Hyphy’s Heroes

The Hip-Hop Generation reacts to Hurricane Katrina the way our government couldn't.

It was the utterance heard ’round the world. Kanye West’s stammering declaration that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” during a live national TV fund-raiser last month wasn’t so much shocking as validating to the Hip-Hop Generation, evoking a distinct “No shit, Sherlock” sentiment. Still, it was empowering in much the same way the infamous ’68 Olympics Black Power salute had been, but West’s outburst didn’t result in nearly as harsh a backlash as the athletes received. Instead of being blacklisted, his new album Late Registration claimed the #1 slot on the Billboard chart a week later. Shortly thereafter, just before performing the album’s infectious “Golddigger” on Saturday Night Live, West even joked about the incident with Mike Myers, the Canadian comedian who stood stone-faced opposite him during the now-legendary outburst on NBC’s star-studded Katrina benefit broadcast.

West’s blunt bravery emphasized a fundamental tenet of social activism — speak truth to power — and became a slogan for a rising surge of social responsibility among hip-hop entities touched and angered by the events surrounding Katrina and its aftermath. Billy Wimsatt of the NYC-headquartered League of Pissed-Off Voters quickly put up a Web site, KanyeWasRight.com, while several rappers recorded hurricane-inspired songs, like the Legendary K.O., whose ditty “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People” described the plight of survivors (Hurricane came through fucked us up round here/Government acting like it’s bad luck down here/All I know is that you better bring some trucks ’round here/Wonder why I got my middle finger up ’round here) over the “Golddigger” instrumental, its hook slightly tweaked to directly address Dubya: I’m not sayin’ he a golddigger/But he ain’t messing with no broke niggas.

As Bush was dragging his heels, Southern rappers like Master P (who distributed prepaid cell phones to displaced victims) and David Banner (who reportedly busted through a FEMA barricade in a rented van to deliver water and food) were among the first to respond to the situation while the president was still on vacation. Katrina’s impact was also widely felt locally. KPFA’s Hard Knock Radio contributed field reportage from the disaster scene, painting a truer picture than the mainstream media’s sensationalism. Marcel Diallo of the Black Dot Collective — whose Louisiana property is now severely damaged — organized food and clothing drives, as did Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee. And Oakland rapper Charlie O recorded a song, “National SOS” (www.el84rocks.com/National SOS.WMV), which rammed home the themes of self-determination, unity, and compassion: We sendin’ out an SOS/We gotta save our selves.

“Pain unites people and makes everybody equal,” Charlie O explained. “I just wanted people to know, I feel what y’all going through … that was the basis of that song, to go ahead and unite people, and let everybody know we can’t wait for the government, we can’t wait for the Red Cross, we can’t go through the bureaucracy and blame somebody for that. It’s all on us to take care of our own.”

“National SOS” became the de facto theme song for Bay Area SOS, a benefit for hurricane relief held last month at Downtown Oakland’s Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium. The event was really two shows in one: The first featured jazz and gospel music, with performances by John Santos and the Machete Ensemble, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, Mingus Amungus, and others. The second part offered an all-star lineup of local hip-hop celebrities: Charlie O, Too $hort, Baby James, the Team, Zion-I, Mistah F.A.B., San Quinn, EA-Ski and the Frontline, and Keak da Sneak all performed.

“We were watching the inaction of the government, and it felt like there was a need to get involved,” explained Oakland City Councilwoman Delsey Brooks, a New Orleans native who helped organize the SOS event. “When you think about the situation, it’s really about community, family, and people pulling together much quicker than the government did.”

“You see people’s true colors,” F.A.B. added. “You got Oprah giving money, you got Macy Gray leaving all the superstars and going out there and helping, you got littler artists like myself trying to put things together and donate. My label [Thizz Entertainment] donated $10,000 worth of shoes and clothing. We just had to put things collectively as a whole and show people that we do care.”

It’s good to know “hyphy” and “compassionate” aren’t mutually exclusive. Yet although Bay Area SOS was sponsored by media giants Clear Channel and Comcast, attendance was sparse, leading some to wonder if enough promotion had been done: After all, Clear Channel owns eight radio stations and maybe eight gazillion billboards in the area. Still, the performances were spirited and enthused. The high point was Keak da Sneak’s set, which peaked with a nuclear rendition of “Super Hyphy (That’s My Word).” There may have been as many people onstage as in the audience at that point, yet Keak and his white T-shirted entourage had everyone in the building poppin’ collas and echoing verses.

Seeing the kinetic charge of “Super Hyphy” harnessed for positive means was something of a revelation — normally, you wouldn’t think of Keak as a socially conscious rapper. But Katrina has forced everyone (except perhaps Texas oilmen) to evolve and empathize. “For the Hip-Hop Generation, it’s impossible not to connect, because that’s who we are,” noted Zion of Zion-I. “We gotta take care of ourselves, ’cause they not taking care of us.”

“We have family in the South,” added D’wayne Wiggins, whose Grassroots Entertainment also helped organize the SOS event. “We have roots. It’s a dose of reality right in our face.”

Meanwhile, filmmaker Kevin Epps brought some of his cousins to the show, newly relocated here after losing their home to Katrina. “I just put a lot of things that I was doing aside and just try to be there for them,” he said. “I got 21 family members, thirteen kids, so we’re trying to get them settled in and used to their surroundings. We’re showing them nothing but love.”

Epps’ family had a harrowing time trying to get out of Louisiana — things were so hectic, he says, it makes their current Hunters Point digs seem like a cakewalk in comparison: “My auntie and them, they had to stay on the roof, then my uncle came by with a boat he had; some cats with thangs [guns] jacked them for their boat … it was just like chaos.” Though his family made it out okay, Epps was a little concerned about his young relatives, who witnessed death firsthand. “He’s describing things like seeing bodies float in the water, and he’s just a three-year-old kid,” he said of one cousin.

Perhaps the ultimate show of solidarity was made by Olis Simmons, executive director of SOS co-organizer Youth Uprising, who is preparing to be deployed to Biloxi, Mississippi, for nine days as part of a Red Cross humanitarian mission. She decided to volunteer, she says, because she wanted to set an example of leadership for her young charges: “How can I talk about it, if I can’t be about it? I work on 88th and Mac[Arthur]. I ain’t scared of nothin’, ‘cept waterbugs.”

With that kind of down-for-the-cause selflessness, who needs the president, anyway?

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