A conversation with Akil Houston
By Damon Krane
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)
Akil Houston teaches courses on film and media studies in Ohio University’s African American Studies department. He is a published scholar and poet, as well as an independent filmmaker, professional DJ, social justice activist and faculty advisor to the OU student chapter of The Hiphop Congress. Houston edited both editions of the book Beyond Blackface: Africana Images in U.S. Media (7th edition 2005 and 2nd forthcoming Dec/Jan 2007) and is currently producing a documentary film called Hairitage, which traces how the hairstyles of Africana women have changed over time in response to the aesthetics of dominant white cultures. On Saturday, September 16, you can find him at Casa Cantina, spinning records alongside DJ Barticus at a dance party to benefit The InterActivist and local non-profit People Might. This summer, Houston spoke to The InterActivist about the origins of Hiphop’s relationship to struggles for social justice.
You’ve summed up what motivates you with a quote from Lerone Bennett: “ln a system of oppression, you are either a revolutionary or an oppressor.” What systems of oppression do you see? What does it mean for someone to be a revolutionary?
I see oppression in all forms. Maybe the most obvious is capitalism, and its far-reaching implications. However, the greatest problem is the corruption of the human spirit and the capacity to love. People act as oppressors out of fear as their fear manifests into xenophobia, racism, sexism, religious fanaticism, homophobia, elitism– and the list continues.
When I think of being revolutionary, I think of the ability to transcend what the world offers as reality, of being able to begin with yourself and challenge your own contradictions. To have a high level of respect and desire for humanity what you desire for yourself is the most revolutionary act. For example, it does little good to be an advocate for the rights of women if you are not willing to align that struggle with the rights of all women, not just women who may come from a certain socio-economic background or just straight women or white women. Nor does it make sense to want to uplift Africa as a United States citizen but to have no regard for African-Americans or issues that affect them in your own back yard.
So how does hiphop fit into this world of oppression and revolution?
Hiphop is a subculture that was created in the South Bronx by Africana and Latino youth as a result of economic conditions that left them without opportunity and access to upward mobility. Hiphop consists of four core elements and five additional elements. The core elements are the Dj, Emcee, B-boy & B-girl (mass media calls it breakdancing) and graffiti. The additional elements are knowledge, language, fashion, beatboxing and entrepreneurialism.
During the period of the 50s and 60s, many grassroots efforts were taken up by people tired of oppression. While some of these efforts resulted in changing laws, many of them did not have long lasting change. By the end of the 60s and early 70s many strong voices had been silenced through government sanctioned assassinations. It seemed to many that the federal government intensified its efforts to halt any attempts to challenge the uneven distribution of wealth in the nation under the guise that these groups and people were threats to the security of the United States.
This period also marked the end of President Johnson’s Great Society, which was supposedly created to eliminate poverty and racial discrimination, along with improving other areas of life such as health, housing, education and the environment. The Great Society largely failed, many historians and observers suggest, in part because it was designed from failures such as Kennedy’s New Frontier concept and Roosevelt’s
New Deal. At any rate, poverty continued to impact the lives of people – particularly people of color and those considered to be the working class. In the Bronx, over 600,000 jobs were lost during this time and the average per capita income was $2,430 – just half of the New York City average and 40 percent of the nations average. Youth unemployment was over 60 percent in the Bronx, well over the national statistic. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, more commonly known as “The Kerner Commission,” suggested the racial rebellions of the late 60s resulted from black frustration at lack of economic opportunity, adding the now often repeated quotation: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
In addition to all of this, the Cross Bronx Expressway was built, running right through housing in the Bronx. Those who could afford to move did so. Those who couldn’t were left in what became a concrete jungle of poverty and neglect. This is what Hiphop comes from. In much the same way the Blues were created, people act in response to these conditions to derive pleasure from pain. Chuck D., lead vocalist for the rap group Public Enemy, said this is the expression of black resistance; we are just calling it hiphop now.
In your writing and teaching, you’ve talked about Hiphop, as opposed to “hippop.” What’s the difference between the two?
Hiphop is a culture. The purpose of this culture is resistance to the status quo. It is meant to challenge the wav we think, behave, act and make sense of the world. In the words of rap artist KRS ONE, Hiphop is about victory over the streets. It is the language of oppressed creativity. “Hip-pop” is the result of co-optation by the music industry. Its messages are the same as many other forms of pop-culture: conspicuous consumption, sexism and reproducing the worst forms of stereotypes. “Hip-pop” primarily focuses on rap music, which is but one element within hiphop culture. This focus undermines the political pulse of Hiphop, which is a rather clever way to dilute the power of the culture.
You’ve said capitalism is perhaps the most obvious form of oppression and denounced the music industry’s co-optation of hiphop. On the other hand, you’ve said a basic part of hiphop is entrepreneurialism. So if the entrepreneurialism of someone like Russell Simmons isn’t what folks should be striving for, what positive role should entrepreneurialism play?
Hiphop is part of the U.S. culture, so it’s going to have some of those same contradictions with regard to economics. I don’t want to create the impression hiphop was some kind of utopia, then corporate culture took it over. However, when hiphop started people were not doing it for money. Many of the pioneers said that was the last of their concems. Hiphop was meantto be away out of gang violence, self hatred, and poverty. It had much more of a connection with challenging the negative forces that prevent people from realizing more of their potential.
I think life-sustaining efforts should be the focus of the entrepreneur efforts. If we are assuming capitalism is the economic mode, then I would suggest buying land, creating jobs, investing in education and building assets, so that at the end of the day it creates mobility to move people out of the cycle of poverty. If people are interested in something other than capitalism, perhaps a model of community co-ops similar to the idea expressed by the late Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, obviously with some modifications, and also to have a focus on education.
What are some of the good things you see politically conscious hiphop artists doing today?
Well I think outside of just rappers as politically conscious hiphoppas. Kevin Powell, who is now running for Congress in New York, has written on dealing with his own sexism in a book called Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? Manhood, Race and Power in America. He continues to be a critical voice in hiphop, often challenging the one dimension portrayals. There are people like the hiphop activist Rosa Clemente, who challenge people like Russell Simmons to be more responsible, and not just be out to make a buck. In terms of artists, there are people like Wyclef Jean, who has a charitable foundation that provides summer programs to students in addition to his efforts to change conditions in Haiti, where he is from. Lauryn Hill is also involved with charitable foundations and does community service projects for youth in New Jersey. Mos Def and Talib Kweli are co-owners of a bookstore and community center in Brooklyn. Mos Def has also spoken out against the U.S government’s recent increased efforts to jail Assata Shakur who is in exile in Cuba for her alleged involvement of the assassination of a New Jersey State Trooper in the mid 1970s. While there are many artists who do things such as LL Cool J, with Camp Cool J, I really think the efforts of those who have these programs and also embody the same spirit in their music are critical. For example acts like Public Enemy, Dead Prez, and Common all do community work but have progressive elements within their music as well.
Here at OU, the student group The Hip-Hop Congress brings people together to channel their interest and love for hiphop culture into a movement of social, political and civic responsibility. The group provides education about hiphop and how it can be used as a vehicle for change. The Congress goes to local area schools and teaches young people how to b-boy/b-girl (dance), dj, and create art. Some of The Congress’ workshops have discussed domestic violence, sexism, consumer culture and voting. In the past the Congress has worked with the League of Pissed of Voters and other local activists groups. The Congress has also sponsored a B-Boy Battle which featured Rock Steady Crew legend Richie “Crazy Legs” Colon as a judge, in addition to bringing
activists and hiphop scholars such as Rosa Clemente, and Bakari Kitwana to campus.
What about you? How do your own efforts fit into hiphop?
I created the first hiphop course at Ohio University. My goal was to teach the history, culture and politics of Hiphop, so students could make connections with the larger framework of history in the U.S and the world. I began a website, Hiphopscholar.org, in order to provide a forum for people to learn about hiphop – not just rap music but the culture and how people may be thinking about issues that impact our lives from a hiphop sensibility. I teach people the art of Djing, I also advise the Hip-Hop Congress and do various speaking activities related to raising awareness about Hiphop and what it can do to impact change.
It’s never been difficult to stay true to hiphop as it means being true to myself. I am interested in challenging the norm, questioning the status quo and creating something different that will change the way people think, behave and make sense of the world, with the hope that it can be a better place for all. That’s hiphop.