Rhyme and Resist
In the tradition of defiance, of creating "somethin' outta nothin'," they developed artistic expressions that came to be known as hip-hop. Rapping, or MCing, is now the most well-known, but there are three other defining elements: DJing, break dancing and graffiti writing. For most of the seventies hip-hop was an underground phenomenon of basement parties, high school gyms and clubs, where DJs and MCs "took two turntables and a microphone," as the story has come to be told, creating music from the borrowed beats of soul, funk, disco, reggae and salsa, overlaid with lyrics reflecting their alienated reality. On city streets and in parks, hip-hop crews--the peaceful alternative to gangs--sought to settle disputes through lyrical battles and break-dancing competitions rather than violence. On crumbling city walls and subways, graffiti writers left their tags as proof that they'd passed that way, or that some friend had passed on. Eventually, all of these mediums shaped in New York morphed into regional styles defined by the cities in which they arose--Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta.
Underground tapes showcasing a DJ's skills or an MC's rhymes were all the outside world knew of rap music until 1979, when the Sugar Hill Gang released "Rapper's Delight" on a small independent black label. It wasn't the first rap album; many of the lyrics were recycled from artists with more street credibility. But it was a novelty to the mainstream. The record reached No. 36 on US charts and was a huge international hit, purchased largely by young white males, whose tastes have dictated the way rap music has been marketed and promoted ever since. From those classic "a hip hippin to the hip hip hop" lyrics and risqué "hotel-motel" rhymes, rap music has gone through various phases--early eighties message raps, late-eighties Afrocentricity, early nineties gangsta rap, today's rank materialism--and shows no signs of stopping.
This past February, Time trumpeted hip-hop on its cover: "After 20 years--how it's changed America." In the past year it has been the subject of at least five academic conferences--from Howard to Harvard to Princeton to UCLA to NYU. In January 2000, the Postal Service plans to issue a hip-hop stamp. Nation colleague Mark Schapiro reports that in Macedonian refugee camps, Kosovar Albanian youth shared tapes of home-grown hip-hop, raging against life in prewar Kosovo. This creation of black and Latino youth whom America discounted is now the richest--both culturally and economically--pop cultural form on the planet.
Given hip-hop's social origins and infectious appeal, there's long been a hope that it could help effect social change. The point of the music was always to "move the crowd," for DJs to find the funkiest part of the record--the "break beat"--and keep it spinning until people flooded the dance floor and the energy raised the roof. In the late eighties, Chuck D of Public Enemy declared rap "the black CNN" and argued that the visceral, sonic force that got people grooving on the dance floor could, along with rap's social commentary, get them storming the streets.
If nothing else, rapping about revolution did raise consciousness. Public Enemy inspired a generation to exchange huge gold rope chains, which the group likened to slave shackles, for Malcolm X medallions. From PE and others like KRS-ONE, X-Clan and the Poor Righteous Teachers, urban youth were introduced to sixties figures like Assata Shakur and the Black Panther Party, then began to contemplate issues like the death penalty, police brutality, nationalism and the meaning of American citizenship.
These "old school hip-hop headz," in the parlance of the culture, have come of age along with the music. Many of them are activists, artists, educators, academics, administrators, entrepreneurs, hoping to use hip-hop to awaken a younger generation in the way it began to politicize them. Much of this "hip-hop activism" is in New York, emanating from the culture's Bronx birthplace, but flashes of organizing are being seen in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, Atlanta and cyberspace.
Last September former Nation of Islam minister Conrad Muhammad launched A Movement for CHHANGE (Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment) and its Million Youth Voter Registration Drive. El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has a Hip Hop 101 course that borrows from Paulo Freire's teaching model: Educate to liberate. In 1993 the Central Brooklyn Partnership, which has trained people since 1989 to organize for economic justice, opened the first "hip-hop credit union" in Bedford-Stuyvesant to offer low-interest loans. The Prison Moratorium Project, a coalition of student and community activists dedicated to ending prison growth and rebuilding schools, is producing No More Prisons, a hip-hop CD featuring Hurricane G, The Coup and Cornel West. In Atlanta, the Youth Task Force works with rap artists Goodie Mobb to teach youth about environmental justice and political prisoners. In the Bay Area, the Third Eye Movement, a youth-led political and arts organization, has initiated a grassroots campaign against police brutality that combines direct action, policy reform and hip-hop concerts that serve as fundraisers, voter education forums and mass demonstrations. The New York chapter of the Uhuru Movement, a black nationalist organization that promotes communal living and self-determination, has as its president Mutulu Olugbala, M1 of the rap group Dead Prez. In cyberspace, Davey D's Hip-Hop Corner, produced by an Oakland radio personality, keeps aficionados up to date on the latest industry trends and issues affecting urban youth. On his own Web site, Chuck D is waging a campaign to get rap artists to plunge into the new MP3 technology, which offers musicians creative control and immediate access to a global audience, bypassing corporate overhead and earning more profits for themselves and, potentially, their communities.