Hip-Hop and the Art of Disruption

Last month we keynoted a four-day gathering for 120 leaders of the progressive movement here in our home area of the Pacific Northwest. We were asked to come in and disrupt the status quo; to shake things up a bit. As part of our work we created a leadership training process that happened within the larger gathering. We framed this process as a social experiment in which we explored, with a group of 24, a guiding question; “What if responsibility for the failures of leadership we see in the world falls not in the lap of the familiar bad guys – Monsanto, big corporations, Republicans etc- but is to be found within ourselves as progressives. What would happen if we really examine ourselves for the roots of our collective, institutional collapse?”

As part of our plenary that opened the gathering we framed our work within two contexts. The first is the realm of mythical story, and the second, the realm of hip-hop. Hip-hop, at least for my generation, really laid the foundation for what it can look like to disrupt the status quo across multiple domains: art, poetry, culture, class, and economics to name just a few. Hip-hop woke people up, it inspired, it disturbed, it made money; hip-hop paved a way into the conversation for many young people hanging in exile. How our work and presence in the gathering went down, or was thrown up in some cases, is a story into itself. For now, I want to look at hip-hop as a way to study what is going on in our world these days.

I started listening to hip-hop in 1985 on the bus on the way to basketball games. We had a bunch of kids on our team from Boston, and they would bring a boom box to all our road games. What I remember most about those trips was laughing all the time as some of my teammates attempted their riffs on the lyrics of Run-DMC, Slick Rick and Rakim.

In college, I found my way back into hip-hop and felt a deep resonance with the very radical and intelligent music being made by a small circle of east-coast rappers. They inspired me. Not only were they making great music, they were forging a remarkable destiny guided by incredible self-confidence, intellect, skill and business acumen. They seemed to me an extension, a small one perhaps, of so much of the revolutionary thought that emerged out of the 60’s and 70’s in the United States and abroad.

At the same time, I was immersing myself in the likes of Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael, Eduardo Galeano, Che Guevara, John Trudell, Daniel Berrigan, Robert Coles and Malcolm X. I learned Spanish so that I could travel to Latin America where I saw Rigoberta Menchu, listened to Daniel Ortega, studied with Guatemalan and Peruvian activists, built houses with Sandinistas, and was struck with the most amazing sense of wonder as I took in the pure love and affection the Chilean people showered upon Mercedes Sosa one evening as she filled a hundred-thousand seat soccer stadium in Santiago to capacity!

At the height of the gang crisis on the west coast in the 1990’s I worked with gangsters and their families, and they introduced me to more hip-hop. I will never forget the impact Tupac had on so many of those kids, and although his revolutionary pedigree dating all the way back to his namesake Tupac Amaru – the legendary Peruvian warrior and final leader – was invisible to them it did not matter. They were moved.

I reflect upon all this for two reasons. One, Jay Z and Kanye West released their much-hyped super-album last year. This album is important because in many ways those two still matter at a time when hip-hop is becoming increasingly irrelevant as a form of authentic cultural expression.  Two, hop-hop is all about beginnings: it is a primary from of music, it is the first vehicle of expression for many denied it, and at its best it lives or dies based on the ability of the artists to see precisely into the foundations of reality.

And when I listened to some of the songs again the other night I was struck by one in particular.  In Made In America Kanye West lays down a rather beautiful homage to powerful black leaders like Malcolm X and Dr. King, leading the listener into a place of reverence and respect. And then, in a manner that I found to be both abrupt and perverse, Kanye delights the listener with his material victories.  Literally, he seems to believe that the buying of his mom a Hummer is somehow equivalent to the accomplishments earned in blood by the likes of Malcolm and Dr. King. And the most amazing thing is that one walks away from this album wondering how this could happen to two of the most talented and intelligent artists out there?

What I see is that Kanye and Jay Z are emblematic of an end of an era. The revolutionary and radical history that hip-hop and many progressive groups have as their inheritance has now been eclipsed by something else (a something else that I will look at later). For now, what I can see is that the cost for the shift is intense, as the thinkers and actors that give shape and form to this inheritance understood how to create history.

They understood the place to begin intellectually, emotionally and spiritually when it came to reimagining one’s reality. They knew that material gains are only a means to a far greater end. Fundamentally speaking, they knew that one had to earn the right to speak, and that no real community could ever grow out of those that put the pursuit of individual wealth above individual evolution.

The truth is that Kanye and Jay Z represent a part of all of us. We are trying to find our way in a universe that is unforgiving and relentless. We want a hook, a plan, and a way to win control over our lives. I don’t think the likes of Seth Godin, Depak Chopra and the four-hour everything are all that different other than the fact that they disguise themselves better than Kanye and Jay Z. This is perfectly natural perhaps, but undermines and deceives us at every turn.

To test this, listen to Dr. King’s last speech before he died.  Notice what you feel and see. Read “We Say No” by Eduardo Galeano or “Geography of Faith, Conversations Between Daniel Berrigan, When Underground, and Robert Coles.”  Where do those words take you in yourself? I am not saying we ought to go back in time, only that we are lost in time – in a kind of foggy haze that has us deeply confused about how to begin to change ourselves.

The good news is that there are greats before us – some of them are on the track “Made In America.”  Their ideas, beliefs, commitments and visions are a worthy place to start for sure.