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CHANGING THE STREET WITH THE BEATS

Hiphop Activism as Translated by Three Local Students

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"Basically, I wouldn't say I'm an activist in the classic sense," says Nathan Rice, a senior at Lewis & Clark College. "I'm definitely concerned with issues I think community, especially with students, is really important."

Rice, a native of San Francisco, recently co-founded an organization at Lewis & Clark called the Student Hiphop Coalition (SHC), with the express goal of raising student awareness and activism through hiphop music. He says, "I feel like if you support hiphop culture and music you can change the world. That sounds cheesy, but I've gone to a bunch of post-September 11 rallies in San Francisco, and they've had breakers, hiphop, everything. It's the people's music. They can stand up and choose to use it as a weapon or background music. I'm more interested in bringing it in as a tool to educate people and entertain people."

Activism, or at least social awareness, is not foreign to hiphop. Many people believe it's one of the best ways to convey a message, because hiphop is language combined with music--edutainment.

Rice says part of the impetus to start the SHC was the lack of ethnic diversity at Lewis & Clark. "A lot of people who don't get off campus, don't realize that Portland is a vibrant, diverse place. I mean, when I lived on campus for two years, I was extremely isolated. This is my way of coming back, bringing something urban and more steeped in reality than the false sense of community that Lewis & Clark tries to project," he says. "I do like Lewis & Clark. I just think people need to wake up a bit. It can't be blamed on any person, it's just that geographically and mentally, we're isolated from the city, and there's no diversity.

"It's all about self-education. You have to take it upon yourself to find out. All the things that are worth knowing aren't necessarily on CNN. If you can support underground music It's an ideal world, but I don't think it's too far off-- I think it can happen."

"The average black male/ Live a third of his life in a jail cell/ Cause the world is controlled by the white male/ And the people don' never get justice/ And the women don' never get respected/ And the problems don' never get solved/ And the jobs don' never pay enough/ So the rent always be late/ Can you relate?/ We living in a police state." --from "Police State," Dead Prez

Not everyone involved in hiphop is as idealistic as Rice about its role in politics. Jacob Wenegratt is part of the deejay crew Opus X and "Signator" of Reed College's Hiphop Collective, which is responsible for bringing hiphop acts to campus. Wenegratt believes that many political hiphop groups are full of rhetoric, but don't actually back up their outspokenness with activity.

"In my opinion, one of the real problems with what usually passes for 'political hiphop,' is that a lot of times, the people performing aren't really involved or aware of what they're trying to advocate," he says. "I think that hiphop, especially, can be a really valuable tool as a forum for ideals, but it helps when the people who are doing it are active in other ways, and they're practicing what they're trying to preach. That's not always the case, especially in underground hiphop."

One of Wenegratt's complaints is that, often, the quality of hiphop as music sometimes gets overshadowed by its politics. He says, "It's a fine line to walk when you're using your music for activist causes. I think there's only a few hiphop groups who do it really well so their music stands alone, but on top of that, it carries a message."

Rice's opinion differs a little, countering, "Bad hiphop, musically may sound good; but it's ironic, because the people who don't really say much are the people who have the widest audience. Groups like The Coup or Spearhead, who actually have something to say, aren't being heard."


THE MELDING OF ISSUES

Melding hiphop and activism doesn't come completely from left field; sprouting from the impoverished Bronx in the 1970s, hiphop was always a response to its surroundings in the most direct manner. Hiphop is more than a style of music; it's a culture, incorporating the four elements--emceeing, deejaying, graffiti writing, and breakdancing--as a raw reflection of the conditions around it. From its natural birth as a sort of street-smart, organic extension of the civil rights movement, hiphop may be more political than it's ever been, and to be sure, many of its figureheads are active in politics.

Wenegratt is quick to point out, "there are groups out there who do it really well--The Coup and Dead Prez are pretty amazing. But I remember reading an interview with Boots from The Coup, where he was saying he gave up music for a long time to focus on grassroots organizing."

Chuck D., superfamous emcee of the most well known political hiphop group, Public Enemy, runs a website linking politics with hiphop (www.rapstation.com). Labtekwon, conscious Baltimore emcee, works in an inner-city literacy program that "uses the writing of lyrics in hiphop music to develop self-esteem." (And Mic Crenshaw of Hungry Mob teaches a similar program at the Youth Opportunities Center, here in Portland). The list of hiphop heads who practice what they preach goes on--writer/actor/activist Danny Hoch (performing at Reed on Friday, March 1) and writer/activist William Upski Wimsatt, whose work deals with prisons, activism, and changing society from a hiphop perspective; Medusa's outreach work in Cuba, etc. There are tons of positive role models in hiphop. It naturally follows that students look to them for inspiration.


THE MUSIC AS THE MESSAGE

"I think hiphop is activism itself," says Illaj, a student at a private high school in Portland, and emcee in the hiphop group Blak Scienz Tribe.

"Real hiphop, at least. Once you get past the commercial side of it all, hiphop is being active in some manner--people expressing their experiences and views politically or emotionally or whatever. We can't help but to be activists." With help from the PSU's Students for Unity, Illaj has organized a concert at PSU as a benefit for the Portland branch of the Indymedia Center (www.portland.indymedia.com--a news outlet dedicated to non-mainstream news coverage and giving non-journalists a voice).

"I knew I wanted to do something involved with activist groups," Illaj says. "But I didn't really know which ones. I was walking around downtown one day, and every Friday, Portland Peaceful Response had rallies downtown. I ran into this guy, and he hooked me with info about Indymedia."

Illaj told them about his idea to hold a benefit concert with local, conscious hiphop acts, and they "really embraced it. I wanted the organizations to take it in so we all would put in an equal amount of work. I'm glad I got to work with those people."


A PIECE OF THE PUZZLE

Though Wenegratt, of Reed College, has reservations about mixing politics with hiphop, he does stress it can be positive. "It reaches huge groups of people--although there are other issues surrounding that it's an interesting demographic but of course hiphop is powerful. It affects youth, it's something that gives people a lot of strength and can provide meaning to people.

"Don't take my criticism of hiphop activism in the wrong way; I think that good hiphop has been and should be politically active but just because something's political doesn't mean it's good. If you're sitting in a club and the music is repetitive and someone wearing all Polo is telling you to fight the establishment or something--you might be more critical."

As an emcee, however, Illaj looks at it from a different standpoint. "I think [becoming an emcee] was a personal mission I went on. I like being in front of the crowd and whatnot, but my real goal is to touch someone's mind. Music is a way of communicating to the soul, so while we're in contact up there, I'm trying to make a difference in terms of how I'm doing things. Not so much like we're making people better people but we're a piece of the puzzle."

"Let's make health care centers on every block/ Let's give everybody homes and a garden plot/ Let's give all the schools books/ Ten kids a class/ And give 'em truth for their pencils and pads/ Retail clerk--"love ballads" where you place this song/ Let's make heaven right here/ Just in case they wrong." --from "Heven Tonite," The Coup

* On Friday, March 1, Danny Hoch will perform from his one-man show, Jails, Hospitals, and Hip Hop, in the Kaul Auditorium at Reed College, 3203 SE Woodstock, at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $12 in advance only, and can be bought at the Reed Bookstore or by calling 777-7758.

* On Friday, March 8, at 6 pm, Hungry Mob, The Chosen, Quivah, Blak Scienz Tribe and more will play in the Smith Center Ballroom at Portland State University, 1620 SW Park Ave, as a benefit show for Portland Indymedia. Tickets are $8, and the show is all ages.

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