Monday, February 27, 2012

What is Hip Hop Leadership?

A writeup on Seattle's conference, and some more thoughts.

It is 2012, the third year of the annual Seattle Hip Hop Leadership Conference. A lot has happened in the world, and Hip Hop has played an undeniable role outside of entertainment news. Hip Hop artists in the Middle East were instrumental in spreading the energy of resistance in The Arab Spring, a youth-lead revolutionary swell of organizing, demonstrations, marches, rallies, and protests, that has shifted the political environment of the world, challenging governments in over a dozen countries in North Africa, completely overthrowing four, and inspiring & reinforcing similar movements across the globe, Occupy being one of them. It’s no surprise that in this context, the US government, as well as governments in Europe have ramped up the usage of Hip Hop in their foreign policy. (AP Photo of protests in Dakar, click "Y'en A Marre & Elections in Senegal" on to learn more)

Luckily Hip Hop doesn’t belong to any government anymore than it belongs to corporations. Hip Hop belongs to communities, and intrinsic in its cultural and artistic heritage is its drive to challenge, innovate, galvanize, and empower. But different artists, academics, bloggers, organizers, activists, veterans, youth, patrons, and supporters from different circles, industries, elements, subdivisions, businesses, and crews have vastly different perspectives on what their personal relationship to Hip Hop means in the context of culture and community, especially in our cozy corner on the tip of the West Coast. Here lies the strength and challenge of the 2012 Seattle Hip Hop Leadership Conference, which brought together approximately 200 people from all over the city. One question that arose and remains is: Who among us is willing to answer the call for social accountability and collective action, and who is here just to rap?

“Hip Hop: Tool, Toy or Weapon?” was the fitting title of the opening plenary, and it featured a star-studded cast of Jake One, Njuguna of the Physics, Dj Hyphen, General Wojack, Moorpheus Magnetic, Redskin, Larry Mizell, Toyia Taylor, Emilio, & DJ Infared. Due to a delayed start, we didn’t get much farther than introductions, but hearing such a diverse group speak on how Hip Hop has evolved and their story with it is always enlightening and highly relatable. The role of Hip Hop in personal identity development was a recurring theme. A highlight was Toyia, who emphasized the power of Hip Hop in connecting to young people and the nature of it to “encourage the evolution of every single generation.” Kawan of Sweatshopfreelife captured this footage of the panel.This sentiment was an apt transition to the next session I hit up.

“Hip Hop & the Art of Critical Pedagogy” was a smaller workgroup featuring Jose “DJ Luvva J”, Third Andresen, Cochise “Chief” Moore, Stephany Koch Hazelrigg, Max Hunter, Wyking, and several students from UW and SCCC. The dialogue explored Hip Hop as a collective approach to education, community building, social change, and personal transformation. At the same time, Rahwa of Hidmo did a presentation called "Hip Hop World Order." Thanks Sweatshopfreelife for capturing this footage of the workshop. There are three parts.

At lunchtime, Emily of Food Not Bombs and Kawan surprised attendees, coming through with delicious hot vegetarian cuisine. People continued to arrive and break bread while a number of artists took to the open mic, including J. Infinite of Umojafest P.E.A.C.E Center, and an excellent emcee duo from the Bay, The MasterS, who were in town on tour.

Energy from the lunchtime cipher flowed into the Hip Hop Occupies panel at 1:30. Featuring Maria Guillen, Gregory Lewis, Tabitha Milan, Anelise S., Henry Luke, and Matt E., the panel touched on the power of arts and culture in revolutions, the decolonization framework emerging from Occupy, movement work vs. career activism, the role Hip Hop has played thus far in the movement, and where it is going.

After my session, I slipped late into “Art vs. Commerce”, facilitated by Sam Chesneau (and later Luvva J). This firey exchange was carried by DJ Topspin, Suntonio Bandanaz, Vitamin D, The Goodsin, Dox, David Pomeranz, E-Dawg, OC Notes, and many more. When I came in, the conversation was focused on the moral dilemmas people do or don’t/should or shouldn’t face commodifying art, the work ethic and integrity of artists, and the local industry. From there, it traveled to corporate dominance over local arts and entertainment markets, and whether or not collective action can or should be taken by the community to reclaim them. A lot of the fire of this discussion carried over to the closing plenary of the conference.

So how did we do on our mission this year? David Pomeranz, of Members Only said, "There is a community within hip hop that cares, but also a community with lack of leadership. When I go to conferences like this (which I do often) I like to walk away with tools to do what I want to do (in this case lead)." Njuguna of the Physics reflected, "The Northwest Hip Hop Leadership was an amazing event and a truly inspiring experience. I'm confident that we all came away from the event entertained, energized, and enriched. I especially appreciate the emphasis we placed on building relationships and continuing the conversations we started after the conference so that we can create results that will benefit Northwest Hip-Hop as a whole." Wyking, organizer of the conference wrote, "The essence of Hip Hop provides a model for self-determination and community building in the face of extreme adversity. Our goal now with the Umojafest P.E.A.C.E. Center is to build a sustainable model in Seattle based on the positive values of Hip Hop culture."

To bring it back around to the global movement, Pioneering Kenyan Hip LinkHop artist Kamau Ngigi, currently in Seattle, emphasized Hip Hop's universal language, saying, "Coming from Kenya, I find no culture shock as long as I link up with people in Hip Hop because we are all in the same mind set all over the world. When it comes to Hip Hop, you are never alienated." But he also made some critical observations on the difference in radical energies of the US and Africa. "Hip Hop in Africa is able to express itself freely. It is not radicalized [in the US] fully because of the corporations which put money on valueless rappers and coin it as Hip Hop. Society is confused about what Hip Hop stands for in America." Seattle, are we part of the confusion or the solution?

1 comment:

  1. That's a beautiful thing! I'm a part of the Sunday Cypher crew and we throw benefit shows to help those around the world in the most need of love. We should join forces to have an even greater impact. There's about 50 of us (check the spread on I'll start attending meetings whenever I can make it. One love and thanks for staying a sentry on this front.