develops the intelligence, creativity, and social and personal sensitivity of students.”

It makes one wonder why Obama didn’t instead choose an educator like Linda Darling-Hammond for his top post, as suggested by education scholar and author Alfie Kohn back in December 2008?

Perhaps this punitive approach to “reforming” public schools is a way for the neo-liberal Democrats to divert attention from the fact that they too have failed our poorest, most vulnerable families and kids, with their bankrupt rah rah Wall St. alliances and capitulations on issues that would make everyone’s standard of living better, from single payer health care to gun control.

That’s really what’s at the heart of the matter—how to help the kids who already have hurdles in their life. To what extent can a teacher or a school be expected to transcend all the obstacles of poverty, racial inequity, language barriers?

It’s all too easy for the rich “philanthropists” to blame teachers or public schools for failing our most vulnerable kids, rather than acknowledge and address the truly difficult, profound and complex social injustice and class inequality in our country that hold too many kids down – and the free market system that helped create this inequity in the first place, not least of which by sending our economy into its current Depression.

Our nation’s public schools should not be forced to accept failed “solutions” devised by corporate myopics. It says something about the legitimacy of such “reforms” when the president has to have his education secretary threaten states with ultimatums rather than winning community support.

That was the Bush/Cheney way of doing things. Didn’t American voters just vote to end all that?

Horatio Guernica is the pen name of a West Coast writer.