Academic journal article Social Justice

"All I Need Is One Mic": Mobilizing Youth for Social Change in the Post-Civil Rights Era

Academic journal article Social Justice

"All I Need Is One Mic": Mobilizing Youth for Social Change in the Post-Civil Rights Era

Article excerpt

THE TITLE OF THIS PIECE IS TAKEN FROM CHORUS OF THE SONG, "ONE MIC" by rapper Nas, who goes on to say, "All I need is one mic to spread my voice to the whole world." (1) I use these lyrics to contextualize the setting for contemporary youth activism based on my work with youth of color in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the following pages, I explore how youth use hip-hop music and culture in their activism on their high school campuses and youth empowerment organizations. Beyond examining the larger social justice potential of hip-hop music for youth, I also explore how hip-hop music assists in the development of a political consciousness among youth activists. In other words, music can enable youth, disenfranchised from electoral politics, to engage in the practice of democracy.

I use participant-observation and in-depth interviews to understand and explain how youth of color make sense of themselves and society through activism. From October 2000 to May 2002, I conducted fieldwork with two nonprofit organizations; the first I call Teen Justice and the second, Multicultural Alliance. (2) During this time, I attended hip-hop poetry slams, talked with youth individually about hip-hop music and culture, and observed as youth used it as a political organizing tool with other youth in school-based social justice campaigns, in cases of racial profiling by police, and as a consciousness-raising tool concerning narratives of inequality. In the following pages, I bring those settings and conversations to the table in an effort to understand the important relationship between culture, social movements, and identity. I aim to make several arguments: First, hip-hop is an important cultural art form for youth at this particular historical moment, post-civil rights. Second, hip-hop culture is a significant tool in organizing other youth for social and political change in their local communities. Third, hip-hop is often an important part of the individual formation of a political consciousness among youth of color involved in activism, enabling them to address and combat racism and other forms of inequality. Finally, I argue that youth of color incorporate hip-hop into their developing political consciousness as they experience multiple, often contradictory, experiences because of a current backlash on civil rights gains.

Hip-Hop for the Soul: Youth, Music, and Identity

Previous studies of popular culture indicate that it is an important place for individuals to create meaning, identify, and find community (Epstein, 1998; Gaines, 1991; Hebdige, 1979; Lipsitz, 1994). This is particularly true of teenagers, who are overwhelmingly recognized as the "MTV generation." (3) Music, television, and film are all important sites for identity construction and community representation for all individuals, not just youth. For instance, in his discussion of Black popular culture, Stuart Hall (1992: 32) argues that popular culture is a site for self-discovery and realization. As he states,

   Popular culture, commodified and stereotyped as it often is, is not
   at all, as we sometimes think of it, the arena where we find out who
   we really are, the truth of our experience.... It is where we
   discover and play with identifications of ourselves, where we are
   imagined, where we are represented, not only to the audiences out
   there that do not get the message, but to ourselves for the first
   time.

As Hall suggests, popular cultures, like hip-hop culture, act as important venues for understanding the collective experience of individuals, not only for others, but also for the individuals themselves. Since the 1970s, hip-hop culture has communicated a particular experience of what it means to be young, Black, and (often) male. These visual representations influence understandings of what it means to hold these identities, for black males and for the larger community. More important, these representations mirror social interactions and relationships. …

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