As an African American man, I am part of the first generation of blacks, born between 1965 and 1984, who grew up in the post-segregation era, what is known as the Hip Hop generation. Like the beat of the drum, Hip Hop has been an essential and constant rhythm weaving through the narrative of my life. In several ways, my growing up years also mimicked the path of the music, from rags to riches, from positive to negative, from expressing freedom to perpetuating harmful stereotypes. But, Hip Hop still remains a powerful tool to communicate because of its honest, no-holds-barred expression of the underlying themes of rebellion, freedom, courage and truth. So, I use it to raise the consciousness of youth, particularly African American males, who may be disenfranchised, disconnected and marginalized.
My oldest brother Aaron, who was 8 years older than me, first exposed me to Hip Hop. He was a dope emcee. Although I heard emcees on the radio, Aaron was the first I knew personally. In 1984, when I was 7 years old, he would let me sneak out the house with him to attend house parties. I remember seeing break-dancing battles, surrounded by walls filled with colorful and detailed graffiti art. I also noticed the swag, the style, the clothing, the culture. The whole environment captivated me. I felt like I belonged in that environment.
During that time, everywhere I went, I saw black people carrying oversized radios with two-player cassette tapes that blasted the music of emcees Run DMC and Whodini. For hours, my friends and I would watch the music videos of rappers Fatboys and Kurtis Blow on television. Rap was a new genre of music, created by young black youth like me, and it was taking over our consciousness by force. I felt so connected to the energy and style of the music. I remember thinking that this Hip Hop movement was not just a part of me: It was me. It was my culture. It was my music. It was not just around me, it was a part of who I already was. I was – and am – Hip Hop.
In the late 1980s, the intention of rap music was shifting. Between the ages of 9 to 11, my life started to change in a profound way, as well. I started noticing some things were off-balance in my home and neighborhood. I learned later that in the 1980s, a new drug called crack cocaine swept like a tidal wave through urban black communities around the country. I also noticed that my brother Aaron would not let me sneak out of the house with him anymore. I kept hearing rumors of Portland gangs who called themselves the Crips and the Bloods.
At age 11, my world came tumbling down around me. Both of my parents were battling crack cocaine addictions and getting a divorce. Aaron and my other older siblings had grown up and moved out of the house. My mother and I moved into my aunt’s house, which was just around the corner from my other aunt’s house who sold the crack cocaine my parents were addicted to. This same house had gang members, who moved to Portland from Compton and Watts, California, specifically to make money selling dope. So imagine what was going on in my head at that time. Because of the devastation generated by crack cocaine in the 1980s, black youth like me around the country were witnessing and experiencing poverty, broken homes, gang banging and drug addiction.
During this time, conscious and empowering rap songs were being played on major radio stations and on music videos on television programs, such as MTV, VH1 and BET. Songs like “Hey Young World” by Slick Rick, “Me Myself, and I” by De La Soul to name a few. Those songs provided a lifeline during a critical time for me and I’m sure for other young black youth. These songs also prompted a black consciousness movement because it encouraged us to be proud of being black. Around that time, the movie Malcolm X came out and the most coveted gear to wear in school were sweaters from historically black colleges, Malcolm X hats, and Africa medallions. Over and over during that time, I listened to empowering and sometimes anti-establishment lyrics, such as: “Cause I’m black and I’m proud / I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped / Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” (Public Enemy, 1989). Hip Hop also encouraged black youth to embrace their history, even though it wasn’t being taught in schools.
It seems to me that in a school that’s ebony / African history should be pumped up steadily, but it’s not / And, this has got to stop / See Spot run, run get Spot / Insulting to a black mentality / A black way of life / Or a jet black family / So, I include with one concern/ That you must learn / Just like I told you, you must learn (KRS-One, 1989).
As my environment changed because of crack cocaine, so did my relationship to Hip Hop music. In 1989, I was 12 years old and I was dying inside, emotionally. I felt so hurt and angry. I started to hate my life and hate myself. I did not know how to process the emotional pain I was experiencing. That year, I remember crying uncontrollably on the couch in the living room as I sat near the closed door to a smoked-filled room. I knew, even then, that what was going on in that room was causing my family to self-destruct before my eyes. My mother and father were no longer together and both were hooked on drugs. My brother and my cousin had started gang sets. The emotional and physical stability I once had was gone.
Looking back, I am extremely thankful for my exposure to positive and conscious Hip Hop music, which provided me with critical text that empowered me and caused me to think beyond, my current situation. It was the critical text I had been hearing in the conscious rap music that led to an epiphany at 12 years old. As I sat on the couch that day, I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself. I decided, then and there, that I wanted to do something different with my life than what I was seeing around me. The conversation I was having in my middle-school-aged head went something like this: “You know it’s on you and nobody else, right? You have to accomplish something to be something. Don’t end up like what you see.”
I realized then that I had a purpose and a calling. I set two goals for myself that day on the couch: I would make the honor roll all three years at Harriet Tubman Middle School and I would get accepted into Benson High School, where your acceptance was based on grades. I am proud to say I accomplished both of those goals. I knew that if I set my mind to accomplish something, I could do it. It was because of the Hip Hop song lyrics like: “Don’t be a fool / like those that don’t go to school / Get ahead and accomplish things / You’ll see the wonder and the joy life brings” (Slick Rick, 1988) that birthed a desire in me to have that self-dialogue, which led me down a path to set higher goals and then accomplish those goals. Minutes later, as I was sitting on the couch in front of the window, a rival gang sprayed the house with bullets. As I looked up, there were bullets holes in front of me; I did not know how they missed my head.
Portland (PO) State of Mind
In 1993, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and The Dogg Pound opened the floodgates of gangsta rap saturating the airwaves, marking the transition of mainstream Hip Hop from positive consciousness, which provided conscious rap songs that provided critical text for critical lives, to glorifying the negative, gang-influenced lifestyles being played out in my neighborhood. Ironically, I was also beginning to transition from being positive to heading towards a negative lifestyle. As the music was going into a wrong direction, so was my life. It was a rough year for me and I was only 14. My father died from a stroke triggered from his crack cocaine addiction and two of my favorite cousins were murdered from gang violence, which broke my heart. I was in 9th grade, a peak adolescent age, in which you decide what direction you want to go in life. Gangbanging was reaching its peak and I was witnessing it every day. The golden years of conscious and self-empowerment rap music were being replaced with gangsta rap, which picked up steam underground as gang and drug activity took over my neighborhood
Thinking back, I do not think it was an accident that Hip Hop music changed so drastically from being positive and empowering to negative music that reinforced the gang lifestyle. The drug trade promulgated the values of materialism, violence, drugs and sex and record companies made enormous profits selling that drug culture through the music to the rest of the world. So, ever since the early 1990s, it has been gangsta rap, which promotes negativity, which has dominated the airwaves on mainstream radio, and is featured on music videos.
As the music was going into a wrong direction, so was my life. After all I was going through I was ready to start gang banging.
Hip Hop Saved My Life
I thank God that my mother eventually saw me being pulled in the wrong direction. My mother is conscious rap, metaphorically because she came to her consciousness. She stopped using drugs cold turkey, which took unusual inner strength. Crack is a very addictive drug, but her mind and will power was stronger. We then moved to Tacoma, Wash., a few hours north of Portland. My mother returned to school and earned a Master’s degree in social work. She now works as a social caseworker for the elderly. Seeing her stop drugs on a dime, then go back to school, study each night and pursue her goals had a profound effect on me and helped shape who I am today. She saved my life.
Keep Your Head Up
My experiences have led me to this mission in life: Exposing critical text to our young people, especially young black males, to empower them and achieve positive goals. As the intention of the music moved from conscious raising to money raising, students in this generation are not exposed to positive conscious Hip Hop music. Yet, Hip Hop is the music that gave me quotes to live by, like they were scriptures. This music helped me maneuver out of a destiny that could have pinholed me into becoming another statistic buried six feet under. My life experiences led me to the decision to become an educator in order to empower students. It is of no surprise that I created a conscious rap literacy curriculum in my second year of teaching. My mother who is conscious rap saved my life. HAPPY MOTHERS DAY, EVERY DAY
Karanja N. Crews is an award winning educator, motivational speaker, consultant, author, and a life long learner. He is the founder of The Annual Teaching With Purpose Conference, teachingwithpurposeconference.com and The Conscious Rap Project Lecture Series, www.consciousrapproject.com that will tour nationwide Fall 2014.
This Op Ed has a musical soundtrack written and recorded by a young emerging artist Mic Capes, a mentee of Karanja. Listen to the mixtape at: consciousrapproject.bandcamp.com/album/the-conscious-rap-teacher-mixtape.