Jamal “Mal” Jones does not sit still. Every month for First Wednesday Art Walk, the 39-year-old hosts The Lyricist Live battle rap cypher; every week, he hosts a Freestyle Friday lounge night at Azucena Corner Deli on Forsyth Street. He writes raps about electrical safety for JEA, teaches hip hop history at The Performers Academy, and mentors teenagers for Family Support Services of North Florida. He was the first hip hop artist ever to have work archived by the Florida Folklife Foundation, the first MC to ever perform at the Florida Folklife Foundation Festival, and the only rapper ever selected by the Department of State to serve as a Master Folk Artist in the Florida Folklife Apprenticeship Program. In short, nobody has done more to cultivate Jacksonville’s hip hop scene than Mal Jones … who also happens to work a regular 9-to-5 job while raising a 12-year-old son.
Folio Weekly chatted with Jones about his artistic roots, performing at Freebird Live for the first time, and his belief in hip hop as an agent of positive cultural change.
Folio Weekly: What are your roots in the Jacksonville hip hop scene, Mal?
Mal Jones: I was born in New York, moved to South Florida as a kid, and came to Jacksonville in 1992 as a 16-year-old. The first time I performed onstage, I was five; my father was a poet and jazz musician, and he would have me recite poetry. I had brothers and sisters in the hip hop scene in New York City, which influenced me to become part of the culture here when I was old enough. A lot of my first experiences with hip hop were right here in Jacksonville. This is where I started to build my relationship with the scene, which has steadily grown into what we have today.
When and why did you start organizing The Lyricist Live cypher events?
Five years ago, to bring more attention to hip hop acts in the city. I’m an artist myself, not just a promoter, and I wanted to re-enact the cyphers of my childhood in the ’90s as an audio/visual work of art that people can interact with. Doing it outside at Art Walk was the perfect place for it, especially because the biggest rule is no cursing. That means MCs have to be creative.
Is that the format for your Nov. 28 show at Freebird Live?
It will be a Lyricist Live show, but when I’m out during Art Walk, I hardly ever get to perform my own music. I’m rapping, but I’m trying to gather a crowd so that other MCs can put their skills on display. So at Freebird, I’m going to take the opportunity to perform my own songs while also bringing younger artists like Yung JD on stage with me. I’ve interviewed established artists at Freebird for my old livestream hip hop show, “The Lyricist Hour,” but I’ve never performed there. So I’m excited.
How pivotal was it for you to receive so many accolades from the Florida Folklife Program?
My father was a musician and my uncle was heavy into traditional African arts, so I have deep roots in music and culture. That’s why I started The Lyricist Live — taking hip hop as the art of my generation; I wanted to do something constructive and curate an experience, outside, for the people, without any instruments or even beats. That’s why it was recognized as a folk art for the first time.
Is hip hop a full-time job for you?
I’m trying! It’s not paying all my bills, though it’s paying some. I do work a 9-to-5 job, and I’ve sacrificed in order to make hip hop more respected. A lot of the things I do outside the traditional rap show format are to bring that kind of awareness so that MCs in Jacksonville can get paid for what they do, in their city. This hasn’t always been a conducive place for hardcore hip hop MCs because there wasn’t always a platform for them to be accepted. Now, you can’t name all the dope rappers in Jacksonville on one hand anymore like you used to. That’s a good thing.
Do you think hip hop still has the ability to change lives the way it changed yours?
Unlike a lot of other art forms, hip hop is a community thing — a culture, a way of life. It affects all people, and it’s completely integrated into all aspects of society. Hip hop is the most popular music for this generation, and it continues to grow. What I do is like a science experiment: I wanted to see if I could take the formula of how hip hop was born, with DJs like Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa taking it outside to the people as a way to eradicate gang violence in the Bronx in the early ’70s, and bring this community together. We’ve had 60-something Lyricist Live shows without one incidence of violence — not even a fight or an argument. So that formula still works, and I’m using it to bring peace to Jacksonville.