US: Mobilizing the Hip-Hop Generation

To anyone who watches MTV all day -- where P. Diddy, Ja Rule and Nelly dominate the screen flashing fancy cars, gold chains and an entourage of scantily clad women -- political empowerment and hip-hop may seem like conflicting terms. But hip-hop has been political in nature since its birth in the youth subculture of the Bronx during the late 1970s. Unfortunately what started out as a gritty portrayal of what was really happening on the streets has been perverted in less than two decades into a seemingly endless supply of high-paid corporate clowns rapping about little more than the fact that theyre rich. Today, mainstream hip-hop is worse than apolitical -- it has become a tool to oppress and distract an entire generation of youth, especially youth of color.

Youth organizers today are fed up with this perversion of their own resistance culture and are taking steps to reclaim hip-hop's political power. According to Davey D, a founder of hip-hop activism and DJ of KPFA's "Hard Knock Radio," one of the first steps in reclaiming hip-hop from corporations is introducing the masses to politicized hip-hop. "They stole it from us, repackaged it, and are selling it back to us as something they created," he said.

Groups of youth activists from New York to San Francisco are now taking it back. San Francisco-based YouthSpeaks throws the annual YouthSpeaks Teen Poetry Slam where political hip-hop dominates the stage. Bay Area Olin uses hip-hop as a unifying force to stage walkouts as part of a campaign to get the state of California to offer ethnic studies programs in public schools. New Yorks Hip-Hop Speaks! uses MC battles as a catalyst to create community forums on any number of social issues ranging from a Fathers Day discussion of manhood to the events surrounding 9-11. Freedom Fighter Music, a progressive record label that uses hip-hop to fight for the hearts and minds of working class people shut down a recent San Francisco Police Commission hearing on the indictment of the citys Chief of Police by rapping during public comment.

Hip-hop is not only a way for youth organizers to get their messages out, it is also a way to engage more youth in movements of social change. And why not reach young people through the hip-hop culture they already embrace?

Jeff Chang, a journalist who authored Cant Stop, Wont Stop: A Cultural and Political History of the Hip-Hop Generation pointed out that hip-hop appeals to young people around the world, regardless of race and class. "Hip hop is multi-racial, poly-cultural, and local and global at the same time," he said.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Unfortunately these youth organizers have to do their work with little to no financial support, which can work against their movement-building efforts to get the word out. Most community activists are volunteers who have day jobs and view activism as their side hustle.

The irony is that there are many philanthropists and large foundations out there scratching their heads trying to figure out how to fund movements of social change at the street or grassroots level. The problem is that because of invisible barriers like age, race, and class, the philanthropic world has been historically cut off from the underground world of hip-hop, a situation that hurts both the activists and the funders. "The people who are giving out the funding tend to be pretty conservative," said James Kass, founder of YouthSpeaks. "Once theyre set in their ways, it takes some time for them to change. There is a gap between the foundations and the organizations they want to support."

Yet a recent panel discussion between hip-hop activists and philanthropists shows that there is progress in closing this communication gap. Constant Elevation, a panel discussion that took place in March 2003, was one of the first dates in this fairly new relationship. The panel was made up of a few of the Bay Areas premier youth activists and the audience consisted of a few dozen representatives from some of the largest philanthropic foundations in the country.

What Constant Elevation taught us was that the first step is getting philanthropists and funders to understand that in today's world, youth activism has shifted from the sit-ins and protest marches of the 60s to collectives that use hip-hop and multi-media to get their point across. "Were not in the civil rights era anymore," said Jeff Chang, who moderated the event. "From a funding point of view, it is necessary to look at activism from the standpoint of hip-hop."

While the concept of using hip-hop to further movements of social change is nothing new to street-level organizers, this is a fairly new idea to many philanthropic funders. "There are events like these all the time where we as organizers and activists sit around and talk about how to use hip-hop as a tool," said Nancy Hernandez, the panel speaker from the Bay Area's Olin. "But this is the first time that Ive been to something like this where funders and people with money come to hear us. I think its happened because people that have come up in hip-hop organizing have gotten to the point where they have resources."

"And thats what were talking about here. When you get to a point where you have money, you need to help the [organizations] that need it and are going to do good work with it," she said.

Hip-Hop at a Crossroads

As for the community organizers, what's their plan of attack? Jakada Imani of Freedom Fighter Music said that "[Hip-Hop] needs to go from the grassroots level to a treetop level. Its time to take back the culture and it make it work for us, making it meet our needs, not the needs of corporations."

The fact that an event like Constant Elevation happened is proof that money is starting to move in the right direction. As Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights said, "This event makes it clear that the path of social change needs to go through youth culture, and therefore it needs to go through hip-hop. Once hip-hop becomes central to social change, the entire game will be changed."

But with a war on and seemingly no end in sight to the Bush Administration's violence and racism both at home and abroad, it is time for hip-hop activism to reach a new level of organizing and, with that organizing, power. "The next steps are to refocus on being proactive, on changing things. We shouldnt just be organizing on being anti-this or anti-that," said Nancy Hernandez of Olin. "We shouldnt be spending all our energy just trying to stop a war, to stop the destruction of affirmative action, or to stop the building of new prisons. We need to be to working towards making sustainable changes in our community."

Jesse Alejandro Cottrell, 20, is a member of the San Francisco Youth Commission. Additional reporting was provided for this article by Carrie Ching.

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