Hip-Hop Fridays: Rise up Hip Hop Nation: And Take your Place at the Covenant Table! by Kristine Wright

As always, I'd like to begin by offering peace and respect to my sisters and brothers all across the globe living their lives the best they can; and respect to all souljahs working to serve our people and their interests worldwide - especially in times like these, when life for many is constantly threatened by wars; wars overseas, wars in the streets, and personal wars of the soul. From Dave Chapelle to Tyler Perry, Crash to Three 6 Mafia, KRS-One to Adisa Banjoko, Civil Rights to Hip Hop, “conscious” to “ghetto”, one thing is certain: we must be honest about the serious divisions that plague our community and impede our progress. So let’s tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God.

I haven’t written anything in a minute, but a myriad of experiences over the past weekend inspired me to write again. Friday night, I attended the Covenant with Black America community forum in Los Angeles. Saturday, I went to the movies to see Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. Sunday, I watched Crash and Three 6 Mafia win Oscars (immediately realizing the debate would be on and poppin’ online the next morning). Sunday night, right before I was about to call it a night, I got the 411 from Davey D about what took place at Stanford’s Hip Hop conference over the weekend1. He said I’d have something to write about, and he was right.

It all begins Friday night at the Covenant with Black America community forum in L.A. As usual, Cornel West moved the crowd. He is an excellent living example of someone who can speak truth to both power and oppressed, and when necessary, honestly and respectfully disagree with fellow leaders, doing so in a loving, non-judgmental way. The forum was at a mega church in LA (West Angeles) and the vibe was black and beautiful. The community was there, from church people to community activists, ex-gang members to college students. It was all good and very promising. The Covenant has the capacity to be the organization and unity the community needs, so I was inspired. The rhetoric of “We must reach out to our youth” was alive and well. But as often happens, an audience member brings up the “negative” effects hip hop has on community youth, and the elephant is now in the room. My friend Ayo and I got up to ask, where is Hip Hop’s place in the Covenant? But we never got the mic. Where was Hip Hop? Was Hip Hop invited to the Covenant table?

To be clear, there is no movement for liberation without Hip Hop. As Yvonne Bynoe puts it in her book Stand and Deliver:

For those of us that are conscious, all of this is about more than Hip Hop. Hip Hop is simply the metaphor for our lives. If our elders give up on Hip Hop, then they’ve given up on us. If we give up on Hip Hop, then we’ve given up on ourselves (p. 156).

I know Tavis knows many in the Hip Hop community, and understands that they need to be heard. I’ve seen interviews with many hip hoppers on the Tavis Smiley Show, including Chuck D, KRS-One, Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah, L.L. Cool J, Russell Simmons, Common, Talib Kweli, Jill Scott, Saul Williams, and the list goes on.

The next State of Black America panel, and all Covenant community forums, must have representatives of Hip Hop Culture. This year, given the emphasis on Katrina, it would have been beneficial to include on the panel someone like David Banner, or Kanye West, or Juvenile, or community activists like Rosa Clemente or Fred Hampton Jr. (who organized community level Katrina relief efforts). If any of these Hip Hoppers were invited, they should have represented. If they were not invited, and the momentum of the covenant wants to become a movement, Hip Hop will HAVE to be at the table. Hip Hop will provide both the soundtrack and the foot souljahs for the movement.

As I’ve said in an earlier essay, the first generation of Hip Hoppers that literally grew up with hip hop (sisters and brothers of my generation), will have to act as the bridge to our people’s liberation, and take our place at the Covenant table. We occupy a unique place in our communities where, on the one hand, we are old enough to have some knowledge and understanding of what our elders have endured, while also being culturally connected to the youth of our community through hip hop in ways that the generation before us was not connected to us.

Rap artists must be included in the discussion, because they have the ear of the community. Hip Hop entrepreneurs must be invited to the table because their financial resources and support for the economic development of our communities will be invaluable to the movement. Hip Hop community based organizations (like Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Hip Hop Congress and the National Hip Hop Political Convention) must be welcomed to the table as well. They will be the foot soldiers who can take the Covenant’s message to the community and do the daily work it will take to realize the Covenant. Again, if the Civil Rights generation gives up on Hip Hop, they are giving up on our youth, and our community’s future survival.

The same is true of Hip Hop. We can not turn our backs on our elders, and just ‘get ours’. We can not just say, they don’t understand us so f*ck them. Hip Hop must respect the struggle. Our grandparents don’t need to accept our more colorful street language and attire. Any good Hip Hopper knows that you don’t talk to your mama the same way you talk to your home girl/boy. Be okay with that and don’t feel dissed if elders don’t get it. They don’t have to. Watching the Dave Chapelle block party was spiritual for me. My mom would not have understood, and definitely would not have liked the language, particularly the use of the n-word. But I’m sure she’s had similar spiritual connections; for her, it was Johnnie Mathis.

Understand why public image means something to a generation whose humanity was completely eradicated through Jim Crow Laws and lynching. Hip Hop: you don’t know anything about that in real life terms, and you don’t have to, thank God, but you have to respect that your elders lived that. And because they had to endure such disrespect, we owe them a better image than we’re giving them.

Hip hop today seems to be searching for meaning, while simultaneously spinning its wheels in battles and beefs; formulas and stereotypes. In a system that gives us so few options, we have made choices that have benefited us while hurting us simultaneously. Artists find they can sell more records by degrading life, others, and themselves. And for that realization, they have achieved unparalleled monetary gains. But these gains have come with a high cost. One cost has been progress. The very things helping some are hurting many others. Our youth learn that the gangsta, pimp, and drug dealer lifestyles will help them make the money they so desperately need to survive this cold system, but it is these same elements that kill our youth in hoods all across the nation. Dying young is a compelling story on wax, but a tragic reality in our communities. Our seeds have learned from society that they are not valued. Then through choices we've made as a culture, we reinforce the lie by becoming a part of the problem through flip lyrics and risky behavior. So the truth is I understand those that say “give Three 6 Mafia their dues”. Yes, it is a long way from poverty and Memphis to the Oscars. I don’t care what “mainstream America” thinks of us pimping. I do care, however, what our grandparents and children think. Our grandparents don’t like the image, and our kids don’t need it. That’s the truth. So let’s make some changes.

Listening to the audio of the Stanford Conference with KRS-One, I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach. The conflict on the panel epitomizes the conflict in our community. Echoing one conference attendee’s sentiment, it was the KRS-One’s and Chuck D’s that taught me about myself and my people more than anything else. I understand a lot of what KRS-One teaches, and agree with more than not. Yes, Hip Hop is a specific culture, and yes, much of the Black community was not supportive of Hip Hop. Yes, we must respect those that live Hip Hop, especially the originators of the culture. They deserve all respect. Yes, we need to develop our own institutions and stop looking for “acceptance” by the mainstream….absolutely. Yes, I am Hip Hop. But, yes, I am Black. It is not – either/or; it is both. Just as the Civil Rights generations can not give up on Hip Hop, Hip Hop must not separate itself from the generations that came before us: our roots. While KRS-One is Hip Hop, his Grandma was not. So do he and Hip Hop want to abandon our grandmothers in the struggle and worry only about our own liberation? Do we abandon our mothers and fathers who are still oppressed across this nation because they are not hip hop? Hell No! Any movement we foster must be intergenerational. We can’t abandon our mothers, fathers and grandparents just because they are culturally different from us…and vice versa. We don’t have to understand one another completely, but we do have to love, respect, and depend on one another unconditionally.

In truth, classism in our community is probably our greatest impediment. Can you be Hip Hop and go to college? Can you be street but want more experience and life education than the street offers? The truth is all classes within our community bring positive, and yes, negative things to the table. We could learn something from every social class in our community, but instead we separate ourselves from one another and judge one another. The middle class looks at ghetto residents as the “problem”, while poorer brothers and sisters believe educated brothers and sisters have sold out. But what is the truth?

The truth is our poor, ghetto brothers and sisters have had to be creative to just survive at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. They know how to make something out of nothing. They fostered a culture that inspires youth worldwide. They know not to trust the police state. They survive by any means necessary.

What about our working class brothers and sisters? They are the backbone of our community. They offer strong family and work values. They work at (sometimes unrewarding) jobs to support their families, even at the cost of their own personal dreams. They take their children to basketball camps and little league games. They are loyal and dependable.

What about our educated class of brothers and sisters? They offer critical analyses of our society. They preserve our history through writings and research. They know how to navigate necessary resources to organize and implement a progressive agenda.

But, keeping in truth, all classes also have their shortcomings. Our educated brothers and sisters can be elitist. They often look down on poorer community residents as having nothing to offer in the movement. Some get an education and forget their community. Some do sell out, or better said, “Buy into” Middle America’s lies of meritocracy and individuality.

Working class brothers and sisters are often not as political as the community would like them to be. Staying on a job all one’s life, or even across generations, does not lend well to the values of risk-taking and political consciousness.

Finally, our brothers and sisters who are most oppressed socially and economically have their shortcomings too; particularly, nihilistic behaviors and attitudes. When we reconcile with reality we must tell the truth, and that truth is our people, and all oppressed people throughout history “have had to survive in ways that are sometimes ugly” (reference video: The Way Home). So the reality is that yes, “ghetto culture” is real: black on black crime, gang warfare, slinging, and pimping and ho-ing provide serious roadblocks to our liberation. But when we truly reconcile with reality we understand that before all these cultural adaptations to the ghetto were created, there had to be a ghetto – no jobs, racism, mis-education, and no material sustenance. The Covenant offers a blueprint to transform the material and social realities our communities endure, which will in turn make nihilistic behaviors and attitudes unnecessary. The truth is, if the Covenant with Black America does not include all classes of Black America, it will not fulfill its promise.

One final thought: Hip Hop must decide who it is before we can take our rightful and righteous place at the center of the movement. Many “conscious” rappers are supported by well intentioned, multiracial, middle class college students. I can only imagine the call and response of dead prez’ “I’m an African!” with a majority non-African crowd! LOL ☺ It’s kind of funny, when we tell the truth. I work with these college students all the time and they love hip hop and are a positive sign of how future generations might move from being voyeurs of black culture to truly appreciating it and respecting the struggle. But if we define Hip Hop culture in terms of its elements alone, are we excluding the people that suffer oppression (but don’t know or honor hip hop culture) but welcoming privileged college students from middle America (who picked up a rap CD 5 years ago after watching Rap City on BET) because they can deejay, breakdance, beatbox, or rhyme? Hell No! Let’s keep it real….and speak the truth. Let’s be Hip Hop.

Hip Hop is the manifestation of an oppressed people. While I grew up with hip hop (literally), my interest in it today is not so much in its artistic forms of _expression, but in its people and their social and political freedom from oppression. For me Hip Hop has and always will be foremost about the people it represents and our struggles. That’s the truth.

We have the power to realize our liberation through self-determination, and the Covenant with Black America can be the needed catalyst. So it’s time to realize our power, and make a covenant to act. We are all we need to achieve social change. So as dead prez says: Let’s get free!

Jah Live…One love.

The author, Kristine Wright, Ph.D., may be reached at wrightk@uci.edu

Kristine Wright

Friday, March 10, 2006