Trials of a Hip Hop Educator: Between T.I. and the Isis Papers
By Bro. Tony Muhammad
Greetings to all,
A few weeks ago I was at a vigil in North Miami for a Haitian youth that had been murdered by Metro-Dade Police. It had been a while since I attended a demonstration of its kind. All throughout the crowd I felt an uneasy array of emotions; extreme sadness coupled with unresentful hatred. I repeatedly chanted just as the crowd did, “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE! NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE!” A few of my students were among the activists who organized the gathering. They immediately spotted me and asked me what I was doing there. I explained to them that I was there for the same reason they were; I wanted justice for the child’s family. As I stood on the front lines, I watched as one by one community leaders spoke in outrage over the manner in which the young Brother was killed. I learned that that this young Brother had been washing clothes for his father at a laundry mat across the street from his home a few nights prior. When coming out of the laundry mat, he was stopped and harassed by a police officer because he “fit the profile” of a Black male who had robbed a store in the area earlier that night. While searching the youth, the officer proceeded to yell and insult him. The young Brother responded with yells and insults right back. This is what triggered the officer to pull out his gun and shoot the Brother three times in the chest. The officer claims that the young Brother was attempting to take his gun. Yet, eyewitnesses tell a different story.
Now, reflecting on the experience, I could say that it was indeed painful meeting with the family during this mournful period and listening to them talk about what a good son the young Brother was. However, what has been much more painful is how typical this story is, especially in the past month in Miami; four murders of Black youth at the hands of police within nineteen days. This comes in the midst of a wave of murders that have taken place in poor Black and Latino communities of Miami-Dade County at the hands of young people. In the area of the school that I teach at alone, there were murders that took place practically everyday for a whole week at the beginning of November. Could this wave of violence be in reaction to the level of violence that police have inflicted on poor Black communities? There are more signs in this possibility on a national level. I’ve come to learn in my communication with others throughout the country that this wave of murders on the part of young Blacks has recently been part of a larger national trend since there has been a national wave of violence by whites against Blacks since the Jena 6 march; including the highly unusual rape-torturing of Megan Williams in West Virginia, the appearance of nooses in public places throughout the country (hung by whites) and most recently, a cross burned in front of a woman’s yard in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Thanksgiving. As Dr. Frances Cress Welsing stresses in the Isis Papers, since many Black youth naturally view their existence in this society as adversarial to the dominant (white) culture they are naturally going to rebel. When it pertains to issues related to violence they react with anger and violence, however, more so against those that look and live most like them; Black and poor. It’s the same with many Latino communities. By and large, this is much more of an unconscious reaction than a conscious one.
Also very significant was T.I.’s arrest in mid-October. Now mind you, I would not make the connection of a wave of murders on the part of young people merely in reaction to the arrest of just any rapper. Those of us that tune in frequently to popular Hip Hop news sites such as allhiphop.com and hiphopdx.com know that at times it seems like rappers are getting arrested almost every other day. But this particular incident was made much more public than others. It was a top story on major news stations and it made headline news on CNN. The timing of it was also key; right before the BET Awards, which means many young people were tuning in at the time. The reason for his arrest was made very clear. He attempted to purchase three machine guns while having a felony record. However, emphasized with equal light was the fact that the informant in the case was one of T.I.’s own body guards; a set up in the eyes of many. Much more degrading and dishonoring has been the manner in which he has been treated thus far while waiting trial for federal weapons charges; $3 million for bail, placed on house arrest, no visitors without the court’s permission and forcing him to pay a private firm for random searches of his home.
Since this incident took place many of my students have not stopped talking about it. What they have generally expressed to me is that while they do not condone the crime, the way that he has been publicly degraded is what has hurt them the most. For many of my students, T.I. made a very strong impression on them while speaking as a panelist on the Hip Hop Verses America summits on BET, emphasizing strong points in defense of Hip Hop not being the cause of violence itself, but rather American culture being that cause since it has always been a violent tradition. Once again, Dr. Francis Cress Welsing mentions in the Isis Papers how many of our youth are made not to feel inspired to become leaders because the ones that they could relate to the most are murdered, as in the examples of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. While T.I. was not really murdered, his character has been, and this public statement teaches our children that they shouldn’t be outspoken … or else. To teach especially Black and Latino youth that they don’t have a right to express themselves is an act of violence itself and breeds anger. Since they don’t have the power to take out those that silence them, they take their frustrations out on each other in the form of physical violence. After a good length of time they begin treating the senseless violence that takes place in their communities as something normal, thus becoming desensitized and unemotional to young Black and Latino (mainly male) murder.
I found proof of this in dialoguing with my classes. In the midst of the wave of murders that has taken place in the past few weeks I asked my students one morning, “How many of you hear gun shots every night?” Over half of them raised their hands. I then asked, “Those of you that raised your hands, do you put much thought into the gun shots when you hear them?” They all responded by slowly shaking their heads.
For those of us who are school teachers or community educators in the broadest sense, we need to bear in mind that social change will not come by itself. The mindset of our youth needs to be challenged so that they can begin to view their condition and self-worth differently. A crucial part of this is to make sure that we do not judge them while trying to teach them better. Instead allow them to express themselves and have them think about why they think the way that they do. An excellent way of beginning the process of bridging the gap is by exposing them to some of the classic Hip Hop music that focuses on the topics of struggle and violence in our communities … the clean versions (I wouldn’t want anyone to get in trouble and then blame me – smile). Have them dialogue with you about how relevant the messages are still today. Here is a short list just to start with. Until next month, Peace and Blessings to all of you. May we all strive to increasingly be the light that guides our children through life.
Boogie Down Productions – Material Love
KRS-One – Sound of the Police
KRS-One – Black Cop
Paris – The Days of Old
Gang Starr – Code of the Streets
Various Artists – Self Destruction
Various Artists – We’re All in the Same Gang
Slick Rick – Hey Young World
2Pac – Keep Your Head Up
2Pac – Brenda’s Got a Baby