On Saturday morning a Minneapolis police officer was shot in what police chief Janeé Harteau called a “targeted” attack. Later that day targeted was the word used by attendeees at the First Annual International Hip-Hop Activism Conference at Augsburg College.
“Our people are targeted by the police,” went the refrain from African American and Native American conference-goers during the all-day event, which drew about 75 students and hip-hop fans to such panels as “White Supremacy versus Racism,” “Native Lives Matter,” “Introduction to The Black Man Stand Up Movement’s Plan of Action for Political/Sociological Economic Independence,” and “Combating the Matrix: A Survival Guide for Professionals and Students of Color to Survive in Predominantly White Ideological Institutions and School Systems.”
“I was 8 when I watched the police beat my father bloody,” said Reuben Crowfeather Jr., a resident of the nearby Little Earth neighborhood of Minneapolis, during the Native Lives Matter panel. “I went to prison for 70 months for having a small amount of marijuana and they came in and put assault weapons in my kids’ faces and took me away. A few weeks ago they did the same thing to my 19-year-old son and his friends, who were doing nothing, minding their own business, in their home in Little Earth. But they won’t stop me. They won’t stop me from learning my language, teaching our children, living our culture, organizing powwows, being free.”
At the end of a week that saw Geraldo Rivera turning hip-hop critic and The Washington Post asking, “If Minneapolis is so great, why is it so bad for African Americans?” and FBI director James Comey clumsily worrying about America’s police force and racial profiling, the time was right for a lengthy discussion about race and society.
“The prison system was grounded in the history of slavery, right after the 13th Amendment, right after the Civil War, so we don’t have 2.5 million prisoners in prison, we have 2.5 million slaves,” conference facilitator Neal Taylor said in his opening remarks. “We need to stop this. We can create peace right now, with hip-hop, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Well-organized if sparsely attended and somewhat repetitive, the Save The Kids-sponsored conference recast the energy and messages of recent citywide protests held in the wake of the shootings of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and others. The recurring themes were the systemic oppression of minorities by the ruling class, police brutality, media misrepresentation, the importance of home-schooling, the entertainment industry’s co-option of all things hip-hop, the prison system in America, and forward progress.
“This is a very important time that we’re in right now, this particular moment,” said Minneapolis hip-hop star Brother Ali in his keynote speech. “This is Black History Month, this is the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X being taken from us in his physical sense, although he’ll never be taken from us in terms of what his legacy means. This is also the great celebration of Dilla Day (an annual tribute to the life and times of influential deejay/rapper/producer J Dilla since his death in 2006 from a blood disease), so we’re in the presence and spirit of greatness. I’ve been blessed to travel around the world, and I’ve seen the way that hip-hop mobilizes people and empowers people and the voice that it’s given to people all over the world.
“All around the world we are facing the same global monoculture system of domination and dehumanization, and all over the world there’s a united front of pushing back against this system of power and to build power within people. Brute force is being met with beauty; brute force is being met with human dignity and excellence; brute force is being met with a system of open hearts that unites people’s hearts with love. This is what hip-hop has been for us, this universal language, beat, culture, texture of human excellence pushing back against domination.
“We’re talking about the very lifeblood of who we are as human beings, and what it means to face this terrifying reality of the world, particularly in this time, in which all spiritual traditions, all cultural traditions, all wisdom traditions have said that this is nearing the end of this project of space and time, that we are in end times. I’m not gonna get too much into that doom and gloom thing right now, but in every period there are people who are vanguards for protecting human dignity.”
One such vanguard is Reies Romero, who organized the conference. “I’m a student at Augsburg, and it made sense to do it here, so we made a Facebook page event and some flyers and decided to do it,” said Romero, a junior studying social work at Augsburg. “The atmosphere that is now in America, with this police terror, we felt like this was an important free conference with important topics. Most importantly, it’s youth-friendly; it’s not a bunch of adults trying to figure out ways how to teach youth; it’s youth participating and leading.”
Along with “targeted,” perhaps the most oft-used word Saturday was “they,” in reference to the powers that be that would seek to keep down entire races and classes of people.
“When something becomes seen as normal, that’s the most dangerous thing that could happen to a system of oppression,” said Kim Socha, an animal rights activist and teacher at Normandale College. “Bad people go to jail. The police officers are your friends. We’re taught these things, and we’re not to talk about the disparities in the systems themselves.”
“Hip-hop is a tool we can utilize to combat all the oppression that’s around us, that’s trying to divide us, that’s trying to take away that human element and forces that are trying to break us down,” said Amber Gay, a member of Twin Cities Save The Kids. “This time is significant. Right now this generation in traditional native wisdom has been prophesized to be of importance to reconnect us with the humanity that has been lost through colonization and destruction.”
The conference concluded Saturday night at the Nomad World Pub in Minneapolis with a Dilla Day celebration, featuring scheduled performances by St. Paul Slim, the Lioness, Los Nativos, Mally, DJ Kool Akiem, DJ Francisco, Vie Boheme, and Danami. “I hope it becomes bigger in the future, and becomes a global thing,” said Romero. “I hope to make this an annual thing and get big names and work on future events to better our nation and world through the lens of hip-hop. Not everyone who’s in hip-hop thinks that way though. It’s simply entertainment for them, or a way to make money, or better their selves. But the true meaning of hip-hop is to better the community. My hope is to get like-minded people together to do that.”