Mumia: King of Raptivism
Thanks to the cultural shift towards Afro-conscious, politicized hip-hop -- a far cry from the lowrider, booty rap of yesteryear -- progressive activism has found the perfect medium for reaching a new generation. And Pennsylvania death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal -- the man, the myth, the mystery -- owes much of his renewed fame to the publicity he's gained through hip-hop.Rap groups like Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, and X-Clan have been filtering charged Afro-centric messages through their music since the late 80s. They tackled street violence, racism, and police brutality -- but rarely have so many artists focused in on one specific cause as they have for Mumia. It's standard these days to see "Free Mumia!" tables being set up beside the stage at hip-hop concerts, with flyers, stickers, and T-shirts for sale -- and young fans gathered around with genuine interest, signing petitions. And it's not unusual to find big name artists like the Beastie Boys, Digital Underground, and The Coup on the bill for Mumia benefit concerts around the nation. A group of prominent rap artists, including Aceylone and Chuck D, recently formed a collective called Mumia 911, their first self-titled single out last July. And New York-based Project Raptivism -- another collaborative effort by the Dead Prez, Chubb Rock, and the Last Poets, among others -- supports political prisoners like Mumia by pledging sales from their first album "No More Prisons" to the non-profit Prison Moratorium Project. Beyond the big concert halls and amphitheaters, Mumia almost always gets his plug at underground hip-hop shows. On the West Coast, the political youth coalition Third Eye Movement has fused grassroots activism with hip-hop as a form of organizing and educating young people. At a San Francisco benefit in November, Third Eye brought together hip-hop, blues, spoken word, along with old-fashioned oral lecturing to protest sweatshop labor, political prisoners, and the state's forthcoming youth crime bill. In a small club, a quarter century after the first sparks of the civil rights movement, a woman in her early 20s led the handful of young people in the audience in chanting: "Ain't no power but the power of the people, and the power of the people don't stop!" It's no surprise that the new politicized hip-hop has snapped up the "Free Mumia!" campaign. Censorship is no stranger to hip-hop, and Mumia has fought being silenced since the 1970s -- inside and outside of prison. And like Malcolm X, another leader with hip-hop appeal, Mumia's message is easily translated into hip-hop form. Many of his themes are nothing new, but societal ills like institutionalized racism, the corruption of the government and media, and the prison industrial complex are affecting a new generation of marginalized youth, and creating a new generation of Mumia supporters.As one high school student from Oakland, California told the online zine Revolutionary Worker: "It's like now Mumia is trapped. He don't have nowhere to go. And kids now, we're trapped, we don't have nowhere to go. So we got to fight his struggle ... the youth are tired of being under the gun."But the most critical factor in Mumia's hip-hop acclaim is language. Hip-hop speaks to inner-city youth in a language they can understand and relate to -- and Mumia is certainly well versed when it comes to language. His essays and oral lectures have found their way into hip-hop radio shows, spoken word events, even modern dance performances. The essay "A Rap Thing" -- in which Mumia criticizes the commercialization of rap and the corporate influence on hip-hop culture -- was dubbed by reporter Dalton Higgins of Now magazine in Toronto "one of the most poignant artifacts of Gen-X hip-hop culture." (Ironically, the entire audio-tape collection is only available for sale -- Amazon.com carries it for $10.49.) Although Mumia is a symbol of the fight against African American political repression, his appeal stretches beyond the boundaries of culture, community, even country. Latin hip-hop group Ozomatli -- which frequently rallies for the Zapatista revolution in Chiapas -- has been known to give a shout-out to Mumia at their concerts. And Rage Against the Machine -- which spans the genres of hip-hop, rock, and punk music -- sponsored a benefit concert in early December, only to be blackballed by the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police. But Americans aren't the only ones rallying. Rap groups from across Europe, and throughout South America and the Caribbean have produced songs written specifically for Mumia. Last October, a Hamburg-based artist performed a new bilingual rap he had written for a "Move for Mumia" benefit concert in Berlin. The song, appropriately titled "Move for Mumia," opened with the German slogan: "USA -- Hande weg von Mumia!" (USA -- Keep your hands away from Mumia!). It seems the "Free Mumia!" movement has been picked up in places where few know who he is, or the details of his case.So who is Mumia anyway? Is he a cop killer? Is he a messiah? Or is he just a man who got caught up in a bad situation, at the wrong time in history? It seems like it doesn't really matter anymore what happened that night in 1981, whether he really shot Daniel Faulkner, whether it was self-defense or not. Mumia is much more than that man sitting in a cell on Death Row. He's a symbol, a figure to rally around, a focal point for a new generation of activists searching for something to believe in. And in his climb to revolutionary fame, he's created an entire new culture of activism -- with hip-hop in the forefront as the medium of expression -- a community where movements are created and communicated which reach far beyond just the life and death of Mumia Abu-Jamal.