Why Build a Movement Among Youth-Driven Music Spaces?

Why Build a Movement Among Youth-Driven Music Spaces?

Why Build a Movement Among Youth-Driven Music Spaces?

Because using the most popular form of cultural expression among youth may be the best way to build power and promote activism.


Shannon Stewart

April 30, 2008

At the end of a two hour conversation addressing the question, “What does the ‘movement’ in ‘All-Ages Movement Project’ (AMP) mean?” Gavin Leonard, one of the founders of Elementz: The Hip Hop Youth Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, and an AMP member, stated, “So, it’s black and it’s white and it’s rich and it’s poor and it’s rural and it’s urban … that’s the reality of what we’re working to reach.” He goes on to explain that the movement is made up of young people in every town coming together to experience and create new music, and to connect their cultural expression to activism, social justice, and community change.

Restating this sentiment in different words, Lori Roddy from the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, Michigan, added that the purpose of the movement is for young people to build power and “impact culture” instead of culture always being “impacted onto them.”

Aside from Lori and Gavin, this conversation included the other writers of the nine-part series “Turn the Beat Around” by the All-Ages Movement Project that ran from October to February in WireTap magazine. The authors ranged from college students to 30-something executive directors–all playing critical roles in engaging, organizing, and transforming young communities through punk, hip-hop, rock, and all of their subsidiary genres. The individual articles focused on documenting and disseminating best practices of existing youth music organizations. We wanted to encourage the start-up and strengthening of youth-driven music in every ‘hood, because we believe it is a uniquely powerful way to connect cultural expression to community activism, especially because the energy for music already exists everywhere.

But what is at the heart of this youth-driven cultural organizing trend? Is it a focused movement? Does it have tangible social change outcomes? Is it an entry point for thinking about social change, or a tool for doing social work? Must underground music and art be kept separate from social or political renovation in order to uphold some sort of artistic purity, or are music and art an underutilized means of resistance and struggle?

We decided to come together and jointly explore some of the larger theoretical questions, including: “In our respective organizations, do we see ourselves as doing cultural change or social change work, and what’s the difference?” We each addressed this question.


“My personal take is that artists–their role in society–is that they can see things kind of before it happens,” responded Chris Wiltsee, the executive director and founder of Youth Movement Records in Oakland, California, “their role in producing art is to try to alert the rest of the community or society to ‘wake up! Look at this!’ and hopefully create some action. I think that cultural change by definition preempts social change, and social change happens as a reflection of [changes] in cultural values.”

Lori explained how she is trying to understand culture’s function in her work, “I think [culture] is sort of a consciousness of the way that people think, the way they understand the place that they live in and the way that they interact with one another. It’s the way they express their interaction or the way they sing, the way they write, or the way they perform. It’s a way of internalizing and understanding the way things are. And to change that internal hegemonic perception of [culture] is a big piece, I think. Social change then to me is identifying more of the actual policies, practices, and laws. … With that definition, the Neutral Zone is really functioning more on the cultural change [side]. It’s raising the consciousness of young people, [affirming] that they are competent, capable individuals, that they should have ownership. They don’t have to wait to be adults.”

Gavin went next. “So the crux of it is… does the organization see itself as doing cultural or social change work?… Probably, actually, neither…. Our mission is to inspire and engage. You can’t make cultural change unless you have a culture and are connected with people or, like I say to people all the time, that Elementz is this youth center that has street credibility and then pretty much all I do all day is figure out how to define street credibility.” Gavin explained that street credibility is what helps an organization like Elementz get connected with young people, helps young people get connected to one another to create their own culture, and also connects them to the power to make change.

“I think culture in our country is absolutely manipulated at this point; it’s just not manipulated by us, it’s not manipulated for the right reasons,” Gavin stated. “But I think we have a responsibility to try to push back and get it to that free place…. you are not just trying to re-create culture [so that it can be used to push an agenda], you are trying to allow culture to be free.”

Kevin Erickson from the Department of Safety in Anacortes, Washington, added, “Well, the Department of Safety in its founding was sort of operating on a lot of different levels. They wrote manifestos and deployed all this Marxist rhetoric, meanwhile maintaining a radical humility about their actual expectations about what they would be able to accomplish. Now, I think that we’re permanently radical by virtue of existing where we exist and by doing the kind of work that we’re doing in the place that we’re doing it. I think it’s indicative of the current state of cultural politics in America today [that] we have left rural areas out and the red states have been defined as cultural wastelands. [So] by putting together [an argument] that, ‘No, actually the town you are in is valuable. You and your friends are capable of doing really good things,’ it tends to break down that binary between social and cultural by really shortcutting the fundamental dynamic at work.”

Kevin expanded on the importance of getting young people to stay in the rural and conservative communities they grew up in, [creating] “Radical alternatives in unexpected places.” And so even though Kevin and Gavin run organizations that are outwardly different, and exist in different settings, they share a common purpose and goal, and also share the belief that it is important to look beyond the progressive bubbles of coastal cities to affect widespread change.

The group’s youngest member, Diaris Alexander, gave some context to doing student-led hip-hop programming at UCLA. “It’s different at UCLA. [We’re not] catering to hip-hop communities, or lower-income and lower-middle class [communities] because UCLA is between Bel Air and Beverly Hills. It’s far away from the communities that hip-hop often represents.”

“I wouldn’t say that it is cultural change [we are working toward at UCLA],” Diaris continued. “It’s more to embrace the many facets of that culture. I’m trying to change the hip-hop and the student community, and by extension change the communities in which those people live. Cuz we kind of each live in different communities. Like I’m part of the West Indian community, I’m part of the black community, I’m part of the hip-hop community, I’m part of the dancer community. We all have different parts of our identit[ies].”

At that moment Diaris’ point struck a chord among us about the importance of qualifying what “cultural change” means. For the sake of this conversation, we used this term to imply the unraveling of a culture built on hyper-individualized, consumer-based lifestyles, one-dimensional art and pop culture–this is to say white hegemonic mass culture. Though this conversation had many answers to what that entails, we all agreed the cultural change was a necessary partner to social change.

I echoed a lot of what had been said, and added something of a social urban planning perspective, “I think about space–like physical space–and its role in cultural change and social change. For The Vera Project, I feel like the space was what was holding the possibility for there to be social change within that cultural community.”

And of course, it’s how you hold and shape the space that matters. In Seattle, aside from producing music, spaces like Vera also tackled mass voter mobilization efforts that changed the course of elections, community responses to sexual assault, strong alliance-building for youth rights and liberation, anti-war protests and anti-globalization organizing. Connecting young people through art–and in a space that was set up unconventionally–created a platform for people of different identities and communities to come together and tackle hard issues, alongside of nurturing new sounds, artists and aesthetics.

In follow-up emails, Katy Otto offered these thoughts about the multifaceted work she’s been doing in Washington, D.C., mostly associated with Positive Force. “Social and cultural change are interrelated. Engaging in a cultural practice humanizes people for each other–e.g. if you listen to music or read books or view art from a group of people, you have a little more insight into their lives. When you have more insight into other people, it becomes harder to dehumanize them.” Katie went on to explain that Positive Force engages in social change by acting as a youth volunteer corps of punks that help different community organizations, and that also use art and music as a means of raising money and raising awareness about different issues.

Britt Curtis, who lives and works in Reno, Nevada, and directs the Holland Project said simply that social and cultural change go hand-in-hand. By working in Reno, the Holland Project strives “to change the dynamics of an adult-centric town, and empower young people to be a part of Reno and help grow and shape it, instead of fleeing to other cities and towns.”

Kameron Moore in New Orleans, Louisiana, sums up well the idea that music is a universal language and galvanizing force. “When you have universal communication among any culture of community at large, that tool is a powerful one.” To her, social and cultural change are also one and the same, and music is, you know, instrumental.


This group offered their perspectives on several other questions central to All-Ages Movement Project’s work of trying to understand youth and music communities in the context of one another, and how they impact the social and cultural fabric in the U.S. Gathering all of us across age, race, geography, genre and socio-political factors was in and of itself somewhat of a feat, especially for these folks that rarely have time to luxuriate in the realm of theory.

In a way, another point of this conversation was to subvert the notion of praxis (applying theory to work) and instead to apply our work to a developing theory–that there is a (potentially radical) social movement in the U.S. centered around young people and music subcultures.

It’s important to have some humility about the weightiness of using a term like “movement” in the title of an article, let alone the name of a collective. But in the context of the All-Ages Movement project, the word’s prominent position is crucial; at the very least to differentiate AMP and all of its individual grassroots youth and music organizations from a string of other music programs designed merely to babysit, corral, or teach Stairway to Heaven to young people. That would quite clearly be some other AMP.

Visit AllAgesMovementProject.org to view the websites of all members of this national collective.

Shannon Stewart is the director of All-Ages Movement Project based in San Francisco, Calif.

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