hip hop music

June 10, 2003

What is Hip-Hop Activism?

Politicians and media folks love to play with our heads by making up new slang. The government will concoct a certain word or phrase and then repeat it again and again, every time they get in front of a microphone. They never really explain where it came from, or what exactly it means, but by sheer power of repetition they get the media to pick it up and join in the chorus, beating it into our heads every time we watch tv or read (surf) the paper. Pretty soon we are all swallowing their slang and regurgitating without a second thought.

Like when America decided Manuel Noriega was no longer a useful partner in crime, we started calling him a "strongman" every night on the news. Pretty soon whenever reporters talked about him he was Panamanian Strongman Manuel Noriega, and it seemed like none of us ever thought to ask "wait, what the hell is a 'strongman' anyway? And how come nobody called him that until 4 months ago?"

They do this because they know that by controlling the language used to discuss an issue they can shape the way that issue is delivered to the public, shape the direction and the boundaries of debate on that issue.

So I always try to pay close attention to language, and I'm always concerned when people start repeating a phrase over and over without establishing a definition for it, and confirming that what it describes is something that actually exists.

Lately I've been seeing the phrase "Hip-Hop Activism" thrown around a quite a bit, but I'm never clear on what exactly it's supposed to mean, and if there really is such a thing. It certainly sounds nice, but I don't want to slack on my critical thinking just cuz the propaganda is coming from our side and I'm sympathetic to the cause.

So when I see pieces like this one below, I always wind up yelling at the screen "But what the hell is Hip-Hop Activism?" ..does this describe any action carried out by the "Hip-Hop Generation"? Does it mean activities led by actual Hip-Hop artists or industry figures? Are there certain Hip-Hop tactics that must be employed for an activity to qualify as Hip-Hop Activism, just as Hip-Hop fashion requires wearing certain clothes, and Hip-Hop music requires certain musical elements? Just what are we talking about exactly?

Hip Hop Activism Buds Beautifully

Harry Belafonte stated to me in an interview that entertainers have the responsibility to speak out on issues concerning the community. He also said that entertainers are so often used to take people's minds off real issues and that entertainers who do not act are part of the problem. In a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled, "Mean Street Theater," written by John McWhorter, he called social and political contributions to the community made by rapper's "sideline donations." About the recently slain rap artist Camoflauge, McWhorter writes, "Despite his searingly profane, violent lyrics, [he] was regularly invited to speak at Savannah high schools." This article could have been more appropriately titled, "Mean Muggin' Hip Hop."

There's more. The article went on to run off other artists, i.e. Tupac, Biggie, and Jam Master Jay as products of the genre. Never mind the failings of law enforcement who have yet to find the killers of any of these men. But, they could find any small-time hustlers in the hood and lock them up for years and years for a nonviolent offense, i.e. drug possession.

This brings me to the most appealing part of the piece. While the author gave credit to Russell Simmons' Hip Hop Action Network for setting a goal to register millions of hip hop voters for the 2004 elections, he asked a poignant question. "What does the organization want the hip-hop generation to vote for?" If for nothing else, his article should have been printed for this query.

It is true that Hip Hop has to have a political issue or issues to mobilize around. And we got issues; no doubt about that. Well, Russell Simmons, P Diddy, Jay Z and many other hip hoppers are right on point in their effort to address what should be the number one issue to focus hip hop activism fighting against the failed war on drugs. These celebrities are doing exactly what Mr. Belafonte says is expected of them.

This is a perfect issue for hip hop activism because the lives affected the greatest are in the same communities that Hip Hop most represents. In addition, the unchecked drug war is now devastating lives in white communities as well. But what makes this an even greater issue for the hip hop generation is the fact that it is The Issue of our time...

...Hip Hop is coming into political maturity and can work to change some of the realities that are reported so vividly in rap lyrics. It is so fascinating how music has always been a part of social action in the black community. During slavery, coded songs were used to take persons to freedom. In the civil rights movement, marchers sang songs like, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round." Now, there is an entire genre that is budding into full political awareness. How beautiful. And, it does not look like a mere "sideline donation" to me.

I'm sympathetic to where this guy's coming from, and all in favor of organizing against America's bonehead drug policies. But I'm not sold on this assumption that there exists a particular entity or tradition we can accurately label Hip-hop Activism. And I'm damn sure not sold on the assumptions drawn about it here, based mostly on the Russell Simmons Celebrity Be-In: "Hip Hop is coming into political maturity" ..is it really? "Now, there is an entire genre that is budding into full political awareness" ..is there? What does that even mean?

Posted by jsmooth995 at June 10, 2003 4:25 PM

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