Hip-hop had a place at this year’s National Conference for Media Reform—appropriately so, given hip-hop’s history of social engagement. Yet the discussions that focused on hip-hop were not without controversy or criticism.
At the conference, hip-hop heads were prominent in two panels. The first, moderated by Shamako Noble from the Hip-Hop Congress, was titled “Hip-Hop Activism: Urban Strategies and Media Coalitions.” The second, moderated by hip-hop journalist and radio host Davey D, had as its theme “Owning Our Own and Reaching the Masses.”
Noble’s panel featured a discussion of local strategies used by activists using hip-hop to pursue social justice. The audience included Fred Hampton, Jr.—son of murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton.
On that panel, Julie Chang Schulman discussed a number of the organizations and activities that she’s involved with in Seattle as part of the Hip Hop Congress Northwest Coalition: concerts, activities at youth centers, a documentary on the history of hip-hop in the Northwest, and radio and television shows. Willie “J.R.” Fleming, from the Coalition to Protect Public Housing and the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, discussed his own projects seeking greater equality and fairness in housing in, among other places, Chicago and New Orleans.
Finally, Minneapolis’s own Toki Wright discussed the activities of the organization he helped found, Yo! The Movement. Wright’s organization focuses on three main points: power (helping youth realize the power they have in changing things for the better); places (identifying and creating spaces for people to feel comfortable and start things); and perks (incentives to do good for a community). Wright’s presentation was about empowering youth to speak for themselves, rather than having those not familiar with their problems or their situations speak for them. Wright and Yo! have learned to make things happen with little financial help; among their greatest successes is the annual Twin Cities Celebration of Hip-Hop, in its seventh incarnation this summer.
Toki Wright was not the only Twin Cities artist at the conference. Both Sha Cage and Maria Isa performed at the Saturday night plenary session, while rising MC Chantz Erolin participated on a panel on youth leaders and the future of media. Kwame Tsikata, better known in hip-hop circles as M.anifest, participated in a panel on fundraising as a representative from the Progressive Technology Project.
Rosa Clemente, hip-hop journalist and founder of R.E.A.C.Hip Hop (Representing Education Activism, and Community Through Hip-Hop), gave a fiery presentation. “There is no time for people to sit on the fence,” she declared caustically. After painting a provocative link between hip-hop artists—who tell stories of struggle and success with words, records, paint, and their own bodies—and journalists—who write stories with pen, paper, and keyboards—she turned a critical eye to the progressive movement itself, arguing that progressives often misunderstand hip-hop.
The second panel highlighted many of Clemente’s concerns and suspicions. Davey D’s panel featured a discussion about building one’s own media and maintaining control in the face of corporate media consolidation. Panelists included “Grouchy” Greg Watkins, co-founder of AllHipHop.com, and two others who might be about as un-hip-hop as you can get: Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post and Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show.
In conversation with Davey D and Watkins, Huffington and Winstead didn’t seem to engage the issues discussed very seriously. When Davey D asked whether political prisoners, specifically Mumia Abu-Jamal, would have a venue on each of the panelists’ Web sites, Huffington responded with an indirect answer saying that the only things she doesn’t allow are conspiracy theories and factual inaccuracies. In another awkward moment, Huffington suggested that kids going to Watkins’s site needed to do so “in order to learn the English language.”
Together, the two panels illuminated both the power of social activism founded on hip-hop culture, and the challenges both hip-hop activists and more mainline progressives face as they seek greater media reform.
Justin Schell is a freelance writer and a grad student at the University of Minnesota’s Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program. He’s working on a dissertation on Twin Cities immigrant and diasporic hip-hop and plays the washboard tie with The Gated Community.