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.