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."

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?"

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."

Yet well-meaning but uninformed artists, hands-off in approach and time, still don't pose the greatest threat to the politicization of rap. Rather, it's those who don't look past their blinders who weaken what could be a powerful constituency for change. Muhammad chalks it up to a highly localized self-confidence. "Despite the big talk," he claims, "deep down inside there's low self-esteem in most of the hip-hop generation." It's that selective ego that lets rappers play the don on record, but get lazy in real life. But that indolence may spell a future more dangerous and problematic than the past. As Mos Def puts it, "If you don't put any type of positive direction on and make people look at you in some other light besides a pop star, then you're doing yourself, and your people, a disservice."


Institution Building

A further sampling of the new hip-hop politics:

Jasiri Media Group

Who: Seattle's Source of Labor and affiliated crew

What: Activists long before they entered the music world, the Jasiri folks have found numerous ways to put their creative talents to work. Jonathan Moore (a/k/a Wordsayer) has been a social worker since graduating from Morehouse in 1992. For four years, he coordinated an after-school program at the Miller Community Center in downtown Seattle. This past spring, in partnership with the Seattle International Children's Festival, he, his wife, and his brother DJ Negus One donated their time, talent, and home recording studio to help a group of local teens record a charity CD. Though Moore has left the Miller Center to run the Jasiri label full-time, he still teaches a creative writing and poetry class at Franklin High School. "It all comes down to my family for me," he says. "I know I have a responsibility far greater than myself, and to be able to build a foundation where the legacy is beyond us is amazing."

Mumia 911

Who: A loose collection of artists, activists, actors, and writers numbering in the hundreds, with an advisory board including Danny Hoch, Michael Franti, Ntozake Shange, and Ed Asner

What: On September 11, a National Day of Art will take place at clubs, concert halls, art galleries, and cinemas around the country to protest the impending execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal. In New York, installations will take place at P.P.O.W., Gallery 1199, and the Bronx River Art Center and Gallery. There will also be a reading and panel discussions at the Brecht Forum. Furthermore, an album, entitled Unbound, is slated for early next year; the first single, "Mumia 911," is available now.

No Mayo

Who: Forthcoming album, The Funky Precedent (No Mayo/Loosegroove), includes contributions from Divine Styler, Dilated Peoples, Jurassic 5, Ozomatli, Cut Chemist, Black Eyed Peas, and Aceyalone.

What: No Mayo is a record label and clothing line that has raised more than $175,000 for California high school music programs, providing instruments, uniforms, transportation to festivals, and the like.

Project Raptivism

Who: Organized by "raptivist" Rishi Nath, this collective's first project is the forthcoming No More Prisons album (Raptivism/Landspeed), featuring contributions from Dead Prez, Chubb Rock, Danny Hoch, the Last Poets, Last Emperor, Rubberoom, and others.

What: No More Prisons is wholly dedicated to challenging America's prison system, which over the past decade has grown exponentially. Sales will benefit the Prison Moratorium Project, a nonprofit devoted to spreading information and battling construction of new prisons nationwide. Future albums will deal with different topics ranging from Native American land debates to welfare reform.

Uhuru Movement

Who: A national organization promoting self- awareness for people of African descent. M1 and Stickman of Dead Prez are influential leaders in the New York chapter.

What: The National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, an affiliate of the African People's Socialist Party, has several chapters, and has been responsible for opening a health food co-op in St.

Petersburg, Florida, where the organization is headquartered. The New York chapter organizes weekly political education sessions, as well as free martial arts classes, prison visits and discussions, and clothing drives. As the first tenet of the APSP platform states, "We want peace, dignity, and the right to build a prosperous life through our own labor and in our own interests."

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