It's Nation Time. Again.

A new vanguard of rap activists takes to the streets

Most crucial is the notion of reaching hip-hop youth where they're at, speaking to them in a familiar language, but simultaneously providing information they don't normally have access to. This could take the form of politicized music, but that model hasn't proven itself over time. Even Jay-Z's recent closet-cleansing, in which he donated a truckload of old clothes to organizations for the needy, is a step in the right direction, though it's a small drop compared to the clothing drive organized by Brooklyn's Dead Prez in conjunction with the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement. And the Wu, known more these days for legal squabbles than deft lyricism, have done their part as well: "We brought a couple of gang leaders together in Chicago at the Operation PUSH building," says Mook, the president of Wu-Tang Records. "They were hugging each other at the end. We did a similar type thing in uptown Manhattan. I don't know how many times we did it in Staten Island. It lets the community leaders know that Wu-Tang is down for the community. If you have the knowledge and don't share it, you're just as bad as the person who wants to withhold knowledge."

Timing is, of course, key. Being a rap star is hard work, not leaving a lot of time for revolution. And such choices are even more pressing for smaller artists, who don't have any financial cushion to rest on. In the case of Boots from The Coup, activism and artistry constituted a zero-sum game. "When I do the community work, it's when I'm not recording," he states flatly. "And if I'm really hyped on the organizing work, then I have to make a choice. That's why there was a four-year gap between our last two albums." Boots, who in the early '90s was an influential member of the Mau Mau Rhythm Collective, an Oakland organization that bridged music and political education, is still struggling to find a better way to make this fusion a reality: "It's been set up that the way you create music is separate from life, as opposed to art being a part of life, which is what I'm striving for myself."

Of all attempts at social work, creating a vanity charitable group is perhaps the easiest, and accordingly, most common for those artists with vast mainstream popularity. Puffy has Daddy's House; Lauryn Hill has the Refugee Project. However, such organizations hardly complement those artists' level of exposure and potential impact. One activist, who requested anonymity, recalls his first encounter with the Refugee Project: "I called their offices to introduce myself, to see about ways we could work together, and the individual I spoke with told me they didn't really have an agenda set out yet. And I'm thinking, you have all these parties, all these fundraisers. Armani's sponsoring you, and you don't have an agenda? And the offices are in Soho? Who are you helping in Soho?"

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

Such criticism is not wholly irrational, but as artists become more successful, the dysfunctional environments of their youth seem further away, and are easily forgotten. "One thing I learned over the years is that it was the poorest hip-hop artists giving back the most," contends Edgardo Miranda, formerly of the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn. Bigger stars, he says, "just don't want to fight. They're looking for stability, not these little battles." Caught in the vapors of fame, it's easy to let other things slide.

But in the eyes of former Nation of Islam "hip-hop minister" Conrad Muhammad, it's such artists— especially community leaders like Fat Joe— who can throw their weight around well beyond fundraising and supporting local businesses. Muhammad has been encouraging a group of rappers to run for local office within the next few years: "I told Fat Joe, 'If you love the hood so much, why can't you run for that city council spot [in your Bronx neighborhood]? You sold a million records. Your city councilman, whoever he is, got 9000 votes at most, because no city councilperson garnered over 10,000 votes in the last election. Then you'll control millions of dollars for the hood. And it's only a part-time job!" '

So are these efforts wholly without utility? Certainly not, but the larger picture beckons. "I think those [charity organizations] are good," Muhammad asserts, "but they're safe. Black people don't need a camp. I'm sorry, but I will not let someone who's spending $300,000 on a car put just $50,000 to send kids to camp. I'm challenging them— build a school. I'd love to see these guys come together— Lauryn, Puffy, and so on— and support a charter school, something that could service a significant number of youth in our community on an ongoing basis."

"Artists starting foundations is another critical step," argues William "Upski" Wimsatt, author of the influential Bomb the Suburbs and currently working with hip-hop philanthropy concern the Active Element Foundation. "But most of them don't have any strategic idea of what to do with those foundations; most of them say, 'Oh, we'll help kids.' If artists could realize that they themselves don't know how to change things institutionally, they could then hire people to do these things correctly."

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