As historians begin to debate the legacy of the Obama presidency, it is appropriate to ask what has changed. It is amply evident in hip-hop’s underground and commercial arenas alike that the monumental historical transformation is taken quite seriously. Perhaps most notable are the ways in which young people in America have taken up Obama’s sense of community responsibility and his subsequent call to service. Among the nation’s 2009 graduating class there was an increase of university students professing a desire to work in service positions with low pay and no glamour. There is also a rising trend of engagement as neighborhood volunteers and community associations spring to life, strengthening social bonds through civic responsibility.
These trends correspond with hip-hop’s distinct forms of community organizing and civic engagement. Today, every U.S. city of scale can claim a number of hip-hop oriented youth agencies (something that is also increasingly true on a global scale with youth advocacy initiatives and teen agencies emerging around the globe). Hip-hop oriented youth agencies and those who work for them are engaged in what I call urban youth work, a term that enunciates and amplifies the locale of the urban setting and age demographics that are the loci of authenticity and value in hip-hop culture.
The primary mission among urban youth workers is to educate youth about their life options and about positive, pro-social attitudes and behaviors. These include: peaceful conflict resolution; the rejection of racial profiling practices and reduced incidents of police brutality; self-advocacy pertaining to school and education reform, criminal justice reform, and employment initiatives; voter registration and political awareness; and a range of other public health issues that impact the lives of young urban citizens of all racial and ethnic backgrounds and their communities.
Urban youth workers comprise an intervening force; the youth agencies directly engage urban youth, drawing them from negative and potentially deadly options including gang membership and street criminality and providing safe spaces where they can learn hip-hop skills and arts as well as developing political and community organizing abilities and community responsibilities that can positively impact themselves and others. These initiatives fall directly within the Obama model of civic responsibility and leadership.
Indeed, it is also common that urban youth work agencies offer a pointed critique of hip-hop itself, castigating certain popular artists and the major media corporations (such as Viacom, owner of MTV and BET) that portray degrading, stereotypical or negative images of black or Latino men and women. They acknowledge that the relentless circulation of images and discourses that promote negative and nihilistic values is part of a wider problem, influencing the perceptions if not necessarily the actions of literally millions of young hip-hop fans. In an attempt to subvert these ubiquitous messages, urban youth workers assist youth in producing their own counter-hegemonic and resistant messages that challenge the dominant commercial discourses of so-called “gangsta” rap or the accompanying violent, sexist/misogynistic, and materialist content of music and film.
The terms “empowerment,” “agency” and “responsibility” are commonly employed among urban youth workers and there is a pronounced emphasis toward “conscious hip-hop” and the employment of politically engaged and pro-social themes and images, merging the local crises confronted by youth with larger national and global issues. With the instantaneous global reach of the Internet, localized constituencies are able to mobilize transnational critiques of corporate media and of big government, global economic and military intervention, and cultural imperialism. Globally dispersed hip-hop artists and urban youth workers agencies are also in better communication, learning from one another, exchanging aesthetic influences as well as exploring one another’s “best practices” for greater effectiveness.
Find an error? Take a screenshot, email it to us at email@example.com, and we’ll send you $3!