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Activism, hip hop and politics

By Nisa Islam Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Sep 25, 2019 - 10:07:53 PM

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WASHINGTON—What started 15 years ago by the Hip Hop Caucus as an off-site topic during the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference, has now become a standing room only workshop featuring notable names in the world of hip hop and politics.

This year’s workshop was co-sponsored by Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) and moderated by longtime journalist Roland Martin, host of the internet daily show Roland Martin Unfiltered.

(L-R) Linda Sarsour, Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Roland Martin, Rep. Andre Carson

Rap music, hip hop culture and politics have interconnected for years with artists often expressing the frustration, pain and observations of disenfranchised Black, Brown and poor youth and pointing out injustices and inequities in society through their lyrics and actions.

Mr. Martin asked activist Linda Sarsour, executive director of MPower Change, to explain how she educates artists and entertainers about issues they need to be informed about. “What is the difference between an activist and an organizer?” he asked.

“We are organizers because it’s about one plus one plus one plus one. That’s mass mobilization. That’s mass organizing. An activist is an individual and activists are important. We are not saying they are not important. But an activist is one person who cares about something and does some stuff around that thing that they care about,” said Ms. Sausour, a Muslim of Palestinian descent born in New York.

“An organizer is someone that believes that their power comes from organizing and building power with other people in the communities that we come from,” she said.

The title of this year’s workshop was, “Hip Hop and Politics-Securing the Bag: Harnessing Financial Power to Influence our Community and the World.”

“What I’ve said to people about organizing and getting money; we have been taught as people of color, as immigrants, as Black people that you don’t have money. You don’t have power. You are all poor. But that’s actually not the case because who gets to define what wealth actually means? I don’t define my wealth by the money that I have in my pocket. I define wealth by integrity, by communities, by the amounts of churches and people who go to the church and go the mosque and people who are good to their community. They are doing good at the communities,” she added. Ms. Sarsour said people have more money than they think.


“What if you decided that one day a week, you were not going to buy a lottery ticket? That’s five dollars you just put back in your pocket. Then you have $20 at the end of the month that you can give to a local organizer of the anti-gun violence group, a local food pantry in your community. Give it back to the church that’s doing social justice. We got money,” she continued.

“What we have to realize is that $20 plus $20 plus $20 plus $20, that’s what makes money. I am not looking for the big donations. In fact, we try to run away from the big donation, because there is no big donation that don’t come with strings attached.”

Mr. Martin told the audience during the Sept. 13 session, “Look at Bernie’s campaign. He raised the most money in 2016 and the average donor donation was 20 bucks.”

The panel also included critically acclaimed singer Ro James; activist Tamika Mallory, co-founder of Until Freedom; Dave Mays, founder of Source Magazine; social justice activist Jeff Johnson of JJ Communications and rapper Chi Ali Griffith who spoke about the challenges of coming out of prison and getting acclimated in society.

In most prisons the illiteracy rate is 85 or 90 percent, Mr. Martin pointed out. Chi Ali agreed.

“In prisons, the illiteracy rate is so high. When they come out, 95 percent of the people in prisons are coming home to our communities and they will revert to what they know. What we know is grabbing a new gang, grabbing drugs. So, if we want to change, we have to—I think it’s imperative that we push education in the prison system,” said the rapper, who burst on the scene in the early 1990s as a teenager and as part of the Native Tongues collective, that included such hip hop stalwarts as A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and Queen Latifah. He served 12 years in prison for manslaughter but has turned his life around.

“When I was incarcerated, I completed my associates degree at the University College. When I was there, everyone who graduated and went home, there was zero percent recidivism rate,” said Chi Ali. More colleges are needed inside of prisons but they are being eliminated, he explained.

“I think that’s the key. We have uneducated brothers because we are coming home to this misconception that our friend is getting all the money. He will bless us. It will be like we picture in our dreams and it’s not like that.”

He added, “When we get home, it’s the harsh reality that everybody is rapping, and you might not get put on. No one is coming to give you some money. What will you do? Most of us are without education. How can we get a job that will pay us anything that we want and really just to maintain a realistic life when you don’t have a real education? I think we must push education.”

For more than a decade, the Hip Hop Caucus has led young people in the recovery and fight for justice following Hurricane Katrina, and sparked leadership to address the climate crisis for communities around the country. The organization stood up against unnecessary wars and corporate greed of previous presidential administrations and in 2008, launched what is now the longest running, most successful Hip Hop voting campaign ever, Respect My Vote!

“As a civil and human rights organization for the 21st century, for 15 years we have marched against injustices of police brutality, gun violence, voter suppression, economic and educational inequality, and a biased criminal justice system. But there’s more than marching in protest,” explained Rev. Lennox Yearwood.

“We advocate, organize, and build alliances for solutions, and have supported so many policies that have led to real change in our communities over the years,” explained Rev. Lennox Yearwood, founder and CEO of Hip Hop Caucus. (Final Call staff contributed to this report.)