Hip-hop tries to break image of violence
With the kind of in-your-face boast common to the hard-edge beats of hip-hop, rapper Jay-Z rhymes out in a recent video: "No matter how much money I got, I'm still gonna sell rock, on the block."Skip to next paragraph
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Translated, he's still going to deal drugs in the neighborhood.
But youth activist Pee Wee Kirkland is determined that young kids see the truth in that artistic invention.
"You got to tell them selling drugs is against the law. Selling drugs, there's a consequence," he says. "And then you got to explain to them that Jay-Z ain't in Brooklyn selling drugs. He's in the [mostly white, exclusive] Hamptons."
Mr. Kirkland, himself a former gangster and drug dealer, is part of a nascent reform movement spearheaded by some of the biggest names in rap. Called Hip-Hop 4 Peace, it's determined to use the power of the industry to reduce the violence and change the face of the controversial genre. It was launched this week in New York by LL Cool J's former manager Charles Fisher and Grammy award-winning artist Chuck D.
At the core of their campaign is a conviction that amounts to heresy in some quarters of the rap world: that artistic images do influence behavior, especially when it comes to young people, and that the industry has a responsibility to counter the glorification of guns and street hustling with a realistic message that empowers kids, rather than landing them in jail.
The campaign is part of a larger transformation under way in the hip-hop world, which emerged from the ghetto in New York more than a quarter century ago. While the media has focused primarily on the violent lyrics and images, particularly in so-called "gangsta rap," many other artists have been developing a social critique and nurturing hip-hop's potential political power to deal with issues from education funding to gun control.
It's called "raptivism," and some analysts believe it has the potential of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s to transform America's political landscape.
"The potential is there, but it's still in its infant stage," says Carl Taylor of Michigan State University in East Lansing. "In one sense, they're much more powerful. [The earlier civil rights leaders] didn't have the avenue to parade the rage the rappers do."
The latent power of the movement became evident in June when almost 100,000 young people descended on New York's City Hall, joining teachers and labor activists to protest Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed $358 million cut in education funding. They came because rap entrepreneur Russell Simmons put out the call. But he also enticed them with a lineup of the industry's hottest hip-hop stars, such as Jay-Z and Chuck D.
Mr. Simmons, who founded Def Jam records, argues that hip-hop has always been the outlet for poor people's frustration, and if it parlays that energy into a political grass-roots movement, it can transform the nation. He founded the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network to fund community groups, arts programs, and political candidates. It's working with the Urban League on a literacy program and with the NAACP on a get-out-the-vote campaign.