Activism

Occupy the Stage: Hip-Hop Artists Fight Continuing Segregation with National Tour

Working with local Occupy groups, a group of hip-hop artists plan a concert tour with a message and a plan for continued activism after they're gone.

Rapper Toussaint Morrison has long been involved in intervention-based educational theater and socially conscious hip-hop. He's also been aware that his home city of Milwaukee was ranked as one of the country's most segregated cities, and after the 2010 census, he took another look at the numbers. Not surprisingly, Milwaukee topped the list again, with cities like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Los Angeles further down the list. But instead of shrugging off the dismal facts, Toussaint wondered if there was something useful in the data. As he looked around at the inspiring educational theater and arts community in his city, he wondered, what if artists and activists rallied around the issue of segregation in the most affected cities, bolstering movements where they're most vital?

Toussaint got in touch with two of his friends, Los Angeles–based rapper, organizer, and Ph.D. Jus Rhyme — aka professor Jeb Middlebrook — and Minneapolis-based pop-funk songstress Mayda. The trio was inspired by Toussaint's vision and began asking one another what it would mean to tour the top ten most segregated cities in the country, addressing issues of gender, race, and class discrimination through art. (Unbeknownst to them, the same frustration they felt about segregated cities would later spawn Occupy Wall Street, and the Occupy movement was slowly gaining momentum among small activist clusters around the country.) Pretty soon, the answer was obvious, and plans were made. The nationwide Segregated City Tour, which kicks off Dec. 8 in Los Angeles, travels west to east through a dozen cities, celebrating movement building, progressive politics, ending segregation in all forms, and intersectional unity through socially conscious song, spoken word, and performance. With free admission funded by Kickstarter and largely based around open mic nights in community spaces, the concert tour stops in many cities with vibrant Occupy movements — those that haven't been demolished by the cops, that is.

Despite the disconnected beginnings of each, the Segregated City Tour and the Occupy movements have a symbiotic relationship. Both raise more questions than can be answered, but Jus Rhyme thinks that's appropriate. "It isn't Occupy's job to answer all the questions being raised," he says. "It's up to society and institutions of power to answer why this is happening." Pushing back against the dominant narrative that the Occupy movement is incoherent and disconnected, he shares his enthusiasm for the way the new movement is growing, explaining that it's often hard to recognize what can truly cause change as it is unfolding. In the same way, he hopes the Segregated City Tour will raise more questions than it answers while creating an accessible platform for others to share their experiences and talk about change in their own communities.

Already, that sort of thing has happened just within the tour lineup. "I kind of pushed myself into the tour," Mayda says with a laugh as she explains her motivation for touring now. After her first album, Tusks In Furs, was released in September, she knew it was time to head out to promote the record and its theme of survival in tough times. When she heard that her pal Toussaint was planning to go on the road, she asked to join in. "One of my goals as an artist and musician is to communicate with people and connect with as many folks as I can," she explains. "It's especially important with a universal language like music that brings people together. Everybody understands a note."

Moreover, the tour is as visually diverse as one could imagine, though it was completely by chance that everyone on the tour is from a different racial and ethnic background. "We're bringing everything together in these cities that are the most segregated," Mayda says. "Visually," Jus Rhyme adds, "we're gonna be quite a crew in some of these places, set against the backdrop of segregation."

Using Kickstarter to fund the tour was a practical and tactical move. With funders putting up half of the initial cost, it allows for free admission at all of the Segregated City shows. (Several venues may charge a small cover fee, but the performers won't see any of that money and will omake a profit only from selling music and merch.)

"There's a political impetus for using Kickstarter, in that it's [a model for] cooperative economics," Jus Rhyme says. "What I really contribute to the music and politics game is this idea of what we can do together — like Occupy — but also what we can do together when we pool our resources. On Kickstarter, we offer something in exchange for people giving cash. It's an experience we're having together, not just a financial transaction. It's a nice model for what cooperation can look like." That fans pushed the tour fundraising effort over the anticipated goal is a sign that their message resonates, he says.

"Kickstarter is a good way to get people involved who want to be a part of [what we're doing] in the way that Occupy involves everybody," Mayda says. Toussaint, who juggles a number of gigs as an artist trying to make ends meet, adds, "It's also a way to support artists who don't necessarily have a very solid fiscal foundation."

The tour is about more than just breezing through town and riling people up. Jus Rhyme, who also works as a community organizer and lecturer in sociology at the University of Southern California, has aggressively worked to connect with local groups in the cities on the tour. Working with groups like the ACLU and partnering with racial justice organizers in every city will facilitate conversation long after the artists have traveled to their next stop. Police accountability organizations, juvenile empowerment foundations, and groups that work on prison issues are just some of the organizers whose work will intersect with the tour.

In order to combat the tendency for concertgoers to disperse after a show, the tour crew is leaning on their extensive networks around the country to keep the message of ending segregation alive. In every city possible, the tour will meet up withOccupy The Hood. In Milwaukee, the crew will take the stage at Brewing Grounds For Change, a volunteer-run community venue and cafe. A Chicago fan offered to take Jus Rhyme on a personal tour of the local neighborhoods most affected by — and most in need of — progressive politics. In New York City, the tour will work with Found Sound Nation, which is organizing a music workshop with youth at a juvenile detention center on Friday, Dec. 16. And once they reach Philly, the crew is even meeting up with Daniel Denvir, whose Salon.com piece about segregated cities inspired Toussaint to organize the tour.

Mayda compares the celebratory aspect of their tour with the bright side of the Occupy movements. "OWS shouldn't just be about complaining but also about celebrating," she says. "We have the freedom to talk." Jus Rhyme also hopes the tour will inspire new music, enough for the mixed tape series he's considering as his next big project.

"Even if there's not 300 people at the show, we're just doing this to make a statement," Mayda says. As their tour is sure to prove, you don't need a crowd to make a ruckus. You just need to occupy the streets, occupy the stage, and spread a critical message of unity.

Brittany Shoot is a writer and editor based in San Francisco. Find her at brittanyshoot.com.