Monday, January 26, 2004

Whose Hip Hop is it anyway?

Here's an interesting article on the efforts of the Hip Hop Generation in keeping Dr. King's legacy alive. The web links are impressive and worthy of perusal.

On Hip Hop and Human Rights...

By: Tchaiko Omawale

Mainstream media loves Dr. King`s "I have a dream" speech. The desire to portray Dr. King as a "safe" pacifist Black man who simply wanted Blacks and Whites to come together is inaccurate. Dr. King also protested the Vietnam War and, in the "I have a dream" speech, spoke of police brutality, unjust imprisonment, and warned that "1963 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual."

Decades later, it seems the nation has returned to business as usual. It might be argued that we have more Blacks in positions of power than ever before: in government, the private sector and especially with hip hop becoming a billion-dollar industry. However, for people of color in the U.S., police brutality is still a problem, schools are still largely segregated with sub-standard education levels, the prison population is exploding especially with non-violent offenders, and HIV/AIDS is ravaging the Black and Latino populations. Not only has the call for civil rights not been answered but the neglect of human rights has also come to the forefront of the injustices of this government.

Unfortunately, the older generation frequently sees the hip-hop generation as having reversed the gains of the civil rights movement. Publicly, the Sit-In generation has attacked figures in hip-hop music for using the "N" word and portraying negative images in the media. However, this is only a small section of the hip-hop generation, and even those being attacked deserve more respect and understanding, as the world we live in is far more complex than it was in the `60s. The hip-hop generation is neither resting nor tranquil. Instead, we are struggling to resist injustice in our own ways.

To constructively criticize the hip-hop generation, understanding the world we live in is essential. The world has shrunk with advances in the Internet and other communication tools. The current generation`s struggle is not as simple as Black and White getting along, or Blacks getting the same treatment as the few, rich White men in power, but is layered with issues around globalization, homophobia, sexism and an America that has become expert in hiding its injustices by using the very people it is racist and unjust towards. One example is seen in ads run in 2003 by the U.S. army in hip-hop Source magazine that attempted to recruit black teens. The army used hip-hop imagery to seem cool, to entice teens to fight for a country that has failed to secure their basic human right to education and health care and increasingly imprisons them for non-violent crimes of poverty.

Increased individualism is another consequence of our technological world; however, the struggle to survive and uplift community still remains as it did in the civil rights era. Consider commercial rapper Jay-Z, who says, "Truth be told … I wanna rhyme like Common Sense (But I did five Mil) … We as rappers must decide what`s most important and I can`t help the poor if I`m one of them. So I got rich and gave back. To me that`s the win, win." Jay-Z has chosen his own way of giving back, using money from his lyrics.

On the other side, you have rappers such as Dead Prez who advocate revolutionary actions reminiscent of the Black Panthers. Dead Prez are members of the National People`s Democratic Uhuru Movement and have participated in countless political events and panels. M1 of Dead Prez sits on the advisory board of a new organization called H2Ed a Hip Hop Education Program along with several other hip-hop figures such as Danny Hoch from the Hip Hop Theatre festival.

H2Ed uses hip-hop culture as a tool for educational reform. So while the music industry remains the focus of criticism, it should be known that there are scores of other youth who are struggling to uphold Dr. King`s message. Many young people who don`t have Jay-Z`s millions choose community-organizing as their way of giving back. The global village of this generation consists of identities beyond Black and White-Latino, immigrant, homosexual-and thus organizing platforms follow these multiple identities.

Youth-led Prison Moratorium Project has a multi-ethnic staff and is a part of the Drop the Rock Campaign, which fights to bring down the Rockefeller drug laws. The group`s grassroots collaborative work encouraged Russell Simmons to organize rappers such as Puffy, Jay-Z and Memphis Bleek to protest the unjust laws that disproportionately imprison Blacks and Latinos for non-violent offenses. Hip-hop music both "conscious" and "commercial" is used to empower and educate other young people.

This generation has also produced a mighty force of justice fighters for non-traditional issues in non-traditional ways. Caushun, the first openly gay rapper, courageously rhymes about his sexuality. HIV/AIDS is the number-one killer among certain demographics in the Black and Latino community. In the world, it is the modern-day plague. AIDS specialists cite homophobia as one of the factors involved in the epidemic and Caushun`s sexual openness is revolutionary in these times.

Highlighting the positive actions of the hip-hop generation is in no way an attempt to portray us as being perfect. There is room for improvement, and contradictions do exist in our movement. It's important to understand that the act of recognizing these contradictions in a non-judgmental way is freeing, and an analysis of this contradiction is progressive and political. The goal for the hip-hop and the Sit-In generation, whose legacy we do uphold, should be respectful discussions, outside of the courtrooms, because we have much to learn from each other. And as the old cliché goes, united we stand and divided we fall.

For more information on Youth activists check out the Future 500 website.

Tchaiko Omawale, a recent recipient of the Gaea Sea Residency Fellowship for artists working for social change, is the Creative Director and Co-Founder of the Conscious Movements Collective. She has also produced the short narrative film His/herstory on polygamy in Atlanta, which is now featured in several national and international film festivals.

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