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“You all here today are a part of history. We are conscious, we are not unconscious.”

  – Angela Woodson, 36, Co-Chair, National Hip Hop Political Convention

”We’ve gotta stop idolizing hip hop music as something that’s gonna save the neighborhood. It’s a tool.”

  – M-1 Mutulu, 32, Dead Prez

“The Civil Rights Movement was lost somewhere, blocked, not followed through. That’s why we have to have this dialogue in the first place.”

  – Ras Baraka, 34, Deputy Mayor, Newark, NJ

Whatever gaps divide the generations of Black America – in music, speech, and general “style” of life – they are secondary to the political divide that occurred nearly two generations ago when a segment of the Black “movement” decided to abandon mass action. Large portions of an intensely self-conscious Black “leadership class” disconnected themselves from mass organizing, believing their own upward mobility to be synonymous with “progress” for “The Race” as a whole. We are reaping the whirlwind of the late-Sixties era political mission divide – which gives the appearance of a generational split only because those who abandoned the “movement” nearly 40 years ago (and their successors) have been allowed to dominate Black politics to the present day.

It is incorrect to characterize the “Civil Rights Generation,” which is also the “Black Power Generation,” as having collectively skipped out on the “Hip Hop Generation” – those born after 1965. Actually, the more opportunistic elements of the broadly defined Sixties “movement” bailed out on everybody but themselves, including most of their young contemporaries. They packed their briefcases and strode briskly into the new age that had been made possible by the sacrifice of their generational peers, the thousands who joined the common jihad against legal American apartheid. As we wrote in the June 10 edition of :

Having won as many “rights” as they actually wanted, but uninterested in fundamentally altering power relationships in America, those African Americans who perceived Jim Crow as the only problem disbanded the “movement,” leaving poorer Blacks to their own devices. The pursuit of individual wealth is not a mass activity, although the aggrandizers never hesitate to invoke the plight of the Black masses when it is to their advantage.

In truth, much of the Black “leadership class” had not changed in the 100 years since slavery, holding fast to a self-serving “trickle-down” theory of racial advancement – and believing in their version of “trickle-down” as fervently as any ideologically committed Republican businessman. For far too many of these ambitious men and women – many of them quite young in the Sixties and early Seventies – the “movement’s” very purpose was to advance those segments of the Black population that were deemed “ready” to enter and compete in white society as it existed. The “unfinished business” of the struggle was to further advance that class’s interests, so that it might speak more effectively on behalf of – and provide role models to inspire – the rest of Black America. “Help us become rich and influential; it’s good for the whole community,” said the post-1968 Black leadership class, demanding support from the ghetto while simultaneously claiming personal credit for every achievement.

Conned from the inside

Much of the leadership class urged Blacks to rely on elections as the only post-Civil Rights form of mass activity. African Americans were instructed to fight for candidates on a seasonal basis, but not for themselves, or in any other forum. In effect, they were told to stand down until called upon at election time. Thus, the “movement” was disbanded, except for those activities that directly benefited the “leaders.” Mass Black politics, which according to Julian Bond spawned 10,000 demonstrations in the year 1963, was henceforth to be confined to the polls. The decisive political domain would be limited to elected officials, the broker-politics of established churches, lobbying (a form of brokering), and the expansion and legal defense of past civil rights victories. This kind of politics works fine for the well-connected, who have plenty of private social, economic and political levers to pull every day of the year, but “trickle-down” Black politics led to disaster for the masses of Black people, now captives of a class that had only its own interests in mind.

Black youth were especially marginalized by the leadership class’s insistence on narrow electoral and brokered politics. Mass movements cannot exist without the energy, creativity and risk-taking of youth – but the post-Civil Rights leadership class did not want a mass movement, nor was it interested in risking its newfound mobility. Put simply, with the exception of young people who might be groomed to the upwardly mobile, professional ranks, the leadership class had nothing that it wanted Black youth to do – other than stay out of jail and avoid embarrassing “The Race.” That admonition was mooted by the larger white society, which by the mid-Seventies had embarked on a national policy of mass Black incarceration (see “Mass Incarceration and Rape: The Savaging of Black America,” June 17.)

It is easy to complain that the once-tiny Black leadership class celebrated the death of Jim Crow by simply running away to the suburbs, abandoning the inner city. The truth is more complex, and more damning. Although this class – which has always equated mobility with leadership – has largely physically removed itself from the urban cores, it continues to impose its self-serving, narrow ideology on Black political discourse. What began as a wrong turn on the road to broad Black empowerment (the shutdown of the “movement”), has degenerated into hostility towards downwardly-mobile African Americans – the people that Bill Cosby says “are not holding up their end in this deal.” (See , June 3.) Cosby’s raw animus is applauded most enthusiastically by those African Americans who believe that the more prosperous elements of The Race have a right to lead – a fundamentally anti-democratic and, for an oppressed people, inherently self-defeating concept.

For almost four decades this petty and bankrupt worldview has been at or near the political cockpit, diverting Black people's attention and energies away from the core contradictions of their lives, encouraging them to invest their hopes in the fortunes of others who only look like themselves. This grasping, selfish class exercises inordinate influence on Black elected officials, many of whom view politics as just another route to upward mobility. The result is that Black America is deprived of what it most desperately needs: a mass movement that communicates with its many parts as it grapples with a hostile white society and state. Only out of such a movement can there emerge a genuine Black “community of aspirations” that is humane, democratic and politically effective.

In broader national terms, the Black leadership class wields very little power, and must therefore exercise whatever authority they can muster among African Americans through cultural and “moral” mechanisms. This tenuous cultural and moral authority – intimately linked with political authority – is directly challenged by hip hop. Whether one believes that hip hop is a full blown culture or, as Public Enemy’s Chuck D calls it, “a subculture of a people,” hip hop is a supremely democratic cultural manifestation that evolved in the absence of an African American political movement – a phenomenon shaped by youth on their own terms. Hip hop emerged at a time when the Black leadership class’s distance from and disdain for “the lower income people” had become transparently evident to inner city dwellers. A time when, in Dr. Michael Eric Dyson’s words, “we saw the political economy of crack take over the lives of Black people.”

Black Power redux

To the extent that hip hop is overtly political, it celebrates the Black Power wing of the movement – the branch that the leadership class disavowed and the state police machinery most severely persecuted. Hip hop was a mass Black (and Latino) youth rejection of the bland corporate-packaged, Urban Adult Contemporary musical fare embraced by Black-programmed radio – and the distant worldview that went with it. (But not Parliament-Funkadelic, James Brown and the rest of the funk-sweat crews).

Most dangerously for everyone involved, hip hop is mass Black incarceration come home to roost.

By the mid-Eighties, only a (culturally) blind person could have failed to see that the prison experience had reached critical mass among Black youth in America’s big cities. The ill-fitting pants without belts, the unlaced or lace-less footgear – that was the culturally shared prison experience, manifesting. The hip hop “sensibility” cannot be separated from the pervasiveness of prison – its presence in ghetto life. It is the now-inescapable influence – the logical cultural product of objective facts. – , June 17

How amazing, then, that several thousand hip hop generation activists, including 500 mostly twenty-something delegates who registered 50 voters each, journeyed from 17 states to Newark, New Jersey, at their own expense to attend a National Hip Hop Political Convention dedicated to mass political struggle.

It is testimony to the Black liberation imperative that a movement that was “smothered” – Newark Deputy Mayor Ras Baraka’s words – still speaks loudly through the straight-talking medium and humane sensibilities of hip hop. Despite decades of widespread Black political misleadership and self-dealing that threatened to discredit the electoral process, itself, the young conventioneers remain committed to forging a national program for change, through the ballot and “by any means necessary.” Throughout the five-day gathering (June 16 – 20) featuring 50 workshops at Essex County College and neighboring Rutgers University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the delegates showed a maturity grounded in respect for history and love of humanity. Embracing their mission, they crafted and passed a Five-Point Agenda on Education, Economic Justice, Criminal Justice, Health and Human Rights, that reflects the progressive consensus among African American people – of all age cohorts.

Conscientiously and wisely, the organizers – who launched the convention out of their own pockets – structured each event and workshop so that participants would have the benefit of multigenerational experiences, the better to build a rooted movement. “I am an organizer and I believe that there can be no political struggle without spiritual weaponry,” declared Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, the 30-something Executive Director of New York Common Ground. Newark’s Bethany Baptist Church pastor Rev. William Howard, moderator of a panel on spirituality and a campaigner against South African apartheid when Rev. Sekou was a toddler, spoke of “a spirituality that equips you for struggle, that sustains you in engagement.” They were on the same page.

Fifty-something Young Lords Party founder Panama Alba denounced New York police posting of snipers at the recent Puerto Rican Day festivities, “as if our celebration was an act of terrorism.”

“That is the criminalization of your generation,” Alba told the crowd. Next to him sat Marinieves, his activist daughter. “We are so stuck in this hip hop bubble, we don’t realize that globalization is happening,” said the former social worker. “We need to understand the complexity of the struggle, and look outside of ourselves.”

Ras Baraka, the Newark Deputy Mayor and school vice principal, son of poet/playwrite Amiri Baraka, is young enough to get away with telling a hip hop audience, “Stop acting like kids, like children. You organize, and whatever you want, you take it.”

At 58, Newark schools Superintendent and workshop panelist Marion Bolden wrestles with bureaucracies and political tendencies of all kinds. At the end of the day, she knows what’s most seriously lacking in the lives of Black Americans:

“There’s no movement. There needs to be a movement.”

We’ll have more on the National Hip Hop Political Convention, next week.



June 24 2004
Issue 96

is published every Thursday.

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