Hip-Hop With Earthly Roots

A new Oakland youth program called Green Guard Collective uses contemporary music to spur environmental activism.

As a percussionist and composer in the funk-soul band The Pull, Mazin Jamal Mahgoub tries to make music that isn’t too formulaic or predictable. “We take risks and push boundaries as much as we can,” said the twenty-year-old San Francisco State University student. In his latest musical collaboration, however, Mahgoub is working on a project that’s far outside of his comfort zone. The yet-to-be-named composition — a fusion of spoken-word, hip-hop, and reggae — is divided into four separate movements, each with a distinct narrative, and aims to chronicle the history of the East Bay.

Mahgoub and a group of youth artists will present the piece at a showcase this weekend in East Oakland that marks the culmination of the first-ever Green Guard Collective “eco-arts fellowship.” The fellowship is a project of United Roots Oakland, a nonprofit dedicated to youth arts and media training. Supported by ten adult artists/activists, six young people (ages 14 to 24) participated in a ten-week program that combined environmental justice and hip-hop through a series of workshops.

This weekend’s performance at the EastSide Arts Alliance will feature songs created by the youth artists, including the piece co-written by Mahgoub. The first movement uses spoken word to tell the story of “the land before human settlement,” and was created using geographical surveys and indigenous records, Mahgoub explained. The second movement pays homage to the native Ohlone people’s “harmony with the land.” The third section, which jumps in tempo and adopts a hip-hop beat, traces Western expansion and colonization, with a focus on the cutting down of native oak trees and the planting of invasive species. And the final movement, which takes on a reggae beat, centers on the efforts of contemporary environmental activists to “reclaim the planet and heal the communities that live here,” Mahgoub said. The song has interesting beats and melodies, but it’s primarily about the story: “This is using music to create a really powerful backdrop for the words and the lyrics,” he said.

The song is loosely inspired by Native-American traditions and teachings, which the directors of Green Guard incorporated throughout the fellowship. Oakland-based artist and environmental educator Mira Manickam is the founder and lead artist of Green Guard. As part of the fellowship, she took the youths on field trips, taught them about sustainability and nature in the urban environment, and gave workshops on creating media and music tied to what they learned. She often incorporated guest artists and activists.

“There’s something really powerful about connecting to the land you stand on,” said Manickam, who has a background in urban forestry. “This project is about connecting to the natural world and connecting to these things that are bigger and more timeless than our buildings and our daily stresses … and doing that in the place that you live. You don’t have to drive to Yosemite. You don’t have to go to Marin. You can do it right here in Fruitvale and West Oakland.”

One activity included a bike ride that followed Sausal Creek from Dimond Park to the bay. Joining the group was Luta Candelaria, a Native-American activist and musician and one of Green Guard’s guest artists. “We wanted to think of the landscape as it was and how the native Ohlone people interacted with it,” said Manickam.

Manickam also incorporated music and art into these trips — for example, with poetry workshops and freestyle rap circles. The themes of nature and sustainability the youth focused on in the field served as inspiration for the songs and other creative media — including hip-hop music, dance, video screenings, and poetry — they will present this weekend. For example, one hip-hop song includes the lyrics I’m an earthquake who will shake your world/We are the ultimate activist girls/We are children of Mother Nature, laughing in the face of danger. It’s about “using music and arts as a means of being advocates for the land,” said Mahgoub.

The Green Guard Collective is funded by a $20,000 grant from the Oakland-based Open Circle Foundation and was inspired by a project called Trees 4 Life, a 2012 initiative of United Roots, which also integrated environmental stewardship and media arts for local youth. Galen Silvestri, executive director of United Roots and a co-manager of Green Guard, said that he hopes to expand the fellowship in the future so that more youth can get paid to do these kinds of eco-arts opportunities.

In addition to the workshops and field trips, Silvestri said he envisions a “collective of artists making media and art to promote environmental sustainability.” The idea is that schools or businesses seeking various media with an environmental focus — such as educational videos or promotional materials — could hire youth through Green Guard. “We are starting to see a demand for young people producing media about environmentalism … media that is accessible to their peers.” And United Roots has the resources to do so; the nonprofit runs Oakland’s Green Youth Arts and Media Center, a space in Uptown where youth have access to recording studios, production rooms, video equipment, and more.

These kinds of opportunities are about elevating the voices of youth artists and activists, said Belvie Rooks, a co-founder of Growing a Global Heart, a partner organization with Trees 4 Life and Green Guard. “It’s saying to these young people that have been made to feel marginalized … ‘Your voice matters. Your vision matters.'” And much of the success of Trees 4 Life and Green Guard comes from the fact these initiatives bring together youth participants and “elders,” she said, referring to the adult artists. This intergenerational collaboration will come to life on Sunday at the EastSide Arts Alliance event, where many of the Green Guard guest artists will perform alongside the youths for two hours of “Earth-Inspired Hip-Hop,” as Manickam is promoting it.

At the core of the performances is the connection between hip-hop and community advocacy. “One of the most powerful aspects of hip-hop is that it can be contextually relevant based on whatever region it emerges in,” said Dani Cornejo, an Oakland-based musician and educator and one of the Green Guard guest artists, who will perform a set at the showcase. Instead of mainstream hip-hop that affirms materialistic values and misogynistic messages, Green Guard embraces music that can “get people moving on the dance floor … but also give them a message that their mind can move to, that is empowering.”


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