Solidarity Hip-Hop Style
"Solidarity is not a matter of sentiment but of fact, cold and impassive as the granite foundations of a skyscraper. If the basic elements, identity of interest, clarity of vision, honesty of intent, and oneness of purpose, or any of these is lacking, all sentimental pleas for solidarity, and all other efforts to achieve it will be barren of results." -Eugene Victor Debs
When massive numbers of students at Howard University in Washington, DC threatened to take over the campus's A Building in early September, most newspapers turned the other cheek. Perhaps it was the demands of the demonstration--after all, few students in the midst of this recession can relate to drops in student financial aid or bureaucratic administrations (and yes, I'm being sarcastic).
It wasn't until the celebs came out of the woodwork that the story got any kind of national attention. Specifically, it came when hip-hop mogul and Howard alum Sean "P. Diddy" Combs Twittered--yes, Twittered--his support for the students:
"NO JUSTICE! NO PEACE!!! Let me know if yall need me to come down there yall! I got yall BACK! Let's go!!!"
It's almost as if he were actually there. Except he wasn't. Reading the story on TMZ was to soak in a strange moment when the politics of celebrity, technology and the hip-hop generation collided in a rather warped way.
Diddy isn't exactly a stranger to Howard's legacy of protest. During his time as a student there in 1989, the campus exploded--once again taking over A Building in opposition to the appointment of Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater to the Board of Trustees. The uprising was so big that both Atwater and University President James Cheek eventually stepped down. What was young Mr. Combs contribution? Turning pictures of the building occupation into posters and selling them for $15 a pop!
Today, when both music and politics are a business before all else, Diddy's own personality has seemed to embody hip-hop's ethos--at least to the mainstream media. Much ink has been spilled debating how effective Vote or Die was. Diddy's Twitter certainly brought the protests more exposure, and you can't knock that. But in the end, his own position as a captain (or maybe a lieutenant) of the music industry naturally limits his ability to relate to the grassroots and the anger boiling in most ordinary heads' stomachs.
If corporate news outlets can crank out endless stories about a Twitter message and act as if a hip-hop mogul's support for a student activists is such a novelty, that's probably because so few of them are acquainted with the real power--and real solidarity--that the music can display.
One need only look to last spring when the acquittal of Sean Bell's murderers in blue provoked an array of tracks dedicated to Bell and protesting the verdict. Thanks to the internet, artists like Bun B, Papoose and Joell Ortiz were able to crank these songs out and get them to folks' ears within days.
Even past that, though, hip-hop holds a real potential to concretely link arms and push forward. I saw it myself this past April at quite possibly the best hip-hop show I have ever been to: Roots of Resistance.
Presented by the Gaza Aid Project and several local activist groups, Roots of Resistance was a direct response to Israel's bombardment of Gaza this past winter. The outrage provoked by this most recent crime of apartheid can still be felt now in the revitalized "BDS" movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) on campuses across the country.
Walking into the Logan Square Auditorium, it was clear that the organizers weren't pulling any punches about their solidarity with the people of Gaza. Palestinian flags flew from the front of the stage, which was also flanked by large portraits of Leila Khaled and quotes from Assata Shakur.
Even more significant was the diversity of the crowd: Black, white, Arab, Asian, Latino, sporting all different kinds of styles and dress, out to see an absolutely killer lineup. Rebel Diaz, Shadia Mansour, and DAM, along with M1 from Dead Prez rounding out the night.
After a few local opening acts--including the inimitable BBU, whose brash and bouncy sound will later get them an excellent writeup in Pitchfork--DAM take the stage: "Are you read for some Palestinian hip-hop?" emcee Tamar Nafar shouts into the mic. Naturally, the crowd goes wild.
Thanks largely to the film Slingshot Hip-Hop, DAM's international profile has grown exponentially. Hailing from the Israeli town of Lod, all three identify as Palestinian, rapping exclusively in Arabic. Surprisingly, the language barrier is a non-issue. It may sound corny, but different tongues can't overcome the fact that hip-hop's instinctual rebellion is itself a global language. "I learned English by having my dictionary in one hand and Tupac's lyrics in the other" says Tamar.
Mahmoud Jreri, also of DAM, takes it one step further. I'm lucky enough to interview him before the group takes the stage. "Music can connect people. And if I can use it so that I can bring a message or deliver something to the people that they don't know in a cool way--and not in a suit and tie and speaking down to them--just coming from the street and speaking their language, maybe they will know more about it because it's cool to hear it."
DAM's set is spectacular. Funny, poignant, infinitely energetic. But throughout their songs, there's little question what they are there to do. Their final song is possibly their best known: "Meen Erhabe (Who's the Terrorist?)." Loosely translated, their lyrics are a searing indictment of Israel's crimes against Palestinians:
"You attack me, but still you cry out,
When I remind you it was you who attacked me,
You silence me and shout:
'But you let small children throw stones!
Don't they have parents to keep them at home?'
You must have forgotten you buried our parents
Under the rubble of our homes.
And now my agony is so immense.
Who's the terrorist?"
Try finding that kind of outspokenness on MTV.
I ask Mahmoud a frank question: what would have have to say to a young Black or Latino hip-hopper who hears DAM's rhymes but wonders why he should care. "I think we share the same social and political struggle," he responds, "or any minority living in a different place on this earth. If I can bring them my message through music, they can bring me their message through music. I knew about Latin and African American music through hip-hop, and how they live. I hope that I can bring my life to them, tell them how I live. It's a world-wide struggle for equality and for ending the regimes so people can be equal."
Shadia Mansour takes the stage after DAM. She is a slight woman, wearing a traditional Arab thob. And though her music is steeped in tradition, there is nothing meek or conventional about it. "I can never get onstage and perform without letting the Zionists have it," she says dryly.
Mansour performs a gorgeous mix of hip-hop and Arabic folk. One would think this would make for an awkward mix, but in her case, it works incredibly well. Her songs are delivered in a singing voice that is haunting as her flow is fierce. Once again, the lyrics are in Arabic, but like with DAM's set, it's no question where her sympathies lie: "If the struggle lives in Palestine, then the struggle lives in Africa, it lives in South America, it lives all over the world."
Shadia Mansour is the last Arab act to perform that night. But that feeling of unity in struggle doesn't dissipate in the least. Rebel Diaz, the trio of revolutionary lyricists from the South Bronx, go on directly afterwards. There is an undeniable urgency to their songs--a steadfast, unrelenting stomp that simply refuses to let go. I've interviewed them beforehand, and judging from the words of the group's RodStarz, it's obvious that the urgency isn't an act.
"This is needed because right now, we're in Logan Square, a community that's being gentrified--Puerto Ricans getting displaced left and right. The reality is that some of these young people coming out for a hip-hop show tonight are going to leave with a message: the shit that's going on in Gaza is an abuse of human rights, it's inhumane, it's genocide. So it's needed because that's why hip-hop is here. Hip-hop is here to say 'listen!'"
It's hard to not listen to Rebel Diaz's set. They don't just move around the stage. They own the stage! As each of the three--RodStarz, G1 and Lah Tere--take turns on the mic, you can see the other two completely focused on what's being said. Over the years they must have played and performed these lyrics hundreds of times. But hearing them delivered tonight, it's apparent that not one word has become stale or played out.
The crowd, for their part, are lit up by this. They gladly listen as the group pleads to connect the dots between Gaza and the US: "When we talk about Palestine, we need to talk about freeing Puerto Rico, about stopping police brutality, we need to talk about immigrant rights." When Lah Tere, the group's sole female member, speaks up for the brothers in the crowd to respect their sisters in the movement, the audience applauds loudly.
In light of all this, M1's set is somewhat anti-climactic. Given that he's performing Dead Prez tracks with only half the group there, much of the performance is disjointed. That being said, there are real moments when the spirit of the night comes to an appropriate high point. He kicks off with "Turn off the Radio," and performs most of the group's favorites (often including stic.man's verses).
It's important to point out that without Dead Prez, some of the performers at the Roots of Resistance show might not be here. What's more, it's entirely possible that some of the organizers might not have been where they are either. M1, along with stic, have built themselves up over the past fifteen years, turning countless young heads onto radical ideas of struggle and liberation. But it's not about M1 tonight. It's about all the groups, and--more importantly--the broader world they are attempting to change for the better. This is apparent when he brings up all the other acts to perform with him during "Hip-Hop."
During these few short hours, Chicago's Logan Square Auditorium became a bit more than a mere venue. It became a platform stumping for real, tangible solidarity. As G1 told me, "it creates a space where we can lead struggles." This might be interpreted as hyperbole, but given everything that is going down in the United States right now--from racism and homophobia to the very assault on our right to a decent living--ideas like these are carrying a lot more currency.
It's been five months since this show, and it's example sticks in my head as a sterling example of what is possible through music and hip-hop. For years, I had read about the Rock Against Racism shows during the '70s, which brought punk and reggae acts together to fight a growing fascist threat on the streets of Britain. The accounts of dynamic, immediate music channeled into a bottom-up social struggle--which in essence admitted that music had a natural and vital role to play in the real world--had seemed like something urgently needed today.
This is the kind of solidarity that a Twitter message simply can't get at. Even the Vote or Die campaign, with its top-down, celeb-focused modus operandi, couldn't quite play at the possibilities of hip-hop that were displayed at Roots of Resistance.
Music itself can never be "the weapon." As Mahmoud Jreri said, "music is important, but for a real revolution you need more than that. You need people who fight, you need people who take your issue to the media, and you need people who fight for your rights. And this is how you will get your freedom."
That may be true, but one can't knock the role that music--hip-hop especially--plays in not only giving that fight a voice, but providing a glimpse of what this world might look like if all our voices mattered.
Roots of Resistance is far from the last word. As the world-wide recession continues unabated, the struggles that could open up can't be predicted. Young people's anger isn't going anywhere, but neither is their creativity, their intelligence, and their ability to reach across boundaries and link arms in the fight for something better. There's really no limit to what can get done when that energy is unleashed. It's just as true for music as it is for activism, and even the notion of running the world for ourselves.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist, writer and activist living in Chicago, runs the blog Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com). He is a columnist for SleptOn Magazine and The Society of Cinema and Arts, and a regular contributor to Socialist Worker and ZNet.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.