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"There's been an unprecedented outpouring from the hip-hop community," author and hip-hop activist Jeff Chang comments. "[The response] is huge and massive and will continue to have shockwaves throughout the hip-hop generation for years to come. This is our 9/11."
Chang's book Can't Stop, Won't Stop, the preeminent social history of hip-hop, has been received by the hip-hop community and the mainstream press as nothing short of a revelation. The New Yorker hailed it as "one of the most urgent and passionate histories of popular music ever written." The book begins with the death of the civil rights movement in the early Seventies and chronicles the emergence of gang warfare in New York City and the subsequent birth of hip-hop. It goes on to capture the mounting tension of the summer of 1989, when Public Enemy and Spike Lee delivered a pop culture riot in the forms of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Do the Right Thing. And finally, and most grimly, Can't Stop, Won't Stop chronicles the social circumstances that led to the Los Angeles riots.
The overarching theme of Chang's book is that the 1977 blackout, the near-upheaval in the summer of 1989, and the riots of 1992 did not arise from a vacuum. They were the manifestations of social neglect, crippling poverty, and latent racism, and they all spurned varying degrees of cultural readjustment. Chang sees a similar dynamic playing out in the wake of the Katrina tragedy.
"[Katrina] is one of those pivot points that come along all so rarely," Chang says. "Every time there's a gap between reality and perception, hip-hop is likely to jump into the breach. I wasn't surprised that [Kanye] said what he did in that kind of form -- to break from formality and be like, öLook, this is the reality of the situation.' That's what hip-hop did back in '92 [during the L.A. riots]. But the difference is now we're a lot more organized."
The organization to which Chang refers stems from celebrity-driven initiatives, such as David Banner's Heal the Hood Foundation, as well as community outreach programs, such as New Orleans Network and Common Ground, that are remobilizing to provide relief to Katrina victims and ensuring they are not shut out of the rebuilding process.
"What I'm seeing are people trying to reactivate these networks that were put in place during last year's election," Chang says. "People say that P. Diddy and Russell Simmons didn't do shit [with Vote or Die], but they did. The celebrity efforts were crucial. You had a surge of youth voters last year. There were four million new voters last year between the ages of 18 and 29, and about 50 percent of those were urban, black, or Latin youth. That was an unprecedented surge. And I can tell you that folks weren't going there because of Kerry. It was because of hip-hop."
Activists within the hip-hop community may be mobilizing and organizing, but a pervading sense of chaos and unfocused anger remains. This mixture of outrage, tension, and absurdity was on full display Monday, September 19, at the Sunoco gas station on SW 27th Avenue and Coral Way as Puerto Rican hip-hop/reggaeton artist Bimbo attempted to give free gas to a few motorists to protest the Western world's perilous and seemingly insatiable hunger for oil.
Bimbo has been making the rounds on the Latin hip-hop scene for a few years now. He has worked with the likes of Celia Cruz, Marc Anthony, and Carlos Santana. For his latest single, "Fuleteame el Tanque" ("Fill Up My Gas Tank"), Bimbo wanted to project his discontent over the fact that Latinos are dying in Iraq. In the video for the single, he and his posse stuff money into the garters of strippers who wear masks resembling George W. Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Osama bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein. The message is clear: These people have a lot of blood on their hands.
"I'm here for the people that are dying in Iraq," Bimbo states. "It's a stupid war, and there's a lot of Latinos dying for nothing. I'm not someone who's real political, but if I can help people open their eyes to what's going on, then I'm here. We got to do something. We're all connected, and we have to be here for the people."
But as the 300-pound Puerto Rican hip-hop star railed against the war on Iraq and Western society's addiction to gas, the giveaway's participants wandered about the gas station, gawking at Bimbo's entourage -- the scantily clad "Freedom Girls" -- and anxiously filling up their SUVs and sports cars. Occasionally they gazed toward the sky, where in a little more than two hours the first feeder bands from Hurricane Rita would besiege Miami.
The scene was a strange disconnect of desire, fear, ire, and greed -- but in many ways it serves as a fitting metaphor for what's going on around us. All periods of political and cultural transition are marked by this kind of public (and by extension private) upheaval. But once we emerge from this period of shock and anger, it'll be time to use our energy for a constructive purpose.