Making Change: Two Turntables and a Megaphone

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Imagine kids anxiously awaiting that last school bell of the day so they can go out and beg for more money for education. As unlikely as it sounds, that’s exactly what happened this past June, when tens of thousands of kids and older activists gathered in front of City Hall to rally against a proposed $385 million cut to education. Rap impresario Russell Simmons, whose Hip Hop Summit Action Network hosted the event, brought along fellow superstars Alicia Keys, Jay-Z and Chuck D. Their presence helped garner press coverage from outlets large and small: City Council member Charles Barron told the Washington Post that the rally was an “awesome, awesome revolutionary moment.” Shortly thereafter, Mayor Bloomberg restored $298 million to the city’s education budget.

The rally may never have come off at all, however, if it weren’t for ongoing efforts by teachers, unions, and a movement that’s rapidly gaining power: hip hop activism. Over the past few years, a broad movement committed to serious political action–with hip hop as its medium of communication–has taken root across the country, organizing young people around a variety of political and activist campaigns.

Juvenile justice, for example, has been a rallying cry for hip hoppers from coast to coast. In New York, the citywide Justice 4 Youth Coalition launched an effort to redirect $65 million slated for juvenile jail expansion. Headed by the Prison Moratorium Project, which has made its name among young people by coordinating and distributing a political hip hop compilation CD called No More Prisons, the coalition packed City Council hearings with young activists, including former juvenile offenders armed with facts and personal stories. Ultimately, the city scaled back the expansion, cutting $53 million. On the opposite coast, 2001 saw an urban-suburban coalition–headed by the Youth Force Coalition of over 20 youth organizations–fight the construction of a youth “superjail” in Alameda County, California; the number of beds was eventually cut back by 120.

The phenomenon hasn’t gone unnoticed; the New York Times and other publications have run lengthy articles in the last year hyping the political involvement of major hip hop figures like Simmons. But they’ve missed a critical point: hip hop activism isn’t being led by the men with the deep pockets, but by grassroots activist groups.

“Every successful grassroots initiative right now is using hip hop” when it comes to on-the-ground organizing done by people of color, declares Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, who helped coordinate The Future 500, a national directory of youth activist organizations released in October. Abdul-Matin says that about 60 to 70 percent of the groups in the directory do hip hop activism.

Hip hop activism has been able to act as a door for those just entering the political realm. “Hip hop activists were really effective at growing a new constituency who hadn’t been involved in politics before or who didn’t know how to politicize their engagement,” says Alvin Starks, a program officer at the Open Society Institute (OSI), which has been giving more and more grants to groups using hip hop in their work.

Hip hop’s power as an organizing tool, say activists, lies in the fact that it forms a common cultural bond for a multiethnic generation. At a panel discussion held this summer at OSI, Marinieves Alba, founder of a youth leadership development nonprofit called Generation Hip Hop L.E.A.D.S., laid out why it works: “In the Puerto Rican community we have a saying, that in order to reach the masses you have to speak to them in rice and beans,” she said, drawing a muffled laugh from the crowd. “So, hip hop is rice and beans for a lot of young people…. Fundamentally, it’s the tool. It’s the bridge.”

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Where that bridge is leading, and what to do with the fierce energy the movement has galvanized among young people, is the big question that hip hop activists must now contend with. Heady on local victories, activists are getting a taste of success–and power. Comparisons between hip hop activism and the civil rights movement are common, but they beg a fundamental question: Can–and should–hip hoppers take on the political establishment?

While activists have launched successful local grassroots campaigns–for example, forcing universities to drop a food service company with ties to private prisons and scaling back the construction of juvenile detention facilities–they’ve barely begun to mount an effective challenge to the balance of political power, so necessary to spark the broad political change most of them say they’re committed to. The movement, in Starks’ words, “needs to gain changing-social-systems teeth.” Not all efforts have been as successful as those of the Justice 4 Youth Coalition, and few have chosen to focus on political prey.

For one thing, the number of elected officials who can credit hip hoppers with their political success are few and far between. Ras Baraka–a teacher, hip hopper, and son of poet and activist Amiri Baraka–tried and failed three times to win public office in Newark; and Brooklyn’s George Martinez, a Puerto Rican MC of modest national fame–he rhymes under the moniker Rithm–lost his 1996 bid for a New York City Council seat.

Issue-based political campaigns haven’t fared so well, either: In 2000, hip hoppers mobilized a dazzling array of youth against California’s Proposition 21, which allowed kids as young as 14 to be tried as adults. Nonetheless, the proposition passed with 62 percent of the vote (the proposal, however, failed in San Francisco and Alameda counties, where most hip hop mobilizing against the initiative took place).

Hip hop’s lack of success in the formal political realm hasn’t gone unnoticed. “It’s not enough for your group to protest. You need to get with the people working on policy, or you need to hold politicians accountable,” says Yvonne Bynoe, co-founder of Urban Think Tank, a Brooklyn-based policy group aimed at the “hip hop generation.”

The very thing that makes hip hop such a powerful organizing tool–a common culture–in some ways can undermine its political power, too. Defining the movement in terms of cultural expression, not political goals, leaves the door wide open for political differences. Sean “P-Diddy” Combs and LL Cool J provided an illuminating example this fall of the limits of defining politics through hip hop: While Combs backed Democrat H. Carl McCall in the governor’s race, LL threw his weight behind Pataki–the Republican incumbent who’s been excoriated by many hip hop activists for underfunding New York City schools, an issue front and center at Simmons’ June rally. (Simmons backed Andrew Cuomo.) The divide isn’t strictly liberal/conservative; it’s more revolution/reform, ranging from black power–inspired radicals spouting off about a people’s army to young people working on education reform, and everything in between.

What’s really missing is a shared, national agenda–and organization. Before activists can really push policy, posits Bynoe, they will need to build a sound coordinating body. “Structurally, there has to be some national apparatus that’s pushing for an agenda. Until you have a political platform that you’ve clearly articulated, there’s never gonna be any hip hop anybody.”

But faith in the political process is in short supply among youth who’ve grown up with an underfunded education system and skyrocketing rates of incarceration. “We’ve not been able to link people in the hip hop community to the body of politics,” sighs Keith Carson, an Alameda County Supervisor in California, well known among local hip hop activists for his support of their work. “They often say, ‘You haven’t attempted to value us or listen to us. You just tell us what to do or come when you need something.”

Jordan Bromley of the Hip Hop Congress has concerns, too. “Everybody knows hip hop is completely disorganized,” he sighs; Bromley should know–the Hip Hop Congress has five college chapters and is working to build a broad network. “Everywhere, there’s hip hop organizations,” he says; the challenge is finding and coordinating them.

Nonetheless, many activists don’t see differing ideologies as a problem. “Unity without uniformity. That’s where our strength is,” says Kofi Taha of Active Element Foundation, which published The Future 500. Hip hop journalist Jeff Chang agrees: “There isn’t an interest to endlessly debate the correct line.” Rather, the newer grassroots generation is imbued with “this notion that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, let’s just go out and do it. Let’s go out and work, let’s find our common ground and start moving.”

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That may take a little more time, though, as some grassroots hip hop organizations are struggling just to stay afloat. “Lessons they’ve learned on the ground, tactically, strategically,” says Chang, “have not necessarily transferred across the country.” Campaigns and political maneuvers aside, hip hop activists face the same challenges that confront every burgeoning movement: leadership development, institution-building, knowledge transfer, and, most notably, funding. “On the real, people need to figure out how to make money,” laments Abdul-Matin. “A lot of people drop out because they’re broke.”

Getting the cash to run a nonprofit is especially daunting. Often, foundation officers experience a culture clash when 20-year-olds in baggy pants and dreadlocks ask them for money. When hip hop groups vie for public attention, they butt heads with the commercial image of misogynistic, blunt-smoking rappers out to get girls and big cars. Once the basic culture clash is surmounted, there’s still figuring out how to meld the agenda of often-radical activists with that of well-to-do foundation officers.

“Foundations are on a learning curve,” says Starks. “They have to catch up.” Hip hop activists are linking cultural and political work in ways that older funders may not understand: “It’s been ‘you have your organizing over there, and your poetry slams over there,'” notes Chang. “Young folks see these two together. That’s something new that many funders aren’t beginning to recognize until now.”

Case in point: Alba’s leadership program teaches its kids meditation skills, to cope with “drama” at home–a bit unorthodox by foundation standards. But, warned Alba at the OSI panel, “if I feel like putting that in a proposal, you better like it and support it.”

Still, the OSI panel and the steady press attention the movement has been drawing suggest an increasing respect on the part of funders and media. “It’s becoming a sexy thing with these foundations,” says James Bernard, a project coordinator at the Rockefeller Foundation and founder of the groundbreaking hip hop magazine The Source. “They’re interested, but we’ve got to take it somewhere.”

Activists will have to decide what funding to seek, and on what terms. Starks points out that they shouldn’t just look to foundations for help: money may come from individual donors, the community–even corporations.

As it works through its growing pains, hip hop activism is still poised to blossom. At the summer panel, Bernard launched a good-willed tirade on the crowd. “This generation is not apathetic,” he ranted. “They’ve seen losing–they want victory.” The crowd was energized, nodding and laughing along with him. “I wanna fuckin’ win.”