The lamentation of the B-Boy, the MC, DJ, and graffiti artist seem like they are now, at this moment, one in the same. They lament in spite of and amidst the crocodile tears of mainstream media that hip-hop is dead. The forefathers of hip-hop turn in their graves, while those who helped make it erudite become vengeful ghosts, not holograms.
The term "hip-hop" has been co-opted. One can emulate and market the clothes, the beats, the samples, emulate the moves, and even Instagram one's way into the latest trend with a picture of graffiti, but it's all form, no substance. The substance of hip-hop cannot be misappropriated because hip-hop is the shadow. It lives in basements and exists as an impression left by those who are voiceless in a world where oppression exists. The independent artist - not the sensationalized “unsigned hype” that pays for ad space on hip-hop rags, but the true independent artist, the griot - continues to write in their pad, spit rhymes to the beats made in the environment, to the pulse of the earth.
It is my goal as an artist to cultivate that energy, that genuine love for the art, hearkening back to the lost art of telling real stories - to capture what is happening here and now, for our own posterity, in a voice and with a passion so strong that they understand our angst and come face-to-face with our hope. While I was making my latest album, two events shook my life: one half a world away, the other less than half an hour. First was the genocide in Bahrain, and second was Occupy Oakland.
The genocide in Bahrain truly shook me, because I was watching live footage (I had to look for it of course, since Western media ignored it) of an actual genocide of a minority in Bahrain, an ally of ours. All our government talked about was Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. Not even a footnote about Bahrain. This from a nation that condemned the Holocaust. Then again, this was from a nation which perpetrated what many refer to as the Black Holocaust, i.e. the Middle Passage, and tolerated Black Codes, Jim Crow, lynchings and the like, all the while stealing the land from a people we actively exterminated.
Bahrain was hip-hop: those being massacred needed to be acknowledged, their lives needed to mean something. With the help of my Boston-based colleague, Yusuf Abdul-Mateen, we created the following video and song to capture and spread the news of what was happening to audiences in the West:
The second was Occupy Oakland. I was not an active participant of Occupy Oakland, but I was out there on several occasions, including when the police first decided to round up everyone at 5 a.m. and kick people out of Frank Ogawa Plaza. I was there when, as during a parade, officers from districts all the way from Fremont showed up, in new police vehicles, with batons, tasers, guns, tear gas canisters and riot gear. I watched as University of California-Berkeley police joined the ranks, and I was pushed and prodded to the other side of Broadway. Making my way on foot to a ride that was waiting for me, reflecting on the incident, I pulled out my iPhone and began to type away.
I began to write without a beat, and contacted Zumbi of Zion-I, a Bay Area based conscious M.C., and he agreed to participate. We documented the events of Occupy Oakland, which at that time began to resemble a scene out of war-torn Iraq. Sadly, it was happening in the place I call home, the Bay Area. Even more sadly, many in the Bay moved through life like machines, driving past Oakland without a clue as to what was happening.
I was able to capture, in verse, my angst over what was happening, and Zumbi and I were able to put together the following video of the events that transpired in our home, thanks to friends and colleagues who lived in the area, my own visits to the Occupation and live tweets and words of encouragement from Boots Riley of The Coup.
Feel how you will about hip-hop, but the lives of the human beings in Bahrain and Oakland are connected in a way, because mainstream media will not depict what is truly happening. You want to be “hip” to what is really going on? You want to be part of a movement? Then please “hop” on this grassroots train as it navigates through the shadows of a tunnel which leads towards the light of equity and equality, in a world of justice, balance and peace.
By Professor A.L.I.
A version of this post originally appeared on Professor A.L.I.'s blog.