Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How Can Hip Hop Save the World? Lessons from a Seattle Youth Service Scandal

On March 3rd, I was invited to speak at an intimate panel at Seattle University called "How Can Hip Hop Save the World?" The gathering, brought together by SU's Mary Pauline Diaz, featured Mako Fitts, Ready C from my crew Alpha P, and myself, as well as about 10 student participants. I didn't know what to expect, but I was inspired by the topic, ensuing conversation, and current events to write this article up.

(Photo: Kool Herc, founder of Hip Hop, currently fighting the American healthcare system.)

Before addressing how Hip Hop can save the world, you first have to determine whether it can, and what "Hip Hop" means to begin with. Now although we could debate cultural memory, nommo, and collective experience all day, the truth is that the only thing that brings most of us together under the umbrella of "Hip Hop" is that we, as artists, engage in the artistic practices deemed by Afrika Bambaataa to be the elements of Hip Hop: bboy/girling, emceeing, graffiti, Djing, beat-making, etc. Of course cultural production in Hip Hop is not just limited to that, it also includes secondary extensions of this. For example, independent media/websites/shows such as Seaspot, Flava News, Coolout Network, Untappedmuzik, All Power to the Positive, Seattle Hip Hop Street Fights, Street Sounds, Boombox FM, She Ready Radio, and Zulu Radio are included here as well as bloggers like those at Raindrophustla, Chul Gugich from 206up, Hugh from Blogsiswatching.com, and Miss Casey Carter, writers like Marian Liu and Jonathan Cunningham, even online forum mafiosos like the habitue of 206Proof are Hip Hop cultural producers. Promoters/venues/functions are also hugely important to Hip Hop cultural production (think Dope Emporium, UmojaFest, Obese Productions, an institution like Stop Biting at Lofi (shouts to Introcut), or Ladies First, formally at Hidmo, etc.) Extending even farther out, we can include fashion (think Mint Factory Clothing or CrisisNW Gear), photography (like Ruf Top Productions, and Jennifer Mary), and a plethora of others. Through this lens, Hip Hop CREATES communities around these artistic practices and acts of cultural production. The question then shifts from "Can Hip Hop save the world?" to "Can communities save the world?" and of course, the answer here is yes. But what role does Hip Hop have in this?

As an artist, and like a lot of artists and cultural producers out here in the Northwest Hip Hop scene, I believe in community accountability to the youth. We do not just understand and create art about issues of gentrification, poverty/job creation, educational reform, healthcare, and youth violence prevention, we organize and mobilize for positive changes within our spheres of influence around these issues, for their benefit. I've worked with organizations who turn crack houses into community centers and throw Hip Hop Leadership Conferences (Seattle Hip Hop Youth Council & Umojafest P.E.A.C.E. Center), organizations who connect artists with schools, play cafeterias and gymnasiums, and organize city-wide Youth Summits (206 Zulu), collectives who throw multi-day free all-ages Hip Hop festivals with youth showcases (Dope Emporium), business owners who turn their restaurants into activists hubs and performance spaces, who launch community empowerment projects (Hidmo), and I've been blessed to connect with other collectives, organizations, and crews in cities across the country who share the same priorities and mission in this work. (Shouts to DeBug in San Jose, W.I.T in Kentucky, J.U.I.C.E and GorillaMic in Los Angeles, IMAN & Coalition to Protect Public Housing in Chicago, B Girl Be in Minneapolis, W.E.A.P in Oakland, and all trues in the PPEHRC, UZN, HHC networks). There's power in this groundswell.

Through my travels, connecting with "Hip Hop" communities across the country, I've also learned that the national policies and initiatives enacted locally on a state, county, & city level have created common struggles & challenges for us. Broadening our perspective on these issues to include the struggles of communities outside our scene allows us to see how these issues manifest in different cities, and facilitates better understanding on how we can enact change in Seattle. One example of this is HUD Block Grants that wiped out public housing in virtually every urban community across the country, shrouding the reality of gentrification and urban economic displacement under the guise of "private-public partnerships". Another very recent example is the Youth Violence Prevention Initiative (YVPI). Most don't know that at the time this was launched in Seattle two years ago, former Mayor Nickels was the President of the National Council of Mayors, and it's not a stretch to say his decision to entrust the Seattle Urban League with a no-bid multi-million dollar grant for executing the project locally was in no small part due to the "New Deal" partnership for the Conference of Mayors and the National Urban League announced at their centennial celebration.

Two years ago, at the time this happened, I was working with Umojafest P.E.A.C.E Center, Mother's Outreach Movement, Hip Hop Congress, and a collective of over 20 other local Hip Hop and youth advocacy organizations in the Unite for Youth Coalition, who were very much in the trenches of youth violence prevention work. The coalition members were also very concerned with the city's move to hand these desperately needed funds over to the Urban League, an organization with questionable leadership, a history of unsavory community appropriation, and virtually no track record of notable violence prevention work. Plus at the same time, the city of Seattle was proposing to build a $110 million dollar jail, and the new Seattle School District Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson (who was just fired March 3rd by the school board over the recent scandal) was proposing to shut down six schools. We organized, and began contacting people in the mayor's office, on the school board, and in the Urban League, and our concern only grew. As community organizers and youth service workers, we were uncomfortable with 1) the disconnect of these conversations 2) the Seattle School District's questionable management of public funds and their inability to keep schools open 3) the lack of transparency, really the shroud of secrecy over the Urban League's plans for the violence prevention money. Two years ago, we staged demonstrations, put out articles on the issue, and did our best to engage our communities in the conversation, for the interest of the youth. Were we successful in raising awareness and asking questions? Yes. Were we able to prevent the scandalous debacle that ensued? No.

Today, two years later, after at least four schools are closed, the Seattle Times front page is riddled with stories about the Seattle School District's financial scandal, how over a million dollars was handed over to vendors that never did anything but get the money, and how the single largest recipient of that money was the Seattle Urban League. This all came out after the Urban League quietly lost the YVPI contract in January, after they spent $900,000 with little to show for it. (Here's the city's performance evaluation for the larger half of that amount). I'd be interested to hear how this played out in other cities.

Despite all this, ours was not a lost battle. Quite the contrary, the pressure and spotlight put on Former Mayor Nickels and his administration came right before elections season. Hip Hop ran its own candidate, Wyking Garrett, for the purposes of putting these and other critical issues on the table, and coalitions of urban youth organizations like the Young Voter's League were hosting their own candidate forums at which Nickels was virtually absent. Although Wyking lost in primaries, the face time we bought with other candidates won us a huge platform to educate others on what was going on in the community, and it was out of these conversations that Mayor McGinn surfaced as a favored pick among young voters. It is the presence of this new mayor which has eventually lead to the space for transparency in the YVPI, as well as for new leadership to emerge from the community. We should not forget or downplay this victory, even if it did take some time, but we should also strive to mobilize quicker, stronger, and more effectively next time by taking key lessons from what went down in our own backyard:

1) Be proactive in creating and/or contributing to the growth of institutional alternatives to the status quo. (Instead of trying to use the master's tools to dismantle the plantation. This applies to the dying music industry & corporate media model as well as activism and youth service.)

2) Leverage the political process by running our own Hip Hop candidates who will put our issues and interests into the forefront. (Instead of raking up election year funding by remaining operatives for existing political parties.)

3) Keep building Hip Hop as an effective medium for community education and mobilization.
(Think unionizing teaching artists and Hip Hop youth service workers, building coalitions between our businesses, collectives, and organizations, and creating "rapid response" networks on youth policy issues among our independent media outlets.)

Hip Hop is a vast & powerful network. We should not shy away from being active in changing the world from the ground up. The above is only one example of the small atrocities committed daily, and the role our community of cultural producers can and needs to play in intervening and recreating. Even here in our seemingly isolated, burgeoning scene, we are a part of a larger movement with larger aspirations, and there are many reminders of this. (Take our comrades in the Hip Hop communities of North Africa for example). There's a lot of answers to the question "How Can Hip Hop Save the World?", but the most important answer is in the alignment of all our efforts and the clarity of our collective vision.

Julie C is a teacher, cultural advocate, and emcee. Her upcoming E.P Sliding Scale is dropping May 2011 from the indy label B Girl Media. Email her at Juliec@hiphopcongress.com, and comment on this story and others at www.Julie-C.com.


  1. Julie this is simply amazing. You are so well worded and seriously I think I learn more and more everytime I read something by you. I will be passing this along, thank you for sharing this with all of us. Its amazing just how much is going on in my backyard I never knew about.

  2. I think this is very nicely worded. There are many reasons why Music culture is being destroyed. The MP3 industry for one. I also have to admit i was disappointed there was no shout to the "Underground Union". My intent and message behind it kinda falls into all of this. There is not any difference between the hip hop, and EDM culture in reality. They both are "Underground" cultures. ;) Thanks for sharing. I will spread this if you would like? =)

  3. Proper Education Allows Correction of Errors! Thanks for taking time to connect some of the dots and put things in perspective from local to global. Hip is to educate and Hop is to elevate.

  4. -2012-

    Sipping on tea,

    starring at the still ocean,

    as the sun rips the sky open,

    for the moon to shed light.

    Aeonian beings stumble across

    crop circles to see the sacrafice.

    The children gather

    to be molested one by one,

    Mentally infiltrated by the system.

    As maggots get processed

    and served to billions,

    in a supersized #5 from McDonalds.

    The media capitolizing on fear,

    while pumping millions

    into the church to launder

    warfare money.

    9/11 and it's gritty conspiracies,

    what ever happened

    to listening the winds

    prophetic enlightening chill.

    As propaganda moves

    the masses further from the truth,

    the blind see more clearly.

    And the wicked still loath in their sins,


    For all empires must... fall.

    LK Cruz-Phromnopavong -2KXI


  5. Julie, this piece is so uplifting! It’s a beautiful thing to witness the accolades you give to your brethern and sistren in the hip hop community and others as well. We needed to be reminded of the ground work which has been laid and how t...he battle truly indeed was “won”! and it was through the collective force of a youth driven, hip-hop community.

    We know the fight ain’t over….our community and the lives in it are still be sucked dry by those who we know by name, we know by their actions and we know by their stance and as we sit here today watching the dominoes fall i.e. James Kelly, Maria Goodloe Johnson, Silas Potter etc. it is only making room for new and strong leadership to emerge from the community from which WE stand.

    Much love to u Julie C! the struggle continues….

  6. Yep. That's about the size of it.

    I would caution folks around the electoral trip, i.e.- remember what it is, what it is for, and how it can easily recooperate ones political line and agenda and turn it into its opposite, by virtue of the inertia of the system we all live under. Or worse, one stays 'marginalized' because they rely exclusively on the instutionalized electoral process, rather than organizing for actual, tangible political power.

    If you can pack a venue full of drunks to listen you spit over a slapper, take that ability out of the [relative] stone age and into the realm of a bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred, take-no-kkkrap-from-no-one popular movement for seizing power from those who strengthen their own 'bottom line' at the expense of everyone else.

    Let me also give you all some perspective as to what we're up against: One of the biggest grant funders is the Gates Foundation. Bill Gates is a primary shareholder in Monsanto. Monsanto makes and sells genetically-modified seeds and the chemicals to help them grow. This process ensures that farmers, particularly in Africa, are exploited; living in dire poverty as their land becomes arrid due to the nitrogen taken of the soil by growing genetically-modified crops. IMF structural adjustment schemes aid in keeping African and other 3rd world farmers broke and hungry amid a food price increase that has impacted them more so than anyone in amerikkka. The U.$. still subsidizes agribusiness.

    Monsanto now owns the U.$. mercenary firm Xe aka Blackwater, whose personel have been indentified in several tortures and killings in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is why its previous owner Eric Prince sold his controlling share. They are also expanding into Africa, working for both amerikkkan companies and regional U.$.-backed dicktators.

    Anyone who lives in amerikkkka is part of the 15% of the world's wealthiest. This means that this is not only a struggle to get the upper classes and their flunkies here to come clean, but also to break the parasitic economic relationship between the 1st world and the 3rd world. That abusive and exploitative relationship is the reason for capitalist system's very existance. The principle contradiction ain't no fiction.

    Wake Up, God Dammit!

  7. Hey, Julie, how do like your knee-grows? I like mine slow roasted(!): http://allpowertothepositive.blogspot.com/2011/03/omg-you-knee-grows-aint-even-slick.html

  8. I may possibly come back and comment further on this...The one thing I feel you have achieved is sharing a view point to the point that it opens up one to have a mature conversations around the power of the arts & community. I myself have already had conversations with others on this article Julie C...thank you for always enlightening and share a challenging thought.

  9. Important work, Julie. As much as anything, I think it's vital that you do what you do here by putting up front--hip hop is community and a sense of community destined to change the world. Some of its conscious of that and not strategic in the ways you outline; some of its strategic but not particularly conscious of the potential. In a world where too many people waste time calling each other out for not being true hip hop (whatever that really means), you speak to both camps with a meaningful vision of unity.

  10. i shared every link you so kindly gifted in this piece across my social media platforms.

    And the strength i found in your 3 point directive, i also paid forward.

    I did so because i believe each one is capable individually of saving one's self within a collective of common purpose by ultimate use of the individual's skill set to enhance and grow from the collective's resources.

    Your most prolific essay presents a sense of strong foundation from which to flourish and blossom.

    I thank you for this blueprint that i and others can use as guidance to progress forward while being assured that our own individual journey is one of a Collective for Liberty, Justice and Freedom, what ever This Global Community be named.

    That Near! ~BROKE~

  11. Your views on this issue are on point and far away in East Africa the fight for political space is being fought by the hip hop generation......but the old guard is fighting to hold on.....by using hip-hop to influence public opinion....

  12. Your historical framework, naming of the current political climate in Seattle, and call to action is SO ON POINT! Thank you for your continued analysis! Keep it coming sista!

  13. Julie not sure if my last comments came through so, just in case...as an older, white, east coast social change activist who enjoys and appreciates hip hop but doesn't know a lot about it - your article gave me a much deeper appreciation of the social, political significance of hip hop. I totally agree that it is communities of whatever kind that support, educate and empower members to change what needs to be changed in the world..I had no idea about the organizational depth and breadth of hip hop although I certainly knew the passion and intelligence. So thanks to Steve for asking you to send this to me and thank you for educating me about the happenings in Seattle.... You are an amazing woman. Momma c.