Street Theater

Profile: Project HIP-HOP

A civil rights education project transforms into the kind of creative movement organization that it was founded to inspire.

Founded in 1993, Project HIP-HOP (Highways Into the Past: History, Organizing, and Power) originally had little to do with the arts or culture of hip-hop. It began as an effort to engage young members of the hip-hop generation in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. In its first years, while still under the auspices of the Massachusetts ACLU, Project HIP-HOP (PHH) took high-school-aged youth on annual “civil rights tours” through the South, visiting important sites and meeting with movement veterans. The goal was to offer young people a “living history of the Civil Rights Movement,” and to inspire them to continue the struggle.

After a few annual tours of the South, and a powerful visit to South Africa, young people in PHH decided to take the organization in a new direction, expanding from simply learning about social justice movements to organizing for change. They also began to integrate their own youth cultural practices into the organization, including poetry, rap, djing, hip-hop dance, visual art, and more. Then, in 2001, PHH left the ACLU, formed an independent non-profit, and hired one of their former members as executive director.

Over the next decade PHH initiated a flurry of artistic and organizing projects, from open mics and hip-hop cyphers to campaigns against military recruitment and mass incarceration. But while connected by a political sensibility, the organizing and artistic practices remained, on the whole, separate. This changed when, starting in 2009, PHH began a strategic planning process to determine the future of the organization. Rather than be stretched in two directions, PHH decided to fully merge these two pieces of itself through the practice of cultural organizing.

PHH seeks to address not only the policies but also the ideologies that maintain systems of oppression. Internally, young people at PHH hone their self-understanding and political analysis by studying oppression and resistance across the centuries — from African history to the inner-workings of hip-hop culture and art. They draw on collective artistic practices like cyphers, along with shared rituals, to build community and construct an organizational counter-culture that challenges the racism and individualism of dominant US culture. And externally they bring their arsenal of street theater, flash mobs, poetry, and more — all based in a hip-hop aesthetic — to addressing issues affecting young people of color.

Recently, PHH has joined the Youth Way on the MBTA coalition. In partnership with other youth-led organizations like the Boston Area Youth Organizing Project and the Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project, they have been pushing the city to limit fair increases, create a new youth pass, and ensure affordable public transportation across Boston. Below is a short street theater piece from a March, 2012 rally at the transportation building.

May Day Art, 2012

In celebration of yesterday’s May Day, I scoured the web for some of the art that sprouted out of this annual celebration. Enjoy!

1. Of course, beautiful posters began to make the rounds in preparation for the big day (from colorlines)

2. Some big names showed up for the celebrations, including political MC Immortal Technique:

3. There was playful street theatre, like this performance from the “Corporate Tax Dodgers”

4. And through the web, many other artists joined in the celebration, like this “sand artist”

Flash Mob Protesting Transit Cuts

During the recent protests over proposed transit cuts in Boston, young people from the Youth Way on the MBTA coalition were a major force in pushing for alternative options — responding in particular to plans to double the cost of youth passes, which would have had detrimental effects on youth’s lives and education. While rallying outside the Transportation building, young cultural organizers from Project HIP-HOP put on a short piece of street theater stressing the harm being done to youth in this process. Check it out.

Anti-Nazi Clowning

Anti-Racist Action in Tennessee, 2007

This picture comes from a protest by Anti-Racist Action, an international grassroots protest organization that disrupts events run by fascist and racist groups like the KKK, and by militant pro-lifers. One tool that at least one of the local groups has used is clowning. Here’s some reporting from the event pictured above, which made its way around the blogosphere a few years ago:

“White Power!” the Nazi’s shouted, “White Flour?” the clowns yelled back (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.)