One of the greatest accomplishments in my life has been facilitating safe havens for young people by using the elements of hip-hop culture. Hip-hop “culture” is not a complete culture by itself, it is an offshoot of black culture and includes expressions of art especially graffiti, breakdancing, dj’ing, mc’ing, beatboxing, fashion etc. This force has a dark side that is mass media’s favorite version to exploit. For those of us who use this force for good, we take the role of training young padawans very seriously.
The true force of hip-hop culture is its history of being a safe haven, an academy, a praxeum for black and brown children escaping the stress of street life while having an opportunity to perfect the art of expressing themselves. We are constantly exposed to the Siths and Darths who use the force to highlight violence, extreme capitalism and misogyny, but my tight knit group of us take our calling seriously. We respect the “dark side” and are often fans of many of its practitioners, but recognize the light that can be brought to our streets through the mediums and ideals of hip-hop. Hip-hop folklore has placed it as a protective and transformative force. The idea that hip-hop parties, ciphers, crews and culture as we know it were a response by the young people to the oppressive conditions of the South Bronx, is something we repeat in every grant application and every time we repeat our mission statements to our youth. This ideal runs across all of my favorite people involved in the culture, as well as their many projects.
My first mentor (and shining example of this idea of using hip-hop as an education too) Tim Jones, took the opportunities given to him by the Martha’s Table Teen program to create Crushed I.C.E., a program using hip-hop songwriting and music production to teach literacy and empower its students. I worked with him for years as kids from the most disadvantaged parts of Washington D.C. found their way through his doors to unite and grow under the banner of hip-hop. From beat production to song writing, this program showed teenagers what they were capable of when the rest of their environment were more prone to highlight their limitations. Tim himself credits his own success with the influence he got from adults who facilitated these safe spaces when he was a child, to the point he named his son after one of those facilitators.
Internationally known and locally respected MC and educator Gabe “Asheru” Benn (of the Boondocks theme song fame) is another prime example of a hip-hop facilitator and creator of safe havens for young people in the tradition of hip-hop. Through his organization Guerrilla Arts, thousands of kids have been introduced to artistic and educational possibilities that lay within hip-hop culture. Summer camps, after school programs, instructional educational books and empowering art are all elements that Guerrilla Arts has brought to our community here in DC. Countless students and numerous artistic and educational contractors can credit Gabe and the mission of hip-hop to create and facilitate these safe spaces for wonderful experiences and opportunities.
Mazi Mutafa (a long time classmate, colleague and friend) and his organization Words Beats & Life has been the prototype of how we can create safe spaces for our children, and facilitate exploration in the arts as well as artistic professional fields. They call they serious students apprentices, and take the role of modeling the next generation of hip-hop artists seriously. From running after school and summer camp sites throughout Washington DC, convening conferences where safe space creators from around the world can share best practices, and even publishing an academic journal on hip-hop, he has dedicated his adult life and professional career to continuing the legacy of hip-hop’s role in positive change in this community.
My sister Goldie Patrick is a shining example of what hip-hop can do for our youth when giving the space to learn and create through the culture. Females Representing Every Side of Hip-Hop (F.R.E.S.H.H. Inc) is doing so much to boost the self esteem and turn up the volume on feminine voices within the culture. Through organizations like hers, the hip-hop community has so many success stories involving our youth.
I will get myself in trouble trying to mention all the artists and educators I know who are fellow Jedi’s creating these spaces for our community. From Baltimore my brothers Black Root, Shodekah and Max Beats, to women who have dedicated their careers to creating these spaces like Toni Blackman and Melissa Princess Best. Here in DC we have Konshens the MC, DJ RBI, DJ Underdog, Flex Mathews (I could go through the contractor list for WBL Inc. and Guerrilla Arts to make this easier) are part of creating this safe space.
My first day at any school I tell my students this, “There are five elements of hip-hop, repeat them after me! ‘DJ’ing… Breakdancing… MC’ing… Graffiti…’ now point to your brain and repeat after me, ‘KNOWLEDGE!’. KRS-one told me that the 5th of element of hip-hop is knowledge!”.
As the most popular griot of these tales, KRS-1’s most celebrated subject has been Afrika Bambataa and the Universal Zulu Nation. We had all heard some version of history where Bambataa created a safe haven for the youth of the South Bronx. Of course hip-hop did not invent the “safe haven”. I participate in spaces that have revolved around African drumming, martial arts, poetry, graphic design, skateboarding, football, basketball, spelling bees, chess, and anything else that young people are drawn too. But hip-hop, and KRS in particular, have always championed these safe spaces as a pillar of the culture.
If you haven’t heard the story, it is basically that Afrika Bambataa, a key figure in the Black Spades street gang, created events based around hip-hop elements to give the youth of the South Bronx an outlet other than crime and violence. To hear KRS tell it, Bambataa squashed the gang violence for a period of time. KRS has a habit of being hyperbolic when describing the global impact of hip-hop and his role in it. Something I try to understand because I truly believe hip-hop saved his life. That said, there are videos dedicated to debunking some of his wilder claims that like the idea that the Universal Zulu Nation ended street wars, or that Grandmaster Flash invented the cross fader. But even knowing these things to be more legend than reality, I accepted this key concept of Bambataa being a facilitator of safe havens as fact.
The latest accusations against Bambataa fly in the face of this hip-hop genesis story. It paints a picture that Bambataa was using his fame as a hip-hop artist, and his influence in the community, to prey on the young people he was supposed to be protecting and nurturing. The idea that a founder of a culture is human, with human flaws and vices, that should not be a reflection of the ideas they espoused is not lost on me. I am completely prepared to champion the idea of safe havens provided by hip-hop. I see it with my own eyes through the people I have mentioned before. What I am not going to defend is KRS’s claim that he and Bambataa are “infallible” to the true hip-hop fan. This is the same claim that the Catholic church made about those who participated directly or through cooperation in the child abuse scandals. The idea that we must accept some leaders of our movement as abusers does not work as an excuse for the Catholic church, and certainly doesn’t work for hip-hop.
Let’s be clear. KRS is not claiming that Bambataa is innocent. He is claiming that he doesn’t even have to respond to the accusations. That Bambataa’s contributions to the culture override anything that he might be accused of. He could not be more wrong. One of the aspects of the culture he has held up to the highest praise (hip-hop’s foundation as a safe haven provided by Afrika Bambataa) is in danger of being exposed as a lie. A lie that by extension I have become a part of telling. The safe havens I have created have been truly that, safe. But I have done this in the name of hip-hop, and claiming to uphold an ideal that connects me to the forefathers of hip-hop. Trust me, I would have taught children any way, and made music anyway, but hip-hop fits my message and style so well. I have been blessed by the sub-culture that Bambataa was instrumental in creating and KRS-1 has been monumental in promoting. Now, however, I have been told by KRS that I must accept the infallibility of Bambataa or quit hip-hop. To be clear, he is absolutely wrong. To be even clearer, I have no problem disavowing hip-hop if championing hip-hop means I must turn a blind eye to the exploitation of children.
I don’t expect KRS to recant his statements. He has taken every opportunity to speak on the subject to further entrench himself with Bambataa and the religious devotion to hip-hop as he describes it. That will not stop me from championing the facilitators of safe havens through hip-hop that I have grown to love and admire. It does cast a dark shadow, however, over my whole profession, the same way the Sandusky scandal at Penn State and the Catholic abuse scandals did. That fact that there are shadows of doubt over these aspects of the culture I love are unacceptable.
In the end, these accusations by close associates and past victims of Bambataa, are in danger of completely ruining my narrative. KRS, the chief architect of this narrative, has refused to defend or amend it because we are his flock and beneath him giving an explanation. Does he not realize how much we revered his tales, or that this isn’t a small issue that any of us will sweep under the rug? In a time where black and brown kids need safe havens more than ever, I refuse to let KRS-ONE’s silence on this issue damage my integrity. In a world in which Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone, how can ignorance and silence be in anyone’s best interest? We all should be talking about this in reality, in the abstract, at every opportunity, with or without demagogues.