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Hip-Hop Must Call For Peace

by Jeff Chang

This past weekend, as we mourned the countless victims of 9/11 and built with each other in passionate conversations on what to do next, President George W. Bush finally and unequivocally declared war.

He ordered a call-up of 50,000 reservists?the first step towards reinstituting the draft?while preparing Americans for a long, ground war that could leave many innocent Afghanis dead or displaced. Reversing the Powell doctrine to seize upon a desire for vengeance, he warned that there may be no foreseeable end to this war, and declared no specific enemy.

This does not bode well for the hip-hop generation. As STORM, the Bay Area hip-hop activist organization says, “Increasingly, safety at home will require justice abroad.” Bush1s open-ended war could leave us increasingly insecure, subject to more terror not less, with less justice for all in the world.

Because of its history, the global hip-hop generation can play a crucial moral role in the call for peace?peace on the streets where we live, and a global peace free from terror.

At one time, others dissed our generation by saying that we were privileged, that we had never been tested by war. [This was before Bush1s father opened the Persian Gulf War.] The fact is that hip-hop was born under the conditions of war. It grew and spread as a global alternative to war.

Before hip-hop, during the early 1970s, Jamaica1s bloody tribal wars fostered a music and culture of defiance in roots, dancehall and dub reggae. This music and culture–a safe space from the bloody gang runnings on the street immigrated to the Bronx–a space so devastated by deindustrialization and governmental neglect that when Ronald Reagan visited in 1980, he declared that it looked like London after World War II. In the Bronx, the Universal Zulu Nation, hip-hop1s first institution and organization, literally emerged from a peace forged between racially divided, warring gangs.

As Reagan took office, immigration was rapidly browning the face of America. The “culture war” was declared?a way to contain the nation1s growing diversity. Culture warriors went after youth in their schools; they fought multiculturalism, ethnic studies, and affirmative action. In Congress, they sought limits on movie and music content.

Hip-hop turned out to be everything they detested?it was real, truth telling, unapologetic, and, worst of all, their kids loved it. Imagine how they felt when Chuck D enlisted millions into the opposition by rhyming, “They1ll never care for the brothers and sisters cause the country has us up for a war.”

In one sense, hip-hop won the culture war. By the end of the 80s, Public Enemy and Spike Lee, John Singleton and N.W.A., and other brothers and sisters had crashed the lily-white pop culture mainstream. Hip-hop became the single most potent global youth force in a generation.

But the culture war had serious political consequences, too. Right-wingers manufactured the conditions–moving drugs and guns into the ghetto via the wars in Central America–for a resurgence of gang warfare. And they succeeded in stigmatizing inner-city gangs–whose ranks, of course, were swollen with young, poor people of color–as mindlessly, irredeemably violent and evil.

Hip-hop reveled in the young generation1s diversity. The culture warriors taught other generations to be afraid of it. When the 90s came, they warned of a coming wave of juvenile crime, one that would crest with the darkening demographic surge.

Their apocalyptic predications began a dramatic shift in juvenile justice, away from rehabilitation towards incarceration. 48 states made their juvenile crime statutes more punitive. Dozens of cities instituted curfews, anti-cruising laws, and sweep ordinances (which were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court but have reappeared in many cities). Especially after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, as urgent gang truce work forged peace across the country, the new laws were implemented at a feverish clip and enforced with a heavy hand. Juvenile arrests and detention populations skyrocketed, even as juvenile violent crime rates plummeted.

Local police, the FBI, and private companies began compiling gang databases. Every young boy or girl of color who fit the profile–sagging, baggy jeans, athletic shoes, hip-hop swagger–became fodder for the gang databases. In Cook County, IL, the gang database was two-thirds black. In Orange County, CA, 92 percent of those listed in the gang database were of color. Angry Black, Chicano and Latino parents in Denver, CO, learned that eight of every ten young people of color in the entire city were listed.

Post-modern racial profiling was invented for the hip-hop Generation, the most catalogued and spied-upon in history. Along with the “war on drugs”?the only result of which has been racist sentencing and the largest prison population in world history?what hip-hop activists called the “war on youth” left a generation staring into a tense present and an insecure future.

These are the reasons why thousands of hip-hop activists came out to protest at the Republican and Democratic Conventions last year. They took courageous stands against the massive profiling and imprisoning of a generation; against the death penalty; for better education; and for stopping gang violence. They linked these issues to global struggles for economic and racial justice.

Now that President Bush has declared an open war with no clear enemy, the global, multiracial, polycultural hip-hop generation can elevate beyond the chant of “No justice, no peace”?a cry that, in truth, sounds much different when uttered by Bush.

If we can understand the history of wars from Israel to Afghanistan the way that we understand our own generation1s history, we can link what is happening on our streets with what is happening in our world.

We can call for peace on our streets?to be free from profiling and imprisoning, to be free from the cycle of violence that causes us to kill each other needlessly.

And we can call for peace in our world?to be free from the kind of terror that strikes our bodies and our hearts, to be free from the cycles of violence driven by geopolitical posturing and economic greed that cause us to kill each other needlessly.

Everyone deserves a better, safer future. Hip-hop has already survived many wars. Time and again, we have learned how to react to crisis by forging a principled peace. As we stand on the brink of the biggest war we have ever faced, let us come together to find the most powerful, lasting peace yet. CP

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