Krip-Hop: Hip Hop Activism and Disability

When Neli Latson — a young black man with Asperger’s syndrome — ended up facing 10 1/2 years in prison for a racial profiling incident that ended in a scuffle with a police officer, many in the disability rights community rose up in protest. Among them: hip hop artists. The charge was led by Krip Hop Nation, whose upcoming CD Broken Bodies, Police Brutality Profiling takes on police brutality against people with disabilities, and features Neli’s story.

Krip Hop Nation’s work on the Neli case has inspired other artists to as well. The song and video above were created by Kounterclockwise, a husband and wife hip-hop group of which the husband uses a wheelchair, and Emmitt Thrower, an artist retired police officer.

Krip Hop Nation was started by Leroy Moore. It began as a MySpace page and mailing list, and has since grown to include performances, conferences, and the production of original music. Through KHN, Leroy and his colleagues work to make visible the contributions of disabled artists, to address discrimination in the music industry, and to spark dialogue around ableism in our communities.

KHN is doing truly intersectional activism — addressing the ways that multiple kinds of oppression interact with one another. Often we talk about racism, classism, or sexism separately, which can miss the unique experiences, for example, of poor women of color…or a young black differently-abled man like Neli.

Leroy had this to say about what he wanted people to get from the 2011 Krip Hop Nation conference:

They need to go back to their neighborhood, find who’s really in their community, and learn about a different history. Black history is not a monocultural experience. You have black gays, you have black lesbians, you have black people with disabilities. Learn from us, listen to us.

RIP Heavy D

I want to take a moment to commemorate the life of Heavy D, who died yesterday after having been diagnosed with pneumonia. Known for his playfulness, his clean rhymes, and his celebration of heft, Heavy D made a significant mark on Hip-Hop throughout the years. He will be missed. Just 8 years old when Heavy D & the Boyz debuted, I remember him most for his later hit Nuttin’ But Love and the video for Jam by Michael Jackson. Though much of his popular work focused on danceable songs about women, he also took some moments for issues he cared about. Below are the videos for two collaborative pieces he was involved in: “Don’t Curse,” spearheaded by Heavy himself, and KRS-One’s anti-violence project, “Self Destruction.” Rest in peace.

Hip-Hop meets Occupation

A cultural movement in search of a political movement meets a political movement in search of an artistic force.

They say every movement has its soundtrack; but this film metaphor doesn’t come close to capturing the way that music’s unique combination of word and sound has been integral to progressive and radical change throughout the century. From South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, to the freedom songs of the US civil rights struggle, musical rhythms have fueled the very heartbeat of social movements — strengthening bonds within groups, creating space to connect across racial and cultural lines, educating about issues, engaging emotions, and tapping into deeply held political and spiritual beliefs.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, and the larger anti-capitalist sentiment from which it derives its strength, does not have a coherent soundtrack. While musicians of all stripes have taken the movement and its “99%” message as inspiration, and arts of many kinds have popped up at occupation sites, there is no set of “occupation songs” that drive the movement. This may in part be a result of the very wide net the movement is trying to draw — certainly 99% of the population could never agree on liking the same music. But if I had to put my money on one genre that has the potential to unite young occupiers across the country, and the world, it would be hip-hop music — with its wide appeal, roots in rebelliousness, and long history of political and social critique (sorry, folk music).

Meanwhile, conscious hip-hop has long been a cultural movement in search of a political one. (more…)

Book Review: It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop

The rap group Dead Prez first informed us that “It’s bigger than hip hop” in 2000, on their debut album, Let’s Get Free. But it wasn’t until 2008 that filmmaker, writer, and professor M. K. Asante Jr. clued us in to just how big it could be. With his third book, It’s Bigger than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post Hop Hop Generation, Asante offers a compelling vision of a comprehensive youth-led movement for liberation.

If you are looking for another book on the history and culture of hip hop, take the title at its word — this is about much more than hip hop. In fact, it explicitly seeks to move beyond many of the constraints, assumptions, oppressions, and other pieces of baggage hip hop carries. That said, Asante obviously loves hip hop — at least the parts of it that are conscious, rebellious, and non-corporate, or that cleave to the original spirit of the culture. Quotes from rap artists like the Coup, Talib Kweli, and Immortal Technique are threaded throughout the book. Asante offers a hip hop timeline, though one that doesn’t just chart the comings and goings of popular music groups. Rather, it starts in 1965, includes all the elements of hip hop, connects hip hop to past social movements, and embeds hip hop in its sociopolitical context. Asante’s critique is targeted at how the hip hop community has been overshadowed and manipulated by the hip hop industry.

It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop offers us a complete social change platform for today’s urban youth activists. The topics are not surprising — prison reform, education, police harassment. After all, you don’t need to explore uncharted territory in order to find systemic injustices. But it is the breadth of Asante’s call to action that makes it stand out, as he deftly weaves together these various oppressions, from corporate ownership of Hip Hop to the struggle for immigrant rights. Much of his analysis comes from an Afrocentric perspective and highlights racism as a central to all the issues raised; at the same time he draws out the intersections with sexism, heteronormativity, xenophobia, and capitalist oppression. For Asante, all efforts towards liberation are intertwined.

While scholarly — in that it is well-researched — It’s Bigger than Hip Hop looks nothing like the books being pumped out by your average college professor. Compelling and passionate, Asante jumps back and forth from birds-eye-view cultural critiques to personal stories, and writes in a range of styles. The most intriguing sections are two invented interviews, one with “The Ghetto” and one with “Hip Hop,” in which Asante plays the student to these conceptual gurus.

One thread that winds through much of the book explores the ways that systemic oppression becomes internalized, particularly among Black youth. The chapter on education focuses almost exclusively on this aspect of educational oppression, outlining how schools inculcate Black youth with messages of Black inferiority. In response, Asante calls on education (particularly self-education) as a way to learn Afrocentric history and promote racial pride. In this way, Asante is following in the footsteps of his father, Molefi Kete Asante, professor and author who first articulated the concept Afrocentricity.

Asante’s contribution to the world of cultural organizing is the idea of the artivist. This label, a combination of activist and artist, is given to people like Paul Robeson, KRS-One, Billie Holiday, and Emory Douglas — and would certainly apply to Asante himself. The artivist is, as the examples above imply, centrally an artist, but one that understands that all art is political — that in fact there is no “arts for arts sake.” Primarily through her art (perhaps along with more traditional activism) the artivist joins the work of liberation as the new face of the African djeli (griot).

Asante’s vision of the artivist is a highly romantic one, reminiscent of the common discourse of the artist as one who simply must make art. But unlike in the traditional notion of the artist, the artivist’s need comes not only from the urge towards creativity but also from the omnipresence of oppression. He envisions the artivist spending “her days and nights feverishly creating in the face of ferocious destruction” (p. 203). Asante states that the Black artist in particular “has to try very hard (by clenching one’s eyes tight and for as long as possible) not to be an artivist” (p. 205).

The spirit that Asante conjures is alive among many of the youth organizers and activists that I have had the honor of meeting. While many of the liberation struggles outlined in this book are taking place disparately, recent years have seen moves to begin uniting young people of color across the country to work towards common goals, such as the Alliance for Educational Justice. As this nascent youth movement grows — inevitably with a soundtrack heavy on hip hop — they could do worse than follow Asante’s liberatory platform.

Poetry in Stormy Times

“Syllable by syllable let each verb,
each noun
build a fortress on your insides. Strengthening
the levees of your soul”

Sitting out Hurricane Irene with my family in Boston, winds battering the windows, I thought I might share a storm-related post. As Irene makes its way up the east coast, and reports of flooding and deaths come in, it’s difficult not to be reminded of Katrina — that storm that both devastated the gulf coast and uncovered some key deficits in our country and government.

There is much we can learn from our responses to natural disasters. In addition to renewing our respect for the natural world, and our inability to fully control it, disasters stretch our resources to the limits. In doing so, they highlight systems of racism and oppression that are always there, but are deftly hidden within the myths our country tells itself.

In the newest set of resources put out by the Zinn Education Project, teaching artist Renée Watson tells of how she took advantage of these national teachable moments — as well as the power of spoken word poetry — to educate and empower a class of New York City youth. (more…)

Know Yourself, Be Yourself

Last week the young people at Project HIP-HOP in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, took over the Dudley bus station:

I was lucky enough to get involved with Project HIP-HOP (which stands for Highways Into the Past, History, Organizing, and Power) over the summer. Originally started in order to teach youth of color about the history of the civil other movement, this is one of the few organizations in the area that explicitly names its combination of hip hop culture, art, and activism “cultural organizing.”

This summer the youth trained in movement, theater, writing, and outdoor performance, while bringing along their already developing skills as singers, dancers, poets, emcees, and visual artists. The final show, based on the idea of a flash mob, drew an engaged crowd of both acquaintances and strangers. As the youth explain in the video, the Dudley performance centered on knowing your individual history, and the collective history of your people (in this case largely the African American experience, beginning with the genocide of colonization and enslavement, or Maafa). Along the way, it touched on themes of unity, and art as an alternative to violence.

In carrying these messages to the community, these young people are continuing a long tradition of using hip-hop arts to engage issues of identity and violence, and to seek community transformation. Though hip-hop’s most widely consumed form — rap — is often better known for its glorification of violence, this tradition of positivity has much deeper roots in hip-hop’s history.

For instance, I recently ran across this video for the Stop the Violence Movement, an attempt in the late 1980’s to address similar issues. I remember having this cassette single back in the day. Check out these heavy hitters: From Chuck D to Heavy D…

The Project HIP-HOP youth learn this hip-hop history and draw on it, while bringing in their own more modern sensibilities. At Dudley you could see this perhaps strongest in terms of their dancing. The flash mob combined old-school-style breakdancing with the more recent trend of krumping — not to mention capoeira, a related art form from Brazil that has become intertwined in many places with hip-hop. This is a physical manifestation of both knowing your history, and knowing where you are now — brought together to create a vision of where you want to go.

(On a side note, Press Pass TV, who did the coverage above, is an exciting Boston youth-led media organization, though I don’t know a ton about it.)