King, Hip-Hop and the New Movement
Excerpts of speech given at Scotland County, NC N.A.A.C.P. Youth Council's MLK Birthday Celebration - Jan. 15, 2008.
I must start with a confession and some of you may relate to what I have to share. It is only in the past 7 to 8 years that I have truly begun to appreciate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As part of that first generation to grow up with the influence of hip-hop, I was more drawn to Malcolm X than Martin King. Hip-Hop at its best has been a means of cultural and political expression for young people; especially those struggling to survive at the bottom of society. Hip-Hop is known to be raw, gritty, uncompromising and unconcerned about what those on the outside think about it.
Malcolm X (or El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, his Arabic name) is believed to share these same characteristics and during hip-hop’s golden era of prolific, artistic innovation and heightened social and political consciousness, from the late 1980’s to the mid-1990’s, he was the revolutionary symbol that inspired many young people. Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X (1992), solidified Malcolm’s status as the patron saint of hip-hop as many young people rushed to purchase “X” baseball caps and t-shirts, including myself. It’s not that there was no respect or appreciation for Dr. King among youth, but the federal holiday created in his honor in 1986, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan under pressure from Congress and the American public, made some in the hip-hop generation feel that King’s memory had been co-opted by the mainstream society that they wanted to challenge, because for them, Dr. King’s dream of a racially inclusive democracy where every individual could achieve their God given potential was yet to be realized, despite the gains the Civil Rights Movement made possible.
Theologian, Dr. James Cone believes that the hip-hop generation has made a mistake in viewing Martin King as irrelevant in comparison to Malcolm X. He writes that, “They rap about Malcolm’s profound analysis of America’s racism without even mentioning how Martin organized a movement to fight against the racism that Malcolm analyzed.” Both men were religious leaders who were also revolutionaries. Malcolm was a cultural revolutionary who had a political impact. He directly inspired the Black Power and Black Consciousness Movements by challenging black folk to be proud of their ethnic identity, physical appearance, and African heritage, while he verbally attacked the ideology of white supremacy with his incredible intellect and wit. Martin on the other hand was primarily a political revolutionary. He lead the Movement that abolished racial segregation and secured voting rights for African-Americans and other minorities, with his eloquent speech and moral courage. Though the two men only met once, and though their public comments about one another were not always friendly, they inevitably had an influence on each other’s social philosophy.
In his annual address at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” (Atlanta, GA; 1967) King made an appeal to black consciousness that surely would have made X proud and should resonate with African-Americans in the hip-hop generation. Here’s what he said:
As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery. No Lincolnian Emancipation Proclamation, no Johnsonian civil rights bill can totally bring this kind of freedom. The Negro will only be free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive [personhood] his [or her] own emancipation proclamation. And with a spirit straining toward true self-esteem, the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-[contempt] and say to himself and to the world, ‘I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history, however painful and exploited that history has been. Yes, I was a slave through my foreparents, and now I’m not ashamed of that. I'm ashamed of the people who were so sinful to make me a slave.’ Yes, yes, we must stand up and say, "I'm black, but I'm black and beautiful.
...Hip-Hop (a cultural art form that emerged in the mid-1970's) was an attempt by African, Afro-Caribbean, Latinos and others to find their voice and identity in post-Civil Rights Movement America. Though legal segregation and voter disenfranchisement had ended, young people in urban and rural areas suffered under de-facto segregation, felt estranged from the democratic process and trapped in a cycle of poverty and economic stagnation. Social service programs and public education budgets were cut, including funding for art and music programs.
Rhyming and freestyling over instrumental beats looped by two records on turntables (an invention by D.J. Kool Herc, an Afro-Caribbean immigrant from the West Bronx) replaced choir rehearsal and band practice. Breakdancers or “b-boys” and “b-girls” expressed the hip-hop attitude through gravity defying, bodily movement. Graffiti artists who were unable to create visual art in school made the urban landscape their canvass, and in a time of growing gang territorialism they crossed hostile borders to leave their mark by “tagging” their names on city walls and subways in an effort to escape the invisibility of their existence. It’s as if they were using graffiti to echo Dr. King’s proclamation that we heard earlier, “I am somebody. I am a person,” or to paraphrase French Philosopher Rene’ Descartes, “I ‘tag’, therefore I am.”
Hip-Hop at its inception was primarily about the sheer enjoyment of the music, the dance and the art. Originally, MC’s would rap to get the party started or would engage in freestyle “battles” to determine who had the most lyrical prowess. Though hip-hop emerges in part as cultural response to certain socio-economic realities, it’s political or protest tradition did not commence until 1982. This is the year that song called “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five with lead vocals by Melle Mel opened a new artistic frontier. Some of you may be familiar with the hook of the song that goes:
Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge... [Audience starts to sing along]
Oh, can we sing that together? [Laughter]
Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge
I’m trying not to loose my head
Its like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under
For the first time their was a popular song on the radio, as well as a music video, that did not boast about the lyrical skills of the rap artist, or provide a clever run-down of party life, but instead spoke to the poverty, educational inequity, and rising crime and drug use that plagued the inner-city.
Like the larger society, hip-hop has been a male dominated space with some notable exceptions. Artists such as MC Lyte, Queen Latifah and Lauryn Hill have made significant cultural and political contributions. Salt-N-Pepa, one of the most successful rap groups of all time cast a spotlight on racial profiling in “Negro Wit an Attitude” (1990):
Porche, Benz, and BM's are all suitable
For people who sell pharmaceuticals
That's a stereotype, that's the hype
Don't ask me why I have an attitude (all right)…
The cops are surprised to see a minority
Behind the wheel of this car, it must be narcotics
How else could she have got it?
A brown-skinned female with two problems to correct
Wrong color, wrong sex
Salt-N-Pepa gave voice to an issue that has affected young people since before the Civil Rights Movement, and after, while also acknowledging gender discrimination, which they have surely experienced on both sides of the color line. In his, “I Have a Dream” Speech, King observed, “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
In 1991, Rodney King was beaten by officers of the Los Angeles Department of Police. The subsequent acquittal of three of the four officers in 1992, set off a devastating riot while I was on the other side of the country in my high school in Greenville, North Carolina. I wanted to discuss the trial and the events that were unfolding in South Central L.A., but my history teacher said the situation had nothing to do with us. I can not remember exactly what I said, but I remember thinking, “You may not feel that this has anything to do with you, but a U.S. court has just said that it’s okay to beat a black man for speeding. It has a lot to do with me.” The youth of L.A. were dissatisfied and so was I.
But, were Dr. King alive then, he would have denounced violence as a means to oppose the racial and economic injustice that preceded the South Central riots, and had erupted in the Watts section of L.A. and other urban areas across the country in Dr. King’s own lifetime. King did not just challenge the violence committed by the black youth of his day, he confronted what he perceived as the unnecessary aggression of the government as well. The following is a passage from one of King’s most important speeches, called “Beyond Vietnam,” but is seldom quoted during our holiday celebrations:
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
This is the King that makes us uncomfortable, yet this is the King that the Hip-Hop generation is waiting to discover.
I work for an organization called GenerationEngage that is working to get young people more involved in our democracy through voting, civic education and access to political leaders so that they can participate in the dialog that makes democracy possible through the exchange of ideas and political solutions. As a graduate student of theology, I am inspired by the role that the church has played in our history to bring about a greater level of justice for all citizens. I am hoping that more people from all religious traditions and those who claim no religion at all will ask themselves, “What can I do, to make my community, my country, and my world a little bit better?”
We need not wait any longer for a Movement to come or a Leader to emerge. Dr. King talked about a revolution that was on the verge of erupting and still rages today. He said:
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.
During his lifetime Tupac surveyed the political landscape and concluded in his song "Changes": "…although it seems heaven sent / We ain't ready, to see a black President," (1998 Release). Whether or not that analysis holds true today remains to be seen. But, regardless of who becomes our next president, whether it is an African-American, a woman or yet another Caucasian man, there will be work for all of us do. We must hold our political leaders accountable to the promises they make. We have to vigorously educate ourselves, and each other, about the social and political issues of our day so that we can be informed citizens. After studying and deliberating on public policy, we must applaud that which makes us a more equitable, peaceful and prosperous nation and critique that which does not. Sometimes, we have to agree to disagree, but do not let anyone ever tell you that disagreement or dissent is unpatriotic. King represented the minority opinion on Civil Rights and on the War question. Many called him unpatriotic then. Today he is celebrated as an American hero.
The Hip-Hop Generation must join the world revolution by mobilizing around those issues that each individual feels most passionate about, whether it be reducing homelessness, providing healthcare coverage for every American, and or ensuring that every child not only here, but everywhere, has food to eat and books to read. But, we also have to work together to bring about the change that we want to see. One of my favorite songs of 2007 was “Make Me Better” by Fabolous and Ne-Yo. In the chorus Ne-Yo sings:
I'm a movement by myself
But I'm a force when we're together
Mami, I'm good all by myself
But baby you, you make me better
And my favorite line is when Fabolous says, “I'ma need Coretta Scott, if I'm gonna be King.” The Civil Rights Movement was bigger than Dr. King, and the New Movement is bigger than us. King knew that he could not make the sacrifices he was called to make without the support of his wife Coretta. He also knew that although he became the symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, were it not for the masses of people across the country marching to the same drumbeat of justice, his efforts would have been in vain. So vote, but do more than vote. Mentor a child (that child may be your own). Give to somebody in need. Join an organization that is making a difference in your community. Lift up your voice and let the world know that you are ready to take your rightful place in the New Movement.
 Cone, James H. Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998 . Boston: Beacon Press, 1999: 100.
 Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: St. Martins Press, 2005: 73-79.