Rhyme and Resist
Organizing the Hip-Hop Generation
Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.
--Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
I have stood in a meeting with hundreds of youngsters and joined in while they sang, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around." It's not just a song; it is resolve. A few minutes later, I have seen those same youngsters refuse to turn around before a pugnacious Bull Connor in command of men armed with power hoses. These songs bind us together, give us courage together, help us march together.
--Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can't Wait
"You'll turn around if they put you in jail," a young black man quips to a peer as counselor LaTosha Brown belts out the classic freedom song.
It's the kickoff of the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement's annual winter summit, held last December at Tuskegee University in Alabama. In 1985 former SNCC activists and their children founded 21st Century on the anniversary of the Selma marches, which ushered in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Three times a year the group convenes camps to teach movement history to a generation with little appreciation of its accomplishments. They've heard of sit-ins but little of SNCC. Media soundbites provide piecemeal knowledge of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but who was Ella Baker? 21st Century seeks to fill in the gaps before this generation slips through. Yet the paradoxical pull of preparing for the future by building a bridge to the past reveals just how wide the chasm has grown.
"When spirits got low, the people would sing," Brown explains: "The one thing we did right/Was the day we started to fight/Keep your eyes on the prize/Oh, Lord." Her rich contralto, all by itself, sounds like the blended harmonies of Sweet Honey in the Rock, but it's not stirring this crowd of 150 Southern youth. Two fresh-faced assistants bound on stage to join in like cheerleaders at a pep rally. Most of the others, however, take their cues from the older teens, slouched in their seats in an exaggerated posture of cool repose. Brown hits closer to their sensibilities when she resorts to funk. "Say it loud," she calls. "I'm black and I'm proud," they respond. But a brash cry from the back of the room speaks more to their hearts. "Can we sing some Tupac?" Another cracks, "Y'all wanna hear some Busta Rhymes?"
By the weekend's close, 21st Century co-founder Rose Sanders is voicing a sentiment activists who work with young people increasingly share. "Without hip-hop," says Sanders, 53, "I don't see how we can connect with today's youth."
In Hiphop America, cultural critic Nelson George writes that this post-civil rights generation may be the first black Americans to experience nostalgia. Although it's proverbial that you can't miss what you never had, or what never truly was, romantic notions of past black unity and struggle--despite the state violence that created the sense of community--magnify the despair of present realities. Public schools are almost as segregated today as at the time of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. "Jail, no bail"--the civil-disobedience tactic used by sixties activists to dismantle Southern apartheid--could just as easily refer to the contemporary incarceration epidemic, ushered in by mandatory minimum sentencing, three-strikes-you're-out laws and the "war on drugs." The voter registration campaigns for which many Southern blacks lost jobs, land and lives are now mocked by the fact that 13 percent of African-American men--1.4 million citizens--cannot vote because of criminal records meted out by a justice system proven to be neither blind nor just.
Hip-hop was created in the mid-seventies as black social movements quieted down, replaced by electoral politics. It has deep sixties cultural and political roots; Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets are considered the forebears of rap. But once the institutions that supported radical movements collapsed or turned their attention elsewhere, the seeds of hip-hop were left to germinate in American society at large--fed by its materialism, misogyny and a new, more insidious kind of state violence.
Under the watch of a new establishment of black and Latino elected officials, funding for youth services, arts programs and community centers was cut while juvenile detention centers and prisons grew. Public schools became way stations warehousing youth until they were of prison age. Drugs and the violence they attract seeped into the vacuum that joblessness left. Nowhere was this decay more evident than in the South Bronx, which came to symbolize urban blight the way Bull Connor's Birmingham epitomized American racism--and black and Latino youth in the Boogie Down made it difficult for society to pretend that it didn't see them.
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.
For many activists, the creation of hip-hop amid social devastation is in itself a political act. "To--in front of the world--get up on a turntable, a microphone, a wall, out on a dance floor, to proclaim your self-worth when the world says you are nobody, that's a huge, courageous, powerful, exhilarating step," says Jakada Imani, a civil servant in Oakland by day and a co-founder of the Oakland-based production company Underground Railroad. Concerted political action will not necessarily follow from such a restoration of confidence and self-expression, but it is impossible without it. Radical movements never develop out of despair.
It's too early to say whether the culture can truly be a path into politics and not just a posture, and, if it can, what those politics might be. But what is emerging throughout the country--when the influence of the black church has diminished, national organizations seem remote from everyday life and, in some sense, minority youth have to start from scratch--is an effort to create a space where youth of color can go beyond pain to resistance, where alternative institutions, and alternative politics, can develop.
As Tricia Rose, professor of Africana studies and history at New York University and author of Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, puts it, "The creation, and then tenacious holding on, of cultural forms that go against certain kinds of grains in society is an important process of subversion." It is "about a carving out of more social space, more identity space. This is critical to political organizing. It's critical to political consciousness." Because of its osmotic infusion into the mainstream, Rose argues, hip-hop culture could be used to create a conversation about social justice among young people, much as black religious culture influenced the civil rights discourse of the sixties.
Come on, baby, light my fire/Everything you drop is so tired/Music is supposed to inspire/How come we ain't getting no higher?
--Lauryn Hill, "Superstar"
The parallel may stop with broad social appeal. There are critical distinctions between black religious culture and hip-hop that make using hip-hop for social change a complicated gesture, suggests Richard Yarborough, English professor and director of the Center for African-American Studies at UCLA. "Black religious culture didn't threaten mainstream white liberals the way hip-hop does," notes Yarborough. "It grew directly out of black social institutions, while hip-hop has few sustained institutional bases. Black religious culture never became fodder for the mainstream commodity economy the way hip-hop has. It provided a central role for black women, while the role of women in hip-hop is still problematic. Black religious culture was associated with the moral high ground, while hip-hop is too often linked to criminality."
Indeed, Davey D dubbed 1998 "The Year of the Hip-Hop Criminal." Scores of artists, from Busta Rhymes and DMX to Ol' Dirty Bastard and Sean "Puffy" Combs, were arrested that year on charges ranging from assault to drug and weapons possession to domestic and sexual violence. Given the hip-hop mandate to "keep it real," to walk the talk of rap music, the inescapable question becomes, What kind of perspectives are youth tapping into and drawing on in hip-hop music?
At the 21st Century youth camp, students are attending the workshop "Hip-Hop 2 Educate." Discussion facilitator Alatunga asks the students to list the music's major themes, prompting a lugubrious litany, in this order: death, pain, drugs, sex, alcohol, gangbanging, guns, struggling in life, reality, murder and childbirth (an odd inclusion, perhaps provoked by Lauryn Hill's joyful ode to her firstborn). The young woman who offers "childbirth" then suggests "love." A fan of Kirk Franklin's hip-hop-inflected gospel says "God." It is Alatunga who suggests "politics." The students duly note it on their list.
For the next exercise, he has each person name a "positive" rapper. The first to respond cite the obvious: Lauryn Hill, Goodie Mobb, Outkast. The rest struggle, coming up with current, though not necessarily politically conscious, chart toppers: Jay-Z, DMX, the whole No Limit family. Gospel singer Fred Hammond is allowed because Kirk Franklin was before. Tupac gets in because everyone feels bad he died before fulfilling his potential. Master P, chief exec of the No Limit label, raises some eyebrows because of his hustler image but slides in because it's argued that the distribution contract he negotiated with Priority Records, which secures him 80 percent of the sales revenue, upsets the classic master-slave relationship between the industry and artists. Alatunga finally draws the line at master marketer Puff Daddy, reminding the group that by "positive" he means political, not just "getting paid."
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.)
Others are developing companies, curriculums and performance spaces to institutionalize hip-hop and reclaim it as a tool for liberation. Mannafest, a performance company, seeks to develop the voice of black London by creating a space where people can express their ideas on political and social issues. This fall the Brecht Forum in New York will sponsor a nine-week "course of study for hip-hop revolutionaries." Akila Worksongs, an artist-representation company, evolved out of president April Silver's work in organizing the first national hip-hop conference at Howard University in 1991. One of its missions is to "deglamorize" hip-hop for school-age kids. About the responsibility of artists, Silver says, "You can't just wake up and be an artist. We come from a greater legacy of excellency than that. Artists don't have the luxury to not be political."
At the Freestyle Union (FSU) in Washington, DC, artist development isn't complete without community involvement. That philosophy grew out of weekly "cipher workshops," in which circles of artists improvise raps under a set of rules: no hogging the floor, no misogyny, no battling. The last of those, which defies a key tenet of hip-hop, has outraged traditionalists, who see it feminizing the culture. What this transformation has created is a cadre of trained poet-activists, the Performance Corps, who run workshops and panels with DC-based universities, national educational conferences, the Smithsonian Institution and the AIDS Project, on issues ranging from domestic violence to substance abuse and AIDS prevention. This summer FSU and the Empower Program are holding a twelve-week Girls Hip-Hop Project, which tackles violence against women.
Obviously, as Tricia Rose points out, this stretching of the culture, even if it does raise political consciousness, "is not the equivalent of protesting police brutality, voting, grassroots activism against toxic waste dumping, fighting for more educational resources, protecting young women from sexual violence." Toni Blackman, the founder of FSU, admits as much. "As artists," she says, "we're not necessarily interested in being politicians. We are interested in making political statements on issues that we care about. But how do you give young people the tools to decide how to spend their energy to make their lives and the world better?"
It's a good question, but activist/artist Boots of the Oakland-based rap group The Coup laid the challenge far more pointedly in an interview with Davey D in 1996: "Rappers have to be in touch with their communities no matter what type of raps you do, otherwise people won't relate. Political rap groups offered solutions only through listening. They weren't part of a movement, so they died out when people saw that their lives were not changing. On the other hand, gangsta groups and rappers who talk about selling drugs are a part of a movement. The drug game has been around for years and has directly impacted lives, and for many it's been positive in the sense that it earned people some money. Hence gangsta rap has a home. In order for political rap to be around, there has to be a movement that will be around that will make people's lives better in a material sense. That's what any movement is about, making people's lives better."
In order to have a political movement, you have to have education and consciousness. It's very difficult to mix education and consciousness with capitalism. And most people, when confronted with an option, will pick money over everything else.
--Lisa Williamson, a k a Sister Souljah
It's all about the Benjamins, baby.
--Sean "Puffy" Combs, a k a Puff Daddy, No Way Out
Organizing the hip-hop generation is "an idea whose time has come," says Lisa Sullivan, president of LISTEN (Local Initiative Support Training Education Network), a youth development social change organization in Washington. "But there's no reason to believe that it will happen naturally."
No organizing ever does. The grassroots work that is going on around the country is mostly small, diffuse and underfunded. For it ever to reach a mass scale, Sullivan argues, there will have to be an independent infrastructure to support close-to-the-ground organizing. That means training, coordination and leadership building. It also means money. There is plenty of that among the most successful rappers--for the uninitiated, "the Benjamins" refers to $100 bills--but for the most part they, and the projects they get behind, are in thrall to the corporate ideology that made them stars.
Consider Rock the Vote's Hip-Hop Coalition, designed to register black and Latino youth for the 1996 presidential election using the same model by which rock artists have tried to convince white youth that voting is relevant to their lives. The brainchild of rapper LL Cool J, the Hip-Hop Coalition was led by former Rock the Vote executive director Donna Frisby and involved artists Chuck D, Queen Latifah and Common Sense, among others, registering almost 70,000 youth of color, versus hundreds of thousands of white youth.
This media strategy didn't succeed as Frisby had hoped, so the coalition took its show on the road, staging political forums where rap artists and local politicians talked to teenagers about the political process. What was clear from these open forums was that, besides the political apathy characteristic of most young people, there is a deeper sense of alienation. "African-American and low-income youth feel that the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were not created with us in mind," says Frisby. "So people felt, the system isn't doing anything to help me, why should I participate in it?"
From these experiences Frisby learned that not only will programs for minority youth always be given short shrift by mainstream underwriters--the Hip-Hop Coalition never got the media support of its white counterpart--but they won't even reach their audience unless they are specifically designed for youth of color. Now she and Chuck D have a new venture, Rappers Educating All Curricula through Hip-Hop (REACH). Building on the Hip-Hop Coalition, REACH is recruiting a cadre of artists as "conduits of learning," making public appearances at schools, juvenile detention centers, community centers. In nurturing more conscious artists, Chuck D and Frisby hope more conscious art will result. The group also plans to develop educational tools incorporating hip-hop songs. "Hip-hop is first and foremost a communication tool," says Chuck D. "For the last twenty years, hip-hop has communicated to young people all across the world, people in different time zones, who speak different languages, teaching them more about English, or black hip-hop lingo, quicker than any textbook can." REACH aims to narrow the cultural and generational gap between teachers and students in the public schools, and to promote the idea that "being smart is being cool."
As described by Chuck D, however, REACH seems in many ways to be an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em approach. To compete for the short attention spans of youth, he says, social change organizations have to be like corporations. "A lot of organizations that have been out there for a long time are not really on young people's minds. In the information age, there are so many distractions. Organizations have to market themselves in a way so that they are first and foremost on young people's minds and supply the answers and options that they might need."
But political organizing isn't about supplying "answers." As Sister Souljah puts it, "Just because you have the microphone doesn't mean you know what you're talking about. Just because you can construct a rhyme doesn't mean that you know how to organize a movement or run an organization." Souljah came to broad public attention during the 1992 presidential campaign when Bill Clinton, gunning for Jesse Jackson to woo the conservative vote, distorted a statement she had made about the LA riots. But before there was Sister Souljah, rap icon, there was Lisa Williamson, activist. At Rutgers University, she was involved in campaigns against apartheid and police brutality. With the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice, she mobilized young people for various events in the black community and organized a star-studded concert at Harlem's Apollo Theater to fund a summer camp she'd developed. Impressed with her organizing skills, Chuck D christened her "Sister Souljah" and designated her minister of information for Public Enemy.
Today, Souljah is executive director of Daddy's House--the nonprofit arm of Puffy's rap empire, Bad Boy Entertainment--which runs a summer camp for urban youth and provides meals for the homeless during the holidays. "The stars we choose to celebrate are reflections of who we are as a people," she says. "Right now we celebrate those with money, but that has nothing to do with understanding history, culture or understanding your future. And I think that's missing in hip-hop right now."
Last November in an Essence profile, Combs said that he wanted to use his popularity and influence to galvanize his generation to exercise their political power in the 2000 presidential election. Last September Master P's nonprofit foundation helped finance the Million Youth March. Rap artists are clearly not political leaders--they might be better described as representatives of their record labels than of their communities--but they do have one obvious role to play if they want to foster activism. While Sullivan embodies the idea of organizing as a fundamentally grassroots undertaking, she knows that it can't survive on sweat alone. "Hip-hop is a billion-dollar industry," she says, "and there are people who can play a venture philanthropist role. But that would require educating them about different ways to be philanthropists." No doubt, Master P and Puffy get capitalism. In 1998, the two were the top-selling rap artists, with Master P earning $57 million and Combs $54 million. But "the $64,000 Question," says Sullivan, "is could [they] become what Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were for the civil rights movement? Those two guys actively financed how people got from Mississippi to Atlantic City," she recalls, referring to the historic all-black Mississippi State delegation, led by Fannie Lou Hamer, that demanded to be seated at the 1964 Democratic convention in place of the state's white segregationists.
Sullivan was the field coordinator of the Children's Defense Fund and, until 1996, manager of its Black Student Leadership Network, a service and child advocacy program. Her subsequent stint as a consultant at the Rockefeller Foundation convinced her that a movement of the hip-hop generation will have to fund itself. "Traditional foundations are not going to support this work. You have a couple of program officers in the arts and humanities who get how important youth culture is to reaching alienated young people. While they tend to be radical and politicized, the institutions that they money-out from are not anywhere comfortable supporting what a mature hip-hop political agenda could be."
For Sullivan, such an agenda would address three issue areas. Top on the list is the criminal justice system, including police brutality and the incarceration epidemic. "It's the whole criminalization of poor, urban youth," she says. "That's a policy area that folks have got to get a handle on quickly. And it's also a place where our constituency numbers--our power--if organized well, could move the policy agenda away from its current punitive, negative stance." Public education is agenda item number two: "People are being set up. This is the system that is the most dysfunctional in the country, and something drastic has to occur so that people acquire the skills and have a fighting chance in terms of the economic future. A bad public education system feeds a whole generation of young people into the criminal justice system." Finally, activists need to address people losing the vote because of incarceration: "This is about the health of American democracy. What is happening to the hip-hop community around the loss of citizenship is permanently preventing many of us from ever being able to participate in the democratic process."
If you ain't talkin' about endin' exploitation/then you just another sambo in syndication/always sayin' words that's gon' bring about elation/never doin' shit that's gon' bring us vindication/and while we getting strangled by the slave-wage grippers/you wanna do the same,/and say we should put you in business?/so you'll be next to the ruling class, lyin' in a ditch/cuz when we start this revolution all you prolly do is snitch.
--The Coup, "Busterismology"
Once all this activism matures, it's hard to say whether it will resemble hip-hop, or the left, as we know it. But a few operations on the ground suggest some necessary features. First off, it has to be youth led and defined.
At the weekly rally for A Movement for CHHANGE, everyone is frisked as they enter the National Black Theater in Harlem, women on the left, men on the right. "Hip-hop minister" Conrad Muhammad, the motive force behind the group, is waging a mass voter registration drive in preparation for 2001, when he hopes to sponsor a convention to announce a bloc of young urban voters with the political clout to influence the mayoral agenda. The minister's roots lie in the Nation of Islam, but at the rally he sounds more like a Southern Baptist preacher.
"Would you, please, brother, register today?" Muhammad pleads with a dreadlocked black man sitting with his wife. Their new baby just had a harrowing hospital stay. They're relieved that the baby is healthy and that insurance will pay for the visit, but initially neither was a certainty. After the minister's hourlong pitch, the man is still unconvinced that casting a ballot and then hounding politicians, of any color, will assure strong black communities of healthcare, good schools and intact families.
Voter registration is an odd, and hard, sell coming from a man who, until three years ago, never cast a ballot and, while minister of the Nation of Islam's Mosque #7 in Harlem, preached against it. But Muhammad, 34, tries. It's mid-November 1998, the same week Kwame Ture, a k a Stokeley Carmichael, died and the Madd Rapper, a k a Deric "D-Dot" Angeletti, ambushed and battered the then-editor in chief of the hip-hop magazine Blaze. Someone, Muhammad figures, ought to be the bridge between the civil rights tradition and the hip-hop generation, and it might as well be him.
He appeals to that sense of competition supposedly at the core of hip-hop: "If Kwame at 21 could go down to Lowndes County and register his people to vote, so can we." He appeals to a sense of shame: "This is the talented tenth that Du Bois said was supposed to come up with solutions to the problems of our people, and here they are fighting and killing each other up in corporate offices. Brothers and sisters, you know we got to make a change from that kind of craziness." He goads: "Talkin' 'bout you a nationalist, you don't believe in the system. You're a part of the system!" He suggests outright poverty: "Somebody had to say, 'I'll forgo the riches of this world to make sure that my people are in power.' If Stokeley died with $10 in his pocket I'd be surprised." He pushes the willingness-to-suffer motif that characterized the early civil rights movement: "James Meredith decided to have a march against fear. We need one of those today in the 'hood, where dope is being sold, people are destroying themselves, frivolity and ignorance are robbing this generation of its substance. Meredith marched by himself--of course, he was shot down. You make that kind of stand, you're going to be shot down." At long last, he gets to his point: "If A Movement for CHHANGE can organize the youth, get them off these street corners, get them registered, make them conscious, active players in the political landscape, maybe we can vote Sharpton into office as mayor or Jesse as President."
The grandmothers of the amen gallery in the audience punctuate each exhortation with cheers, and a few raised fists. The young folks quietly mull over the prospects: poverty, suffering, Sharpton, Jesse. At one point, a 17-year-old decked in the "ghetto fabulous" hip-hop style--baggy jeans, boots, black satin do-rag, huge rhinestone studs weighing down each lobe--challenges the voter registration model of political empowerment. "They [politicians] always say things, do things, but soon as they get in office, they don't say and do what they're supposed to. The community that I live in is mostly, like, a drug environment. And they're always talking about, we're going to get the drug dealers, we're going to bust them, we're going to stop all the gangs, we're going to stop all the black-on-black crime, we're going to have our own businessmen. And they never follow their word, so what's the sense in voting?"
"Let's put you in office," says Muhammad. "In 2001, when forty-two City Council seats come up [in New York City], let's run you."
"Run me?" the young brother asks incredulously, biting a delighted grin. He is clearly interested in the idea of being involved, even a leader, in his community. But if these are the terms, he and his peers don't seem so sure.
Secondly, a mature hip-hop political movement will have more than a race-based political analysis of the issues affecting urban youth. Increasingly, the face of injustice is the color of the rainbow, so a black-white racial analysis that pins blame on some lily-white power structure is outdated. At the 21st Century meeting in Tuskegee the theme of the weekend was miseducation and tracking. In the Selma public schools, however, more than 90 percent of the students are black, so whatever the remedial tracking, it is happening along class lines, instituted by black teachers, principals and superintendents. "All teachers except for the whites told me that I wasn't going to be anybody," says a heavyset, dark, studious young man, who transferred from the public school system to a Catholic school. When he asked many of the black teachers for help, the response was often flip and cutting: "Your mama's smart, figure it out."
Ras Baraka tells of how Black NIA F.O.R.C.E., the protest group he founded while at Howard University in the late eighties, descended on a Newark City Council meeting to oppose an ordinance banning citizens from speaking at its sessions. They were arrested for disrupting city business on the orders of Donald Tucker, a black councilman. "Stuff like 'the white man is a devil' is anachronistic," Baraka says. "The white man didn't make Donald Tucker call the police on us. He did that on his own."
In explaining his actions, Tucker invoked his own history in civil rights sit-ins. "That's their disclaimer to justify doing anything," Baraka says. "If it were white people [jailing peaceful demonstrators], the people would be outraged. The irony is that we went down there singing civil rights songs. We thought we would call the ghosts of Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers and Kwame Ture on their asses, but it didn't even faze them. They have more in common now with the people who oppress us than with us. In that sense the times are changing, so our level of organizing has to change."
Like many activists working on a range of issues across the left in this country, these organizers are beginning to shift focus from civil rights to human rights. As Malaika Sanders, the current executive director of 21st Century, puts it, "Civil rights is based on the state and what the state has defined as the rights of the people." Human rights, on the other hand, is based on the rationale that "no matter who or where I am, I have some basic rights, so it's not about voting rights or what the law is." She argues that human rights presents a more motivating rationale for activism. Whereas a civil rights philosophy--focused on a finite set of principles that define citizenship--can lead to despair as those rights are never fully attained or are subject to the mood of the times, "a human rights approach allows a vision that's bigger than your world or what you think on a day-to-day basis."
On the West Coast, the Third Eye Movement has developed a theory of organizing that goes from civil rights to human rights, from nationalism to internationalism. It couples grassroots organizing with programs and policy analysis, using hip-hop culture not just to educate and politicize but to help young people express their concerns in their own language, on their own terms. Third Eye activists used rap and song to testify before the San Francisco Police Commission in 1997 after Officer Marc Andaya stomped and pepper-sprayed to death Aaron Williams, an unarmed black man. By the sixth week of these appearances, three of the five commissioners had resigned. Their replacements fired Andaya for his brutal police record shortly after being seated. Third Eye also worked recently on the case of Sheila DeToy, a 17-year-old white girl shot in the back of the head by police.
"They've taken hip-hop where it's never been before. They've taken hip-hop ciphers to the evening news," boasts Van Jones, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco, one of the principals of Third Eye. Mixed with hip-hop's aggressive attitude, the political message can get "scary," he says. "You won't find it in a traditional civics-class curriculum: We're willing to take issues into our hands if the system won't work. As scary as people thought gangsta rap was, it's nothing compared to young people using hip-hop to express what they're going through and targeting the people who are really responsible."
Jones says he founded the Ella Baker Center--named to honor the soul mother of SNCC--in response to the failures of the civil rights establishment, which had become "too tame and too tired." "I don't believe the true power of the people can be confined to a ballot box," he says, but must express itself in strikes, boycotts, pickets, civil disobedience. "We need to be about the whup-ass. Somebody's fucking up somewhere. They have names and job descriptions. You have to be creative about how you engage the enemy, because if you do it on his terms, the outcome is already known."
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.