Rhyme and Resist
Most important, a mature hip-hop movement will have to deal with the irony of using hip-hop. Organizing for social change requires that people tap into their mutual human vulnerability and acknowledge their common oppression before they can bond, and band, together in solidarity. Though born in and of alienation and extreme social vulnerability, hip-hop culture is not eager to boast of it. Whereas the blues embraced pain to transcend it, hip-hop builds walls to shield against further injury. So getting to that place where the music might once again speak of individual frailty and collective strength is a difficult task.
At a December 12 rally for Mumia Abu-Jamal--co-sponsored by Third Eye and STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement), among others--students from the Bay Area crowd the steps of Oakland's City Hall. It's the kind of rally a traditional leftist would recognize. White radicals pass out socialist papers, petitions to end the death penalty and "Free Mumia" decals. Placards and banners quote Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Che Guevara. The difference is that hip-hop headz take center stage, leaving older white lefties on the periphery with their pamphlets.
It is not exactly a changing of the guard. The rally begins on a shaky note. The Ella Baker Center's youth coordinator, Jasmin Barker, steps to the mike and calls for a moment of silence. Minutes before, the sound system was blaring what might be called less than conscious rap. It's difficult for some to make the switch from the gangsta lyrics to a spirit of solidarity with Mumia. Barker persists like a schoolmarm and finally gets the reverence she demands. She then calls for a "moment of noise" to put the city government on notice. But it's Saturday. City Hall is closed. Downtown Oakland is empty. If mass demonstrations are for the onlookers, at first glance it seems as if these young activists have made the most basic of organizing errors: staging an action for a targeted constituency that's not even around. But soon enough it's evident that the objective here, this day, is to assert a generational identity, a collective sense of political possibility.
"Chill with the sellin' papers while the rally's goin' on," a young brother named Ryan scolds a man passing out Workers Vanguard during a step routine by seven Castlemont High School students. They are wearing blue jeans, sneakers, white T-shirts and fluorescent orange decals that say "Free Mumia," distributed by Refuse and Resist. They stand at attention, in single file, each girl holding two empty aluminum cans end to end. The lead girl sets the beat with a syncopated chant: "Mu-miiiiii-aa! Free Mumia, yeah! Mu-miiiiii-aa!" The other six chime in, and the line begins to move like a locomotive, with hands and legs clapping and stomping to recreate the diasporan rhythms that are at the heart of hip-hop.
Speakers pass the mike. Castlemont junior Muhammad, 15, explains the uses of the criminal justice system, from police brutality to the death penalty, to uphold the interests of the ruling class in his own hip-hop lingo. Latifah Simon, founder of the Center for Young Women's Development in San Francisco, relates Mumia's predicament to their lives: "If they should kill Mumia what will they do to you? If they should kill a revolutionary, people got to be in the streets screaming. It was young people like the ones here," she reminds the 300 on the steps of City Hall, "who made the civil rights movement happen." A white kid named Michael Lamb, with UC Berkeley's Poetry for the People collective, pays tribute to Saul Williams and Slam in reciting a rap with the refrain "Where my crackers at?" suggesting that the struggle for true democracy in America needs to be an equal opportunity affair.
It is Dontario Givens, 15, who best illustrates the impact a burgeoning hip-hop movement could have on a generation so long alienated. His favorite record at the moment is Outkast's tribute to Rosa Parks, the mother of the civil rights movement. But when his social studies teacher asked him to speak at the rally on behalf of Mumia, his first response was pure hip-hop: "Why should I care?" It took him three weeks to sort through his initial resistance before hitting on that space of empathy and recognition that is the cornerstone of organizing. "What would I want the world to do if I was Mumia?" he asked himself. "Come together and make the revolution.