In The Rehabilitation of Hip Hop Culture Part I, Part 2, and Part 3, I discussed The 12 Steps for Hip Hop Recovery, concepts that could help hip hop culture become what Afrika Bambaataa envisioned.
Step 3 We stopped blaming others for hip hop’s condition and committed ourselves to working together to recover the culture from those who currently control it
Admitting that corporations were only able to commandeer hip hop culture because we neglected the culture’s younger members was important to us taking responsibility for hip hop’s current state. Unfortunately, this admission was so painful that many of us couldn’t make it, leaving many of us in denial and blaming corporations for what they did instead of blaming ourselves for what we allowed them to do. Last segment, the need for members of the hip hop culture to “take up for each other” and impose consequences “when we were fucked wit” was addressed. This brings us to another painful admission – corporations still control hip hop culture because ever since they took it, “we ain’t do shit about it!”
The passivity of the hip hop culture seems to be inherited from the African American culture, another culture that when wronged doesn’t do anything (but organize marches), and it may be why Whites are co-opting hip hop culture. It’s possible that when some of them saw corporations take hip hop without anything being done, they asserted themselves, and a White rapper won four Grammys, a White female rapper was crowned “the queen of hip hop,” and many (mainly White) fans considered themselves hip hop heads or “Geniuses” who annotated lyrics and who told us what was (and wasn’t) “real” hip hop.
Like the African American culture not “taking up” for members subjected to failing schools, police brutality, and mass incarceration, the hip hop culture allowed corporations to take it without any significant resistance or protest. The irony of this is that since its inception, protest has been in the DNA of hip hop culture. Unfortunately, in this country, power is very rarely relinquished voluntary, so it’s unlikely that corporations will stop using hip hop to market products just because people protested. So, the questions is, will protesting be enough to recover hip hop, and if so, who would lead the protest?
In the 1970s, the South Bronx was an example of urban rot, but from the charred remains of an area that lost up to 80% of its buildings and population, a voice emerged. This voice was loud, angry, and unapologetic, and it was how young disenfranchised Blacks and Latinos protested the social neglect that they lived in. In 1973, Afrika Bambatta created the hip hop culture, and later he founded the Zulu Nation. The “voice of protest” resonated within these cultures, and from time to time since 1973, the “voice” returned in the form of songs such as “The Message, Fuck the Police, and Fight the Power.”
Recently the “voice of protest” returned when young people across the country expressed outrage about the murders of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner, and “the voice” joined the “Black Lives Matter, Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, and I Can’t Breathe” movements. These murders caused the re-emergence of longstanding civil rights groups, and older civil rights leaders organized and expressed their outrage. At a few demonstrations, leaders from the new movements and old civil rights leaders marched side-by-side, but tension resulted from an awkward (and reluctant) “passing of the baton.”
Younger civil rights leaders weren’t invited to speak at a march in Washington, DC that an older civil rights leader organized, so younger leaders felt that they were being excluded from a movement they had started. Older civil rights leaders felt that the young leaders were disrespectful and didn’t acknowledge the years of fighting discrimination they had done.
It’s unclear if younger civil rights leaders lack respect for the older leaders, but they do approach protesting differently. Young leaders feel that the peaceful and respectable protests of the past aren’t effective, so their approach to protest is angry, profane, and disruptive. Today’s movements aren’t made up of well-dressed, educated, and articulate protestors, as they are made up of young people who are angry and willing to express their anger. Young people can be the catalyst for change, as usually, those on the “front line” of protests, revolutions, and wars are young people because they are easily agitated, they are very impulsive, and they have little (or nothing) to lose. Many of the youth in today’s movements are members of the hip hop culture, and some of them are famous (and not so famous) rap artists.
Many people applaud rap artists for being part of the movement because some people feel that rap artists who don’t use their platforms to address social issues are cowards. I respect that opinion, but I don’t agree with it. Most rap artists don’t make good activists, and people will point out that in the 1960s and 1970s, entertainers (and athletes) protested for civil rights. Things have changed since then, and one of the gains from the Civil Rights Movement is that today’s athletes and entertainers own businesses. Those who feel that people with brands should take stances that could jeopardize those brands lack a basic grasp of business, and those who feel that “the movement is more important than business” probably don’t have businesses. Another reason why most rap artists don’t make good activists is that sometimes they make questionable comments (e.g. Common, Pharrell, A$AP Ferg, and Young Thug). Still another reason why most rap artists don’t make good activists is because even when they can articulate injustice in their music, many of them can’t implement strategies to change these conditions.
To paraphrase Public Enemy’s Chuck D, an effective civil rights movement will be led by people who can do more than rhyme about problems. A movement led by members of the hip hop culture who were also politicians, lawyers, social workers and teachers would be effective because they could change laws and policy, increase wellness, and develop curriculums that educate and empower. Examples of this type of activist are Gabriel Bryant and Michael Coard. Both of these men have been fighting injustice for years, and hip hop is an integral part of both of their identities.
Gabriel Bryant lives in Philadelphia via Brooklyn, and he’s worked with The Philadelphia Chapter of Sankofa Community Empowerment, The Young Men’s Initiative at Philadelphia Futures, and the Askia Coalition Against Police Brutality. Gabe (as he’s known to friends) also hosts “Stepping Into Tomorrow,” a radio program on G-Town radio that addresses issues in urban communities. Gabe’s activism takes him all over the world, as he may be in Philly at a MLK March or in Paris (at the request of the French Delegation) helping to build a global coalition in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Gabe is often seen on the front lines, but it seems like he’d rather avoid the spotlight. Once, while at a march in Philadelphia, he was asked “if he was the leader” of the hundreds of youths who had assembled, and he said that “he wasn’t their leader but was there to support them.” This quiet leadership was also evident when he took to social media and posted that “leadership is participation, not position.” In fact, Gabe is so humble that it took me a while to learn (from others) that he was a talented rap artist. In a project he recently released titled (Gabriel) Prosser – Orange Lines Vol. 1, Gabe showed that “he got barz” and used intricate lyrical content to address social issues specific to the African American culture.
Michael Coard or Mike (as he’s known to friends) is a prominent defense attorney and activist in Philadelphia, and he’s the self-proclaimed “angriest Black Man in America.” Mike considers himself “Nat Turner with a law degree,” but he points out that he’s “a Black Man first and a lawyer second.” Since he opposes the death penalty, 60% of his murder cases are ones where defendants can’t afford representation and where he earns about ¼ of his usual rate. Mike also hosts The Radio Court Room on WURD (a Black owned radio station in Philadelphia), he writes for Philadelphia Magazine, he founded the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), and he teaches Hip Hop 101 at Temple University.
Mike has won many awards for his activism, but the accomplishment he’s most proud of is founding the ATAC. ATAC is an action committee that won an eight year battle to force the US Government to commemorate the nine African descendants enslaved by President George Washington at The President’s House, America’s first White House. In 2010, The President’s House Slavery Memorial was built at 6th and Market Street in Philadelphia, and its proximity to the Liberty Bell allows those who visit the Liberty Bell to observe the hypocrisy of how liberty was celebrated for some but not for others.
ATAC also supports the fight to have African history taught in Philadelphia public schools. In 1967, 5,000 Black students peacefully protested at the Philadelphia School District and demanded an Afrocentric education, but they were beaten, tear-gassed, and arrested. Despite this, Dr. Edward Robinson continued to work toward having an Afrocentric curriculum because he believed that if Black students were taught the beauty and grandeur of their African ancestry, their self-esteem would increase, which could significantly improve their academic performance. Although the African Genesis Infusion course that he developed was approved by the Philadelphia School Board in 2004, it hasn’t been implemented.
Mike teaches African history in his hip hop course, as he relates hip hop’s four elements to African culture. Mike contends that the MC (or rapper) is like the West African griot, the oral historian or person who holds the people’s history. He argues that the DJ or the beat-maker functions like the African drummers. He teaches that the break dancer’s moves are similar to the physically expressive dance styles of West Africa, and graffiti artists evolved from those who wrote hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt.
Education is key to the hip hop culture emancipating itself from the corporations that control it. Frederick Douglas said that “education means emancipation,” and this is because education gives people the confidence and competence to claim their rights, control their lives, and advocate for themselves.
“The schools we go to are reflections of the society that created them. Nobody’s gonna give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody’s gonna teach you your true history…if they know that the knowledge will help set you free…As long as we expect America’s schools to educate us, we will remain ignorant.” Assata Shakur
Assate Shakur argued that oppressed people are denied education because uneducated people are easy to control. Years ago, slaves weren’t educated because it was feared that a slave who could read and write would forge passes and convince others slaves to revolt. Malcolm X said that Blacks in this country weren’t taught African history because if they learned that their ancestors made significant contributions to the world, they’d feel that they could do the same kinds of things. This is why the Hidden Colors franchise is so needed, because teaching about the West African empires and their contributions to medicine, mathematics, engineering, farming, and the arts may inspire African Americans to strive for similar heights. Another empowering project was “Top Five,” as in it, Chris Rock told of a successful protest in 1791 when Dutty Boukman led a revolt where Hatian slaves overthrew their owners.
When voodoo is discussed in this country, it’s usually mystified and described as a primitive activity that’s likened to witchcraft or satanic worship due to its spells and animal sacrifices. The truth is, voodoo is a religion that’s 6,000 to 10,000 years old that Africans brought to the new world during the slave trade. In voodoo rituals, people are “mounted” by Gods who possess them and “take over their bodies.” It’s been said that when people are “mounted.” they have superhuman strength, cannot feel pain, and move in sexualized, rhythmic ways.
Dutty Boukman was a voodoo priest, and before leading the Hatian revolution in 1791, he performed a voodoo ceremony. It’s possible that some of slaves in the revolt were “mounted,” and their superhuman strength and an inability to feel pain allowed them to kill about 50, 000 slave owners. Slave owners in the American colonies didn’t want their slaves getting any ideas about revolting, so they kept the news about the Hatian revolution away from their slaves and outlawed the practice of voodoo.
Research has suggested that the drum patterns in voodoo are present in some rap songs, and some have experienced being in clubs and observing how the pulsating beat of some rap songs move people in a sexualized frenzy. Perhaps, this is why Southern style rap songs, with their bass heavy beats, are favorites in clubs, especially strip clubs where they move exotic dancers in sexualized ways.
The leadership of all civil rights movements (young and old) should work together because fighting each other (and not the enemy) is the type of behavior that the Willie Lynch letter (real or unreal) inspired. Young leaders should realize that years ago there were some successful protests, the protest led by Boukman in 1791 is the first example that comes to mind. Older leaders should consider that Boukman’s protest may have been successful because it wasn’t peaceful.
Since voodoo can make people “move out,” then maybe it should be used in the civil rights movement. Imagine marches where protesters listened to rap songs with drum patterns that motivated them to be strong, fearless, and unable to feel pain. Maybe then we could “fight the power” and have a purpose to our protests. At the very least, we could start “taking up for each other” and imposing consequences “when we’re fucked wit!”
Ronald Crawford is a therapist and author of the book Who’s the Best Rapper? Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas that analyzes rap lyrics to teach social skills. Connect with him on facebook or at [email protected].