Nahum Diaz Interview of Big Brother Roberto

 

Interview

 

What are the differences between hip-hop, and the hip hop industry?

 

I like to make a distinction between Hiphop Culture and Hiphop Industry.

 
I define Hiphop Culture as the modern day phenomenon of oppressed people finding liberation through creative and spiritual means. It is an ancient phenomenon going back as far as Egypt during the times of Moses when folks were trying to leave an oppressive environment and took what they had and their spirituality and made something out of nothing. Taking what they had they left slavery and used music and their spirituality to get out of the slave mentality. The same sort of thing happens with the emancipation of slaves, they embrace their spirituality and take their creativity  and culture and liberate themselves not only physically but mentally as well. We see Jazz, blues and gospel impulses as embodying not only a different style of music but a kind of philosophy on how to deal with reality and overcome it. These impulses and philosophies get inherited in Hiphop Culture in the early 1970’s.
 
Teenagers took what they had available and “made something out of nothing.” The truth is that no one can really make something out of nothing, but when what is seen as valuable ( by mainstream society) is only money, than yes, Hiphop took other valuable things such as: creativity, knowledge of self and community, interdependent connections with others, and positive risk taking and leveraged that to the full potential. Young people in the South Bronx, living in a very oppressive environment ( due to bank redlining and other institutionally racist practices) , were able to find their voices and share their stories in ways that allowed them to name reality and change it. These voices manifested through a variety of mediums that we call elements: Mcing/Rapping, Djing, Breaking/Dancing, Graffiti/aerosol art, and the knowledge of hiphop. The knowledge, based on my interviews with Africa Bambataa and Chuck D and others, is understanding the roots of the culture, namely the blues, gospel, and jazz philosophies.  Young people took the torch of civil rights and added their own fuel of expression and demonstrated to the world that young people can alter their environments. This culture, coined hiphop by Africa Bambataa of the Zulu Nation spread around the world like wildfire, to other youth needing to have a voice.
 
Hiphop Industry in contrast starts more so in the early 1990’s with the advent of gangster music. When NWA sold over 1 million copies of their Straight outta Compton LP, big business realized that there was a lot of money to be made with this genre. The element of the MC got Rapped up (pun intended) and got divorced from the other elements. It became all about selling units, even if that meant the music would fulfill every stereotype that white people in the suburbs ( the ones who were buying the music) believed about people of color. The rhetoric of black men being Pimps or Thugs, and women being “hoes” or “Bitches” fit in too perfectly with mass media’s tendency to promote hyper-masculine personas, and depict women as objects of sexual conquest. 
 
At least Hiphop music in the 90’s had some balance. For every NWA and Snoop you had Public Enemy and Tribe Called Quest, but record companies began to realize that the conscious lyrics and political commentary got lost in translation once the music went over seas. Big business decided to take RAP to the lowest common denominator and only promote music that is violent, overally sexualized, and has lots of “bling”. It seems also that everything is now using Hiphop to sell things from shoes and clothing to cars, video games, and sports drinks, it is a multi-billion dollar industry. Our focus on money in the US has made it so we have lost sight of the real power of Hiphop to transform individual lives and societies and make them more just and egalitarian.  The power of hiphop as a mechanism for social change has now gone over seas where youth, who once exposed to hiphop through the industry, realized they could take it back and use it as a tool for liberation once again.
 
Put simply- Hiphop Culture is about “get free or die trying” and hiphop industry is about “get rich or die trying”.

 

In your opinion, in what ways has hip-hop influenced youth?

 

In the US, youth are often times not in tune with this history of hiphop and this is very strategic. If young people were aware of the history of the culture they would be empowered by the examples of countless young men and women who used this culture as a vehicle to transform themselves and their communities. This is something that empowers young people, but big business does not want this because it takes youth out of the consumer way of living and that is not good for business. Instead many youth in America in particular have power exercised over them, as big business tries to not just get them to be loyal to a brand but have a brand identity.

 
The fact of the matter is that this generation of teens spends 200 billion dollars a year on commodities, and so every industry in the world is trying to get them to spend their money on their stuff. This means that youth are studies unlike any other generation in the history of the world, and that their music and culture is used against them to sell them false definitions of themselves. Being a consumer instead of a creator means that life is about acquiring as many physical goods as possible, and that in combination with a lack of opportunities for young people to get these things legitimately means that some turn to illegal ways to get this “stuff”. 
 
Media in many ways has more influence in young peoples lives than adults. A study out of the Search Institute indicates that only 19% of American teenagers have a positive relationship with an adult. That means that roughly 81% of American youth do not have the adult support necessary to co-author a positive identity. That co-authorship is given over to big business who again frame purpose around consuming as much as possible, by any means necessary. Again this compared with the reality that young people of color get tried and convicted 6x times more than their white counterparts for the same crimes, means that many youth end up in jail or worse in a casket.

 

What are positive impacts hip-hop has had in your life?

 

I started to “wake up” to my true potential and purpose through hiphop culture. It started mainly when I began working at a teen center as a teenager. I started out just volunteering and inviting my older friends to come down and share what they knew with us. This evolved to performances and festivals and eventually original hiphop plays. I then realized that alot of the “minority”, “learning deficient”, “at-rsk” titles I had been given were really false and had put me in a deficient frame of mind. Hiphop culture taught me that I was a majority (when it comes to people of color living in the world), that I learn differently, and that some of the most successful people in the world took positive risks. I started to become activated as an artist, a student, and as a change agent. Through my paper I wrote at MATC, I learned about Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation and I realized that it is possible to use music and art to change our realities, prior to that I just wanted to escape from reality.

 

What are negative impacts hip-hop has had on you?

 

I went to 13 different schools before I went to high school. I was kicked out of school when I was 14 for selling drugs, I ran away from home, and got arrested several times. Not that I would blame all of that on Hiphop, but growing up in G-Town (Galveston just south of Houston) I listened to gangster music all the time. It confirmed what I believed about the world being messed up, and encouraged me that the only way I could do something about it was to be an outlaw or a thug. What this really meant was checking out of reality by smoking weed all the time and drinking all the time and promoting that to others. So I thought “well this is how we deal with our feelings” and the fact that the world is messed up.

 
Deep down I wanted to face reality and change it, but it wouldn’t be until later in my life that I would come to understand that I could do that through hiphop. I mean it wasn’t a sudden change, I started to freestyle when I was 17, but also used to smoke weed and drink 40’s. But I realized that the more I got serious about my music and actually talking about the root issues that were bothering me, the less I felt a need to get high and drunk. This was a huge awakening for me, because it empowered me to be able to do something in my life for the better and I have chosen to make that a major focus in my life. This is why we teach the history of HIphop Culture and share the principles of the culture with youth around the nation and world with the Good Life Organization. Check out more at http://www.thegoodlifeorganization.com.

 

What are the differnces in hip hop from it’s origins, to today’s music?

Again Hiphop back in the day had a lot of blues, gospel, and jazz impulses running through it. You could hear samples from really classic music that was remixed in to the beat, with some stories about some crazy events that happened that were also laced with some hope for redemption. Now when I turn on the radio most of the music that I hear is devoid of those impulses and more so promoting a fantasy way of living or being that benefits alcohol or clothing manufacturers. 
 
Real Hiphop that is grounded in reality is still out there but it is less available through mass media. You have to dig for it a little bit more. The real power of hiphop as an instrument for social change is more demonstrated in other countries outside of the US. Places like Brazil, Cuba, Uganda and even the West Bank are now the leaders of how HIphop Culture can bring about liberation and empowerment. Now the US has to become humble and learn from the rest of the world about a movement that originally was started here. As they say ” the tables have turned” and they certainly have!
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About goodlifealliance

This blog is dedicated to the engagement, empowerment, and equipping of young adults who are using the arts to create change in both themselves and the world. It is connected to a global network of cultural change agents that are using the arts, primarily hiphop, to name the world and in doing so also changing it. Key topics include Hiphop Culture, Liberation Education, Social and Emotional Learning, Social Justice, Hiphop as a movement, and Spirituality. It is authored by Roberto Rivera, Hiphop artist, educator, and author of educational curricula such as Good Life and Fulfill The Dream. Roberto speaks publicly around the nation on issues covered in this blog.
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