Rhyme and Resist
It's a tricky business fitting culture into politics. Adrienne Shropshire, 31, is a community organizer in Los Angeles with AGENDA (Action for Grassroots Empowerment and Neighborhood Development Alternatives), which came together after the 1992 "Rodney King riots." "Oftentimes the music reinforces the very things that we are struggling against," she says. "How do we work around issues of economic justice if the music is about 'getting mine'? How do we promote collective struggle when the music is about individualism?"
In 1995, AGENDA tried using hip-hop culture in its organizing efforts against Prop 209, the anti-affirmative action ballot measure that eventually passed. Organizers hoped to get youth involved in canvassing around voter education and peer education workshops in schools through open-mike poetry nights. The organizers succeeded in creating a space to talk about social justice issues. They also were able to introduce themselves to artists whom they often failed to reach doing campus-based work. And the events were fun, balancing the unglamorous work of organizing.
Overall, though, Shropshire said, "people didn't make the leap" between raising issues and taking action. They would attend the Friday night poetry reading but pass on the Saturday morning rally. "The attitude was 'If I'm rapping about social justice, isn't that enough?' They wanted to make speeches on the mike, but there was not a critical mass who could take the next step in the process."
This failed experiment forced AGENDA organizers to return to more tried and true techniques: door-to-door canvassing; editorials for local, college and high school newspapers; educational workshops on campuses; collaboration with on-campus student organizations. At their meetings they passed out "action cards" for people to note the areas in which they had expertise: media, outreach, fundraising, event security, etc. And they came to understand that the solid core of people who remained were not the dregs of the hip-hop open-mikes but the die-hard troops who could be counted on over the long haul of a campaign.
As AGENDA learned firsthand, the pitfall organizers have to avoid is becoming like advertisers, manipulating youth culture for their own ends. About a decade ago, Tricia Rose recalls, Reynolds Wrap had a campaign with a cartoon figure reciting rhymes over corny beats about using the plastic wrap. Since teenagers rarely purchase Reynolds Wrap, the commercial was rather odd and largely unsuccessful. "But once the advertisers moved into the realm of youth products," says Rose, "then the fusion was complete. There was no leap. You could do sneakers, soda, shoes, sunglasses, whatever, because that's what they're already consuming."
We don't pull no rabbits from a hat/we pull rainbows/from a trash can/we pull hope from the dictionary/n teach it how to ride the subway/we don't guess the card in yo hand/we know it/aim to change it/yeah/we know magic/and don't be so sure that card in yo hand/is the Ace
--Ruth Forman, "We Are the Young Magicians"
"I believe in magic," poet/actor Saul Williams chants into the mike at CBGB in New York's East Village, backed up by a live band with violin, viola, drum, bass and electric guitars, and accompanied by a "live performance painting" by Marcia Jones, his partner. In 1996 Williams won the Grand Slam Championship, a competition among spoken-word artists who bring a hip-hop aesthetic to poetry. "Magic," Williams riffs, "not bloodshed," will bring on "the revolution." The transformative power of art is the theme of his hit movie Slam, in which Williams plays a street poet cum drug dealer incarcerated for selling marijuana. Through his poetry, and beautiful writing teacher, the protagonist transforms himself and fellow inmates. At the movie's end, he raps, "Where my niggas at?" both demanding to know where all the troops are who should be fighting against injustice, and lamenting that they are increasingly in jail. At CBGB, when Williams asks, "Where my wizards at?" the challenge to the hip-hop community to transform society through art is clear.
Later, Williams predicted a "changing of the guard" in hip-hop, from a commodity culture to an arts renaissance that reconnects with hip-hop's sixties Black Arts Movement roots. There are plenty of skeptics. Last September, at a festival of readings, panels and performances in Baltimore and College Park, Maryland, sixties poet Mari Evans argued that while the Black Arts Movement was the cultural arm of a political movement, the work of contemporary artists is "an expression of self rather than the community."
Considering that these are not the sixties and there is not yet a movement to be the arm of, a better analogy would be to the Beat poets of the fifties, whose subversive art prefigured the political tumult that would arise only a few years later, even if they didn't anticipate it. Today, what look like mere social events may represent a prepolitical phase of consciousness building that's integral to organizing. Often, these open-mike nights and poetry slams have politically conscious themes that the poets address in their rhymes. They are also increasingly used for education and fundraising. For instance, Ras Baraka, son of Black Arts father Amiri Baraka, used the proceeds from his weekly Verse to Verse poetry nights in Newark to raise money for his political campaigns for mayor in 1994 and city council in 1998. (He lost both races narrowly, in runoffs.)