San Francisco

Constant Elevation: The Rise of Bay Area Hip-Hop Activism

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 14, No 2 (Summer 2003)

Margaret Rea

In a crowded auditorium at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, funders, community activists, and artists gathered in March to listen to a panel discussion on hip-hop activism in the Bay Area. The goal of Constant Elevation: The Rise of Bay Area Hip-Hop Activism was twofold: to inform and educate funders about hip-hop activism and how it fits into foundation support, and to highlight local best practices that use Hip Hop as a framework. The diverse panel, which consisted of nonprofit leaders and activists of all ages and backgrounds, spoke to how and why hip-hop culture is an essential component of their community-based work with young people. Following the panel discussion, local hip-hop artists performed spoken word, rap, hip-hop theater, and dance in front of an enthusiastic audience.

Constant Elevation continued a discussion begun at a similar convening last July in New York sponsored by the Open Society Institute (OSI). The success and popularity of the first meeting inspired OSI to host a second convening. The Bay Area was a natural fit because of the strong presence of emerging and established leaders in the hip-hop activism movement. With the help of journalist/author Jeff Chang, consultant Amanda Berger, and a planning committee consisting of staff from numerous Bay Area foundations and nonprofits, Constant Elevation was organized to allow a serious discussion about hip-hop activism and its impact on civic engagement, youth development and organizing, and arts and culture in addition to local grantmaking.

But what is Hip Hop activism? As a framework for activism, youth have embraced Hip Hop as a culturally relevant tool to address a broad range of community concerns: youth organizing, youth development, popular education, and civic injustices. In creating art and expressing themselves, youth are able to advocate for a better life and social equity. Through the voice of the current generation, youth are making positive change in their lives and communities.

Hip hop activism is relevant to the work of philanthropists because Hip Hop is integral to the lives of young people. The art forms that constitute hip-hop culture (essentially dance, spoken word, music, and painting) provide a vehicle that youth use to implement progressive social change. Because hip-hop culture is ingrained in the lives of youth from all backgrounds and locations, it provides an attractive approach and framework for multidisciplinary and multiracial youth-led work. The role of Hip Hop in young people's lives cannot be underestimated. One panelist, Davey D of KPFA's Hard Knock Radio, said, "There's a significant population of people who are under thirty... who if you ain't talking Hip Hop to them, they ain't trying to hear you.”

The presence of hip-hop culture is not new, and in fact has been around for about thirty years. Hip Hop first emerged in the early 1970s in New York City, and by the early '80s was a clear cultural influence for young people across the country. Now, hip-hop culture is a global phenomenon and a multi-billion-dollar industry, influencing not only popular culture such as music and fashion, but also raising awareness among youth about race, power, and social injustices.

Hip-hop activists are clear that they do not identify with the commercialized and sometimes negative or derogatory aspects of mass media Hip Hop. Indeed, the very nature of “gangsta” style Hip Hop is counter to the hip-hop activism movement. Rather, a “conscious” style is embraced — one that respects different cultures, people, and progressive thought. To this end, youth have created alternative media outlets because they are not tolerant of corporate and mass media interpretations of young people and their culture. In creating media products such as CDs, videos, and literature that reflect their realities and truths, youth are able to represent and speak for themselves while demonstrating their entrepreneurial skills.

Panelists at Constant Elevation, who identify with this “conscious” style, discussed how Hip Hop has influenced their work. Organizations represented include: Let's Get Free, a youth-of-color organizing project fighting for police accountability; EastSide Arts Alliance, a collective of third world artists and community organizers who use the arts as a tool in the freedom struggle; Youth Speaks, a youth poetry, spoken word, and creative writing organization; Third World Majority, a young women-of-color new-media organization dedicated to working for global justice; Underground Railroad, an urban youth project that advocates for systemic social change through the creation and promotion of art and culture; Olin, an active force in the youth and student movement; and KPFA, a community-based radio station. Hearing the words directly from these nonprofit leaders helped the audience — a cross-section of funders, nonprofits, and youth — truly understand the importance of the role that Hip Hop plays in empowering youth to create social change.

I was struck by the depth and strength of the hip-hop activism movement in the Bay Area. The panelists spoke of effective and powerful youth-led work happening in our communities. Equally impressive as the panelists were the young hip-hop artists who performed after the panel discussion. The audience was on their feet, over and over again, cheering on the youth. I was particularly moved by the spoken word and rap pieces. Eloquent and thoughtful, the words spoken were moving and contained powerful messages about youth's perception of our communities.

An intersection between art, community development, and social justice, hip-hop activism is an emerging strategy initiated and embraced by youth to create social change. The movement is gathering momentum, and I am eager to see how the current generation will continue to make positive change in their lives and communities.

Several sponsors and collaborators helped make Constant Elevation possible: California Council for the Humanities, California Fund for Youth Organizing, Walter and Elise Haas Fund, The James Irvine Foundation, Northern California Grantmakers, Open Society Institute, The San Francisco Foundation, Tides Foundation, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Margaret Rea is arts and culture program fellow, the San Francisco Foundation.