Hip-Hop: Love It, Hate It … Use It

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Hip-hop culture is everywhere: tagged on the sides of buildings and bridges, bumping in Jeep Wranglers in school parking lots, blasting out from Sprite commercials. Now hip-hop intensive youth programs have begun to sprout, hoping to cash in on the culture’s popularity.

That culture has come a long way from 1980s New York City, when young people began using records to create new sounds over beats and rapping over the beats. Those elements, along with break dancing and graffiti art, became the backbone of hip-hop culture.

But what started as recreation has grown into international big business. Top-selling rappers such as Jay-Z and P. Diddy are popular enough to trade off their names in other realms of commerce (most often, clothing). Others, such as Public Enemy and Talib Kweli, have used hip-hop’s commercial popularity to voice political messages.

For youth workers, all this adds up to an art form that, properly channeled, holds boundless opportunities to reach youth. Hip-hop’s commercial success provides a natural hook for programs seeking to get kids thinking about the future. The influence of the culture’s celebrities, coupled with its strong roots among the urban poor, make it an enticing vehicle for youth engagement. Most importantly, hip-hop’s artistic versatility carries tremendous potential in urban areas, where school art programs have diminished.

The first fleet of hip-hop youth programs trudges on mostly under the radar of major funders, but its emergence coincides with the rise of the first generation of philanthropic and political leaders to have grown up with the culture.

That includes people like Edward DeJesus, co-founder of the Youth Development Research Foundation (YDRF) in Gaithersburg, Md., which provides technical assistance to organizations to integrate hip-hop into their programs. He also runs a youth foundation for The Source magazine, the most recognizable chronicler of things hip-hop. DeJesus espouses a no-nonsense philosophy about how hip-hop should be used as a youth-serving tool.

“Most of the programs I have visited are weak in regard to outcomes,” he says. “I am, of course, all for using hip-hop, but I question people who are just using it with no set goal. There is major room to grow.”

To get YDRF support, DeJesus says, agencies must attach a long-term goal to the work. Perhaps the most effective outcomes he has seen connected to hip-hop are efforts to build job skills and entrepreneurship.

YDRF’s efforts have not been lost on some major foundations. “We’re exploring strategies for using hip-hop as a tool,” says Ford Foundation program officer Loren Harris. “The important thing is that young people identify with hip-hop culture. If it’s important to them, then it ought to be important to all of us.”

Fellow Ford Foundation program officer Roberta Uno agrees, but worries that the value of hip-hop programming might be lost amid calls for structure and measurable success. “You have to look at it as an art form and not just a tool,” she says.

Uno believes in providing unstructured time for artists and youth. Making a program too structured can mean repetitious activity, which can lead to artists’ burn-out, she says. “But if the artists are benefiting,” says Uno, “youth will benefit twice as much.”

While interest in hip-hop slowly mounts within philanthropies, programs sink or swim with fickle funding. In Alton, Ill., William Goldsmith toils daily to keep his brainchild, AIDS Awareness In Madison County (AAIM), from going under. A couple of years ago Goldsmith ran AAIM with a $125,000 state grant and had about 90 kids writing and producing hip-hop tracks about AIDS.
The youths and their songs were featured on a major St. Louis radio station.

Then came the state budget crisis. With a budget this year of $7,000, Goldsmith now works with about 12 youths and no staff.

Some youth workers say the biggest obstacle for hip-hop programs trying to gain stable support is hip-hop itself. Songs and videos by commercially successful rap acts often feature misogynistic or violent lyrics, with videos featuring scantily clad women and gun play.

A study of 14- to 18-year-old sexually active black girls showed that those with high exposure to such videos were three times as likely to report hitting a teacher (7.1 percent to 2.4 percent) as were similar girls who did not have such exposure, and were more than twice as likely to have been arrested (17.3 percent to 7.2 percent). Females in the high-exposure category also were more likely to have contracted sexually transmitted diseases, used drugs and alcohol and engaged in sexual activity with multiple partners.

The study, done by the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and released in February, caught flak from hip-hop proponents, who believe that the link reflects societal problems rather than the influence of the music.

The girls in the study “lived in rural, poor neighborhoods,” columnist Brooke Newkirk wrote in the Black College Wire. “Could it be that their bad behavior had less to do with the amount of rap videos they watched and more to do with their environment? What about young black females who live in the middle of America? … Are rap videos causing them to behave badly as well?”

Trying to assess the prospects for an art movement’s applicability to youth work based on a commercial exterior would be comparable to measuring America’s wealth by looking only at its CEOs. But the stigma has an impact. “Our whole nation unfairly racializes and stigmatizes hip-hop culture,” says Ford’s Harris. “Foundations are not [exempt] from that.”

Following are profiles of some programs and personalities using hip-hop in youth work.

Everyone Has A Song
832 32nd Ave.
Seattle, WA 98122
(206) 324-6958

Charles Jefferson left his teaching job with the Seattle Public School system in 1970 to pursue his trumpet-playing dreams in Germany. When he returned to the Northwest nine years later, he didn’t like what he saw.

The former music teacher went to work in Seattle’s juvenile justice and special education systems, where he felt that youth weren’t connecting with the programs the agencies extended to them.

Now he runs Everyone Has A Song (EHAS), an alternative school program he founded that fuses those worlds with hip-hop. EHAS takes in youth mostly through referrals from school counselors or juvenile justice probation officers, and uses a simple hook: Attract them to learning basic life skills by offering them a chance to learn how to make music. (The kids almost always choose hip-hop).

Hip-hop culture, Jefferson says, is a common denominator for the youth. “This is how our kids express themselves,” he says. “So we use [hip-hop] as a template for our work.”

Jefferson takes in some of Seattle’s most troubled youths. Of the 52 youths EHAS worked with in the 2002-2003 school year, 40 percent were enrolled in special education; 45 percent were on parole or probation; 17 percent were homeless or in transitional housing or foster care; and 18 percent had participated in a substance-abuse treatment program.

Hip-Hop music samples from Everyone Has A Song:
Subliminal Hit
The Life We Live

Youth come to the center at 11 a.m. for instruction in five basic courses named after R&B and hip-hop songs. Underneath the catchy titles, these are more life-oriented curricula for the standard concepts taught in public school: vocabulary, current events, science and environment, math, and career planning. “Visualize Wealth and Put Yourself In the Picture,” for example, is named after a track by rap legend KRS-One. The section stresses money management, and the youths’ work counts toward basic high school math credits.

Other classes use rap songs and coverage of hip-hop culture to hone vocabulary and literacy skills. A recent language arts class dissected a book of poetry by fallen rap icon Tupac Shakur.

In the studio, students learn to produce music and perform it. The sound is often raw, far below the polish of your average radio hit, but the honesty and grit of the lyrics is remarkable. “The Life We Live,” a track arranged and performed by EHAS member Leon Pittman, speaks to the young artist’s perception of perceptions – that is, how he feels the world sees him:

…Caskets and a hearse
14-year-old in the dirt
Don’t nobody care about us
We just minorities
Getting treated like we’re
in slavery
What do they label me?
An ignorant bastard…

Not every song paints a dreary picture. Many tracks seek to educate (“Get a Grip” warns teens about the perils of credit card indulgence) or to instill hope (such as “Faith” and “Brilliant Decisions”).

Considering the truancy issues that land many of Jefferson’s teens in his studio, he says the fact that 25 percent of EHAS students have gone on to college or trade school is a huge success.

Youth worker Jefferson is still a jazzman at heart, but he embraces the music that moves his wards to speak their minds. “I’m a very eclectic dude, and I raised two kids, so I listen to all types of music,” he says. “I’m really inspired by what some of these kids do.”

c/o Community Partners
606 Olive St., Suite 2400
Los Angeles, CA 90014
(213) 251-9164

In one of L.A.’s most notorious ganglands, a white-bread east coast suburbanite has cultivated a rose in the cracked concrete.

Dawn Smith is a veteran youth worker for high-risk youth, specializing in connecting with youth through the arts. She displays the essence of a hip-hop youth worker: gritty survival skills, unabashed disgust with the treatment of poor urban youth. “We have a completely corrupt justice system,” Smith says. “It’s racist, it is all based on economics, it’s just a terrifying system.”

She worked in several group homes in Los Angeles before starting a theater program for young offenders locked up for murder or attempted murder. “I have never met kids with that kind of vulnerability and wisdom,” Smith says. She asked them what needed to be done for their peers on a community level.

“They told me that they knew L.A. has tons of youth programs,” she says. “But they either don’t offer things that kids are into, or they exclude the kids that most need them.”

Smith responded with Justice by Uniting in Creative Energy (JUiCE), an after-school program that within two years has become a fixture of the city’s Hispanic and Asian hip-hop scene.

Located in the crime- and gang-plagued Rampart section of Los Angeles, JUiCE operates on a simple philosophy: Give youth a safe place to do what they want, and you’ve made a difference. No life lessons or lectures needed.

Every Thursday from 4 to 9 p.m., anywhere from 30 to 120 youths greet Smith on their way into a local Unitarian church, where they are free to hone their various hip-hop skills. About 80 percent of the participants are Hispanic or Asian. (Rampart is adjacent to Koreatown in Los Angeles.)

For hip-hop-enthralled youth, JUiCE is a veritable wonderland. Art students get tables full of materials and a six-week workshop conducted annually by a professional muralist. Local DJs school teens on the wheels of steel, as break dancers practice moves to the always-blasting beats. A volunteer oversees a cipher – a group of young emcees rapping freestyle.

The service is more needed than ever, says Alex Poli (aka “Man One”), a graffiti artist who works with JUiCE and has contracted to do workshops with the likes of Boys & Girls Clubs and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“When I was coming up, there was a clear break between what gangs were and what graf writers were,” says Poli. “You had to choose one or the other, [so] going around town, I wasn’t afraid of gangs. Now, you got cops, with 10 times tougher laws. You have gang members who see [graffiti artists] as a threat because they bring attention to neighborhoods. It’s pretty scary now.”

Smith does not pay herself for her work with JuiCE, saying she relies on other jobs for salary. (Smith is a coordinator for the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, and before that ran the Los Angeles youth division of the national nonprofit Common Cause.) JUiCE has four part-time staff members, but mostly counts on local hip-hop veterans to work with the kids pro bono.

For the most part, though, the expectation is that youth will help each other in this setting. Requiring only respect, Smith says she will take any youth who wants in.

“People hear that the only other people mentoring ‘dangerous kids’ are other ‘dangerous kids’ and are like, ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ As soon as people walk in the door, though, they’re almost always behind the project.”

Getting potential funders to walk in the door has not proved easy. Smith has landed some small grants from the city’s cultural heritage department. Her most significant score was a $7,500 start-up grant from the Durfee Foundation, which provides funding to Los Angeles County nonprofits under five years old with budgets under $100,000. (Smith says JuiCE operates on about one-fifth of that.)

Smith says applications to about 50 foundations have fallen on deaf ears. “I’m not an experienced grant writer, so that has something to do with it,” she says. “But I really think a lot of traditional funders see the word hip-hop and throw [our proposal] in the trash.”

Hip-Hop Summit Action Network

c/o JLM Public Relations
580 Broadway
New York, NY 10012
(212) 431-5227

network.orgRussell Simmons was in on the ground floor of rap music, a founder and owner of the hip-hop record label, Def Jam Records. Almost two decades after he inked Run-DMC to be Def Jam’s first act, he is now estimated to be worth more than $500 million.

For hip-hoppers wary of the commercial aspects of rap, Simmons might as well have a target painted on his back. His artists include such mainstream successes as Method Man, Jay-Z, Ja Rule and Ludacris. Add to that his Phat Farm clothing line, one of the first of what now seems to be an unending line of rap-endorsed products.

But Simmons has done anything but take the money and run. His Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), founded in Manhattan two years ago largely out of Simmons’ own coffers, is by far the most recognizable and unified activist voice in hip-hop.

And the voice is loud. In 2002, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was in a standoff over a contract with the teachers’ union and had proposed cutting $379 million from the city’s school budget. HSAN joined with the union and brought in some of hip-hop’s biggest names (Jay-Z, Wyclef Jean and Simmons, to name a few) to lead a protest by more than 100,000 kids at city hall. Two weeks later, Bloomberg settled with the teachers and trimmed his school budget reduction to $100 million, with all cuts to be made outside the classrooms.

The majority of HSAN’s $350,000 in spending last year focused on a series of hip-hop summits, which bring youth from various cities together with hip-hop artists and local political figures to discuss themes relevant to the hip-hop community. An August summit in Birmingham, Ala., for example, explored youth empowerment and leadership development.

A previous summit in Detroit featured hip-hop stars Eminem and Nas, as well as Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a 32-year-old Simmons calls “America’s first hip-hop mayor.” HSAN President Ben Chavis, former executive director of the NAACP, used the event to announce HSAN’s new project: Hip-Hop Team Vote.

The goal, he said, is to register 20 million voters over five years.

That might be a bit over-ambitious, considering that census data show 26.7 million people in the lowest voting age bracket (18- to 24-year-olds); only 12.1 million of them were registered to vote in the 2000 elections. Rock the Vote, the MTV campaign that has become synonymous with efforts to get out the youth vote, says it has registered about 500,000 voters in the past three years.

Chavis, after polling youth participants at earlier summits about voting, is convinced that HSAN’s approach is original and more effective: “We found that most voter registration campaigns only have lukewarm support. [Youth] want to do something consistent and ongoing.”

HSAN’s concept is similar to that of a street team – a visibility and marketing tactic favored by rap labels that sends young marketers into communities to hand out sample tapes and promotional fare.

So when HSAN held a summit in Philadelphia in August, its street teams were stationed at 26 sites, not to hawk the newest releases, but to promote voting. Anybody could get a ticket by registering to vote. Joining the summit team required a commitment to register five friends who were eligible to vote.

HSAN spokeswoman Jody Miller estimates that 17,000 youth had registered by the close of the summit.

HSAN’s efforts have focused on creating a hip-hop agenda, not hip-hop candidates. In the June 2002 issue of The Source, HSAN listed a 15-point plan for the hip-hop platform, including universal health care, abolition of mandatory minimum sentencing and increased spending on HIV/AIDS awareness programs. Though most of the agenda is moderate liberal, HSAN does not shy away from such divisive issues as reparations for slavery and voting rights for ex-felons (both of which it supports).

Chavis says promoting candidates or parties is not in HSAN’s immediate plans, except for those that are “clear champions” of its issues. “All of our work for now is nonpartisan,” he says.

New York
c/o Coup d’Etat Entertainment
532 La Guardia Place, #704
New York, NY 10012
(212) 343-3626

In Brooklyn, 27-year-old Justice Allah Cadet lives with his wife and two children. To most of the world, he is nothing more than one 8-millionth of New York City’s population.

But to underground hip-hop fans, Cadet is among rap’s living legends. Better known to his flock as J-Live, the emcee is considered one of the great lyricists in the rap industry. He is also an example of the young fleet of rappers who, without benefit of much pop culture press coverage, are emerging as leaders and champions of youth work.

Cadet grew up in Spanish Harlem and went to Central Park East Secondary, an alternative middle and high school that de-emphasized standardized tests. Students were encouraged to focus on their interests.

The budding rapper went on to graduate from the state university in Albany, and recorded “The Best Part” shortly after receiving his degree. When the album was shelved by his record company, Cadet went to work as an English teacher at a middle school in Brownsville, a low-income section of New York. The school closed in 1999, having failed to meet achievement requirements.

Cadet moved on to teach in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. Unlike the troubled Brownsville classrooms, his new institution barely missed making the city’s Blue Ribbon list of outstanding schools. But Cadet felt there wasn’t much difference in the students. “You couldn’t see the difference walking through the halls or talking to kids,” he says.

His curriculum always included a healthy dose of hip-hop.

Cadet would often have students analyze rap songs in class, an activity he found invaluable for teaching vocabulary and story analysis.

Such an attempt to relate to youth might blow up in the face of a person less immersed in the culture than Cadet. But he says that using hip-hop can help break down barriers to learning among many urban youth.

“When you’re dealing with kids in junior high school as a teacher, you’re a cop,” he says. “You’re always gonna be part of the establishment. Using hip-hop is one way to bridge the gap.” Because “there’s such a big wave of young teachers that relate to hip-hop just as much as students,” says Cadet, hip-hop is increasingly a common denominator between urban youth and the new crop of teachers instructing them.

After years of business mishaps, Cadet has made a full-time career out of his lyrical craft. “The Best Part” was widely bootlegged and became something of a legend on the black market, and hip-hop magazine The Source featured him in its “Unsigned Hype” section. Cadet signed a record deal in 2002, put the chalk away, and recorded “All of the Above,” an album that has won high critical acclaim.

He’s no longer working directly with kids, but his product may have a wider influence than his teaching. J-Live’s lyrics are among the most thought-provoking in the genre. Consider one stanza from “Satisfied,” discussing the balance of political discontent and sympathy after Sept. 11:

It ain’t right those cops and those firemen died,
That s—- was real tragic but it damn sure ain’t magic…
It won’t make the brutality disappear,
It won’t pull equality from behind your ear,
It won’t make a difference in a two-party country if the president cheats to win another four years.

Cadet acknowledges the short-term nature of most hip-hop careers and says he hopes to spend his post-rap days developing after-school programs. One idea is to foster collaborations between teachers and youth workers in an effort to place core course material in a hip-hop context.