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Hip Hop and Activism at UC Berkeley

September 29, 2007

Hip Hop and Activism at Berkeley
Discussion connects 1960’s and present
By Kwan Booth

The political and social activism movements sparked by the 1960’s counterculture is still alive, but today’s activists are checking more for Chuck D than Bob Dillan. That was the general consensus at the Mario Savio Lecture and Award Presentation at UC Berkeley on November 2.
Named after a former Berkeley student and 60’s political firebrand, the eight year old lecture series features commentary and debate by leading progressive thinkers and activists.
This year’s discussion, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop…and it Don’t Stop: Youth activism yesterday, today and tomorrow” featured a discussion between hip hop journalist Jeff Chang and state assemblyman and grassroots activist Tom Hayden. The dialogue, moderated by former Mother Jones Editor in Chief Diedre English, stretched from graffiti and Howard Zinn to unity among the left and the role of youth in social change.
“I must be a part of the change in the system” announced 24 year old Mimi Ramos, the recipient of this year’s Young Activist Award. The $5,000 award is given annually to someone under 26 who has been working for social change without much public recognition.
Ramos is the lead organizer for the Boston Area chapter of ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), a national social justice organization for low and moderate income families.
During the discussion, Chang explained how today’s youth organizers work locally to better their individual neighborhoods and Ramos is a perfect example. She says she believes strong leadership is the first step to stronger communities. She also believes in participation. “A community resident must be responsible for getting involved and playing a productive part” she said. And her two years at ACORN have been very productive.
Ramos has arranged for families in her community to qualify for a federally subsidized assistance program, brokered a deal to bring a healthy foods market into her neighborhood and raised enough funds to erase her chapter’s $70,000 debt.
She fights many of her battles inside the current political system, a position still up for debate among young progressives and activists. Many feel the administration has failed them and look for other ways to effect change. Hayden admitted that his own son, a respected street artist, once told him he began writing graffiti as a form of immediate protest after seeing his father struggle through established channels.
Hayden then credited historian and author Howard Zinn with turning activists against the idea of legislation, saying his writings “taught an entire generation that legislation doesn’t mean much.”
“We have to get things done, and the way you do that is through government.” countered Hayden, who has spent much of his career as a politician championing grassroots causes.
But many feel the current system ignores them entirely. When asked about his book, “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” which provides an extensive social history of hip hop from 1970 until the 1990’s, Chang touched on inclusion and subverting the norms.
He said he began the book in the Bronx, New York in the 1960’s to tell the other side of a story where minorities often get erased, adding that the Flower Power movement received nationwide attention while the Bronx was “bombed out.”
The dire conditions of New York and the desire to rise above surroundings are what spawned hip hop, and still remain key to it’s appeal. During the conversation, English asked Chang to explain the world’s embracing of a music and lifestyle so unfamiliar to many of the listeners. Chang offered that people are attracted to “the struggle” and the view from “the bottom looking up”. The same can be said for the new generation of “hip hop activists”, who, like Hayden’s son, feel that direct person to person interaction is more effective than legislation.
And this view seems in line with the views of Mario Savio, a champion of the free speech movement, who died on November 6, 1996. In a short video shown before the awards, Savio says he believes in the merits of dealing with people individually, adding “I believe humans have a predisposition to look out for each other.”

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