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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."

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