How Hip-Hop Teaches Nonviolence

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As the anniversary of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. approaches, I cannot help but thank God for my parents. Long before it was a legal holiday, my parents took me out of school on his birthday. My mom and dad were strategic in their rebellion against the American school system.

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That was how they honored his life, before the nation had the sense to do the same. We did not BBQ. I did not sleep in on Dr. King’s birthday. I read about Black history, my duty to learn from it and seek better for our people. I was taught to celebrate his life by respecting all life. I never met another kid who had parents that took such an approach to Dr. Kings birthday. I realize now that my parents were nonviolent revolutionaries. Today, with my own children I am working to pick up the torch they gave me in my youth. Hip-Hop music, has helped keep me stay in tune with the mission of Dr. King along the way.

Despite passing long before the seeds of Hip-Hop had began to bloom, rap music itself is an act nonviolence. Many might immediately take offense to this or laugh. However if you look at even some of the most violent rap you can think of, it is still just a song. Any rapper who rhymes about killing, could have picked up a gun. Instead they chose to pick up a pen. I’m not defending the content of murderous rap. What I am saying is that they chose to write an angry poem, instead of using their felling to commit a violent act. That’s choosing nonviolence!

Dr. King spoke directly to the importance of education. In the era of Hip-Hop’s “Golden Age” knowledge was a duty for most rappers. Public Enemy, Rakim, Ice Cube and many others laid a clear foundation for promoting nonviolence in Hip-Hop.

Songs like Ice-T’s The Hunted Child , Ice Cube’s Colorblind illustrated in graphic detail about the consequence of violence on the streets. While embraced as a classics within the Hip-Hop community, mainstream media hardly acknowledge its existence. Even today rappers like Game and Nas will make songs in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and it gets almost no recognition by Black or White media outlets. So, they must be doing it for more than the money? They get zero reward for speaking about peace, and only hit the charts when they sing of murdering their own. We should applaud their courage and accept their sincerity.

In recent years songs like I Know I Can by Nas, Sabac Red’s The Commitment and T-KASH’s Peace To My Enemies motivate feet and minds to live better.

Dr. King took the power of God’s love to the streets. Hip-Hop music comes from the streets. This means that it will not always say things that are fun or easy to digest. But it will always be honest. Songs like Sticky Fingaz Oh My God, Kanye West’s Jesus Walks and Rakim’s Who Is God? are brilliant illustrations of some of the spiritual aspirations circulating within the Hip-Hop community. The RZA from Wu-Tang Clan made an amazing song about love for The Creator called Sunshine on the album 8 Diagrams. Rapper Killer Mike wrote amazing verses about spiritual redemption with God In The Building. Many of these songs may not be in the Top 4o. But they keep the people on the streets motivated to embrace God. I don’t believe Dr. King would want it any other way. Let us remember he died on the way to protect the rights of sanitation workers in Memphis.

While many have taken on Dr. King’s mission of nonviolence, his crusade against poverty has been largely ignored. Poverty knows no color. The empty stomach of a child in Oakland does not hurt any less than the stomach of a child in Chechnya. A Mexican mother without food, worries no less than a White mom in Minnesota. Until I worked at a high school in San Francisco, I had not true understanding of poverty. This opened my eyes to the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr., almost more than anything else.

I have learned that starving student cannot study. I have seen “underground railroads” of food emerge in response. Many teachers argue against kids attitudes in class. Others see food in the classroom a nuisance. I understand how frustrating it can be for a dedicated teacher to endure it. Kids appear to be disruptive in class, but they can’t hear the math lesson over the rumble in their stomach. I’ve watched kids walk down hallways in shoes with soles that literally are about to peel off the bottom of their foot and be mocked by others. I’ve seen kids walk around in clothes they’ve outgrown due to a growth spurt. So their growth is a silent curse as their parents cannot afford new clothes. I’m not talking only about just Black children. I see this as global burden. Poverty is an oppressive demon and in many cases is the root of why violence happens and why we (humans) excuse it many times. One might be able to argue that the bulk of the violence in Hip-Hop is in direct proportion to the initial state of poverty its performers existed in.

The impact of poverty on the heart and mind can be seen in the music of artists like Apathy’s Check to Check, or Vinnie Paz’s Keep Movin ‘ On . They leave deep impressions about the reality of poverty. In an Occupy Wall St. era, their lyrics sting with searing precision. In his time, Dr. King’s words had the same effect.

I love Jazz, Blues and Rock. I love Gospel and all other forms of Black music from the African diaspora. But nothing has pushed nonviolence as consistently and as bold as rap music. It is a fact we cannot deny. This fact does not undo much of the violence and sexism and celebration of materialism in Hip-Hop. Yet it was Bid Daddy Kane, Biz Markie and Kool G Rap that reminded me to Erase Racism. What the subculture of Hip-Hop has achieved, I will not allow to be denied. I thank Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his sacrifice every time I hear a rapper embrace peace. Happy birthday Dr. King. Those love Hip-Hop continue to keep your message alive.

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