Soundtrack to the Movement

News & Politics

It's surprising how far shoes can take you.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Chris Lyons sits at a small wooden table dressed neatly in a green polo shirt and blue jeans. Jokingly, he chimes, "My shoes are better than yours!"

Incredulous, Brutha Los turns around to defend himself. "Are you serious?" he asks, pointing down to his Akademiks sneakers, adorned with earth tone-colored art that could have walked straight out of the latest graffiti gallery exhibition.

From helping lead the street protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle to marching in opposition to California's Proposition 21, which increased criminal penalties for youth, to rocking the stage at some of Northern California's premier performance venues, Brutha Los has ample reason to boast about the role of footwear. His shoes are loud yet subtle, elegantly youthful, undeniably stylish and quintessentially hip-hop. They help to declare that the 34-year-old has been with hip-hop from the beginning, back when it benefited from and simultaneously fought against benign neglect from the world's pop culture radar. No doubt, he's gonna floss a part of what he helped create.

"My shoes might be plain," Lyons offers with a confident smile, "but they keep people looking!" Just weeks removed from helping promote Youth Movement Records' fourth hip-hop and R&B album, "Change the Nation," Chris is poised to become a no-holds-barred leader in the music industry. This past spring, he organized a national tour that included partnering with Amnesty International at its national conference, "Make Some Noise," in Portland, Ore. The show, which aimed to bring awareness to the genocide in Darfur, was supported by musical stalwarts such as rock group Incubus and Audioslave's Tom Berello.

Pretty impressive for someone who just graduated from high school.

Though sometimes it may seem like hip-hop has crip-walked its way past political consciousness onto a stage of vapid over-indulgence, hip-hop activism has emerged as one of the this generation's most powerful weapons, with people like 18-year-old Chris Lyons helping lead the battle cry. As one of Oakland-based Youth Movement Records' most visible young leaders, Lyons has benefited from the tutelage of long-time community activists like Brutha Los, who combine industry savvy with the fight for social justice.

"What's both exciting and problematic right now is that young folks have to redefine what they're doing, since hip-hop has changed so much over the past five years," says Los, preaching from his imaginary pulpit.

Helping to define that struggle is just one of the tasks of Youth Movement Records (YMR), one of the nation's most innovative record labels. Working with youth aged 13-19, YMR offers training in everything from stage presence to legal contracts, working in conjunction with industry professionals and local schools to address issues, including violence, education reform, police brutality and sexism. Whether stepping on stage or in protest, YMR is changing the way this generation does music.

The San Francisco Bay Area has a storied history as the birthplace of some of the most radical music to penetrate and often fuel the anti-war movement of the late '60s and early '70s. Artists like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane became rock legends amidst a backdrop of hippie fervor and Haight Street bravado, calling for an end to U.S. imperialism abroad and burgeoning economic disparities at home.

Now, facing yet another war opposed by an increasing number of Americans and soldiers stationed in Iraq, the Bay Area has once again become the home of protest music, heralding hip-hop as one of the new voices of political dissent. Groups such as Zion I, Blackalcicious, Lyrics Born and Ozomatli are just a few who have stood at the forefront of the Bay Area's artistic explosion offering up a bevy of protest anthems.

Facing multimillion dollar budget shortfalls, many Bay Area school districts have followed a nationwide trend of cutting crucial art and music programs, leaving many youth with few creative outlets.

Lyons, who's learning audio engineering and does a significant portion of promoting, says, "Since a lot of the music money is being cut in the schools, it's all we have to express our music aspirations."

Currently, the state of California, which is the seventh-largest economy in the world, ranks near last in state spending on education in America, a problem that spells disaster for many inner-city public schools. Music, art and creative writing programs are often the first to be cut from curricula.

When in 2002, the 30-year-old social work graduate student Chris Wiltsee stepped into the Bay Area scene from Michigan, youth-run record labels did not exist. There was, however, a tremendous need to mobilize youth and counteract the negative mass media and music industry portrayals of people of color.

After teaming up with Bay Area-based Youth Media Council, a project that works to equip young people with the resources to challenge media misrepresentations, YMR forged stronger connections with neighboring social justice organizations. Now, the once fledging dream of a graduate student has become an integral component of a much larger grassroots effort to engage youth as independent, critical thinkers.

Wiltsee worked previously as program director at a nonprofit organization called Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, Mich. Similar to YMR in terms of vision and design, Neutral Zone encouraged youth development through a variety of arts programs. Since Chris was managing many different aspects of the nonprofit, he wasn't able to focus on the music program. "I wanted to build that program again, see if it was replicable and really develop the model more fully," he said.

He hatched a plan to develop YMR in 2002, a concept he had initially come up with years earlier. After spending the first nine months fundraising and creating community partnerships with organizations such as nationally renowned Youth Speaks and La Peña Cultural Center, he began YMR's first and only recruitment by going to various high schools and pitching the idea to students in neighboring art and music classes. The students, enticed by the idea of a record label that gave them the freedom to explore themselves musically and learn about the business, came out in impressive numbers to YMR's first meeting in October 2003 at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, Calif.

"There were about 30 youths at that first meeting," Wiltsee said, "which was really encouraging because for the first time I said to myself, 'This can actually work, people are really interested.'"

The first objective for the organization: Put on a show. Wiltsee helped contact Zion I, which eagerly embraced the idea and agreed to perform in front of the sold-out show of loyal fans and YMR faithfuls. Soon afterward, the organization was invited to perform with hip-hop legend KRS-One.

"Kind of quickly things started on the rise," says Wiltsee, "so we've just been trying to keep up with it all."

Wiltsee invited Brutha Los on board to be YMR's program director. A lead member in the campaign to unplug media conglomerate Clear Channel, Brutha Los is a teacher and internationally recognized hip-hop scholar who's earned his stripes as an emcee and producer for the group Company of Prophets. With years of experience in activism and artistry, Brutha Los brought with him a pedagogical approach that has proved crucial to the organization's success.

"All of our mentors and instructors are professionals who've worked in the music industry," he says.

Much more than just a record label, Youth Movement Records is but one of many organizations nationwide engaged in hip-hop activism. Generally, hip-hop activism refers to a broad range of social change practices spearheaded by urban youth. In the case of YMR, music and entrepreneurship serve as the avenues by which youth combat violence, develop skills and create community change. Officially serving youth between the ages of 13 and 19, YMR members boast a 90 percent high school graduation rate, compared with 48 percent for the Oakland Unified School District.

The label has produced four albums, including "Taste Test," a compilation featuring the young women of YMR, as well as "Change the Nation," which came out on July 4. All of the albums are produced, performed and promoted by the youth of YMR. Along with working directly with 500 young people to produce their four albums, YMR has reached over 15,000 youth with more than 100 safe, sober weekend events.

"Now we have more formalized training, curriculum, resources, internships, connections to the industry," says Wiltsee, "as well as more 'movement' activity in regard to connecting with other social justice organizations and campaigns."

With all these central components in place, youth are taking the lead beyond the entertainment arena. On their recent tour, members of YMR teamed up with the Vera Project, a youth-run night club in Seattle, where they performed a live show. After holding a workshop at Camp Sweeny, a youth detention camp in northern California, YMR members were so compelled that within two weeks they came up with a project design and raised $10,000 to continue holding music workshops at the camp next school year. Everything, from the proposed lesson plans to the last penny raised, was youth-directed.

With more programming and courses scheduled for the fall, Youth Movement Records is fast becoming one of the most recognized youth development organizations in the country. Since YMR's inception in 2003, at least three other youth-led record labels have opened their doors in the Bay Area.

"I see this model as one that could be replicated and developed nationally, and even internationally," says Wiltsee.

Chris Lyons agrees, "The impact on the field has been tremendous, and there's a youth music movement that we've helped spark."

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