Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Hip Hop at UNITEHERE! Midwest Leadership School

* This is another piece I am posting for historical interest/documentation purposes. It was never finished/published when it was first written, but I am throwing it up here because it was a powerful experience for me for which I am grateful. It was also an interesting and unique attempt to integrate cultural organizing into 21st century union organizing.

On October 3rd, 2007, UNITEHERE! Leadership School at William’s Bay, Wisconsin graduated three Hip Hop Congress regional directors: J.R Flemming, Kamikaze, and myself, Julie C. The school, dedicated to developing leadership among the ranks of the UNITEHERE! workers and union reps, focused on education, labor history, and strategic political planning in the context of labor organizing in a new era. At first glance, the Hip Hop delegation’s presence might raise a few eyebrows on both Hip Hop and the labor union’s end. After all, the most recognizable Hip Hop activists tend to gravitate to much more popular, visible causes than labor organizing. But as president and executive director of HHC, Shamako Noble wrote, “It’s one thing to talk about Black/Brown Unity. It’s a whole different thing to look at the decimations of factories in the Rust Belt, the influx in immigration, tie them both back to NAFTA, and to recognize that both groups were essentially shafted by the same move.” In reality, the marriage is not as unlikely as it seems. Furthermore, if we, as the Hip Hop generation in the U.S., are truly to connect to the revolutionary movement that Hip Hop has become in places like Cuba, Venezuela, Nigeria, and South Africa, it is time to look towards a model of Hip Hop activism that is deeper and more transformative than the star-power of our more popular artists.  

For the HHC camp at Wisconsin, the connection wasn’t hard to see. Southern regional director Kamikaze pointed out how, “through hip hop, we can mobilize folks in the trenches, ‘cause a lot of people in the trenches are working folks as well.” In fact, the HHC delegation wasn’t the only Hip Hop in the building- Mario, a UNITEHERE! rep from Chicago who was at the school, is a graph writer, as well as a fan of one of my hometown Hip Hop groups, Boom Bap Project. This attests to the fact that many artists find themselves supplementing their income with day jobs with low wages, and no healthcare benefits, and many workers are artists when they end their shifts. But even where that direct connection doesn’t exist, knowledge of the struggle is still crucial. “The labor movement in this country is a second and third cousin to hip hop activism,” says Kamikaze, “The education is a necessary tool and a necessary piece of our education as hip hop activists.” 

“The trade labor force is a culture just like Hip Hop is a culture,” asserts J.R. Flemming, HHC’s Midwest regional director, “these cultures are a part of the very same modern day economic war, are under attack by the same system, and the same people whose intentions have always been the same: exploitation for profit.” 

Hip Hop heads understand exploitation for profit, having watched our own artistic practices and cultural principles become commodified by the music and advertising industries. Hip Hop artists, struggling to sell their music against the forces of the industry’s market monopolies and media conglomerates, feel this even more. Understanding the interrelatedness of this phenomenon to UNITE HERE!’s struggle isn’t a stretch. The leadership of the new labor movement is facing a difficult question: how to ensure their constituency of low-wage workers, many of whom are immigrants and people of color, a fair share of the American pie in an era where corporate profits are up 98% from 2001, but 60% of wages are either stagnant or on the decline? Quite a bit has changed in this country from a few decades ago, where a strike and some collective bargaining could yield lasting results. What was called the ‘Social Contract’ – the agreement that if one worked hard, they could have healthcare, good pay, and a place to live, deteriorated under the heavy hand of capitalist greed. NAFTA, and similar “free-trade” policies across the world resulted in the exportation of countless jobs overseas, to countries whose government class agreed to not burden corporate profits with human rights. Inside our own borders, the federal government began protecting the rights of corporations more than the rights of the laborers that sustain them, enabling management to fire workers for causing too much of a ruckus. Couple those realities with the technological advances that have automated machines performing jobs both skilled and unskilled workers used to hold, and you get the full picture. Both a living wage, human rights, and common decency, became things that had to be forcefully negotiated and fiercely protected by the needle trade, textile, restaurant, and hotel workers that UNITE HERE! represents, as well as for most artists in the general workforce, exploited workers, the unemployed, and the expontenially growing, “surplus population” across the globe.

(The rest of this is unfinished notes)

Hip Hop: poverty, education, police terrorism, gentrification, racism, the criminal justice system, drugs, etc., the economy in this era of globalization and free market fundamentalism, which is why UNITEHERE!’s leadership schools focus on political education from both a national and international perspective. 

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