“It’s that sky in the moonlight;
Waves in the sunset;
Strength in the fight;
When we wait through the night;
Have faith; it’s a sure bet.”
— From “When We Love” by MexiCan (featuring Lydia Molise and Anthm)
In the 45 years since Hip Hop was founded in the South Bronx of New York City, it has been a form of artistic expression to help people deal with various forms of adversity, such as poverty and racism.
Hip Hop offered a range of healthy and creative behaviors in which people could participate, “The Five Elements of Hip Hop,” including emceeing, deejaying, b-boying, graffiti art, and knowledge. Participation in any or all of these elements provided a potent tool to connect with Hip Hop culture, to use Hip Hop to understand and express their feelings and to put these feelings to constructive use.
The recent presidential election has left many people in the country feeling that we are more divided than ever along racial, political and economic lines. For many, there is a fear that this divide will result in more discrimination, damage to the environment and increased poverty. As a result, people are feeling angry and stressed, and searching for ways to channel these feelings into positive, constructive behaviors to heal themselves and to try to effect positive change in the world.
It is at this time that the world needs Hip Hop more than ever.
The Universal Hip Hop Museum (UHHM) was founded as a place where the history and spirit of Hip Hop can be preserved and nurtured. And at the core of the UHHM message is that Hip Hop creates a context in which we can love ourselves and others, regardless of the adversity we face. That loving stance is not only the key to helping us cope during stressful times, but also a powerful vehicle for social change.
The key to the loving approach of Hip Hop is being open to and accepting of different experiences, perspectives and emotions — including those we find uncomfortable or distasteful. By being open, we are in a better position to connect with, rather than fight with, ourselves and others.
And in this spirit, on Christmas Day, the UHHM will release “16 Bars 4 Hip Hop,” a compilation album giving voice to 40 unsigned artists from around the world who explore a range of concepts and themes.
To further explore how Hip Hop can be understood and utilized as a vehicle for change, I spoke with several people involved with the UHHM, including the co-founder of Strong City Records and the UHHM’s co-founder and President, Rocky Bucano; founding UHHM Board of Directors member and the CEO of Tommy Boy Entertainment, Thomas Silverman; Founding UHHM board member, Hip Hop pioneer and Minister Kurtis Blow; producer, DJ and “Rock Star Teacher of Meditation,” Donna D’Cruz; and DJ Arthur Tsotetsi, also known as MexiCan, who performed the lead single on the CD, “When We Love” (featuring Lydia Molise and Anthm).
Bucano explained, “One of Hip Hop's founding, core principles is the essence of love. Love, when used with the right intent, has the power to uplift and empower entire communities. Love of community, love of family and love of self is what Hip Hop originated from,” Bucano explained.
The first step towards that love is to love oneself even in the face of adversity.
As Tsotetsi explained, “Oppression is a dark force that can only be fought by maintaining a positive attitude towards life and making sure you love yourself enough to love others.”
But loving oneself is not simply about having positive feelings it is to be open to, and accepting of, the range of feelings that we may experience. Research suggests that emotional suppression, or avoiding negative emotions, can have wide-ranging negative effects, including lower experience and expression of positive emotion, poorer interpersonal functioning and overall lower well-being.
“I think the traditional response when we face adversity, when we face pain … has been either to walk away from it, or to try to disguise it. To at least in some way turn down the volume of it so it doesn’t impact us as deeply,” D’Cruz explained. “And all of these things when they are unexpressed can lead to fear. And they certainly can lead to gross miscommunication.”
In contrast, a greater acceptance and expression of emotion can have potent emotional benefits. For example, simply writing down emotional experiences has been shown to be associated with improved well-being, such as improved mood. And mindfulness-based therapies have demonstrated efficacy in treating anxiety and depression.
“Allow yourself to feel all of it: the full spectrum of emotions — the disgust, the contempt, the strangeness, the sadness, the gladness, the exhilaration — without judging it,” D’Cruz said. “Look at what’s repugnant to you with the eyes of compassion and grace. And it takes being open and great temerity of spirit to walk through that fire into a place of real wisdom. And it’s the wisdom center that’s got the power to transform us.”
That transformation can allow us to feel inspired and energized even in the face of difficult situations. “When you have love in you, you never easily give in to any negative situations. You never want to conform. You stay inspired and always see yourself as the best, and you allow your dreams to conquer your hardships,” Tsotesi said.
Music can be an effective method of understanding and connecting with oneself. In fact, one of the reasons that many people see “music as medicine” is because of the ability of people to explore and express their feelings. As a result, research suggests that listening to and playing music can be an effective adjunctive form of treatment for issues such as stress, depression and anxiety.
“I think music is meditation. I think it’s probably one of the greatest meditations. It has the power to heal, transform, stimulate and communicate,” D’Cruz explained. “Music is one of the many things that can give us consciousness … that can give us voice in a different way and give us a bridge to ourselves … One of my favorite writers, Aldous Huxley says it beautifully, ‘After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.’”
Hip Hop is no exception. “Hip Hop was a venting mechanism for people [who] had no other means of expression. And it helps people communicate when they are frustrated with the traditional forms of communication,” Silverman explained. “So they put it positively into lyrics and beats, and they created an art form based on channeling that energy of discontent into something more positive. You’re connecting to yourself through the music.”
When we are more connected to ourselves, then we are in the position to be connected to others and to love them. Being able to understand how another person thinks and feels is the foundation of empathy and compassion for others. More, this perspective-taking may facilitate positive, pro-social behavior.
And while all music has the potential to connect and unite people, there are specific aspects of Hip Hop that may make it particularly suitable for this goal. First and foremost, being open to experience is one of the key aspects of knowledge — one of the Five Elements of Hip Hop.
“When you look at the five pillars of Hip Hop, four are about expressiveness and one is about knowledge — a greater knowledge. And basically it’s about acceptance and open-mindedness — accepting different ideas — not necessarily the ones you’ve been indoctrinated into or programmed with,” Silverman explained. “Hip Hop sometimes takes people out of their comfort zone, and allows them to experience a new way of seeing the world. And when Hip Hop is at it’s best, it gives people a new framework for the world they’re living in.” [PP5]
In addition, Hip Hop was one of the first forms of music to routinely engage the crowd in “call and response.” This approach connected the audience to the artist, and the audience to each other in a way that was different from concerts in which the audience had a more passive role.
“That whole spiritual element of the call and response, from the early days of Hip Hop comes from the church. ‘Can I get an Amen? Amen!’ The whole thing about crowd response in the early days was one of the things that actually set us apart from every other genre of music,” Blow explained. “So, that’s what, personally speaking, gave me an advantage over all the other R&B bands and the rock ’n’ roll bands I was playing with in the early ’80s. Because when you hear 20,000 people — ‘Everybody scream!’ — I mean, you can hear that from blocks and blocks around.”
More, Hip Hop routinely makes active use of sampling — combining different beats and songs from different genres to create a Hip Hop song. This inherently encourages an openness to, and connection to, other forms of music, perspectives and cultures. Silverman explained this concept when describing the song “Paid in Full” by Eric B. and Rakim.
“One of the other good things about Hip Hop is that it involves sampling. So it takes pieces from different cultures and recontextualizes it as something new,” Silverman explained. “In the case of ‘Paid In Full,’ it takes something from Israel and makes it Hip Hop. There’s so many great examples of Hip Hop borrowing from other times and other places to cross-pollinate the world and bring people together that way.”
Perhaps in part because of its embrace of a range of perspectives, Hip Hop has become a global phenomenon, with several subgenres and scenes throughout the world. Hip Hop artists routinely are found among lists of the most popular artists in the world, and Hip Hop has had a profound influence on music in general, having been called “the most important musical development in the last 50 years.”
“At this particular time, we have Hip Hop that’s really global. This thing is not just an American Hip Hop scene over in Italy or an American Hip Hop scene in France,” Blow explained. “You go to these different countries — you go to Germany, and there’s a German Hip Hop scene as well as an American Hip Hop scene. These guys rapping in their native tongues.”
And at the UHHM, all of the subgenres and permutations of hip-hop are embraced. “In the early days, everything was party rap. It was more escapist. Throw your hands in the air was the main thing,” Silverman explained. “And then alternative expressions started to happen with Eric B. and Rakim, and later with Run-DMC. Even when we were doing De La Soul … hip-hop started to segment into different subgenres.
“Then there was gangster, then there was political, crossover, backpack or true school, Hip Hop mixed with jazz. You can have country music mixed with Hip Hop — what we call Hick-Hop,” Silverman described. “People pick the one that resonates best with them. I think what’s great about Hip Hop is that it’s not one thing. It’s an attitude that can be applied to everything.”
And so, when people who are in a loving place with themselves come together to love music, and are naturally open to other perspectives, it is easy to form a sense of connection between people. “I think Hip Hop has brought the world closer together … It’s connected people from different worlds,” Silverman said. “I go around the world and meet people, and the only thing we have in common is the Hip Hop music we like. And through that, we can connect and become friends immediately.”
And thus, Hip Hop becomes not only a strong method for people to connect themselves with others, but also a vehicle for social change. “You can be very loving and be an activist. You just need to allow love to motivate and guide you to fight for the right causes without breaking others down,” Tsotetsi explained. “Hip Hop is a message tool. It helps us carry any message to the public. So, in this case, we can use it to motivate the message of love, peace and unity in a world where ignorance has taken over the truth.”
Blow describes how he and the UHHM have been influenced by the example and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi and by the long history of evidence that loving, nonviolent resistance can be an effective method of creating change in the world.
“We’re talking Martin Luther King, or let’s say Gandhi. So, you have a people who are being oppressed, and then you have a movement against that oppression,” Blow explained. “So history tells us that the passive way of nonviolent protest will have more of an impact to the mass of people who are the decision makers; let’s say, in this case, the voters or the people. And it is the best way of getting that message across and people to agree with your conclusion.
“We represent Gandhi, and not Gotti,” Blow said, referring to the late mobster John Gotti.
Silverman agreed: “If your goal is to make the world more peaceful, can you do that without being peaceful yourself? I think the answer is no. There can’t really be a ‘War on War.’”
And he feels that at the core of this nonviolent approach is taking a loving stance. “The term ‘Fight fire with fire’ is what comes to mind. How can you put a fire out with fire? Love is the only thing that will conquer evil,” Blow said.
Blow thinks that this loving, nonviolent spirit was epitomized by the families of the victims of Dylann Roof, who on Dec. 15 was convicted of killing nine people in a Charleston, S.C., church.
“What comes to mind is the killer of those churchgoers … I saw a real spirit from those people who witnessed this and saw him on the first arraignment date. They got a chance to confront him for the first time, the families of the victims,” Blow said. “And they all voiced their contention that they would pray for him. And they forgive him. In order to get forgiveness, you have to give forgiveness. And that is a full representation of this project and of how we use love in the face of evil.”
With that spirit in mind, there are many ways to use Hip Hop to spread a message and influence people. “Clean demonstration without violating the rights of others when sending a message across. There are many ways of being heard. In my case, I could easily go in studio and make a song that sends a message to the targeted people for them to take note. That’s one of the best ways – and ensuring the message is clean, but thought-provoking,” Tsotetsi explained.
And in the true spirit of Hip Hop, and of artists such as Public Enemy and N.W.A., this may mean confronting people with concepts that are uncomfortable. “You can just straight hit it home like Malcolm [X] would do. Like our controversial rappers who don’t really give a hoot and who hit you straight from the heart and let you know how they’re feeling,” Blow explained. “And you love the person. This is why you’re bringing it to them from a spiritual level.”
This confrontation can take many forms while coming from a loving place. One is to present a paradox. “You can shout ‘Love, Love, Love’ like in the first song. But then the actual video that’s going to come out with the song is going to have a different message really hitting home on those different areas,” Blow explained. “The song is saying ‘love,’ but visually, these are the problems that we need to look at.”
Blow also thinks that one can challenge a behavior, such as racism, by simply sharing how he would handle the situation in a different way. “Or you could make it personal …I would never treat another person this way. I understand that there are people who treat people this way. But for me, I would be less than what I hate if I repeat this same kind of behavior. I could never do that,” he said.
And for some people, taking action in Hip Hop is not about music, but rather about starting an organization or business that facilitates a good cause.
“I’ve always seen entrepreneurialism, starting a business, as a creation. To me, I see it as a spiritual practice,” Silverman explained. “And then thinking how we can be more potent creators ourselves, I started listening to people’s stories from a different perspective than I’m used to. You look for signs. If you’re in a place of negativity, you could miss the next opportunity that’s standing right next to you.”
Ultimately, the “16 Bars 4 Hip Hop” album is designed to help facilitate this loving perspective of Hip Hop. “The album is a curated recording to benefit the development of the Universal Hip Hop Museum,” Bucano explained. “The album was carefully crafted by the UHHM team with hand-picked songs recorded by artists from around the globe. Each artist on the album volunteered to donate a song to support the preservation and celebration of Hip Hop, which is a testament to the impact that Hip Hop has had on them and communities around the world.”
The UHHM is thrilled with the results and excited for the world to hear it. “We put together a compilation of great emcees from around the world, which are dedicated to a common goal, which is love and trying to end wars and violence and racism and all the things that plague our society,” Blow explained. “Globally, we are taking a stand. It’s really significant because it’s a global voice.”
And it seems like these opinions and these lyrics and these vocal contentions are pretty much similar from country to country. And that’s what was really amazing; namely, that a song that was made in South Africa is hitting home in the South Bronx.” Tsotetsi, who is from South Africa, explained how his song “When We Love” epitomizes this sentiment. It’s a song about love and unity, and a song that motivates Africans to believe that nothing can pull us down when we love one another.”
Being loving in the face of adversity is no easy task. “And it’s so very hard to do when you are dealing with people who are angry. Or you’re dealing with people who have hate in their hearts,” Blow said. “But it’s so very important that we not get blinded and sucked into the emotion of repaying hate and violence with the same type of hate or retaliation or revenge. And this is the theme that we have with the ‘16 Bars’ project.
“It’s that love conquers all.”