From Hip-Hop to Hip-Hope: The Good Life Organization

Schooling basically looks at the students as if they are not bringing in knowledge…Education says that every young person has experience that is valuable, that needs to be accessed.”
— Roberto Rivera, President and “Lead Change Agent,” Good Life Organization

This week I got hooked up with a hot organization based out of my old hometown of Chicago. The Good Life Organization (GLO) is a capacity-building effort that blends hip-hop education, socio-emotional learning, youth voice, and social justice. Founded by Roberto Rivera, GLO offers training and support for local groups across the country that are working to empower young people as change agents in their communities.

The centerpiece of this capacity building is the Fulfill the Dream curriculum, written by Rivera and first piloted in 2008. This curriculum is designed to facilitate leadership development and learning with young people, supporting them as they strive for personal goals and address community issues. Drawing on hip-hop, youth culture, and media, the curriculum is meant to be flexible based on the local context, and to lead to young people creating original projects to share with others in their communities.

The impetus for GLO’s founding grew from Rivera’s own experiences as a youth. He struggled in high school, he told me, and was labeled special education, even while he was thriving and innovating in the world of hip-hop music and visual art. After starting a line of hip-hop clothing and writing a hip-hop play, he began to think, “What if I’m not learning disabled? What if I just learn differently?” Flipping his own image of himself, Rivera succeeded at school and went to UW Madison, where he began to conceive of using hip-hop as a tool for education and healing with youth labeled “at risk” as he was.

Today, GLO and its Fulfill the Dream curriculum have spawned projects across the country, including Hip-hop music celebrations with classic artists like Kurtis Blow, a Fulfill the Dream CD, an enhanced ebook featuring youth writing, and a phone App that offers a stream of independent hip-hop. By focusing on building networks, supporting local groups youth and adults across the country, and spreading their curriculum, GLO is building not just an organization but a movement. I expect we’ll be hearing much more from them — or from the youth that they have inspired — in the coming years.

Interview with Quanstar: Independent Hip-Hop Artist & Author

You can love or hate me, idolize or despise me greatly
you can yell my name at the top of your lungs or talk about ever so faintly
but you ain’t me
ain’t worn my shoes, walked my path
been through the times that made my cry
don’t understand what makes my laugh
lived my past.

— Quanstar, from I’m Through

This week I had a chance to interview Quanstar, an independent hip-hop artist whose new book, Water from Turnips, is a candid, raw, funny, and often touching account of his early life, and his struggle to make it as a truly independent hip-hop artist in a massive, corporate industry. Starting with his early life in Compton, and pulling no punches, readers follow him through being introduced to rap, getting in numerous tangles with women, and feeling out the industry. Today, Quanstar boasts ten albums, blogs about the hip hop industry for newer artists, and even does a cooking show with his son. In case you don’t know him already, here’s a taste off his most recent album:

You are very honest about yourself in the book, putting forward the good and the bad. What was that experience like for you?

Therapeutic. I’d say 70% of the things I put in Water From Turnips were never discussed with anyone before. So as I wrote and dug deep into why I acted a certain way, I began to understand the reasons.

You write about being young, during the heyday of Public Enemy and X-Clan, and having your eyes opened socially and politically by hip-hop music. Do you see hip hop as playing that same role for young people today?

Yes and No. I think that it’s important to understand the context and the time in which Public Enemy thrived. Back then, the great barrier in our society was still racial, and any problem that was considered a black problem was basically left alone. So things like police brutality, unemployment, dilapidated  schools, and under funded social programs were allowed to fester and grow. So hip hop became that solution to a lot of our issues.

Now, I think hip hop has a different role. While the world today isn’t, by any means, “post-racial,” thanks to hip hop we are a ways from the late 80’s and and early 90’s (mostly thanks to hip hop). The issues that face black folks today are the pretty much the same as the ones that face other races…economics. Poor people, no matter their color, are the new ‘niggas’. So hip hop’s role today mostly deals with economics. It inspires entrepreneurialism, materialism (which isn’t always a bad thing), and confidence. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of that shit is over the top, but a lot of rap always has been.

What led you to create Indie Hip Hop 101? What is the most common advice you give to hip hop artists like yourself today, if they are trying to get into the music business?

I created Indie Hip Hop 101 because I always found myself giving advice to other independent artists on the business and thought that it would be cool to share that on larger scale. The most common advice that I find giving to others like myself is to learn the business before looking into hiring a manager, and when you do find someone remember that they work for you.

Apart from the business side of things — the hustling, the gigs, the albums — how has the process of making the music itself affected or changed you over the years?

It taught me that people in Boise, ID and Charleston, WV deal with a lot of the same problems as folks in Compton and Atlanta.

What gifts has hip-hop culture given the world, and what does it still have to offer for the future?

Actually, it has allowed us to see the similarities that we all have with each other. It has also given generations a creative outlet by which they could express themselves without expensive lessons or formal training. It’s influenced an entire generation of thinkers and business people. I believe that hip hop is the building blocks of the future. The creative “something from nothing” nature has infused itself into the world culture. It’s a beautiful thing.

Do you have any final thoughts to share with this blog’s readers, who are interested in art and social change?

Believe and fight for something because you know it’s the right thing to do…not because you think it is.

Interview with a Hip-Hop Ambassador (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of my conversation with Anas Canon, founder of the Hip-Hop Ambassadors program, a group that does cultural diplomacy through hip-hop around the world. When the last post left off, we were discussing the need that Anas felt to take responsibility for putting out music into the world that is both socially conscious and entertaining, to counter many of the images of Americans — and particularly African Americans — that the US media exports. Click Here to read Part 1 of this interview

That has been one of the things that’s always in my mind when I think about what sacrifices have to be made in order to do these tours. There are a lot of sacrifices. Money is one of them, but also coming to grips with what it means to me to work with the State Department, which is a branch of the US military industrial complex. There are a lot of people who critique that, and J’m open to that critique. But I’ve made my peace with it because I’ve seen the effect that this work has on the ground. And there’s no script, it’s not choreographed.

Azeem from Creme De La Ultra, Tariq Snare and Kumasi from The KAJ, in Tunisia with university students

I was on a panel in Jakarta, with fifteen or twenty people from the press, and this woman from the BBC goes, “Is America at war with Islam?” And there’s no script. I could have said whatever I wanted at that moment. Luckily I have the kind of social sophistication and political savvy to address those questions in a way that can be really honest and candid, but also think about the effects it’s going to have on every other American, or on anybody who’s going to read about it. What you say matters. You could make or break relationships in terms of how people perceive Americans or African Americans — by looking like you’re just a sellout and you’re saying whatever the State Department wants to hear, or on the other side looking like you’re this extremist marginalizing yourself from the people who invited you there in the first place. So that’s my mind, man. I’m thinking about what every single person that I bring wears that’s on the tour, every word that comes out of their mouth, every greeting that they do. You gotta pick a guy who’s a great musician obviously, but at the same time you gotta think, “How is this dude gonna be off stage?”

It sounds like you’re taking very seriously your role as a representative of the United States and African Americans.

That’s the only reason I do the job. Do I represent all Americans? Absolutely not. Are there some Americans who would like to drop bombs on every other country? Sure there are. But that’s not most Americans. Most people are open to the idea of meeting people that are different. There’s a verse in the Koran that says “Allah made you different tribes and nations so that you could come to know one another.” This is the Koranic understanding of why we’re different in the first place.

How does the music fit into this vision of the connections you want to make?

To me the music is naked expression. You don’t actually have to like it, but you can understand that this is somebody’s expression of who they are. And the neat thing about hip-hop is that anyone can express themselves through hip-hop as long as they have rhythm and a decent grasp of their native tongue. It’s kind of lowest common denominator music. And combined with the fact that America has exported it to the far ends of the earth and it has permeated youth culture everywhere, it becomes this currency that we can use to exchange. Anybody can start banging on a table to get a beat, and one of my guys can jump up and spit sixteen bars, and someone else can jump up and spit sixteen bars in their language, and they don’t have to even understand what each other are saying.

The hip-hop part is interesting because hip-hop is not my music, I make hip-hop, but I don’t really listen to it. And when we go out and play do we play hip-hop music all the time? No. I always have rappers, but I also have vocalists, and I usually take a full band: drummer, a guitar player. We’re doing covers of songs and original songs, running through the lexicon of American music, showing how with a basic hip-hop drum-beat you can superimpose all these other components. That’s not me as a DJ with a couple of rappers, but that really is hip-hop to me.

It seems that you specifically go to majority-Muslim countries. How do faith and spirituality and religion fit into this for you?

Most of the guys on remarkable current are Muslim, and the connection was initially built through Native Deen, who are Muslim. So we are not exactly stuck in a niche, but the State Department knows we are comfortable being in those spaces, and aware of the cultural sensitivity that needs to be adhered to in a Muslim country. It also acts as a sort of currency for the State Department to say, “Not only are these guys hip-hop artists but they share your faith.”

Do you think that opens doors for you in those countries?

There’s no question about that. They’re still open to other kinds of Western music, but when they find out we have Muslim artists there’s a curiosity. And when they see the guys praying they’re like, “Oh wow, there’s Muslims in America, real ones like us.” That part is kind of a trip. I don’t think it’s an exploitative relationship form the State Department’s position; it’s more of an opportunity break down multiple walls. For me personally, I think religion and spirituality are private. Most people would consider me a devout practicing Muslim for most of my adult life, but most recently I’ve been beginning to separate myself from formal religion. I just don’t want a label. I’ve been on a journey for many, many, years and I don’t every plan to stop thinking.

Anas with Habib Saggaf in Indonesia, being fitted for a suit Habib had made for Anas

So what’s your outcome? What are you hoping comes out of these meetings with other people when you travel?

There’s the micro and the macro. There’s the heart and mind of each individual you come in contact with. And then there’s also the impact on people who hear about the event or see the event via social media. My first concern is the micro.

I’m mixed race — my mother’s White and my father’s Black. My mom’s family was upper-middle class, fairly conservative. My grandfather was from Idaho and my grandmother was from Missouri. They were for real white people, as white as white people can get. When you’re mixed you’re forced into an identity crisis at a very early age. Depending on how you navigate that situation, typically mixed people I know will realize there is no one thing, and that people who live in these polarized cultural identities — that’s self-created. So mixed people walk around the planet in this kind of no-mans land, and when you’re in that space you feel compelled to show people how much the same they are.

That’s my contribution, I want to find ways to bring people together. That’s something that’s ingrained in me — it’s not like a book I read in college made me say, “People need to come together.” It’s who I am. I don’t separate myself from another molecule, let alone another creature from my same species. So this work is the most effective thing that I feel I can do. I can show up in a space and sit in front of somebody who’s a representative of their community with their constituents surrounding them — whether its a group of students or politicians — and I can show them how open my heart is to them. And if that’s their first and only interaction with an American, that’s how they will feel about America, on a visceral level. They might think all kind of things about America, but now they can’t say, “All Americans are this,” or “All Americans are that.” They can’t use George Bush or Barack Obama or American foreign policy to say, “This is how American people are.”

You have no idea how you might change someone just by meeting them one-on-one. And you know how I know that bro? Because it happened to me. Every time I go to these places I see things and think, “I never thought to look at the world like that.” I’m just observing somebody, their etiquette, their mannerisms, their vibrations, and then I see an entire culture that vibrates like that. And I incorporate that into how I vibrate, how I move in the world.

For my own self-interest I want to have as many of those experiences as I can, that kind of exchange, to be an ambassador for my nation, to be an ambassador for my ethnicity and my culture, and then also figure out how that can be amplified through our respective communities.


Thank you to Anas Canon for speaking with CulturalOrganizing.org, and to Tracy Curry, for making this interview happen.


Interview with a Hip-Hop Ambassador (Part 1)

Recently I had the chance to speak with Anas Canon, founder of the independent hip-hop label Remarkable Current, and the Hip-Hop Ambassadors program, which builds cross-cultural bridges around the world through music. He was very open, kind, and actually surprised me quite a bit with some of his answers. We discussed the founding of the Hip-Hop Ambassadors program, working with the State Department, the goals of cultural diplomacy, and the roles of spirituality and hip-hop in bridging across difference.

DJ Anas Canon giving a radio interview in Tunisia. Listen to the interview here: http://bit.ly/KCH2oa

How did you get involved in music and producing originally?

I was raised around music my whole life, I have it in my blood. My father’s a professional musician — he plays the organ. And my stepfather, who raised me past the age of 3 or 4, was an audiophile. He and my uncle had music listening rooms, where they would put the speakers just right and put on a brand new pressing of a certain recording, like Miles Davis. Then they would smoke a joint, put the needle on the record, and sit there and listen. Then they’d stop it, get up and move the speakers a little bit, and then sit back and listen. Listening to music was their hobby and their passion. So I grew up listening to music in a unique way. And we would listen to high-end jazz, more avant-garde stuff; they were tuned into that and I wanted to be cool like them.

And then in late high school I started teaching dance at the dance studio of a man named Keith Banks, who is still a mentor of mine. And I was making a lot of money compared to cats who were flipping burgers or working at the yogurt shop. I was a choreographer and dance instructor through my early 20’s. Then because of a certain spiritual trajectory I was on, I decided to travel. I traveled to North Africa and Europe and hung out and studied, and when I came back I went to work as an assistant in a recording studio. That sort of began my career as an engineer.

Basically ever since then I’ve kind of been bouncing around studios, had some great mentors, and then began freelancing. Somewhere along the line I decided that I wanted to make music as well, so I started recording and producing with friends and in 2001 founded Remarkable Current. I think we’re at 14 or 15 releases now.

How did the Hip-Hop Ambassador’s program come about?

I was working as an independent producer for a band called Native Deen. They were doing some work for the State Department, and they asked me to go out with them. Native Deen does Muslim rap, so the state department would send them to Muslim-majority countries. That was my first exposure to the fact that the State Department was using music for cultural diplomacy. But I realized that the state department didn’t have anything designed to utilize real, serious, authentic hip-hop. Meanwhile I had this roster of artists from the label, and tons of original content. I knew the history of the Jazz Ambassadors program, and I thought, “Why don’t I start a company that’s designed to fill that need?” We did a website and I reached out to some contacts I had known, and that was the beginning of it, man.

And this was in the Condoleeza Rice and George Bush era. George Bush was actually spending a lot of money on cultural diplomacy, more than Obama has. You’d think it would be the other way around. We think of him as being this real right wing conservative, “we don’t care about anybody but Americans,” but there was a whole other side to that administration. Of course the knee-jerk counterargument was that they were doing so much harm around the planet, they were doing this stuff to balance it out. But i don’t know if that’s completely true.

Ambassadors Tyson and Kumasi performing in Indonesia. Watch the video here: http://youtu.be/-iJxeHPfjRs

When you go out on a Hip-Hop Ambassadors trip, what exactly do you do while you’re there?

I’ll use Indonesia as an example. We hit the ground and went directly to the US ambassador’s private home and did a show for his guests, maybe 150 people. Then every day, in the morning, we’re either at a radio station, a TV station, or a school. Then we grab lunch, and in the afternoon we go to the next location. It could be an orphanage where we do an impromptu show, or a panel discussion. From there we usually go to a venue and do a sound check, have a little break, and then play the night show. And then we wake up the next day and do it over and over and over again. It’s hardcore. We don’t stop.

Who do you work with in the country?

If we’re going to a Muslim country I often know somebody there. Or I go on Facebook and ask “Who’s the best rapper in Tunisia,” and I’ll Google search the cat, watch them on YouTube. And if he’s dope I’ll contact the State Department and ask if they can get in touch with them and tell them I want to meet with them while we’re there. Sometimes the liaisons at the embassy, younger cats who are locals, will have relationships already. So then the embassy will reach out, and say “Hey, we’re going to be in your city. Would you be interested in coming and performing with these guys or having dinner? Inevitably we’re gonna hit it off because we’re all musicians. And because I’m a recording engineer and producer and I do a lot of remote recording, I can record anywhere. I’ll be like, “Yo, let’s do a song,” and we’ll record in the hotel room.

I’m curious what made you want jump into this work. And why did you feel like there was this need for a hip-hop ambassadors program?

I’m really into American foreign policy, and I’m very much into music and the history of American music, so this is kind of a fusion of all the things that I’m really passionate about. And it’s also a way for me to try to make some impact. When I was on the early tours before Hip-Hop Ambassadors I was really able to see the impact that connecting with Americans could have on people in developing countries who maybe have never met an American, and who have probably never met an African American person.

I think it was probably one moment that I had in Zanzibar, when I was out with Native Deen. One of the guys in the band had lost his luggage on the flight, so we went out shopping. We’re in this little shop, and a kid starts speaking to us, he’s maybe 17. He speaks a little English, and he’s like, “Where are you from?” We’re said, “Oh, we’re from America, from California. And he’s like, “Oh, California. Tupac.” And he starts spitting Tupac rhymes, like 16 bar verses, not missing a word. At the end of it he goes, “I don’t really like west coast, I like the east coast, I like Biggie.” So he starts spitting Biggie verses. And we’re just standing there watching this dude. He doesn’t understand the words that are coming out of his mouth, but that’s how he’s showing us what he understands about our country and about our culture. And I’m very critical of Tupac. He was a drug dealer, a misogynist, and a criminal. So to me this was like if someone was in Africa and might be like, “Ooga booga,” or some ignorant shit like that, not having any point of reference. Or going to holland and saying, “Where are all the wooden shoes?” But it wasn’t his fault. That’s what we export. America’s greatest export is media.

We talked to the kid, we’re like, “Yeah, we don’t really do music like that, that’s not what hip hop’s all about.” But you can only say so much. This is how he understands the Black American experience. And I realized that people who are interested in the world perceiving African Americans and African American art in a different way, it’s our responsibility to create compelling content that competes with what major media companies are doing. We need to be finding ways to distribute and disseminate that content, and to make it equally entertaining. It’s not enough just to make it socially conscious, it has to be as entertaining and energetic and cathartic for the listener, and maybe it has to be as shiny or as aggressive or as sexy. If I don’t like walking into a little boutique in Africa and having somebody explain my culture to me vis-á-vis a Tupac lyric, it’s my responsibility.

Click Here for part 2 of my interview with Anas Canon

What is Project HIP-HOP? A Participatory Video Research Project

I am extremely proud to be able to share the following video. This piece is the result of a three-month participatory video-research project I had the pleasure to work on with some of the youth at Project HIP-HOP (PHH).

For the past year I have been partnering with PHH as a researcher, documenting their cultural organizing work. Partway through the project, the PHH staff and I were looking for ways to make the research more participatory — to do research with the youth rather than simply on them. At the same time, Ashleigh, one of the young leaders, was advocating for the group to create a video about the organization to help with recruitment. We decided to merge these two ideas into one project.

The result was a video-based research project centered around the question, “What is Project HIP-HOP?” I offered support to three of the young leaders — Ashleigh, Kassa, and Nailah — as they developed research questions, designed interview protocols, and interviewed a mix of members, leaders, staff, and a parent. I typed up the transcripts, and two of the youth and I coded the interviews for emerging themes. These themes became our guide, as we edited interviews together with footage from PHH events and newly-filmed footage to produce the ten minutes you see below. I was thrilled by the resulting video, and the insightful work of these young cultural organizers. This is Project HIP-HOP: Enjoy!


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.

Profile: Hip-Hop Ambassadors

“The interesting thing about music is that you don’t need to speak the same language with someone to communicate when you are using music. It crosses linguistic barriers, cultural barriers and it’s a way to share something about yourself, your culture . . . and even more specifically, Hip Hop becomes a sort of language for youth around the world so it doesn’t really matter what region you go to.”

                            – Anas Canon, Founder/Director, Remarkable Current

The last decade has seen massive deterioration and upheaval in the political relationships between the US and Islamic countries across the globe. Though the election of Obama brought hope for change in these relationships, the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan, the slow end to the war in Iraq, and the disappointing reaction of the US to the Arab Spring only served to add new tensions. But where political diplomacy struggles, cultural diplomacy is making its mark.

Hip-Hop Ambassadors is an initiative by the artist collective Remarkable Current, led by founder Anas Canon. As Hip-Hop Ambassadors, Remarkable Current travels to Muslim nations around the world and uses music to encourage cultural exchange and mutual understanding. Their visits — which have included Tunisia and Indonesia — combine live performances, workshops with youth, and collaborations with local artists.

Remarkable Current is following in the footsteps of the Jazz Ambassadors of the Cold War. Beginning with Dizzy Gillespie and his orchestra in 1956, the US State Department sponsored jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Louie Armstrong to travel across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East playing concerts, and meeting with diplomats and children alike. This was cultural diplomacy, a musical battle for the hearts and minds of the world — though admittedly an unlikely alliance, given that these artists faced such biting racism at home.

In these trips, RC works through the State Department and local embassies. I imagine this could bring up many thorny issues, like what it means for a group of Black Muslim Americans to represent a country with such a terrible history of invading Muslim countries abroad, and cultivating both anti-Muslim and anti-Black sentiment at home. However, Canon says that, beyond bringing them to the countries, the State Department has no control over their work. And as hip-hop spreads across the world, this kind of cultural connection may be one of our best hopes for true cross-cultural understanding, justice, and, dare I say it, peace.

As an illustration, here is a beautiful collaboration between RC and Tunisian hip hop artists celebrating the street vendor whose self-immolation sparked the Tunisian uprising.