Hip Hop Occupies

For Heavy D, 1967-2011.

I. We the 99.

“Nobody got more welfare than Wall Street
Hundreds of billions after operating falsely
And nobody went to prison that’s where you lost me
But my home, my job, and my life is what it cost me.”

— Jasiri X, Occupy (We the 99).

The students at UCONN invited Jasiri X to headline their “Political Awareness Rally” on November 4. Jasiri is a rapper from Pittsburg, PA., who burst on the scene with his powerful, political music, such as Free the Jena 6, What if the Tea Party Was Black, I Am Troy Davis and most recently Occupy (We the 99). Shortly before he was to come to the event, Jasiri received an email from the Chief Financial Officer of the Undergraduate Student Government at UCONN. The student wrote that Jasiri could perform most of his songs (“they all promote social justice and ending racism”), but the Student Government could not allow him to perform songs “that contain obvious political statements (such as Occupy – We the 99) – as referring to the Occupy movement.”

I asked Jasiri what he made of this curious distinction between his other work and the Occupy song. “I do political songs,” he said. “How can they say Occupy is a political song and not I Am Troy Davis?” At the event, Jasiri followed Ken Krayeske, who is running for U. S. Congress on the Green Party Ticket. Krayeske made his name through an interview with UCONN’s star basketball coach (he asked Jim Calhoun if he’d give back some of his millions as austerity struck the campus, and Calhoun barked, “Not a dime back”). At the Rally, Krayeske invoked Occupy. Jasiri recalls looking out at the students and thinking, “they have got to hear the song.” He went for it despite being warned that if he did the song he might not get paid.

Later Jasiri wrote, “At some point in this movement all of us are going to have to make sacrifices, if we truly want to see real change. The 1% control the 99% with promises of money, access, and comfort; we have to put our own souls above all three.”

II. Contagious Struggles.

When I asked Toni Blackman, a rapper with the Freestyle Union, what she thought of the Occupy dynamic, she said that it brought her “a sense of relief. I exhaled and thought ‘finally.’ I believe the energy will be contagious.” “Hip Hop is inching closer and closer to the Occupy movement. Soon singing about your riches and your bitches will be less and less acceptable. The Occupy movement has agitated the stagnant air just enough for artists who felt powerless to begin acknowledging their power again.”

It is not just the artists. Nor is the contagion going in one direction.

No wonder that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union joined in with Occupy Oakland’s general strike (at Occupy Oakland, one of the main leaders is Boots Riley of The Coup). They are familiar with such actions (their contract includes a clause that allows the workers to honor community picket lines). In 2008, the Union shut down the Port of Oakland to protest the Iraq War, and most spectacularly, on April 24, 1999, the union shut down the ports of the West Coast in solidarity with Mumia Abu Jamal. It was inevitable that they would (along with the teachers and nurses) come out to Occupy.

No wonder too that Jasiri X recalls wide support in Pittsburg to protest against the brutal beating by the police of Jordan Miles, nor that the Troy Davis vigils and protests intersected with many of the participants of the Occupy encampments.

No wonder too that striking Verizon workers now carry signs that say “Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Verizon,” or that Occupy in New York is now alongside the Teamsters during their contract protests against Sotherbys. “The Occupy movement has changed unions,” said Stuart Appelbaum (Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union) to the New York Times. “You’ll see more unions on the streets wanting to tap into the energy of Occupy Wall Street.”

No wonder that Jay-Z decided to sport an “Occupy All Streets” shirt. Or that 50 Cent, of all stars, came out with the most forceful statement, “We have the power to stop buying their products, banking with them. Your dollar, that you worked hard for, does have power. Together we can say – WAKE UP A-HOLES! The game is over. 50 cent wants to shout out to Occupy Wall Street groups around the world. You are waking up the world, including me.” Russell Simmons, the hip hop impresario, promises a massive concert in the Spring at Occupy Wall Street (he wants to do this so much that he’s willing to go to jail for it).

The test of this was the Hawaiian singer Makana, who serenaded the world leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Hawaii with his “We Are the Many,” “We’ll occupy the streets, we’ll occupy the courts, we’ll occupy the offices of you, till you do the bidding of the many, not the few.” He sang the first lines, saw that there was no immediate reaction, felt scared and then fought the fear to belt out the rest of the song. He opened his jacket. His shirt said, “Occupy With Aloha.”

III. Let’s Get Free.

From San Diego to Seattle, a pulse of energy activates the Hip Hop community. Down south, DJ Kuttin Kandi and her comrades created the All Peoples Revolutionary Front (APRF) to consolidate a people of color bloc with its own agenda alongside the Occupy movement. Many of those who came into Occupy had a poorly developed understanding of the long history of protest, and especially the patient and almost futile struggles of people of color against police brutality, joblessness and dispossession. One of the great frustrations in the world of color is that it takes a white organizer to highlight for the mainstream media what others have said to no avail. Among organizers there is a clear-cut law: a movement that begins without diversity ends without diversity (after a period when those in its complain that people of color for no clear reason simply don’t show up). It is to circumvent the failure to engage with earlier struggles and to give respect and space to those who have consistently fought these fights that the APRF emerged. “Our presence at Occupy,” DJ Kuttin Kandi said to me, “is to claim our space, to represent our concerns and struggles, and ourselves as people of color.”

Bakari Kitwana, author of The Hip Hop Generation (2002) and Hip Hop Activism in the Obama Era (February 2012), used similar language to describe the new breakthrough. “The Occupy movement has been successful in placing the attention of the world on an issue that we in hip hop political circles have been struggling against in some shape or form for decades. We need to reclaim the space that they have expanded.” The Occupy dynamic has been able to “speak to another generation.” The imagination that has opened up needs to be extended.

Up in Seattle, Emcee Julie C and her comrades formed Hip Hop Occupies, to draw the heritage of Hip Hop into the Occupy dynamic and to draw Occupy into the world of Hip Hop. Hip Hop, the Seattle group believes, “is this sleeping giant that is awakening to energize and shape the recent occupation movement, and give voice to the voiceless.” Aware of the controversy over the term “occupy” (which has colonial overtones), Hip Hop Occupies went in a different direction for its genealogy. It drew a straight line between the Occupy movement in the U. S. and the use of the term by “militant workers of color from Latin America (Oaxaca, Buenos Aires, South Korea, China and other places) to describe their occupation of factories, schools and neighborhoods to strike back against oppressive forces.” A message comes from Argentina’s Brukman Textile plant, where worker-organizer Celia Martinez said, “Trust in your own struggle.”

Kuttin Kandi and Julie C are part of a growing grassroots Hip Hop tendency alongside Occupy that includes: 206 Zulu, Black Magic Noize, Black Orchid Collective, Bump Local, Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, Grassroots Artist Movement, Hidmo, Hip Hop Congress, Occupy the Hood, One Hood, Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, Truth About Tupac Movement, and Umojafest P. E. A. C. E. Center. These groups and more will run a national protest on November 18 called Rise & Decolonize: Let’s Get Free.

Over in the continent of Twitter, the rapper Lupe Fiasco holds a seminar on Occupy. He’s all the way down with it, having worn an Occupy shirt at the 2011 BET Hip Hop Awards. Lupe’s interlocutor is his fellow Chicagoan Rhymefest, among a few others. The charge is that Occupy is not diverse and it need not bring forth the full support of people of color. Lupe fires off a series of tweets:

  • I love #occupy diversity! Where else can u find a biochemist, a homeless brother, a physics teacher & a burlesque dancer talking revolution?
  • “The #occupy movement is full of a bunch of weirdos… They need some normal ppl out there”: Then get out there. Normal it up!
  • I define humanity as eating, sleeping, loving, hating, crying, dying, lying, praying and my favorite #OCCUPYING!!!

IV. Occupy as Emblem.

In the poorest sections of America, people who sympathize with the Occupy dynamic are not always willing or able to go out and sleep in the open. Those who have a home are fighting to hold onto it, afraid of eviction. Being in their homes is a kind of occupation for dignity.

In 1968, Charlayne Hunter (later Charlayne Hunter-Gault of PBS) went amidst Resurrection City in Washington, DC. This was the encampment of the Poor People’s Movement, with Jesse Jackson and Hosea Williams as City Managers. Floodwaters and social conflict broke the City. This did not dampen Charlayne Hunter’s report, “Resurrection City was not really supposed to succeed as a city. It was supposed to succeed in dramatizing the plight of the poor in this country.”

Occupy is not the encampment alone. It is the new political momentum toward a new horizon. The momentum uplifts the world of Hip Hop. When I asked Jasiri X to talk about the moment, he said, “This is the time to get off the couch.” So it is.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).