Zohran Kwame Mamdani is the newly elected assemblyperson for District 36, representing Astoria and parts of Long Island City. A dual citizen of Uganda and the US, the first time he voted was for Cynthia Nixon in 2018. A proud Democratic Socialist, he stands on a platform that advocates for guaranteed housing and socialist feminism. Mamdani believes housing, food, and public transit are all human rights, and that COVID-19 illuminated why the internet should also be included. Before running for office, he worked as a housing counselor for people who lost their homes due to foreclosure. In addition, Mamdani used to be a rapper under the name Mr. Cardamom and believes this experience informed his fearless approach on the campaign trail and ability to make daunting aspects of politics more approachable.
What do you listen to in the mornings?
I recently made a playlist called “Aaraam is Haram” and that translates into, “relaxation is forbidden,” and it’s a playlist of relaxing Indian music. It starts off with a song called “Ik Onkar” which I think is a Sikh prayer that was featured in a film called, Rang De Basanti, and it features songs from people like composers A.R. Rahman, a Pakistani singer named Ali Sethi and classical music that puts me at ease.
Jabari Brisport said he’d to record a music video with you, so just checking in on your availability for next week? You also reposted our IG story with a dope song, which one was it?
It’s absolutely free for Jabari! I love Jabari, if he wants to make a music video, I’ll make a music video with him. I think that I posted this song called “Number One Spice”, which is a song that I made with an old friend of mine who is like my brother.
You used to make music?
Yeah, I used to be rapper.
Wow, can you talk about that? What was your rap persona?
My rap name was “Young Cardamom.” [LAUGHS] I grew up with a very close friend of mine in the neighborhood in Kampala, Uganda, where I was born and raised. One weekend he said that he wanted to make a song and said that I should do it with him, and the two of us made the song without any idea of becoming full-time rappers, but just to have a good time. The song became quite popular amongst our friends and started to play on music video channels and radio stations in Kampala. I returned to Kampala for a good period of time and decided to pursue that with him, so the two of us did that for about eight months full-time. I moved back to New York and I made a song called “Nani.” and changed my name from Young Cardamom to Mr. Cardamom. It was fun and it did quite well, but I think that’s what Jabari is referring to.
I appreciate the maturity of Young Cardamom to Mr. Cardamom.
Yes, now it’s Assemblyman Cardamom.
Naturally! Being a politician involves an element of public performance. Did your experience being Mr. Cardamom inform your political delivery?
I think it definitely helps with public speaking. Once you’ve performed, it’s much easier to feel that you’re prepared to speak in front of people. You know, Jabari is also a trained actor and I think that there is a lot of anxiety, at least for me when it comes to public speaking and making sure that you hit the right notes.
When I was a rapper, the ways in which we had to hustle are very similar to the ways in which you have to hustle as a candidate and a canvasser. Eventually, it’s the same thing—you’re trying to tell someone a story, you know, and they don’t have time or any interest. It’s your job in that minute that you have with them to convince them otherwise. As a rapper [in Uganda] we would hawk our CDs as people were getting into public buses. Then fast forward—I came back here, I recorded “Nani,” and filmed the music video on the Astoria Boulevard subway platform and a year later I’m canvassing the same platform as a candidate. There are a lot of these striking similarities between the two things.
Does being creative give you a unique approach to politics?
Being immersed in a world outside of one that was explicitly political helps you to understand how you have to break things down, to make them interesting and applicable to people’s lives, so you don’t get lost in having a conversation that only you can understand. A lot of my music had aspects of humor in it and I tried to make songs that were fun and would make you laugh and nod your head at the same time. As a candidate, I’ve found it very effective when speaking to people, to have a little more fun with it, because a lot of times [politics] is made to feel so serious, so inaccessible, and a real chore to get excited about and to understand.
On the other side, it probably led to me spending a little too much time on our merch, because I’m a washed up sneakerhead.
We all are. On that note, who is your dream collaborator?
There’s a song, there’s an artist named Diljit Dosanjh. I’d call him a superstar Indian recording artist.
He has a song called “Do You Know,” and my dream collaboration would be to remix that song with him to make it about GOTV. So it would be like, “Did you vote?” That is what I am really aspiring to achieve one day in my life.
What method of voting did you use in the June Primary?
In the June primary, I voted early, in-person, and that was the first time I’d ever voted early, so that was really exciting.
When did voting become important to you?
I only became a U.S. citizen in 2018. Prior to that, I was a Ugandan citizen, which I still am, but now I have dual nationality. The recent history of voting in Uganda is one that doesn’t inspire as much confidence because of the ways in which the ruling party has really chipped away at people’s belief in the sanctity of their vote. And so I had never actually voted prior to 2018 when I became a [US] citizen and I voted that year for Cynthia Nixon for Governor.
I’ve voted in municipal, state, and federal elections. I voted in student body races and ran for president of my middle school, and vice president of my high school, so voting had an importance to me in these contexts, but in terms of casting my vote in at the State or the City or National level, I wasn’t really able to do so until two years ago.
As someone who was disenchanted with the voting process, how do you then inspire people to vote and engage in the electoral process?
I would say first and foremost that I understand. When we meet people who feel this way, oftentimes the response is to shame them and to make them feel some kind of guilt and that’s not an effective strategy. People are rational with regards to these kinds of feelings, and the reason they feel that way is that we have a system set up across [the U.S.] that makes it increasingly difficult to vote, and we have sets of candidates that are harder to get inspired and excited about.
On November 3rd at the national stage, I’m going to very much go out and vote, but I’m not going to be excited and inspired by the Biden-Harris ticket. It very much fits in the framework of looking at the lesser of two evils. So what I would say to excite and inspire people to do so is, after telling them that I understand why they feel that way, is to talk to them about how voting is simply one tool in your toolbox. It is not the beginning of the end of your participation in democracy. If your participation in democracy is passive—and by that, I mean, you show up once every four years—then it’s going to be very hard to imagine a future where we have anything better than the lesser of two evils. But if your participation in democracy is one that would let’s say continue on November 4th, as opposed to ending on the 3rd, you can find yourself playing a larger role in determining who is actually on that ballot.
It’s hard to see that impact at the national level, but you can definitely see it at a local level. So if you want to see the ways in which your voice matters and how your actions matter, I would encourage people to look at their most local of races. Look at their City Council race, look at their Assembly races, at their State Senate race.
It’s hard to convince people of why they should care about something. What I would rather say is that you should present to them the ways in which their life interacts with the State, the City the National level and ask them, and ask what is it about your experience with this government body that inspires excitement or fear or dread, and here’s how you can impact that in an electoral way.
Local politics are also within reach, whereas the national level can often feel so distant.
Another part is that the turnout in local elections is so dismal, but if an elected official receives even just 10 people calling them or sending an email about an issue that they hadn’t heard about prior, it will light a fire under their ass and can stimulate at least some kind of a response to that issue that you care about. For example, if one hundred people in a district contacted an elected representative and told them my-do-or-die issue is marijuana legalization this upcoming session and I need to see you do something about it.
One of the many things that were exciting about the massive protest across the country regarding Black Lives Matter, and the ways in which that got a lot of people, in New York state especially, interested in what kind of local legislation can be passed. Then there was the law called 50-a which previously, you couldn’t just say those words and people knew what you were referring to, and then all of a sudden it came into public consciousness and conversation and the same legislators who refused to pass it were then motivated to do something physical.
Yeah, this was a productive summer! What inspired you to run for the Assembly in particular and what do you hope to accomplish?
A friend of mine actually asked me to run for the seat after an electoral working group meeting, and he’s another organizer at Queens DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America, which is my political home. I thought about it for a few weeks and the reason that I decided to do so is that I worked as a foreclosure prevention housing counselor. I used to work with low to moderate-income homeowners, typically homeowners of color, immigrant homeowners across the borough of Queens, for basic foreclosure on their longtime family homes. My job was to put their lives back together after they’ve been broken into a million pieces by a sudden job loss, an unexpected medical emergency, something happening in their family, and all those things resulting in them defaulting on their mortgage. I am so proud of the work that I and my colleagues did and for them, but I also would come up against the limitations of work being done by individuals and trying to address the absence of institutions.
The appeal about the Assembly is to take the kind of work that I did on a person-to-person basis and make it into a policy-to policy-basis and go from Astoria to Albany. We need to change that legacy of Albany—which has been for many years a withdrawal from helping working-class people stay on their feet and stay in their homes—and craft legislation, first and foremost about housing, but also about criminal justice, about the climate crisis, about the many ways in which our lives are being stripped of dignity.
It’s critical to do this at the state level because, in New York state, the true power rests at the state level, you know, the city council has power, but it’s far more limited. The City Council’s power is typically limited to determining the New York City budget, policies with regards to schools in New York City, to streets in New York City, bus lines, bike lanes, and the police. But if you’re talking about housing, if you’re talking about transit, if you’re talking about healthcare, if you’re talking about criminal justice, you know, almost everything else, you can change those kinds of laws up in Albany.
What does “guaranteed housing” mean?
Guaranteed housing, for me, means that no one is priced out of having a place to live and right now we do not have that. Right now, we have the market picking and choosing who gets to survive and the markets have almost a monopoly on that, meaning that neighborhoods are transformed in ways that do not serve the interests of those who live there. Guaranteed housing also means that every single person should have a place to live. Whether that’s an apartment, whether that’s a home, whatever it may be, people have to have that. That’s not negotiable, and that’s why we talk about the long-term goal being decommodified housing; housing that is not treated as a commodity that can be bought and sold—given to some and taken from others. Housing is simply something that must be assumed and accepted as a building block that is required for each and every person’s life.
When you take it away from the context of which we currently live and you give people a chance to think about it as a concept, you’ll find that many people agree with this idea that, that everyone should have a place to live and people should have food to eat and people should have schools to go to because we have been pitted against each other as individuals and the interests of institutions that have profited from the privatization of public goods and services. And that’s what we’re trying to do as socialists, is to bring dignity back into people’s lives.
Right on! Democratic Socialism has become such a charged word, and the DSA endorsement has come to represent progressive values, but can you break down the values of Democratic Socialism for us?
Democratic socialism means that whatever people need to live a dignified life is guaranteed to them. And that that guarantee can come from the State. Typically we used to think about it in terms of the big three: housing, healthcare, and education, but this pandemic has shown us that dignity is experienced and erased in many other fields that are required to live a life in New York City. Could you have a dignified life without the internet? Could you have a dignified life without childcare? Could you have a dignified life without public transit? We see the many places in ways in which people have been forced to settle and to be a socialist means fighting for a world in which everyone can, not simply survive, but thrive.
I’m happy and proud to call myself a socialist. I understand that it is a charged word for some, but it’s my job to unpack it for others because the word democracy is one that people are typically very much in favor of—socialism is the extension of democracy from the ballot box and into the rest of your life.
Your website is the first time I’ve seen the idea of socialized feminism. How does that differ from regular ol’ feminism and who helped you formulate that idea?
That’s a great question because honestly too often elected officials and candidates masquerade is we are the creators of every aspect of our campaign when it’s really not the case. This campaign was born out of a collective and it is the collective that is responsible for its successes. Every single platform that you see is one that has been created and crafted by people who took part in made this campaign a true reality.
Now, for me, I think that socialist feminism, it’s speaking to the ways in which this belief and, um, in feminism is one that should not be understood simply as a replication of the kind of like lean-in feminism. In some ways, this is a critique of a lot of the feminist discourse which is very much about the advancement of the corporate world. Socialist Feminism is talking about linking the struggle for equality, for justice, so that it encompasses it for all women and women-identifying people, and that no successes are placed on the backs of other women and women-identifying people, which oftentimes happens in corporate settings.
If we’re looking at the disparities between race which regards to women, who succeed and do not succeed and white women versus black women. The Socialist Feminism platform comes out of this belief in explaining how socialism is relevant to feminism; how these are not two separate competing discourses, but rather two that fit together and can show how we can actually have justice in regards to gender that is comprehensive.
It seems like an urgent convo to have, that candidates are not like a monolith but a collective effort behind each individual helping craft their platform.
Yeah, and the more that we just demystify that the better, because if you look at someone who’s successful and just see them as an individual, it feels like how the fuck am I ever going to get to that level? But if you look at them and understand that that is a person who succeeded because of a hundred people around them, then it’s easier to understand how you could do that, because then the answer is not, you becoming some super-human individual, the answer is you joining an organization of like-minded people who believe in the same thing and can lend their talents and efforts to make them real.
What is an issue that needs more attention from New Yorkers? How can we get more involved?
The number one issue that people should pay attention to right now is revenue—and the need to raise revenue across New York state. We are in a fiscal crisis and the governor is using that as an excuse to implement an austerity agenda; one that he has enacted and pushed throughout his three terms in office. What we need to do is raise taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers to ensure that any recovery out of this crisis is not on the backs of the working class, but financed and facilitated through the sharing of those who already have enough and are able to give back.
When I talk about the fight for revenue, it’s a fight to raise taxes on people who are making north of $300,000. It’s a fight to create, an inheritance tax. It’s a fight to basically make our tax system into a progressive and just one, as opposed to one that was created decades ago and is a relic of a discourse that is propelled and maintained by fear.
As a result of COVID-19, people have said that big-city culture and NYC is over. What do you love about this city?
This city is a place that I never want to leave. One thing that I love about this city, so dearly, is the people. I grew up in this city and I have memories and friendships that stand 20 years now. It feels like you can travel the world just by getting on the subway. You can start off in Pakistan in Jackson Heights, we could walk a couple of blocks, end up in Nepal and you can get on the train and go all the way to Palestine in Bay Ridge.
It is the beauties of the world brought together in five boroughs and I don’t think I could ever get bored of this place.