Trials of a Hip Hop Educator: The Connection between Hip Hop and Gentrification in Portland … and Beyond
By Tony Muhammad
The weekend before stepping back into the classroom for the ’08 school year, I was very blessed to have the opportunity to spend time with a group of conscientious Brothers and Sisters in Portland, Oregon and participate in a Millions More Movement driven Peace and Unity Fest for the Black, Latino and Native American communities. I was very interested to find out how different life is in this area of the country that prides itself for not only being “green” but “progressive” and “socially liberal.” Prior to the experience, my only connection with Portland was doing news commentary for a Wednesday night radio show on KBOO 90.7 FM called “Guess Who’s Coming to Radio?!!” I had been on the weekly program for a little over a year. On occasions we would receive phone calls from concerned white listeners that regarded our commentary as “divisive” because we would discuss issues mainly as how they relate to peoples of color. Feeling excluded from our discussions, the name that has been frequently called out as being a model for the way that we “should” approach racial issues has been Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK). These callers would emphasize his strategy of nonviolence and how we “should” all somehow become “colorblind.” These type of calls became so frequent and redundant that at one point we set up several segments devoted to debunking the one-dimensional “turn the other cheek” view of MLK, emphasizing how after the Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights leader became more outspoken about poverty issues, the Vietnam War, corruption in the media and the need to take “more drastic forms of civil disobedience” in order to achieve racial justice. I was very curious to find out why these white listeners were responding in such a way. On my trip, I was fortunate to get much more than just a hint of an answer. I was given a tour.
On the first full day of my visit, a group of us headed out to the Native American community of Warm Springs, just two hours outside of Portland, where we were welcomed as honored guests. We sat down, broke bread and spoke with several of the elders present. They informed us about many beautiful things pertaining to their culture and annual festivities. However, we also talked about the rampant problem of drug addiction and violence in the community. While I did feel joy bonding with my Indigenous family during this experience, as we drove through The Reservation (A.K.A. “The Rez”) I painfully felt the same type of complacency with suffering as I have witnessed in many poor Black and Latino communities in other parts of the country. The building complexes looked strikingly similar to the housing projects found in several Black neighborhoods back home. Poverty was everywhere and it felt as if it was the accepted natural way of life. In the case of the Native Americans and the challenges that they are facing, the concept of “The Dream” envisioned by MLK does not apply to them in the minds of Portland’s white residents since they have been strategically placed to be out of sight, out of mind.
However, as middle class whites increasingly move into the historically Black section of Portland, they are doing so with little regard, responsibility or interest over how their government was responsible for destroying it 20-30 years ago with the influx of cheap heroin and crack cocaine, just as it happened in other parts of the country. Much worse is how many of the properties were purchased in the early 90s. Properties deemed unfit to live were red tagged. Mind you, not all were “crack houses.” Many decent homes were thrown in the mix. These properties were then auctioned for 5 to 15 thousand dollars each and then given 10 year tax abasements. Owners would do nothing to the properties until about the 9th year of the abasement. At which time they would develop and beautify the homes and sell them for over 300 times the price they purchased them for. Today government grants are available for the purpose of home development in the historically Black section. However, many of the residents in the area today are not of color. Maintaining themselves in a state of historical ignorance and hence “guilt,” white homeowners rationalize in their own minds that moving into the historic Black section of town has to do with fulfilling a greater good; MLK’s dream of racial equality. But the MLK that they are thinking of may have more to do with having the pleasure of living near the boulevard named after him than the actual struggle for peace and justice as worked for by the martyred Civil Rights leader of 40 years ago. Little do they know (or refuse to research) that Martin Luther King Boulevard was at one time known as Union Avenue, a street where many Black people were killed as a result of the deteriorating drug infested and economically bankrupt conditions that were intentionally allowed to take place there for some time.
Today, signs are posted all around the historic Black section of Portland which include pictures of “ethnic” people that do not necessarily live in the area, sub-texted by a-historical “blaming the victim” type statements such as “Five years ago I didn’t feel safe here, but now I do.” One particular sign posted on a pole located off of Albina and Mississippi Avenues actually identifies the historic Black neighborhood as “Portland’s Historic Redline District” and admits a history of wrong doing on the part of the city in relation to housing and race. It then justifies present unfair gentrification practices today as being merely based on class. It reads:
‘In Portland’s past, “redlining” practices created exclusionary zones for “Negroes and Orientals,” by real estate, banking, and insurance companies. Agents could lose their licensees for crossing this color barrier. Now urban gentrification displaces low-income families, as the remaining affordable housing stock in this area disappears.’
“What does any of this have to do with Hip Hop?” you may ask. I found it interesting that on the opposite side of the pole that this sign was posted on there was a poster advertising a Mos Def concert. While Hip Hop has indeed played a strong part in breaking down racial and cultural barriers throughout the world in the past 33 years, it has not eliminated the concept of white privilege, especially in the United States. In fact, as long as white people, and really all others, see nothing wrong in seeking comfort in and submitting to white privilege and then turn around and seek pleasure in attending “conscious” Hip Hop events with Black artists who rhyme against racism and racial self-hatred (among other things) a true sense of purpose within the culture becomes defeated. Spitting rhymes about pride for one’s cultural heritage almost strictly in downtown clubs to gain a little short term fame and appeal from white audiences serves as a severe contradiction. But this is not just referring to what is happening in Portland, but what has been happening on a nationwide (and even a worldwide scale) for well over 20 years. This is why “conscious” artists of color who truly desire to uplift their people must direct some of their focus to committing to community-based projects, especially involving the youth. Overtime, these projects will serve to better unite community. In addition, the artists’ fan-base will naturally develop in the community that it is supposed to serve. As Public Enemy’s lead vocalist Chuck D put it in the song Rise ‘n’ Shine:
Each one teach one, if you can’t find one
Talk to the little ones
And you’ll see they’ll listen
To few while missin
Peace, to rise and shine
As I stated above, our approach towards many of the problems experienced in our communities, especially in dealing with the youth in these educational and economic turbulent times, should not be local, but nationwide since we are bonded by common problems. The frustration and anger expressed by Immortal Technique concerning the gentrification in Harlem, New York in the song Harlem Streets are not problem triggered emotions limited to a New York City. This is why a strong national support base must be developed in whatever endeavor we commit ourselves to. After all, the gentrification process in Portland is in fact considered to be a mere model example to other major cities throughout the country. So should our approach be in our efforts to improve the quality of life of our people; always seeking to learn and adopt from the Best. In my next article, I will focus on some efforts currently taking place throughout the country that merge community education with the arts.
May we continue to strive for excellence and challenge all imposed obstacles that impede us from having Freedom, Justice and Equality.
Peace and Blessings