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April 20, 2007

Hip-hop meets activism in odd anti-Bush partnership

Break-dancers, spoken-word artists, and musicians tore up the International House stage on Tuesday evening to the rhythm of a manifesto: “Make Hip-Hop, Not War!” The event marked the Chicago stop on a nationwide tour that fuses hip-hop and political activism. Two organizations with markedly different agendas—The World Can’t Wait and Hip-Hop Caucus—have joined forces to “transform protest as usual into total social upheaval,” in the words of World Can’t Wait steering committee member Samantha Hamlin.

According to Hamlin, the tour is an attempt to “raise consciousness and reach young people through music” for the ultimate purpose of demanding “the impeachment and indictment of the entire Bush administration” for “war crimes, use of torture, assault on women’s rights, and mov[ing] towards theocracy.” World Can’t Wait, the grassroots organization responsible for organizing the political facet of the tour, has 235 chapters nationwide, including one at Columbia College Chicago. This event was organized by two students at CCC, who got the crowd riled up by chanting the slogan: “2008 is way too late/ Drive Bush out/ The world can’t wait.”

The Hip-Hop Caucus, on the other hand, has no political affiliation; rather, the break-dancers of that organization are head-spinning and popping-and-locking their way toward the goal of a more positive portrayal of hip-hop. Reverend Lennox Yearwood, the patriarch of the Hip-Hop Caucus family, describes his chief concern as the media’s tendency to unjustly hold hip-hop accountable for a variety of crises and tragedies. When Yearwood took the stage amid blaring beats from a snare drum track remixed by students at local Chicago high schools, he passionately denounced local radio stations for their dismissal of his activist cause and their interest in his professional affiliations with rap superstars. Yearwood is campaigning against what he believes to be the unjustified notion that hip-hop is inherently violent and arguing that the music is primarily a form of positive self-expression.

Choklate, a Seattle native who joined the tour only five days ago, says that she joined because she had “never really been exposed to the way politics worked,” and a friend who had participated in the tour told her that it would make her more aware. Choklate’s music describes coming to understand one’s own power and recognizing that topical things are ultimately insignificant. Choklate says that her music is written out of the realization that “part of becoming proud of existing as a human, and as a woman in particular, is discovering that there is more to life than hair and make-up.” Choklate plans to remain on the tour—an ever-changing caravan of artists, activists, and veterans of the war in Iraq—for another week.

Hamlin says that the relationship between World Can’t Wait and the Hip-Hop Caucus—united under the umbrella of a coalition called Impeach ’07—is not as unlikely a union as it may initially seem. Historically, Hamlin says, student activism has played a major role in political movements, and she is convinced that “the mission of this generation is to drive out the Bush regime.” The logic here, it seems, is that hip-hop is the music of the young generation, so hip-hop is an ideal vehicle for rallying youth support for the movement.

Certainly, rapping about political issues is nothing new; what is unique about this fusion of politics and hip-hop is the successful partnership between two organizations with very different political agendas. Judging by the performances of the Hip-Hop Caucus, it seems that not all of the participants are as passionate about social overhaul as Hamlin, who claims that her cause is “resistance against a regime that has suppressed science, neglected citizens, and exposed themselves as criminals, liars, racists, and sexists.” Choklate’s music, on the other hand, is not explicitly anti-Bush—rather, the music is a rallying cry for young people to be more politically active and aware. Choklate says that her primary concern is “raising a new generation of leaders who are educated about their role in the future through an education about how Congress works and their rights as individual citizens in a democracy.”

Liz (last name withheld by request), a Hyde Park local and Hamlin’s fellow World Can’t Wait member, says that she chose the U of C campus as the venue for this event because she knows “that U of C students are knowledgeable about [politics], but [she] noticed a void when it comes to in-the-streets activism.” Liz hopes to arouse community consciousness, since she thinks most political activism occurs downtown. The tour held assemblies at a local Kenwood school all day Tuesday, hoping that the day’s events would inspire local residents to jump on the bandwagon of political activism.

Footage from Tuesday evening’s event will soon be available on YouTube, and whether or not one subscribes to Hamlin’s political views, the dancing is hot, the music is cool, and the spirit of empowering self-awareness is infectious.