Tamed Streets - The Myth of the Hip Hop Protest

protestThe other day my best friend and I were watching Spike Lee's "Malcolm X." On the screen, civil rights leaders and Black protestors were shown getting bitten by dogs, sprayed with hoses and brutalized by the police. My friend turned to me.

"When the media played the scenes of these people getting brutalized, it slowly softened the hearts of the general public," she said. "Today, if people decide they want to protest, they go get a permit from the city. Then all the vendors set up shop to sell T-shirts, and the hotdog guy gets his permit, too.

"That's not a protest," she said. How many hearts could be changed from watching that?

My mind spun. She was right. All these years, most of what we think of as protest is just state-sponsored, planned public events. It made me think that the concept of hip-hop protests is, in reality, a myth.

A year or two ago, I went to a hip-hop rally to free a Black political prisoner. Due to a great lack of organization, the event was running out of time on its permit. The head organizer was in a panic. "We've got to finish this fast," he said. "If we don't, we'll be fined!"

If "the revolution" is fined, to whom do we write the check when we win? These days, we're being told when we can protest, how long, and what the penalties will be for our misbehavior. Sounds like we're being pimped by the state on all the rules of engagement.

How different a protest's outcome would be if someone said, "At noon on Tuesday, 100,000 of us are meeting on Market Street. No permits, no T-shirt sales, no hotdogs. Just the people." How many would show up then? Would you?

Think about it. You might lose your job. You might get arrested. You might miss that big test in math class. Family members who opposed the issue might see you on TV. You might get evicted.

Would you do that to keep the draft from coming back? To keep the body bags of our young people from piling up at the airports? Would you do that to show that blood is more precious than oil? Because that's what it's about to come to.

I don't think hip hop is ready for that level of protest. I don't think the hip-hop community is dedicated to that kind of sacrifice. We don't have what the Black Panthers had in them. We don't have what George Jackson, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis and Geronimo Pratt had in them.

I hope I'm wrong. But either way, we're about to find out, because the war is going down.

I have some ideas that I think can help those who love hip hop show solidarity and protest the war -- a strategy for using the elements of hip hop for protest purposes:

-- MC's: Start rhyming about the war. Not on every song, but you can dedicate, say, eight bars to the cause every three songs. Clear Channel probably isn't playing you anyway, so don't worry about a lack of rotation. Invite the b-boys -- break-dancers, for those who don't know -- to your show and share the stage.

-- B-boys: Go to the protest functions in your local areas, set up shop and do what you do best. You might lay out your linoleum or cardboard and tag it with anti-war slogans.

-- Graf writers: You guys have been, in my opinion, the backbone of the anti-establishment mindset in hip hop. But since you risk getting arrested anyway, don't just run around scrawling your names on walls in these times. Instead, throw up anti-war slogans, quotes from great speeches or portraits of revolutionaries.

-- DJs: On your mix-tapes and in the clubs, dedicate 20 to 30 seconds of every hour from your set to play clips from M.L.K., Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, Huey P. Newton, etc. Throw in more Paris, PE, Dead Prez, The Coup, PRT, Zion I, Bas One, Jurassic 5, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and KRS ONE. Throw old-school, conscious a cappellas over today' s hip-hop beats. (Don't tell me people don't dance to the conscious stuff. "Break the Grip of Shame" will tear up the club in any part of the country.)

-- Hip-hop print media: Make more room in your publications for social commentary. Open your hearts to the needs of the community. Try to chill out on hyping up disputes between rappers. Use your publications as tools of peace, rather than platforms for brothers trying to out-embarrass one another.

As a generation, as a community, this war will be our defining moment. The kinds of protesting we have been doing have done a lot of good. But whatever we have, or lack, will be exposed right now. After all the sacrifices that were made by those before us, I pray we come out on top. And if you are upset about the looming war, try to remember this anger the next time a voter-registration drive comes around.

Banjoko (soulpolisher2001@yahoo.com) is a Bay Area journalist and public speaker. He is co-author of the upcoming book, "Chicken Soup for the Hip Hop Soul."


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