Walking around the Glen Park neighborhood of San Francisco one afternoon, I was stopped by a volunteer working the streets to educate people about Hip Hop for Change, a non-profit that uses grassroots activism to teach people about economic injustices and offer solutions through hip hop culture. It got me thinking about what kind of hip hop I support and how just because something’s a banger, it doesn’t mean we need to support it at the expense of others. I talked to their fearless leader Khafre Jay to understand how mainstream hip hop is really hurting people of color (POC) and what we can do to change that. He’s an inspiring dude and I dig his energy to make positive change happen.
Who do you think is responsible for selling sexism, homophobia, materialism and violence as hip hop culture?
There are two layers to any question about hip hop. One layer is the individual level, where an artist creates narratives that can perpetuate and glorify these symptoms of power. Of course Lil Wayne is responsible for his narratives, just as Blackthought or Mos Def is, and on an individual level, we can have a conversation about that.
The problem is society, and stereotypes aren’t based on any one individual, and sexism, homophobia, materialism and violence isn’t a character trait of black and brown people, or the culture of hip hop, as is portrayed in the media. Every community has assholes. Sexism, homophobia, materialism and violence are tropes that are intertwined in American culture, yet brown and black people face a particular burden of being portrayed as the progenitors of these problems way too often.
When it comes to the true culture of hip hop, rooted in the tenants of peace, love, unity, and having fun, most artists are simply expressing their experiences and thought through not only rapping, but dancing, painting and music production. To say that hip hop is inherently sexist, homophobic, materialistic and violent is to say my culture is and my people are, and that would be ignorant at the very best. The community I know is full of activists, educators and leaders of all types, using hip hop to be themselves and buck the hype. That contrast in what I experience and what I see in media, brings me to the second layer; the music industry.
Three companies own over 90% of the entire media platform for hip hop: Warner Music Group, Sony Music and Universal Music group. They make 75% of their money from suburban white kids between 18 and 24 years of age. My nuanced culture and the community’s presentation has been taken down to the lowest common denominator of American media tropes; sex, drugs and materialism, for the easy consumption of a mass market that hasn’t lived those experiences to know the reality of the trash they tend to consume. So in the end, corporate media and capitalism is to blame. Capitalism is to blame because it creates the need for companies to grow large, eating competition and consolidating power, while killing the culture of art that it sells by homogenizing and industrializing it into easily marketable units, and moving the market from the originators of the form, who know and care about cultural nuances, to a new market of folks who have no ties to the roots of the tradition. In that paradigm, minorities lose, and lose big.
How does the way mainstream hip hop is pushed end up harming people of color?
Our country is more segregated than ever. In a recent study, three out of four white people were found to have no friends of color at all. The significance of this is that for three quarters of white people in America, their knowledge of POC comes from at best hearsay and at worst corporate media. When I look at TV, I see characters that reflect positive, diverse POC shown at an infinitesimal rate in comparison to positive, diverse white people. We can be “The Butler,” “The Help,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “Precious,” and win Oscars, but we can’t be Moses or Ramses, because Christian Bale and Jonathan Edgar make better, positive POC characters than us it would seem. We can win Grammys for speaking almost unintelligibly, degrading and defiling women and being heartless, but we can’t win Grammys talking like Macklemore, about LGBTQAI rights and privilege. I think that is due to the Grammy Association being mostly made up of white males who don’t understand the privilege they own.
We are teaching our society that the majority of POC are to be feared and distrusted. We aren’t being shown in our true, beautiful diversity. We are being typecast into playing a role that is killing us. American media is perpetuating age old narratives that have their foundations in the movie, “A Birth of a Nation,” and this is the reason I scare the shit out of random people on the street just for doing what they are; walking. This is why POC children get in trouble at school more and are arrested more. This is why we get longer sentences and studies show minorities are viewed as less innocent and more responsible for negative actions. We are being made out to be villains and imbeciles for the entertainment purposes of another community and it needs to stop.
Secondly, and most importantly, we have lost access to the very platform for our expression, which is more important for our efficacy, then how the world views us. Self-determination is what I believe we are fighting for; not love from media. We are fighting to own our cultural voices so we can pass along ideas, values and morals to our younger generations. We need to have our own spaces to foster the next generations of hip hop artists and role models, with similar lived experiences that will help navigate our next generations to maturity. The absence of this platform is the worst of what we face as POC, so we must reclaim that space whether the majority loves us or hates us.
How can we go about changing this? What can the everyday person do?
We must invest! We must work to build our own spaces. We cannot over take the industry with money because we do not have enough of it. Quite frankly, they can keep that shit! I want people to go check and see what local shows are playing, and instead of paying a hundred and fifty bucks once a year to see Jay-Z, spend ten or fifteen and go see a Do D.A.T. show in Oakland. Go look to see what local mixtapes are available and support a local dope artist buy buying their album. Stop being satiated by easily consumed garbage and dig in the proverbial crates of local music and find what resonates with who you are. After that, share it with the world. You can find a bunch of amazing local artists from the Bay Area on our website.
Tell us two things you’re really excited about right now.
I’m excited for all the activist movements that are coming together in Oakland, shining a lot of light on intersectionality within power structures. I know it sounds wonky, but there are so many different types of oppression that POC face, and the more light we have brought to these issues in Oakland, the more energy our community has gained, and it shows in every event and show I’ve been to. We need to keep riding this wave.
Secondly, I’m excited about HipHopForChange Inc. Since we started, we have grown into a grassroots powerhouse for hip hop culture, throwing shows to support and pay progressive artists, teaching hip hop values and skills in schools and organizations around the Bay, and promoting the true nature of hip hop with tens of thousands of conversations on the streets in order to counter the misconceptions of hip hop. I hope that anyone reading this, who wants to help get this monkey off our culture’s back, will check us out and see what they can do in their normal day-to-day lives, to help out our culture. Hip hop is important to us all.