You are here

Movement Time: Hip Hop Says No on Prop 21

What has gone unreported in a political battle which opponents term the War on Youth, while proponents counter with visions of teenage superpredators dancing in their heads, is the incredible growth and innovation of young people and raptivism against the measure.

Aaron Shuman

Tuesday, February 22 2000, 11:20 AM

If you haven't heard of Proposition 21, chances are you will by the time actions billed as the Week of Rage culminate in Bay Area hip hop shows by Black Star and Lauryn Hill against the initiative. Then again, given that the organizing effort against Prop 21 comes primarily from young people, primarily from people of color, who lack little but the access to corporate capital that initiative-backer Pete Wilson maintains, chances are you may not hear about it, at least until Grammy winner Hill takes the stage. What has gone unreported in a political battle which opponents term the War on Youth, while proponents counter with visions of teenage superpredators dancing in their heads, is the incredible growth and innovation of young people and raptivism against the measure.

While Prop 21 is titled the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act, it contains none of the peer mentorship, education, or afterschool programs commonly known as violence prevention. Instead, it is a 45-page rewrite of the juvenile crime code, that among other things would unseal juvenile court records while creating an extremely loose definition of a "gang." Police would be required to register "gang" members; prosecutors could pursue far harsher sentences for crimes committed by them; and the reclassification of a host of misdemeanors as felonies-including graffiti that causes $400 in property damage-would put more convicted felons on the books. Opponents fear the sort of prejudicial policing that former Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner disclosed, when he noted in the early nineties that nearly half the city's Black men were listed as gang members in LAPD files. At the very least, your court record from juvie could register you as a criminal for life, in the eyes of educators and employers.

Also devestating is the effect Prop 21 would have on California's budget. According to the state's non-partisan Legislative Analyst, Prop 21 would require a one-time outlay of close to a billion dollars and ongoing costs of $430 million/year to build and maintain the facilities to house more juveniles doing more time. Because Prop 21 proposes no new sources of funding, opponents say prevention programs would take the hit, with prisonbuilders eyeing the state education budget. California ranks first nationally in prison spending, forty-first in education.

Ultimately, the issue is larger than the welter of provisions some say would criminalize youth. The budgetary demands of Prop 21 loom like a bomb to be dropped on students throughout the state. As California grows younger, and people of color become a plurality, the loudest forces of law and order-district attorneys, sheriffs, and prison guards — are facing off against students and those adults who work closely with them-teachers, clergy, probation officers, juvenile court judges — in what really amounts to a referendum on California's future. The news is that young people are taking the lead in untangling the issues, as the hip hop generation runs its first political campaign.

Anti-Corporate. Community Control.

"Corporations have taken Hip-hop and sold it back to us in unrecognizable form."
&8212; Underground Railroad

If the late eighties saw the ascendance of hip hop from underground art to corporate phenomenon, then the late nineties have seen a return to the underground. The nefarious doings of the record industry, meddling in artists' mixes and dropping them from labels-a fate which befell The Coup and many of the Hieros among Oakland locals--spawned a critique of the role of corporations in hip hop. Artists' concerns about control over their music have spawned a larger critique of the commodification of hip hop, the accountability of hip hop journalism, and in the fight over Prop 21, the role of corporations in financing a measure that would lock up more of the hip hop generation.

One consequence locally has been a flourishing of collectives to present and define the music. The need for hip hop to form its own presenting organizations is obvious: January's Juvenile/Cash Money show was Oakland's first arena-sized hip hop show in a decade, and the melee that ensued, reportedly provoked by long lines caused by understaffed gates, likely ensures that Oakland will not see another for some time. The problem is that as rap, "the Black CNN" in Chuck D's famous phrase, became as clogged with tales of violence and mayhem as the real CNN, the music was defined, in the eyes of authorities and many adults, by gangsta threats and poses. Gangsta's realistic depiction of unreal acts, in part, have fanned the fears of those who would pass a hysterically unreal initiative, to curb a juvenile crime rate that's fallen 30% over the past decade.

Kevin Weston, 30, works for Youth Together, a violence prevention program in five East Bay high schools; he also promotes hip hop shows at La Peña. Explaining why "Oakland is almost a dead zone for shows," Weston notes, "It's a generational issue. Youth don't own the warehouses or the clubs. People controlling these venues are older, people who end up booking shows are older, and they have no connection to the music or the culture. There's been a lot of violence at high-profile shows that had nothing to do with the underground, but if something wrong happens, then you can't have a show."

Underground Railroad is an Oakland-based raptivist collective, working to find a venue for Lauryn Hill. Formed in 1997, the Railroad's "event production herstory," according to the Basics Booklet given prospective members, lists twelve events. The Core Beliefs section expresses a vision of hip hop as "positive, life affirming culture" featuring "[lyrical] battles without violence" and its own productions as "conscious attempts to create liberated zones," both against the repressive institutions of the day and "the parts of our cultures that are foul," meaning "disrespect of women, young people, people of color, or queer people."

This vision is by no means unique. It is practiced at events thrown by Fruitvale's Black Dot Artists Collective, the Living Word Project, and other young presenters in Oakland's spoken word/performance scene. But you won't hear about it on commercial TV or radio, and those who consider rap a monolithic evil or a money tree don't know it.

Davey D is well-positioned to comment on what the media does and does not play. With weekday hip hop talk shows on KPFA and a Sunday night forum on KMEL, he plays both sides of the media fence. He is unique among commercial radio personalities, in that he has made opposition to Prop 21 an ongoing part of his shows.

Before the hundreds-strong crowd at the East Bay No on 21 kickoff, Davey D said, "People with access to the airwaves have to be talking about these issues. If rappers can come down demanding to get their records played and get them played, you need to take a trip down to media outlets. If they can tell you about Cash Money concerts, they can tell you about Prop 21."

Despite the appearance of seven City Council members, two county supervisors, Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean, and Congresswoman Barbara Lee, all against the initiative, this event received no mention on TV or in the dailies. They missed a campaign kickoff unique in several ways: the youth of the attendees (most were under 30); the racial and ideological diversity of the crowd; the appearance of a law-and-order professional against a law-and-order measure (Chief Probation Officer Sylvia Johnson); and the cultural fusion that wed Pastor James Hopkins' fiery invocation of Moses as a young man who committed a crime but would set his people free, to Boots from The Coup's more subdued pledge to "go slow to bleep out the curses" of his anti-21 rap.

By the Time We Get to Sacramento

"Youth organizing ain't cute; that shit is mad real."
— Jay Imani, Third Eye Movement

The media's inability to see youth and hip hop culture not as corporations and some artists promote it, but as it actually exists, has made them miss an important story on Prop 21. Hip hop's growing frustrations with the effects of corporations upon the music, its performers, and fans have fueled a series of protests against the corporate backers of Prop 21, in turn raising important issues on the topic of campaign finance.

The story begins in early October, when youth group C-BEYOND held a demonstration outside the Concord office of Chevron, because Chevron gave $25,000 to the Prop 21 campaign. Mike Marcy, a Chevron spokesperson, came out, talked to demonstrators, and told C-BEYOND, as he explains to me many months later, "Because we saw no community-based consensus behind this measure, we would not furnish additional support." C-BEYOND considered this a victory; Marcy says Chevron never had any intent to make additional contributions.

In any case, the tactic spread, most notably in an ongoing series of protests led by raptivists the Third Eye Movement against PG&E, which gave $50,000, the largest single donation to Prop 21. In a December 29th agreement with Third Eye, signed by David Takashima, PG&E's manager of governmental relations, PG&E agrees "to publicly clarify that we do not support Proposition 21," "to [not] give any additional funding to any[one] working in support of Proposition 21," and "to announce to [our] employees throughout California that PG&E does not support this initiative."

This deceptively simple story conceals major disagreements. Both corporations claim they have never supported Prop 21, campaign contributions notwithstanding. Both claim they are and have always been neutral, making a distinction that they gave in 1998, to help the initiative qualify for the ballot, at then-Governor Pete Wilson's request. Ron Lowe, PG&E spokesperson, explains, "The company felt this was a public policy debate that should be put before the people. We believed the people of California should have the opportunity to decide."

When asked how Chevron determines which initiatives to help qualify for the ballot, Mike Marcy explains, "California's governors will occasionally call on companies, seeking support. Chevron has a policy development group that reviews legislation as it's proposed at the federal, state, and local levels to see potential impacts on the company. Sometimes there's no impact, and it's something you do as a corporate citizen."

To explain Chevron's assistance of Prop 21, Mike Marcy notes it's "sponsored by the California District Attorney's and Sheriffs' Associations. We were told it was not something directed to one-time shoplifters or petty crime misdemeanors but habitual offenders, violent and gang-related." In fact, a major issue those who read the measure's 45 pages raise is its definition of "gang" and redefinition of many misdemeanors as felonies.

As for PG&E, when asked how his company makes these decisions, Ron Lowe said, "I don't know if there's a formal process," and pledged to find out, which he had not done two weeks later, though he works in the same division as Mr. Takashima, who did not return my call. However, PG&E may have outstanding issues to resolve with raptivists, who demonstrated outside its San Francisco headquarters January 25th.

Interpretation of the PG&E/Third Eye agreement is a concern. When asked how PG&E will inform employees it does not support Prop 21, Lowe clarifies this does not mean PG&E opposes it. "In our regular communication with employees, PG&E will state our position on various initiatives. The company is and always has been neutral on Prop 21."

Ryan Pintado-Vertner disagrees. A researcher at the Data Center, he investigated Prop 21's funding and co-wrote "The War on Youth" for Oakland's Colorlines magazine. Without corporate funding, he says, there would be no Prop 21. "What distinguishes 21 from earlier initiatives like 187 and 209 is the others had much more grassroots funding. The list of funders is like a book: people giving $20, $50. For Prop 21, you see very few individual funders, and those who did give were routinely involved with corporate America: the CEO or CFO giving $5000, $6000. You don't see Mom and Pop giving $20. There has not been a public buy-in the way there was before."

A January 15th article in Mother Jones on-line edition agrees. In "Money + Politics = Jailed Kids," Mother Jones reports that Unocal gave $50,000 to Prop 21 and two other Wilson-backed groups on the same day. Mother Jones notes the initiative's utter dependence on Wilson for its bankroll, and suggests that when "corporate citizens" responded to the then aspiring presidential candidate's fundraising calls, something other than regard for democracy was foremost on their minds.

Routinely corporations fund both candidates in races for electoral office, to insure both sides feel the love. Prop 21 is unique in that corporations have only funded one side, yet insist on their neutrality now that the issue has been raised.

Pintado-Vertner is pessimistic about the prospects of holding them accountable. "We'll never be able to sort through all this. They benefit from us being unable to say unequivocally what their public stance is." Yet the significance of young people and raptivists in making this a public issue should not be overlooked.

David Sammon is the father of Jennifer Martinez-Sammon, 17, a part-time youth organizer with C-BEYOND. While the Chevron protest was a little shrill for David's tastes, he notes, "People have to learn at the very beginning how government works. They're not taught this in school anymore; there are no civic history courses in school. The kids make mistakes but that's normal and they're learning. Each time they go out and they're better and better prepared. I think my daughter's an amazing young lady, and I'm quite proud of her."

This Is How We Do It

"A narrow civil rights approach may have led many miss the possibility that the study of artists and their work can be enjoyable, exciting, and fundamental to the creation of a more just and democratic society."
— Vincent Harding, Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement, 1990
"Organizing is hard work to have hella fun."
— Pecolia Manigo, 17, member of the Third Eye Movement, 2000

The Oakland renaissance celebrated by Jerry Brown has hit Oaktown hip hop hard. Rising rents, stricter code enforcement, and a new permitting procedure which assesses higher "safety costs" for youth hip hop events have reduced both the number of these events and the number of facilities able to host them.

One consequence is the further politicization of hip hop culture, by threatening the spaces where it exists. Currently, Boots's Guardian-sponsored radio spot, about the market forces responsible for his eviction from Oakland, is burning up the airwaves on KMEL, where Davey D reports, "It's gotten to the point where listeners are calling up...requesting the commercial like a song."

Another consequence are the hip hop events occurring across the city, in the back of a flatbed truck. "Guerrilla hip hop" is one of many tactics raptivists have devised to bring the music and a No on 21 message to the people. This truck has gone on four outings since December, to area schools and parks. That schedule will intensify — with the selection of targets increasingly creative — as election day nears. In these guerrilla concerts, performers fill a variety of roles: they are the attraction, drawing a crowd; the educators, dropping knowledge; the organizers, registering people to vote.

While some take the truck, others take the bus. People's Artists is a loose-knit collaborative, formed in December, to invite mc's, poets, and divas to get on public transit for social change. Anita De Asis, a spoken word performer and staffperson with Critical Resistance Youth Force, explains, "We perform; then organizations follow us with outreach and get people involved. People listen more to art than they will to a speech or a pamphlet."

In San Francisco's Mission District, a number of murals have been painted over recently by landlords seeking to "clean up" their property, either to sell it or to attract a higher income renter. According to Misha Olivas, at 23 the oldest program staffer at HOMEY (Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth), artists are responding by painting "portable murals on cloth or panels so they can take it with them."

The impetus is more than preservation of the artwork. Ultimately, it is a necessary step for artists to get paid, and for those with political motivations, it is an opportunity to control their message. Olivas explains, "Without signs and banners, the media gets it wrong. There was a No on 21 rally at the Powell cable car turnaround last fall. Channel 4 reported it as Free Mumia. With signs and banners, we can tell the story visually."

Young people have taken the idea of moving visuals and elevated it to a tactic, to compensate for their inability to afford TV advertising. Banner drops-actions coordinated statewide to suspend anti-21 messages from freeway overpasses-are billboards for the undercapitalized, and according to the campaign, their numbers are growing.

The key to the youth movement against Prop 21 is education and leadership development. Take 16 year-old Lucia Ramos of Fruitvale's Basta!, for example. She heard about Prop 21 at school last September and created the organization. "I got informed, informed friends who informed friends, formed a group. Had to sit down and read the whole initiative, because there's a lot in there. Had to know it to train others to know it. Once I'm educated, I can educate others."

Pecolia Manigo, 17, is another teenager who got active this school year to fight Prop 21. She joined the 3rd Eye Hip Hop Club at San Francisco's Burton High; now she leads its discussions and at the most recent PG&E demonstration was its spokesperson. "I learn something one day; the next day I'm talking about it. Our club met today, and people were like, 'What's that?'" she says, pointing to the octopus on her t-shirt. The tentacles stretch from a businessman's pockets to a prison and other features of what the t-shirt proclaims the Criminal Justice System. "People were like, 'Forget hip hop! Educate me about the WTO!'" Laughing, she adds, "I don't act like I'm 17. I was 17 four years ago."

Anita DeAsis claims that membership in Youth Force has tripled since the school year began, but the number that seems more important to her is the number of people who turn out at events, who get turned on by a quarter-page flyer or anti-21 song, who turn their peers or parents on in turn. What No on 21 advocates are building out of hip hop, they hope, is a grassroots communications infrastructure, capable of inspiring and mobilizing enough people to the polls.

Raquel Laviña is the East Bay organizer for No on 21. Laviña is hesitant to give her age, laughing that when high school students walked out of classes last year to protest school conditions, police threatened to book adults with them on the charge of corrupting minors. Laviña and all of No on 21's paid staff are in their mid-twenties. Perhaps that's why she is less effusive in her assessment of youth power's chances to defeat a corporate-backed measure. "Money is the problem. There's incredible youth-initiated and involved things happening, and there's no way to publicize it. Voters, regardl ess of how they vote, would be able to see young people are creative, can work together, and counter negative perceptions that are out there. It's so hard to get the average voter to know that's happening."

Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson helped provide the East Bay office for No on 21, and the fact that no one has seen fit to oppose him in the next election means he can devote all of his energies to defeating Prop 21. When asked to explain this commitment, he notes, "I won my seat because of young people. The first time I ran, I lost by 23 votes. A lot of people and organizations stayed out of the race because I ran against an incumbent, and he wasn't a bad guy. The second time, I worked with young people. The high school and community college people-organizing, even if they couldn't vote-made me win. If we can get thousands of young people out on the streets, working on election day, we have a chance."

At a recent concert at the Black Dot Café, where all events are No on 21 events til election day, Young Kali stepped up on a table and emerged above the crowd to proclaim the 60s mantra, "Each one teach one!" Naru regarded the wobbly table suspisciously and preferred to deliver his message atop a speaker. The question, when Planet Asia took the mic to do a song with Zion I, was where in the packed house could they stand to deliver the lyrics? The three rappers scrambled atop table, stacks, and each other, the crowd parting as the rappers appeared to ride them. There was only one fall. When you stand in a place your energy has helped build or defend, with bass in your face and people who give you love and who understand the language you speak, you feel right. You feel strong. The next generation of activists and artists is learning how to translate that energy into political power.


Aaron Shuman is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.

Copyright © 2000 by Aaron Shuman. All rights reserved.