Monday, December 10, 2007

Foreword to Hip-Hop and Civic Engagement

First, a public service announcement brought to you by 2-Cent Entertainment...

"Imported and tortured the work force
They never healed the wounds or shook the curse off
Now the grown up goliath nation
Holdin open auditions for the part of david, can you feel?"
-Brother Ali, Uncle Sam G*damn

The following essays are expressions of my personal opinions and observations of hip-hop's relationship to our current socio-philosophical modes and mechanisms. I should really call them reflections, because the research (though sufficient to get the point across) really does require further investigation from a variety of sources, including the voices of global hip-hop artists, studies of the cultural influence hip-hop has acquired in under-developed countries, and the extent to which the imagined "global hip-hop community" is consistently pervasive throughout different cultures in reaction to overwhelming economic disparity.

Before I ever knew about N.W.A. or Public Enemy, I remebered watching the Rodney King riots from my dad's apartment in Long Beach, California when I was only about 6 or 7 years old. I remember just thinking that everyone decided to start taking whatever they wanted, I had no clue it was about race or police brutality.

I heard Dr. Cornel West speak for the first time when I was only 17, at a school down the road from Princeton, New Jersey. To this day, I still remember feeling like I had never experienced true liberation or empowerment until I heard him address some of the most complex social issues of the time (with such sincerety and tact I thought he must be like a modern prophet ) . Never before had I been provided a means of interpreting our contemporary political, social and economic conditions with such insight. Quoting 2pac and Talib Kweli, West was the first established academic scholar I had ever heard use hip-hop as evidence for arguments; I saw hip-hop in a whole new light, recognizing its rhetorical appeal, its jazz heritage and its cultural complexity.

I saw Talib Kweli play at the 930 Club in D.C. when I was a freshman at the College of William and Mary. I was taking a dope philosophy course about human rights, and at about the same time Talib Kweli dropped "The Beautiful Struggle". To this day that album gets not love from critics, but it was probably the definitive source of my motivation to make social change through hip-hop at the time. At the 930 club show, Saul Williams opened up, stunning the audience in theatrical genius... but then Kweli came on. I have never before been at a hip-hop show with so much energy, it was in the music, it was in the crowd, it was in the room. It was as if we entered a different realm, in which the audience was the body and Kweli was the brain and the crowd moved to every phrase in unison. We were like a revolutionary army just one order away from taking direct action. I wanted Kweli to just take it to the streets right there- nothing could have stopped that energy from marching up to the Whitehouse and protesting. I felt a ball of energy inside of me to take action, to organize and to start a movement supported by a coalition of hip-hop youth. My friends used to crack jokes at me and they nicknamed me "the Movement". It took one semester to realize I was in the wrong place, I knew I had to go the city of New Orleans where I could do something productive with that energy.

I saw more suffering in New Orleans, pre-Katrina, than I had ever thought possible. No, the federal government would have done something if they knew what it was like down here. Little did I know, they DID know, and they certainly were not going to do anything. The housing projects were sectioned off by tricky one-way signs and barbed wire fences. Schools that I would have thought were closed or condemned were actually being passed off as functional and open. That was before the storm, when the city seemed to move in idle despair, the indelible aesthetic of genuine cultural traditions, marked with intense moments of joy and grief.

I saw chaos again in the wake of hurricane Katrina. It was surreal, reporters speechless with their jaws dropped as they watched families wade through chest high sewage water, using sticks to push the floating bodies out of the way. Police looked scared and hateful. People spraypainted prophetic slogans on their roofs, waiting in vain for more helicopters to pass by without noticing. It has been over two years, and it is still hard to talk about it. I was not there in the waters avoiding snakes and rats, on the rooftops burning up under the sun, or in the streets dodging arbitrary para militant agression. I was there at the coliseum in Shreveport when the first buses started ariving from New Orleans- not the ones that were supposed to leave 5 days before, the ones that came too late for many who were left behind. Still soaked from head to toe, covered in feces, toxic chemicals and mud, haunted by some shared vision of a ghost. Silent, wearing blank stares too tired to cringe from soar muscles, tired of swimming and tired of sitting. Everyday after those first few weeks, for months on end, it was another story of hardship and tragedy before, during, or after the storm, every testimony like a weight on the soul; to confront such deep sorrow often neccesitates personal detachment, reliqueshing part of your humanity (or sanity) for the sake of surviving the undeniable facts of a dehabilitating reality.

I saw a similar anguish in the way the marginalized Muslim minority groups were reduced to the suburban ghettos just outside the cities in France, where they faced similar oppression, discrimination and economic hardship. Then in late November of that year the tension finally gave way and the young people rioted on the streets setting fires and throwing stones. The news reels mentioned French underground hip-hop and how it was being used as propaghanda. Just like in the Seattle protests against the WTO, the media spin was in full effect, demonizing the protagonists demonstrators with inflammatory rhetoric in order to set up a seductive dichotemy- that beloved old "good v.s. evil" narrative. During complex crises such as Katrina, when we don't have that simple, convenient choice right before our eyes, we are often forced into a makeshift paradigm in order to make sense of the chaotic forces surrounding us, whether that paradigm be truthful or falsical. I thought about the riots, the storm, and the feeling I got at the Kweli show, and as I tried to make sense of these things, hip-hop became my voice again, even stonger now. I am still trying to articulate that voice. These essays reflect the frame of thought, described in part by the previous anecdotes, but only to give the reader a broad idea of who I am, who I am speaking for and who I am speaking with. I am not attempting to define, classify or domesticate hip-hop in anyway, I am simply aiming at splitting open the ripest dialogue and sharing the juice with my peers.

Hip-Hop and Civic Engagement: Sweatshops, Community Development and Collaborative Leadership

Ben Brubaker
Social Work 300: Civic Engagement and Leadership
Prof. Pyles

This is my 2-Cents...

I. Hip-Hop Culture and Students Against Sweatshops

The recent Students Against Sweatshops Movements is a complex product of contemporary media, corporate and political narratives, the evolution of imperialism, revolutions in technology, the rise of global economies and the increasing gap between rich and poor across the globe. Hip-Hop culture and the contemporary transnational global justice movement are both products of the same economic, political, and social conditions, reflecting similar complexities and characteristics. In this way, the phenomenon of hip-hop music and culture serves as an important and relevant frame for analyzing the paradigms of global justice and 21st Century capitalism.

Hip-Hop and transnational global justice seem to go hand in hand, both positively and negatively, since mainstream hip-hop culture is so closely connected to capitalism, the media, politics & youth culture. Hip-Hop’s influence is arguably most relevant to college students; “walk onto a college campus in Anywhere, USA and you’ll find a similar scene… late teens to old-twenty somethings, most are dressed in the hippest fashion of the time” (Featherstone, Liza, et al. Students Against Sweatshops) . Hip-Hop fashion is certainly a large part of that fashion, since “companies targeting a youth market are selling a brand as much as a particular product” (Ibid.) and popular rap and hip-hop icons are often the ones promoting and endorsing those products. Hip-Hop surely didn’t invent brand names however, as colleges also rely on brands, because “before Fubu hats, trendy teenagers sported Notre Dame, Georgetown or Harvard sweatshirts, whether or not they actually attended those schools” (Ibid). In the same way over %75 of hip-hop music consumers are middle-class whites, “anti-corporatism… has, among middle-class white people, become the dominant idiom of resistance in the U.S.”(Ibid) . Still, for all the supposed resistance, we still seem unable to escape from participating as consumers in the systems we condemn. If there truly is a coherent “global youth movement” rallied against “corporate power and greed” (Ibid), it certainly isn’t reflected too often in mainstream media (because they are stakeholders themselves). There is a dramatic disconnect between the general moral indifference of the masses, the privileged global activists, and domestically marginalized communities, resulting in a fragmented collective of social justice movements. As a University of Michigan student said, “we need to develop a new rhetoric that connects sweatshops- and living wage and the right to organize- to the global economy” (Ibid) . True, to simply ignore global crisis for the sake of solving pressing domestic concerns (which hardly rival those in “third world countries”) is shortsighted and limited, however, it is essential to understand how the global justice movement connects to, and can be impacted by, local conditions. Even more true, we need to develop a new rhetoric to link different communities and issues through a common understanding. While Hip-Hop in many ways serves as a tool for corporate marketing, reinforcing the cultural obsession with materialism, it also represents a unique attempt to employ a new rhetoric which transcends boundaries by appealing to a variety of people around the world.

While “gangsta rap” is arguably the dominant mode of mainstream hip-hop, glorifying jewelry, cars, liquor, shoes and clothes through lyrical product placement, prophetic hip-hop artists such as Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Rage Against the Machine, and Kanye West have managed to break into the popular realm with revolutionary messages. Kweli mocks “gangsta’s” who claim they are “never scared”, when “there's kids in other countries making jerseys, jeans, and sneakers they could never wear/ parents never there, they're busy building homes they can't afford to buy/ cars they can't afford to drive, working jobs that don't support their life”, and criticizes how they are too “busy screaming ‘gangsta, gangsta’ all that talk is trite/ you already lost the fight if you don't know the cost of life”[Talib Kweli, "Going Hard"] . This verse is all at once the juxtaposition between our own perceptions of hardships with the realities of those in other countries, a reference to Marx’s “Alienation of Labor”, and an analysis of working conditions resulting from global capitalism- all of which is expressed through a common vernacular over compelling “beats”. Hip-Hop is able to tap into raw human emotion which seems to translate universally within youth cultures, because “Although we speak in different languages/ We all pretty familiar with what anger is” [Talib Kweli, "I Try"] . One of the most compelling aspects of prophetic hip-hop in the context of transnational global justice movements is its potential to be globally influential (through the internet, etc.) while locally relevant, influencing the actions of everyday people, professing “the revolution's here, the revolution is personal” [Talib Kweli, "the Beautiful Struggle"] . While there are diverse styles and sub-cultures of hip-hop across the globe which address each of their respective local experiences, hip-hop is also able to draw attention to global discrepancies using irony, imagery and metaphors, such as “In Africa they starvin, over here the food hurt you”[Talib Kweli, "Eat to Live"] or “now the poor klu klux man see that we're all brothers not because things are the same, because we lack the same color, that's green ($)… cant burn his cross cause he cant afford the gasoline”[Lupe Fiasco, "American Terrorist"]. Artists like Lupe Fiasco and Kweli are often branded “backpack rappers” because of their intellectual appeal to college students, serving as voices of opposition to American imperialism, satirically rapping “they ain't living properly/ break em off a little democracy/ turn their whole culture to a mockery/ give em coca-cola for their property/ give em gum, give em guns, get em young, give em fun”[Ibid] . Mos Def shares his 2-cents on global capitalism, saying “There are places where TB is common as TV/ Cause foreign-based companies go and get greedy/ The type of cats who pollute the whole shore line/ Have it purified, sell it for a dollar twenty-five” [Mos Def, "New World Water"] . One of the main issues hindering the Students Against Sweatshops Movement is that of race. While “students of color recognize the connections between racism and global economic exploitation” , they are often steered towards more pressing local issues due to the prevailing economic inequities facing many people of color. White students on the other hand seem to look right past the problem in front of their eyes, resulting from a “sense of one’s own advantage and comfort” and being able to afford “the luxury of organizing on behalf of others” [Featherstone, Liza, et al. Students Against Sweatshops]. Still, the USAS movement has found some common ground in issues such as the prison industrial-complex and living wages.

II. Civic Engagement and Hip-Hop Culture: Social Capital and Assets-Based Approach

In terms of civic engagement, best practices in community development can draw from different competing models, or paradigms, each with its own merits and short-comings. In terms of my personal philosophy, I take a very post-modern approach that rejects the universal validity of any model, and instead attempts at forming theories and solutions based on combinations of different methods. Focusing on community assets and building social capital are two methods for approaching community development, both of which can be applied through the lens of prophetic hip-hop culture.

The idea of “Social Capital” is a relative new term in the context of community building, however this paradigm has already come under fire from some critics due to its limitations within a capitalistic framework. Essentially, social capital is “based on trust, reciprocity, networks and collective action” [Flora, Cornelia, Building Social Capital: The Importance of Entrepreneurial Social Infrastructure] and helps communities mobilize resources, both human and financial. Due to the complex and continually changing range of relationships, challenges and resources on the local, regional and national level, “permeable and flexible networks are critical for community sustainability”[Ibid] . Hip-hop can be a viable tool for building and increasing social capital; lyrical expression and shared creativity can help build up trust between performers and listeners, sharing personal experiences and opening up respectful dialogue through music helps foster reciprocity, working together to utilize different artistic talents and entrepreneurial resources helps build up networks, and finding commonalities despite different styles and beliefs can help to inspire collective action.

The “assets” approach to community development differs, however it is closely connected to the idea of social capital. Many consider the assets approach to be radically different than past paradigms of community development, since it is the exact opposite of the more traditional approach of assessing community deficiencies in order to fix them . Instead, the assets approach focuses on community strengths, available resources and established infrastructure. Hip-hop can easily fit into this paradigm, because of its widespread popularity, its influence among contemporary urban communities and its inherent entrepreneurial qualities which allow it to adapt to a variety of conditions and resources. In the “Community Assets Map” , there are three main groups; gifts of individuals, citizen’s associations and local institutions. Hip-hop is able to mutually benefit from and contribute to each level, beginning with the gifts of artists, producers and promoters, influencing associations such as churches and cultural groups with positive messages that appeal to the youth, and finally thriving off of local music business, hip-hop studies in schools, concerts and performances at parks and relevant resources at local libraries. In reference to the latter, hip-hop studies has been steadily growing in popularity amongst high-school and college students due to its relevance, its aesthetic appeal, and its untapped potential; libraries should recognize this cultural paradigm as an important asset to help foster literacy, research and critical thinking amongst students who feel alienated by irrelevant curriculums.

While contemporary media might have us think that hip-hop simply highlights a list of problems making up a modern deficit-based model, hip-hop culture often takes on a dramatically different role in local communities than the commercialized mainstream expressions of hip-hop, incorporating linguistic traditions, dance, visual arts and turn-tabling. Both as a culture and as a value system, Hip-Hop is able to transcend the limitations of deficit-based models because it “grew from an asset-based approach, making new music from old records and discarded turntables, telling stories with skilled combination and delivery of words, creating dance on a piece of cardboard on the street, and painting enormous colorful murals with a few cans of liberated spray paint and appropriated canvases” [Borrup, Tom, What's Revolutionary About Valuing Assets as a Strategy in Cultural Work? ] . Hip-hop artists “use what they have and are masters of creative re-use and remixing”[Ibid] , which also serves to help incorporate traditional cultural values and historical knowledge in fresh new formats, preserving important community culture which might otherwise be lost. Hip-hop has shaped and informed so many young men and women in my generation, both positively and negatively, “yet it has not been heralded as an asset in itself but cited as examples of depravity or evidence of a lack of access to legitimate culture”[Ibid] . Hip-hop should be heralded as an asset because it has already produced a plethora of original artists who collectively speak for our generation as a whole. Furthermore, even negative hip-hop that does focus on depravity and hardship should be seen as a potential asset, because either way it is still an accessible form of expression, personal identity and dialogue, which can foster a deeper collective understanding of marginalized individuals.

In order to maximize social capital within the framework of a community assets approach, it is important to focus on processes and participation so that community goals and practices are continually re-calibrated to efficiently maximize available resources and infrastructure. Hip-hop can be a positive tool in achieving both. While hip-hop is not a perfect cultural paradigm for directly achieving social change, it does provide relevant methods for addressing community needs, strengths and common goals. Mainstream media’s portrayal of hip-hop (as parochial and exploitative as it may be) still allows for collective critical thinking that can help deconstruct stereotypes, narratives and common misconceptions. The more open and honest dialogue there is, both between peers and across generational gaps, the more social capital can build, as people find different things that can help them relate to others, while also exposing how much we can learn from each other’s experiences and wisdom. The networks that result from this process can help sustain, develop and coordinate between different levels of community assets resulting in collaborations, coalitions and co-programming. While hip-hop is undeniably a unique cultural paradigm, wrought with its own shortcomings and merits, it is important to realize that it is most significant as a contemporary model for engaging today’s youth and not as a long-term solution for community building.

III. Hip-Hop and Collaborative Leadership: Overcoming the Disconnect

In the context of university-community partnerships, collaborative leadership seems to be more rigorously defined in theory than it is executed in practice. The reason most university-community partnerships inherently fall victims to this disconnect stems from the limitations placed on federally funded service projects at the university level. Service projects must be, by necessity, apolitical and deemed worthy of approval by people who are far removed from the local circumstances in question. What’s more, the privatization of higher learning in America reflects the traditional white patriarchal monopoly of colleges and universities, which have become increasingly more like corporate powerhouses than institutions of education. In that sense, Public Service programs are not necessarily driven by moral necessity but perhaps also by financial reactions to other competitors within the market whose programs attract good students and more funding. For Tulane, investing more in the Center for Public Service after Hurricane Katrina was a no-brainer; the commitment to hurricane recovery and public service became a viable means of marketing the school. This is not to say that the Center for Public Service at Tulane, and other programs like it around the country, are not doing any good. In fact, the first Service Learning Course I enrolled in changed my life forever. Perhaps it was a rare instance among a vast majority of students who grudgingly fulfill their service requirements in often irrelevant or ineffective projects. Perhaps not. Either way, having experienced that joy, that wealth of real knowledge and that calling deep down to serve others, makes me certain that the program has the potential to do that for others, if not all, of its students. Hip-Hop for Hope was what made my college experience.

Still, I have two main reasons for being doubtful of best-practices (as distinct from best-theory) for university- community partner based collaborative leadership. The first is that I think the university, including its students, is disconnected from the experiences, the vernacular and the overall reality of some of its current community partners, and the community at large, and many potential partners are unable to share in an authentic collaborative effort to address real and widespread community needs. The second is that the motivation for social change in all parties involved (including student volunteers) whether present or not, is overshadowed by bureaucratic processes, ulterior incentives, and limited flexibility in addressing community needs. The Center for Public Service describes collaboration as “sharing resources, information and altering activities to enhance the capacity of other partners for mutual benefit” . It seems as if universities across the country have, for the most part, come to a consensus on certain paradigms and social theories, essentially forming a canon of public service at the university level. Visit nearly any college website and you will see similar authors and books cited in the mission statements. This narrative was created primarily out of a conglomeration of privileged, educated, decision makers attempting to establish a somewhat objective, politically correct and universally effective modal for public service. There is no shame in the effort to understand best-practices in public service, however, I think it is important that we remember it is a narrative which can often conflict with more immediate and widespread community issues.

In my own way, I am helping create a new narrative around hip-hop in the realm of direct civic engagement which reflects the prophetic strain of positive hip-hop while rejecting or reconfiguring the narratives of Constantinian hip-hop based on artistic commodification and capitalist markets [West, Cornel, Democracy Matters]. Hip-hop’s complexity as a genre, a culture, and a form of expression seems to be a reaction to the fracturing reality we live in, however it also seems to enables hip-hop to deal with the post-Modern nature of our experiences. The vast majority of the staff and students at most universities come from somewhat privileged backgrounds that are far removed from those of the communities they serve, today’s generation of high school and college students share a unique common bond. While hip-hop’s influence may not directly impact suburban and middle class students to the point that they would identify themselves as part of the hip-hop generation, the culture’s saturation in every facet of the marketplace has undoubtedly left some impressions, both negative and positive. Still, the common use of slang words, similar fashions, shared pop culture knowledge and the ability to relate to the general urban sensibility expressed in hip-hop creates more space for conversation, collaboration and understanding.

With Hip-Hop for Hope, I strive to achieve the standards of collaborative leadership, however I do not feel that any conception that is limited to strict definitions ought to determine one’s legitimacy or effectiveness as a community leader. I truly believe that best-practices come from experience, and though it is necessary to have a solid theoretical framework to maintain sustainability, I believe dialogue, adaptation and evolution are essential in collaborative leadership and the execution of relevant and effective service projects. "A collaborative” university-community partnership is a “mutually beneficial relationship between two or more parties who work toward common goals by sharing responsibility, authority, and accountability for achieving results”[Tulane University Community Partner Handbook] . If I were to apply for a partnership with CPS on behalf of Hip-Hop for Hope, we would potentially benefit from Tulane’s funding, volunteers, PR resources and the overall legitimacy of being affiliated with a prestigious university. In return, Hip-Hop for Hope would be providing Tulane and CPS with relevant service projects with wide-ranging impact and the capacity for social change, while also providing Tulane with more press, recognition, and credibility amongst local community residents. Hip-Hop for Hope differs greatly from other service projects, providing a wide variety of services, both financial and social as well as a number of different opportunities for involvement on both the university and the community end. Collaborative leadership is essential in creating significant social change, because there are so many different leaders and organizations who all have different talents, opinions and perspectives to contribute. The more democratic and accessible the process, the better the outcome will be. But still, behind the scenes we must work to meet our partners half-way, listening intently and maintaining open and honest dialogue. The idea of mutual benefit still confuses me, however, because the university and the community partner will almost always perceive mutual benefit differently. Even in circumstances where both parties are happy and satisfied, it is likely the case that one party is receiving more benefits than the other, due to different resources available. True mutual benefits, if actually achieved, would likely yield a radical social transformation, because it would necessitate the rejection of many mainstream paradigms and common social conceptions. Who knows if academia is ready for such a shift in educational philosophy; if the status quo is any indication my guess would be that such a radical transformation is many, many years away.


Featherstone, Liza, et al. Students Against Sweatshops, Verso Publishing Co.,
London, England, 2002.

Flora, Cornelia, “Building Social Capital: The Importance of Entrepreneurial Social
Infrastructure”. NCRCRD Homepage, Ames, IA

Borrup, Tom, “What's Revolutionary About Valuing Assets as a Strategy in Cultural
Work?”, Reading Room. ©1999-2007 Community Arts Network

Center for Public Service Community Partner Handbook, 2007, Tulane University

West, Cornel, Democracy Matters, Penguin Books, Ltd., New York, NY 2004

Chrislip, David D. and Larson, Carl E. 1994. Collaborative Leadership: How Citizens and Civic
Leaders Can Make a Difference. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. 1994.


Talib Kweli: The Beautiful Struggle, Eardrum (Blacksmith Music)

Mos Def: "New World Water"

Lupe Fiasco: Food and Liquor (Atlantic Records)

Make sure you check out Lupe Fiasco's new album, "The Cool", for more lyrical genius... coming December 18th, 2007!!!