It's Nation Time. Again.

A new vanguard of rap activists takes to the streets

This past weekend, a contingent of American rappers and activists boarded a plane for Havana to participate in the fifth Cuban rap festival and colloquium, an annual gathering convened to discuss that country's protean scene from perspectives musical, social and, of course, political. This is the second year running that American artists have made the prohibited voyage. A sign of support for sure, but more important, the trip has ramifications for the artists' personal politics. "Cuba's an eye-opening place," explains Kofi Taha, a member of the Black August Collective, the group that organized the visit. "These are artists who are already grappling with American hypocrisy, and [they see] Cuba's the opposite of the tyrannical evil empire that we've been fed images of."

Back on American soil, at last month's Black August benefit, a sold-out crowd packed the Bowery Ballroom for a concert-cum-sermon on injustices here and abroad. The most humorous moment came when Fat Joe— the same Fat Joe who organized a benefit dinner last fall for Caribbean victims of Hurricane Georges— stepped to the stage, proclaiming, "I don't know all the facts, all the details of what's going on right here. I'm just here to represent my people." Laughing, he continued, "Chuck D went that way." Meanwhile, downstairs, activist organizations like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the Student Liberation Action Movement, and the Mumia 911 project set up tables to distribute information and sign up volunteers. As the concert closed, clusters of young fans huddled around those tables rather than leaving, signing petitions and learning about forthcoming rallies and drives. The new politicization of the hip-hop generation isn't just song and dance— artists today who value commitment do more than preach revolution on wax.

Benefit concerts seem to be popping up almost monthly among the hip-hop set. Recent months have seen not only the Black August event, but fundraisers to support everything from Kosovo relief to rapper Poetic's cancer treatment. This Saturday at the Knitting Factory, Black Star is kicking off a three-day series of concerts to raise funds for Nkiru Books. A Fort Greene institution, the store was falling on hard times when Mos Def and Talib Kweli stepped in earlier this year. "We inherited debt when we purchased the store, but we preferred to do that rather than let it fold and try to bring it back," says Kweli. "We'll be restructuring it more like a foundation and doing other things with the store, like selling records and clothing, as well as books."

Black Star's Mos Def (left) and Talib Kweli and their families, in front of Nkiru Books
Photo: Dennis Kleiman
Black Star's Mos Def (left) and Talib Kweli and their families, in front of Nkiru Books

The Nkiru Foundation is only the latest addition to a broad social awareness portfolio the duo have amassed. Next month will see the release of "Hip Hop for Respect," a benefit single spawned in the wake of the police murder of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo and dealing explicitly with the topic of police brutality. At the outset of the April recording session, the pair gave a pep talk to the assembled masses. "People say we're nonresponsive to situations in our communities," Kweli said, "but there are a lot of conscious and positive hip-hop artists who will continue to be that way, trendy or not." The duo then retired to the studio along with over 40 colleagues in rhyme— including Parrish Smith from EPMD, Wise Intelligent from Poor Righteous Teachers, El-P from Company Flow, Kool G Rap, and Pharohe Monch— to lay down vocals. A posse cut for social change? Seems positively anachronistic.

Around the turn of the last decade, each new year brought another amalgamation of MCs to the studio to cut a conscious track, byproducts of the Africa-pendants-and-knowledge vogue that swept the rap world in the bumpy wake of late-'80s gilded dreams. First was "Self-Destruction," the antiviolence track organized by KRS-One in support of the National Urban League. Soon after came the ill-fated "Human Education Against Lies" and "We're All in the Same Gang," the most profound mark of each being extremely crowded videos on MTV. As far as long-term social change, their impact was negligible.

That said, though, these songs were a part of a broader movement of politicized hip-hop that defined the era but went missing as the '90s trudged onward. Though not wholly absent during the earlier parts of this decade— artists like The Coup, Intelligent Hoodlum, Paris, and Public Enemy released politicized albums during the ideologically lean years— conscious rap by and large took a backseat. As hip-hop has hardly stopped to look in the mirror at its own nihilistic excesses, the newfound consciousness has reared its head in unfriendly territory.

The new raptivism takes many forms. Some artists are extraordinarily involved, giving generously of their time and personal energy, while others, more preoccupied with the daily business of running entertainment careers, delegate charitable responsibilities elsewhere. For most artists work begins locally, speaking in area schools about life experiences. "I've done at least 10 schools this year," boasts Talib Kweli, "and people search out for me now . . . once [the kids] find out I'm involved in music, they pay attention." Rishi Nath, coordinator of Project Raptivism, experienced a similar phenomenon when working in Chicago public schools: "I would talk about [prison reform] in class and kids would get excited. I wondered how I could make it something kids would want to be a part of, so I thought of hip-hop. That's what's uniting this generation."

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