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I Am an Emcee

I am an emcee. I am not an activist. I don’t know when or how I got tagged an activist other than my work with R.E.F.U.G.E. (Real Education For Urban Growth), the Riekes Center’s Academy of Hip Hop or Hip Hop Congress. However, you can trace my roots to all of those activities back to my emceeing. I’ve been organizing since I was young, so I guess saying that I was an organizer would be too far fetched. However, I’m a cultural organizer, and I’m primarily interested in organizing those involved with the elements and the production of culture directly and indirectly.

I’ve spoken with many folks about the question on whether or not Hip Hop is a movement. They cite the Civil Rights Movement, The Labor Movement, the Media Reform/Media justice movement and they say it does not compare. They say there aren’t enough numbers, or there isn’t enough political power or awareness, and while all of this is happening they refuse to allow those who would represent this movement speak for themselves.

My favorite example is the Mural Arts Movement of the late 1960’s and early 70’s. This movement most closely resembles that which has taken place in Hip Hop because it marked a return of art to the people. The people had something to say and through this art, they would be heard. No critic or museum would deny them. Very few who were or are aware of this movement dispute its classification as a movement. Yet, very few who discuss whether or not Hip Hop is a movement mention this critical American transition period as an example and a forbearer of Hip Hop of this way.

The models and methods that came out of the Mural Art’s movement very much parallel the models we see in Hip Hop today. The use of workshops, the development of collectives, and the desire to implement co-ops are all present in the landscape of American Hip Hop. In fact the most difficult obstacle of the Mural Arts movement was that they didn’t have the ability to nationalize, which is not at all the case today. Technology has considerably lessened that burden and that has directly contributed to the growth and development of HHC as an organization and the globalization of Hip Hop. A good man and friend of all of Hip Hop-Rushay-comes to mind as technology has made Rushay a household name for many American Hip Hop heads, even though he’s located in South Africa. He even has a 310 area code.

The two questions I ask myself first when thinking about whether or not Hip Hop is a movement are 1)Is it a natural form of dissent and 2)What is the focus of Hip Hop’s energy. When we look at the American mainstream and what many consider to be the failure of Hip Hop’s foray into American politics, we could very easily say that perhaps, after all this time it is not, and that it’s energy has been lost to corporate media and a watered down mainstream.

I don’t believe that for a second though.

In my travels around the country, I have had the opportunity to witness a healthy and robust Hip Hop that is highly unaware of it’s own existance. I’ve ciphered all over America will some of the illest emcees on the streets. I’ve seen brilliant graph scattered on the walls of cities and suburbs alike. Not only do I still see break crews in great numbers, but they are interacting with new forms of dance like crump and hyphy and this occurs without resistance or beef. From what I can tell, despite the fact that cats aren’t famous, Hip Hop is huge.

Now a lot of people will say that this is bogus and that a bunch of writers and rappers don’t mean anything. But where you find the graph is also where you find poverty. Where you find the emcees is also where you find the prison industrial complex. Where you find the DJ’s is also where you find police accountability problems. This is probably why many people mistook me for an activist or mistook HHC for a political organization.

I’ve always been an emcee, and Hip Hop Congress has always been an organization that’s about the culture of Hip Hop and all of those who participate with authenticity and connection finding common ground to work towards collective interests. It just so happens that sometimes that collective interest is getting played on a station owned by corporate media, or riding on the police for snatching up your boy with no just cause, or fighting for the right to your housing.

I have a confession to make. I organized an Urban Arts based phone banking for a political candidate. In retrospect, it felt kind of dirty but it was sort of justifiable twofold experiment. The first was to see if you could organize the Urban Arts Community in a manner similar to labor unions for the purposes of such an activity. The second was to see how the Urban Arts community would respond to such a request.
We managed to get 30 people out which was actually a pretty impressive number at the time. Of the 30, 11were functional callers. At least 4 people told me never to do such a thing again unless it was about police accountability work or something to that affect. Pretty much everyone agreed on that. Ironically, the institution that I worked for, The South Bay Labor Council, pretty much took an approach on youth that stated that rather than delve into their issues, they’d rather groom them for the labor movement. Further, any candidate that was focused on the youth vote was desperate because youth don’t vote. Thus, the catch 22 of Hip Hop and Politics.

Hip Hop, like all art of the streets and of the people, is first and foremost about being heard. Politics, doesn’t want to hear the young people because they’re not into expressing their voices through a system that believes they’re only worthwhile as a desperate tactic.

This is why they can’t see the movement. They don’t see the millions of emcees, graff writers, DJ’s, promoters, break crews, organizations large and small, independent labels and the new artist/fan as a movement because it doesn’t want to legislate all the time-all this despite the fact that there’s increasing evidence to point to the impractically of seeking justice through legislation.

But what candidate is talking about police accountability.

Hip Hop was blamed for riots in France. It kept Snoop Dogg out in Brazil. It’s hard to find in the Filipines unless you go to where the poor people are. There are Zulu chapters in Japan and Hip Hop is all over Asia, has been for years. Journalist Davey D reported on many occasions that International Hip Hop is organizing and trying to connect to the US.And the mainstream, which we have already determined is not the ally of Hip Hop in it’s most raw forms, refuses to tell you any of this in any comprehensive manner. But Hip Hop has always expected that. That’s why it’s Hip Hop.

So, as we enter this election I would just like to talk to you emcee to emcee; artist to artist; cultural producer to cultural producer. They are going to try and use you. They are going to throw issues around, and organizations around, and money around and if it succeeds you will hardly benefit. If it fails, they will say you are nothing. But know this first and foremost, as an emcee they still don’t understand what makes you tick. They still don’t understand ciphers, and crews and why you HAVE to be down for the block. They’ll throw people in your face that pretend like they understand, but they don’t. And they won’t care about your art because ultimately although they’d never admit it, they really don’t care about you.

Cyphers aren’t gonna change the world. But surely the people in them have the ability to. Maybe not through electoral politics or their album, but there are millions of us with collective interests. Not just in America, but all over the globe.

We created a global culture. Let’s give ourselves the credit of being able to figure out what to do with it, whether or not they agree.

SHAMAKO NOBEL (aka The Sword of the West) is President and Executive Director of the Hip Hop Congress and CEO of Rondavoux Records. He can be reached at:
shamako@hiphopcongress.com