Mobilizing the Hip-Hop Generation

Freedom Fighter MusicTo anyone who watches MTV all day -- where P. Diddy, Ja Rule and Nelly dominate the screen flashing fancy cars, gold chains and an entourage of scantily clad women -- political empowerment and hip-hop may seem like conflicting terms. But hip-hop has been political in nature since its birth in the youth subculture of the Bronx during the late 1970s. Unfortunately what started out as a gritty portrayal of what was really happening on the streets has been perverted in less than two decades into a seemingly endless supply of high-paid corporate clowns rapping about little more than the fact that they’re rich. Today, mainstream hip-hop is worse than apolitical -- it has become a tool to oppress and distract an entire generation of youth, especially youth of color.


Whether it be starting your own organization, working with an organization that’s already out there, or just not buying any more corporate hip-hop, its time for all the real revolutionaries and eternal hip-hop heads to take the step from talk to action. Here are a few things that you can do to make your project more appealing to funders:

1. A Budget

Don’t expect a dime from anyone but your mama until you have a fairly detailed plan of where your program’s money will be going. This should include things like how much rent will cost per year if your organization will be housed, how many full time employees you’ll have and how much they’ll cost per year, money you’ll need for infrastructure (i.e. computers, printer, telephones, etc.), ongoing expenditures(i.e. phone bills, electric bills, internet bills), and finally miscellaneous costs such as money for retreats and workshops, transportation, printing, etc.

2. 5-year fiscal plan

Most foundations won’t fund an organization for more than a couple years. Funders want to know that they’re not investing in an organization that will go belly-up as soon as their funding stops. Creating a five year fiscal plan will help you show them that your organization is on the track to self sustainability.

3. Mission Statement

A mission statement is a few sentences that lays out the bare bones of what your organization is dedicated to doing. The mission statement is the heart and soul of any grant proposal you’ll write because it’s what funders look at to find out what you’re all about. Everything in your program should be a manifestation of the core beliefs and goals contained in your mission statement.

4. Fiscal Sponsorship

A fiscal sponsor is basically another non-profit that will take care of your all your money matters. They take care of things like your organization’s bank account, paying your organization’s employees, and dispensing W-2s. A non-profit is any organization that has 501(c) 3 status with the IRS.

Now that you’ve got a budget, a fiscal plan, mission statement and fiscal sponsor, you’re ready to write a grant and get your project funded. Unfortunately, most foundations that fund organizations have less money to pay out in grants than they had a year and a half ago, due to the sagging economy. This means that not only does your project need all of the aforementioned components, but your grant has to be written extremely well, too. Luckily, there is an organization called The Foundation Center with centers across the country that holds seminars on how to write a grant and how to do lots of other paperwork related to creating an organization, usually for free. And if you don’t want to write the grant yourself, there are always professional grant-writers who won’t charge you until you’ve begun receiving your grant money.

Fundraising Resources

Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training (GIFT)

The Teacher's Toolkit: Grant Writer's Resource Links

Center for Third World Organizing

Links to Funders of Youth Activism:

Funder's Collaborative on Youth Organizing Links to Youth Activism Funders

Youth Action Net Grant Links Mix It Up Grants

Recognizing Youth as Resources

The Source Foundation

Youth organizers today are fed up with this perversion of their own resistance culture and are taking steps to reclaim hip-hop's political power. According to Davey D, a founder of hip-hop activism and DJ of KPFA's "Hard Knock Radio," one of the first steps in reclaiming hip-hop from corporations is introducing the masses to politicized hip-hop. "They stole it from us, repackaged it, and are selling it back to us as something they created," he said.

Groups of youth activists from New York to San Francisco are now taking it back. San Francisco-based YouthSpeaks throws the annual YouthSpeaks Teen Poetry Slam where political hip-hop dominates the stage. Bay Area Olin uses hip-hop as a unifying force to stage walkouts as part of a campaign to get the state of California to offer ethnic studies programs in public schools. New York’s Hip-Hop Speaks! uses MC battles as a catalyst to create community forums on any number of social issues ranging from a Father’s Day discussion of manhood to the events surrounding 9-11. Freedom Fighter Music, a progressive record label that uses hip-hop to fight for the hearts and minds of working class people shut down a recent San Francisco Police Commission hearing on the indictment of the city’s Chief of Police by rapping during public comment.

Hip-hop is not only a way for youth organizers to get their messages out, it is also a way to engage more youth in movements of social change. And why not reach young people through the hip-hop culture they already embrace?

Jeff Chang, a journalist who authored Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A Cultural and Political History of the Hip-Hop Generation pointed out that hip-hop appeals to young people around the world, regardless of race and class. "Hip hop is multi-racial, poly-cultural, and local and global at the same time," he said.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Unfortunately these youth organizers have to do their work with little to no financial support, which can work against their movement-building efforts to get the word out. Most community activists are volunteers who have day jobs and view activism as their side hustle.

The irony is that there are many philanthropists and large foundations out there scratching their heads trying to figure out how to fund movements of social change at the street or grassroots level. The problem is that because of invisible barriers like age, race, and class, the philanthropic world has been historically cut off from the underground world of hip-hop, a situation that hurts both the activists and the funders. "The people who are giving out the funding tend to be pretty conservative," said James Kass, founder of YouthSpeaks. "Once they’re set in their ways, it takes some time for them to change. There is a gap between the foundations and the organizations they want to support."

Yet a recent panel discussion between hip-hop activists and philanthropists shows that there is progress in closing this communication gap. Constant Elevation, a panel discussion that took place in March 2003, was one of the first dates in this fairly new relationship. The panel was made up of a few of the Bay Area’s premier youth activists and the audience consisted of a few dozen representatives from some of the largest philanthropic foundations in the country.

What Constant Elevation taught us was that the first step is getting philanthropists and funders to understand that in today's world, youth activism has shifted from the sit-ins and protest marches of the 60s to collectives that use hip-hop and multi-media to get their point across. "We’re not in the civil rights era anymore," said Jeff Chang, who moderated the event. "From a funding point of view, it is necessary to look at activism from the standpoint of hip-hop."

While the concept of using hip-hop to further movements of social change is nothing new to street-level organizers, this is a fairly new idea to many philanthropic funders. "There are events like these all the time where we as organizers and activists sit around and talk about how to use hip-hop as a tool," said Nancy Hernandez, the panel speaker from the Bay Area's Olin. "But this is the first time that I’ve been to something like this where funders and people with money come to hear us. I think it’s happened because people that have come up in hip-hop organizing have gotten to the point where they have resources."

"And that’s what we’re talking about here. When you get to a point where you have money, you need to help the [organizations] that need it and are going to do good work with it," she said.

Hip-Hop at a Crossroads

As for the community organizers, what's their plan of attack? Jakada Imani of Freedom Fighter Music said that "[Hip-Hop] needs to go from the grassroots level to a treetop level. It’s time to take back the culture and it make it work for us, making it meet our needs, not the needs of corporations."

The fact that an event like Constant Elevation happened is proof that money is starting to move in the right direction. As Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights said, "This event makes it clear that the path of social change needs to go through youth culture, and therefore it needs to go through hip-hop. Once hip-hop becomes central to social change, the entire game will be changed."

But with a war on and seemingly no end in sight to the Bush Administration's violence and racism both at home and abroad, it is time for hip-hop activism to reach a new level of organizing and, with that organizing, power. "The next steps are to refocus on being proactive, on changing things. We shouldn’t just be organizing on being anti-this or anti-that," said Nancy Hernandez of Olin. "We shouldn’t be spending all our energy just trying to stop a war, to stop the destruction of affirmative action, or to stop the building of new prisons. We need to be to working towards making sustainable changes in our community."

Jesse Alejandro Cottrell, 20, is a member of the San Francisco Youth Commission. Additional reporting was provided for this article by Carrie Ching.

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