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"I'm not hip, but I know Hot 97 is wrong," said Councilman Charles Barron, a Democrat from East New York, who spoke at the rally. "Hip-hop is one of the most influential and important things in the world. We can start a revolution with hip-hop. We need to celebrate culture, not crime."
The organizers behind the rallya cadre of artists, journalists, and activists unofficially known as the Hip-Hop Coalition to Stop Hot 97began to mobilize in late January after the infamous "Tsunami Song," with its references to "screaming chinks" and "Africans drowning," played unchecked for four straight days on the station's morning show. To make matters worse, when the one Asian American member of the morning show crew objected, a jock replied on air, "I'm gonna start shooting Asians." The cadre joined media watchdog group Coalition Against Hate Media (CAHM) for a series of protests. Although the song was an impetus for action, organizers insist that protest was in the cards long before now.
"One day I got tired of talking and started organizing," said coalition member and DJ Candice Custodio. "We did react and respond to the 'Tsunami Song,' [but] it's not about the Asian community, it's about the hip-hop community. It's about all of us."
The coalition formed as a response to what member and activist Rosa Clemente called a "constant pattern of racism." Over the years, according to the coalition, Hot 97, while claiming to be the hub for the music genre of choice for millions of youth of color throughout the city, has refused to comment on the murder of Amadou Diallo despite community outrage. The station also hurled racial slurs at celebrities and aired promotions like "Smackfest" (in which two women slapped each other silly for prizes) and interviews that come across as little more than shameless ratings hype. Because the last "rap war" built up by the media resulted in the deaths of two of the genre's greatest artists, Tupac and Biggie, activists are livid that the media, Hot 97 in particular, have failed to learn from past mistakes.
"People have a right to say what they want, but how do real hip-hoppers react to this?" said Clemente, who lays equal blame at the feet of attention-starved artists. "We expect some sort of responsibility from these artists when they go to these stations. . . . People are dying. You should know better."
The protesters' message seems to be reaching Hot 97's audience.
"If hip-hop doesn't change, if Hot 97 doesn't change, Hot 97 is gonna lose a lot of listeners," said a Bronx high schooler named Jessica who spoke at the rally. "Little children hear this. . . . Now [hip-hop] is about violence and drugs and sex, all negative energy. I want hip-hop to be different. I want the old hip-hop to come back."