Fight the Power: A New Movement for Civil Rights

Can hip-hop get past the thug life and back to its radical roots?

Illustration: Marcos Sorensen

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jerry quickley, hip-hop poet, performance artist, and war correspondent, has seen hell. It is a post-“liberated” Baghdad street, jammed with beat-up Brazilian and Czech sedans spewing trails of carbon monoxide, clouds of dust thickening in the 125-degree heat. He is riding shotgun in an Iraqi friend’s car. “You have no traffic lights because there’s no electricity,” he says. “You have no police because they’d just be shot or blown up. You can barely breathe.” U.S. soldiers fire into the air to clear traffic and scare off would-be bombers, and Iraqi drivers ram into each other as they scramble to get out of the way. “And while this is all going on,” Quickley says, “this friend of mine is playing songs by 50 Cent.”

The top-selling do-ragged and body-oiled rapper—whose smash debut was entitled Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and whose 2005 album The Massacre occasioned a book, a feature movie, a bloody video game, a bling-encrusted line of watches, shoe and “enhanced water” endorsements, not to mention tabloid headlines about a beef with a former protégé culminating in real-life shootings—warbles through the busted car stereo in a nasal drawl: “Many men wish death upon me.”

“Sartre was right,” thought Quickley. “This is No Exit.”

For many, this is what hip-hop has become: an omnipresent, grisly, übermacho soundtrack. Don Imus unleashed the latest hip-hop backlash when he noted that in calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos” he was using an argot popularized by rappers. The frenzy of finger-pointing that followed culminated with the spectacle of Bill O’Reilly lecturing hip-hop advocates on sexism and the “n-word” while Oprah berated Russell Simmons and other industry executives.

The talk show circus aside, there’s plenty of evidence that people are weary of corporate rap. Only 59 million rap albums were sold in the United States last year, down from 90 million in 2001. According to a University of Chicago study, most youths—whether black, white, or Hispanic—believe that rap videos portray women of color in a negative light. Once a cacophony of diverse voices, the genre now looks like a monoculture whose product, like high-fructose corn syrup, is designed not to nourish but simply to get us hooked on other products, from McDonald’s to Courvoisier.

Quickley, though, remains a true believer in hip-hop’s transformational potential. For him, it goes back to the summer of 1976, three years before the Sugarhill Gang’s breakthrough hit “Rapper’s Delight.” He was 12 and sitting on a scorching nyc stoop when someone popped in a cassette tape featuring a DJ mixing up bombastic rhythms on two turntables. It rocked his young world. He started visiting block parties to hear DJs spin and rappers rap, and soon learned how to mix. He jumped the subway turnstiles and became a graffiti bomber. After poetry overtook doodling in his sketchbooks, he became a rapper.

To Quickley and to millions of others, the new genre’s appeal was visceral. It was a true counterculture, skirting legality and authority with a smirk. It broke down social barriers. DJs mixed Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith with James Brown and the Meters. By the mid-’80s hip-hop looked like the most significant youth movement since the ’60s. It expanded beyond the original “four elements”—rap, DJing, graffiti writing, and b-boying (also known, incorrectly, as break dancing)—into virtually every art form and became the lingua franca for an increasingly connected, polycultural world.

Back then, “media assassin” and Public Enemy collaborator Harry Allen coined the phrase “hip-hop activism” to describe the movement’s potential to spur social change. But as industry execs began to capitalize on hip-hop’s popularity, its renegade spirit was largely suppressed by displays of conspicuous consumption and gratuitous machismo.

But now, with the industry on the ropes and the political sphere energized, the transformative power of hip-hop may finally be reemerging. Over the past decade, hip-hop-based community groups have recharged the social justice movement and launched get-out-the-vote campaigns in neighborhoods most candidates and parties wouldn’t touch. (Full disclosure: I have been active in two of these groups, serving on the board of the League of Young Voters and organizing for the National Hip-Hop Political Convention.) Even moguls such as Jay-Z, Simmons, and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs have thrown their weight behind voter outreach. And while the results are hard to track case by case, one massive shift is undeniable: In 2004, half of the 4 million new voters under 30 were people of color—a demographic watershed largely overlooked by the media.

“It’s one of the wonders of the world that this little neighborhood thing, that when I started vibing on it was maybe 10,000 kids running around the city, has completely changed the face of the planet,” Quickley says. “All the corporations and commercial interests try to tell you otherwise, but I’ve seen it go down like that in my lifetime.”

Bronx Beats to Suburban Streets
Hip-hop began in the Bronx, a borough ripped in two by Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway. Stranded by deindustrialization, half the Bronx’s white residents fled; the borough was left for dead by city officials. Slumlording and arson reduced housing stock by four blocks a week. In the abandoned tenements, gangs replaced families.

But an unprecedented 1971 gang peace treaty unleashed the creative explosion that became known as hip-hop. It didn’t start out as an explicitly political movement—more like a set of pastimes poor kids devised to celebrate their survival. They spray-painted aliases on walls and subways, rapped Jamaican-style over funky Afro-Latin-influenced groove records, and danced to the percussive breaks. “To go from running down the block to escape a gang to being able to walk any block freely, that’s one of the greatest joys,” says Tony Tone, a gang member who quit and became part of the pioneering rap group the Cold Crush Brothers. “Hip-hop saved a lot of lives.”

This Bronx scene spread across the country, remixed and revitalized in each community, and by the late ’80s, hip-hop was articulating an emerging post-civil rights worldview. Rap artists like Chuck D and KRS-ONE spotlighted the effects of crack and violence on inner-city youths and openly questioned why black community leaders were neither addressing these urgent issues nor mentoring young leaders. Carmen Ashhurst was a filmmaker who, in 1988, went to work for Def Jam cofounder Russell Simmons (whose brother is DJ Run from RUN D.M.C.). To her, the motivation to switch genres was clear: “Getting control of our images,” she says. “This was young people who at that time weren’t being listened to by anybody. Rap became a de facto voice of black America.” Or, more accurately, voices. A 1991 Public Enemy tour included acts as disparate as L.A. gangsta pioneer Ice T, style maestros A Tribe Called Quest, and future actors Queen Latifah and Will Smith.

By then, every pundit and politician had an opinion about rap, whether they’d listened to it or not. Some commentators valued rap’s truth-telling, but not all understood its shit-talking. Battle-rhyming—boasting about yourself and denigrating your competitor—has been a source of vitality and innovation for the genre. And as far back as the Sugarhill Gang, the braggadocio included brand-name dropping and talk of having “more money than a sucker could ever spend”; there was always an aspirational aspect to this poetry born of poverty.

But songs like N.W.A.’s 1988 “Fuck tha Police”—a prescient condemnation of the racist lapd—scared people. In the wake of the 1992 L.A. riots, a rising tide of anti-rap sentiment cohered into a full-blown culture war as conservatives like Bob Dole joined Tipper Gore, civil rights leaders like C. Delores Tucker, and key Democrats like Carol Moseley-Braun and Joe Lieberman in an alliance to stamp out so-called “gangsta rap.” Lobbies like the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Rifle Association forced record labels to drop “politically sensitive” acts like Paris, Kool G. Rap, and Intelligent Hoodlum.

The plan backfired completely. As with rock and roll a generation before, being attacked by a bunch of parents was the quickest way for hip-hop to gain cred with a wider audience of kids. By 1995, rap was one of music’s best-selling genres.

For entrepreneurs like Simmons, rap’s new crossover appeal represented an enormous business opportunity. “He sold the concept to the mainstream that hip-hop was a lifestyle, not just a music,” says Ashhurst, who became president of Def Jam in 1990. By 1999, Simmons sold his share of Def Jam to concentrate on “the urban aspirational lifestyle” market, where, he told me, “there’s always room for growth.”

The Rap Monoculture
As hip-hop became a big business, the major labels went on a buying spree, making instant fortunes for indie-minded artist/entrepreneurs like Percy “Master P” Miller, Earl “E-40” Stevens, Bryan “Baby” Williams, and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. But the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act massively increased economies of scale and put pressure on companies to reduce risk. Six major labels merged into four, laid off hundreds of employees, and sharply narrowed the range of voices, styles, and stories with access to global distribution. At the same time, radio giants like Clear Channel limited playlists, video and radio budgets skyrocketed, and payola thrived.

The rich boil of rhyme spinners, sweet-tongued slick talkers, streetwise corner boys, high-minded race men and women, my-block griots, kente-clothed Afrocentrists, and chest-thumping Alis gave way to a bland array of hosts and hostesses for the Bling Shopping Network. Corporate hip-hop’s monoculture made icons of synergy-friendly male acts, pushed women back to the margins, and shut out emerging gay and lesbian voices completely. If it wasn’t “Gin and Juice” or “Baby Got Back,” it didn’t get corporate love. “It’s really gotten to the point where the only acceptable public image for young black men is some variation on thuggery,” says Ashhurst, who quit the music industry in 1996 over its rising tide of sexism and violence and is now writing a memoir called Selling My Brothers.

Paul Porter, cofounder of the media-justice think tank Industry Ears, saw these changes firsthand as bet‘s hip-hop video program director. “We used to see the same storyboard of sex, drugs, rims, and attitude,” he says. “We used to vote out some of these videos all the time, and up to 2000, there was a point when we used to blur out champagne bottles. And then it came down to the line where—I’ll never forget when [then-bet owner] Bob Johnson called me—this is 1999—I was having some issues with Def Jam executives, and he said, ‘Play the video. Def Jam spent $3 million. Just play the video.’ And that’s when I knew it had gone haywire.” As Jay-Z, who is now Def Jam’s ceo, famously rapped, “I dumb down for my audience and double my dollars. They criticize me for it, yet they all yell ‘Holla.'”

In Beyond Beats & Rhymes, documentary filmmaker Byron Hurt’s “loving critique” of hip-hop’s misogyny and homophobia (which aired on pbs), Hurt asks unsigned rappers gathered outside an industry event to audition for him. Their clichéd battle rhymes are predictably bloody, sexist, and homophobic. When Hurt challenges them, they lament that this is the only rap that gets record deals. “The expectations are so well known that the artists conform to them,” says Hurt.

As Hurt notes, by embracing the image of black men as oversexed thugs, corporate rap perpetuates age-old stereotypes. There is, Simmons acknowledges, “a streak of negativity on the part of some executives. There are some opportunities for short-term success on stereotypical ideas. But that shakes itself out. Artificial artists lose their footing.”

Porter is less optimistic. “If this is the only thing the public hears, that’s what they’re gonna want,” he says. “It’s common sense. If McDonald’s is on every corner, eventually you go into a McDonald’s. Don’t tell me that because it sells, it’s good. Crack sells.”

Superpredators to Super Tuesday
What created the dominance of “thug rap”? Was it rappers “keeping it real,” a cynical industry, or the politics of fear? It’s worth noting that the hip-hop generation came of age as America’s attitudes toward urban youths morphed from “benign neglect” to “lock ’em all up.” It was John DiIulio, President George W. Bush’s first director of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, who argued in the early 1990s that rising numbers of youths of color meant Americans would be facing a generation of “superpredators.” Juvenile crime was well on its way to historical lows, but politicians on both sides of the aisle raced to pass draconian policies that packed prisons and jails with small-time drug and “anti-loitering”offenders. Is it any wonder that thuggery sold?

If government seemed to be writing off young people, they responded in kind. After helping to elect Bill Clinton in 1992, the year of Rock the Vote, youth turnout plunged. This has been misread as apathy. But a growing body of evidence suggests otherwise. Rates of volunteerism and activism are twice as high among those under 25 as they are among boomers. In 2006, a longitudinal national survey of college freshmen run by ucla found that half of those polled had participated in a demonstration during the past year—three times more than in ’66, at the peak of the civil rights movement. And that University of Chicago study found that a majority of today’s black and Hispanic youths felt that government cared very little about them. Yet more than three in four also believed they could make a difference by participating in politics.

And in 2004, they did. Together, Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and P. Diddy’s Citizen Change Campaign, grassroots groups like the National Hip-Hop Political Convention and League of Young Voters, and a number of anti-Bush and antiwar hip-hop anthems and videos by artists ranging from Kanye West to Eminem all urged youths to vote. Exit polls documented 4 million new voters under 30, the biggest youth surge since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972. More than half were people of color. Similar polls in 2006 confirmed these trends. What’s more, in ’06 voters under 30 went Democratic by a nearly 3-to-2 margin. The numbers weren’t the result of concentrated party efforts like, say, Karl Rove’s work with evangelical voters. In fact, not until after the elections did Democratic strategists Peter Leyden and Ruy Teixeira gush in a white paper that 18- to 24-year-olds at the tip of an 80-million-strong “millennial” boomlet are “an enormous asset for progressives going forward.” (See “The 50-Year Strategy,” page 62.)

Big electoral trends aside, some of the most interesting work in hip-hop politics has been done at the local level, where militant skepticism and passionate pragmatism have quietly built a network of visionary, rough-and-ready organizations. The most innovative—such as Boston’s Youth Organizing Project, Brooklyn’s Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Chicago’s Southwest Youth Collaborative/University of Hip-Hop, Cincinnati’s Elementz, and Selma’s 21st Century Youth Leadership Project—blur the lines between politics and culture, using art, dance, rap production, or turntablism to leverage kids into fierce political action.

As Jakada Imani of Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights notes, “Hip-hop is primarily about reshaping the world in our image. It’s the same in social change. That means figuring out how to tell the truth and get heads to nod at the same time.”

In the past five years, hip-hop organizers have stopped construction of juvenile detention facilities in California and New York City, helped can environmental deregulation legislation in New Mexico, passed a college debt-forgiveness initiative in Maine, created networks for Katrina survivors across the South, and helped elect dozens of local candidates. Organizations such as Oakland’s Youth Media Council and New York City’s R.E.A.C.Hip-Hop and hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa’s Balance the Airwaves Campaign have prodded radio monopolies such as Clear Channel and Emmis Communications to play more local music and feature more progressive voices. After convincing the city of Oakland to fund a Green Job Corps training program for inner-city youths, the Ella Baker Center got Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) and Nancy Pelosi to insert language into a House energy bill creating a $25 million Green Jobs Act.

And from Oakland to Newark, hip-hop organizations are taking on the old issues of poverty and gun violence. In Milwaukee, where 28 shootings were reported last Memorial Day alone, the three-year-old hip-hop organization Campaign Against Violence deals with these demons every day; a brother of one of the organizers was killed in late 2006.

“Milwaukee is so much further down the [conservative] path than other cities,” says the campaign’s 29-year-old political director Rob “Biko” Baker. “They got rid of welfare here first. They privatized schools here first. On the coasts, there are still resources; there’s a professionalization of the organizing. Here it’s just straight raw and uncut. So what do we do so that people don’t die?”

Milwaukee officials have mostly offered more tough-on-crime measures. By contrast, the campaign, which has a staff of 7 and a volunteer force of 20, has trained thousands of youths in conflict resolution. Key to its work are poetry workshops in schools and juvenile detention facilities, where kids are asked to complete the sentences “The truth is…” and “Where I’m from…” They then read their answers aloud to each other—”The truth is I don’t want to go to jail” or “Where I’m from people get killed.”

“After they release that,” says 31-year-old education director Carey “C.J.” Jenkins, “they’re ready for the business. They’re ready to organize.”

By combining “soft” cultural work and “hard” door-to-door organizing, the campaign has built a sizable base. When police officers were acquitted in the brutal beating of a biracial man in 2004, its protests helped make it a federal case. In 2006, the group turned out 15,000 mostly first-time voters. Recently, Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle made the campaign’s proposal to close a loophole used by unlicensed gun dealers the centerpiece of his anticrime initiative.

“Organizing the community, it’s really not so much about votes,” says Jenkins, who himself never voted before getting involved with the campaign in 2005. “It’s about maturity and understanding that politics play a part in your everyday life.”

Hip-Hop Is Dead; Long Live Hip-Hop
In 2006, when Nas released Hip-Hop Is Dead, no rap albums were among the year’s top 10 best-sellers. Former bet executive Porter says, “I blame the record companies. They’re sticking with the same formula. Hip-hop’s 30 years old now, and they’ve been stuck on stupid for 10 years.”

In the wake of the Imus debacle, Simmons and Dr. Ben Chavis of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network called a meeting of industry big shots to address sexism in rap. Gathered at the home of Warner Music Group head Lyor Cohen, the execs couldn’t reach consensus—some worried about censorship, others wanted to let the issue blow over—so a week later, Chavis and Simmons called for a voluntary ban on “nigger” and “bitch.” That wasn’t enough to stop a new round of congressional hearings, though Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), the former Black Panther who called for them, said he was hoping not to use “regulatory solutions.” By the end of the summer, the rap game seemed somehow more…civil. When 50 Cent first heard that Kanye West’s record was dropping the same day as his, he did make threats—but only to quit the game. And by September the two were sharing a Rolling Stone cover; blogs circulated pictures of them hugging after the photo shoot. And if hip-hop activists emerged in part to scream at their elders, now they seem eager to collaborate. “Young people certainly need to be at the forefront of any movement,” says Nicole Lee, political director of the Ella Baker Center. “But we can’t do it by ourselves. Any movement for peace has to have reconciliation as a core commitment. We’re making a shift from the politics of complaint to the politics of possibility.”

Can hip-hop grow into its potential? Can rap sell activism as well as it has $150 sneakers, bottle service, and grill work? Can the very people who’ve made vast fortunes off selling stupid help reform the industry? “The thing I love about hip-hop,” says Chavis, “is that it is evolutionary. It replenishes itself. I get in trouble all the time for saying this, but hip-hop is doing what the civil rights movement was only dreaming about.”


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