Using the Knowledge of Breaking to Transform Self and Society Article 4

Chapter 4. Your Crew

We all need to have people in our lives who call us higher, who speak truth to us, and challenge us to be better than we know how to be on our own.

Inheriting this understanding from the Civil Rights Movement, Hiphop has always uniquely demonstrated the power that comes from the unity and challenge of the cipher. As mentioned in the previous articles, Hiphop became the common ground allowing many  youth from diverse backgrounds to come together for the first time to express themselves creatively. This expressive dialogue, using art as the medium, became a powerful communication tool for youth to share their ideas with each and express their grievances. Despite the oppressive realities of racism, classism, and other “isms” hiphop was a vehicle that allowed them to channel this aggression into something productive through a new creative dialogue. This dialogue allowed for the an explosive evolution of art forms to emerge, which are known now as the elements of hiphop (Djing, Mcing, Graffitit, and Breaking). These elements emerged out of creative narratives shared within the context of community embodying both diversity and unity.  No where is this more powerfully demonstrated than through the evolution of breaking.

Breaking which is a dance form that originates on the streets of the burrows of New York, has now found itself on international stages of some of the world’s top venues. It is a dynamic form of movement that samples from many different styles and traditions. Channeling the energy from former gang bangers, this explosive art form has the power to build and even tear down. The basic framework that makes these call and response transactions take place is through the context of the cipher.

The cipher is the circle where people share their truth, and tell their stories creatively. The energy is always flowing back and forth like a really good dialogue. Someone comes into the middle of the circle and shares their truth, and another comes in and comments to it and adds their own phrase and so on. This dynamic process can allow for some serious impartation of skill, style, and authenticity. Similar to watching a Jazz band, each member does their own solo sharing their own uniqueness while simultaneously also contributing to the vibe of the collective whole.

To maximize this experience each dancer will practice on their own at home, and then will eventually share their new creations with the group. This process of entering into a creative solitude is one that not only determines the ever-evolving skills of the individual but also to the whole community. This synergy between solitude and community is a powerful relationship that allows for the creative redefinition of self and community. It is a productive process that challenges the status quo and brings about new possibility and growth. Fueled by the breaks being played by the deejay, dancers create moves that challenge limitations by demonstrating creative imagination that stretch possibility and redefine the tradition.

Like the Civil Rights movement, Breaking embodies the knowledge that collectively we can bring our unique strengths together in a way that can challenge the status quo. We can literally battle negative realities that threaten to hold us down and make us move to the back of societies bus. The truth is that armed with our own unique voices, a common understanding, and a strategy for battle we can take down any oppressive force that seeks to battle us. This is the knowledge of Hip-hop that has fueled this element to reaching youth all over the world and given them hope that a “Change is gonna come”.

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Using the Knowledge of Hiphop to Transform Self and Society: Article 3 Soul Bling

Soul Bling

One of things that Big Business and advertisers try to sell us is the idea that we all need to conform to a particular image of being cool. Marketers research youth to find out where we feel insecure and try to feed off of our fears selling us ideas that having more things is going to make us feel whole and happy. This is an absolute fantasy, because happiness is not found in having more things and being something other than what we are. The knowledge of Hiphop teaches us that we can find happiness in being our authentic selves and sharing that uniqueness with the world. Instead of looking at what is lacking in someone’s life, Hiphop teaches us to look at the strengths that someone possesses.

Many institutions thrive off seeing what is wrong with people, the problem is that focusing on the problems only creates more problems. In Hip-hop culture, we learn to look at the strengths that people possess instead of dwelling on their short comings. Everyone has a place where they can shine within Hiphop. If you can rap, we can have you play at a concert, if you are better with music, you can create the track or Dj the event. If you are better with visual art, you can help create the flyer, if you are better with people you can help promote the event or help with coordination. If you have the gift of leadership than you can help MC the event, if you are better with numbers you can help collect money. The knowledge of Hiphop communicates that we are all good at something. This is a very powerful lesson because just like it takes money to make money, it takes focusing on what is going right to find solutions to what is going wrong.

Just like the blues, Hiphop teaches that we can face the struggle head on, and instead of getting burdened by it, we can turn it into art and express ourselves. The elements of Hiphop (Djing, Mcing, Breaking, and Graffiti.. there are other too) provide a platform for people to channel this energy into something powerful and effective. The truth is we all have something that we are good at, something that is like a spark of passion or creative intelligence. By building on that strength we can learn to let that strength outshine any of the issues we are facing. By focusing that negative energy into something positive we enjoy doing, we will find that we can shake the burdens of our past off our shoulders by being fully engaged in the moment.

One example of this, is when my brother Gabriel had been recently diagnosed with cancer. I remember feeling so sad, but it seemed easier for me to express this emotion through anger. Because of this my wifey and I were having a lot of fights. One night as we went out we got into such an argument that she was literally about to drop me off on the corner and told me to find some other way home. Luckily, we were on our way to a Hiphop show where there was about to be an MC battle. I hadn’t decided to enter it until the point that I showed up feeling really pissed off.

I remember this was my first battle, but I wasn’t that nervous because I was so damn pissed. I could have easily picked a fight with some other dude and took out my aggression that way. Instead I signed up for the battle and just lyrically took out each MC that I faced. Not even concerned about winning the battle, but getting this energy off my chest, I started winning each battle I was in. To my surprise when I finally realized it, I was headed to the finals. Since there was an odd number of people in the finals, I had to battle two MC’s at once I went first and I came up gunning. I was so heated that I just went after both of them at the same time. They were so shocked that the couldn’t come back and I ended up winning the battle. At the end I grabbed the mic when I received the trophy and I ended up dedicating the battle to my little brother Gabriel who was sick in the hospital. I ended up feeling much better made peace with my wife and we went home peacefully. I was able to let my abilities outshine the stress I was feeling and in doing so I elevated in skill and decreased my depression.

In summary, the knowledge of Hiphop says that we don’t need to have money to be rich. We can be rich in our skills, being original, and letting our strength outshine our struggle. The truth of the matter is that some of the most depressed people are people who have a lot of money. What good is it to have money if you can’t share your feeling with the world? What good is money if you can’t tell your story, and shine from within? It is this ability to be honest and be authentic that can bring money, but you will never have lasting happiness without learning how to shine from within. This is the knowledge of hiphop and yes it can’t stop, won’t stop.

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Using the Knowledge of Hiphop To Transform Self and Society: Article 2 Inner G.P.S

One of the major schemes of society and big business is playing on this generation of young world changers is that they are trying to disconnect them from the knowledge and wisdom of the older generations. A major reason why they do this is so they can more easily manipulate youth into buying into their fantasy definitions about themselves and the world around them. Just like a tree without roots can never truly flourish and produce fruit, so people without knowledge of their histories (knowledge of self) lack the capacity to producing a powerful legacy. This article is about how Hiphop can inform us to sample from the past, remix the present, and set a new groove that can transform the future.

Hip-hop is the first multicultural movement that this country and the world has ever seen. Youth from every color and background were essential in the development of the elements of Hiphop. If you look at the breaking, it draws influences from salsa and meringue, from funk music and borrows moves from Sammy Davis and James Brown, certain footwork can even be linked to the Native American grass dance. I have even been to battles where I have seen folks bust out with some straight Russian dances with their arms crossed, and squatting down and kicking out one foot at time. Other elements have ties to multiculturalism as well. One of the first graffiti writers was a Greek kid, some of the best old school rappers were black, some of the best dancers are Asian and Latin, some of the best Dj’s and turntabilists are white. Hiphop provides the common ground for all races to come together and to share their own flavor and express themselves.

If hip-hop were a baby, it is a baby with umbilical chords connecting it to various mother cultures from around the world. Coming out of the Bronx, Hiphop is born out of struggle. If you think about it, every race that has ever lived at one point was in slavery. We all know that black folks were slaves, but so were natives, Asians, and yes even white folks. Many people don’t realize that there were white slaves in Ireland back in the day. One thing that all people have in common when they come to the cipher of Hip-hop is that they are trying to get free. That is why I say that Hiphop is the modern-day phenomenon of oppressed people seeking liberation through creative and spiritual means. People have been trying to get free for centuries, now instead of doing so in isolation, people are able to bring their ideas, philosophies, and stories and share them with one another. In this respect, Hiphop contains the best knowledge of how to liberate people because it takes all of the ancient ideas and mixes them together.

Early Hip-hop Dj’s had no actual “hip-hop music” so they made their own sound by blending and mixing various types of music together. If you went to a show with Afrika Bambataa back in the day, you would hear some rock, some funk, some disco. If you heard Herc he would have some reggae, they all would be playing some of the breaks (more on this later), Flash and Wizard Theodore would be cutting and scratching, mixing it all together. Since Hip-hop incorporated all genres of music together it inherited certain philosophies or ideas about how to deal with the struggle through the music. If you were to trace all he music that it incorporated there would be three main root systems: Blues, Gospel and Jazz. With these styles of music come different ideas about how to deal with the struggle in creative ways.

Jazz is a form of music that totally redefines the tradition. Jazz greats like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane revolutionized the way people played traditional instruments like the saxophone, trumpet, and piano. Up until this point, these instruments were used primarily in orchestras and symphonies to play classical music. When folks like John Coltrane started to play the sax the way that he did, it blew people away and it totally transformed the way that people saw the instrument and believed how it could be played.

In this same way, people like Herc, Flash, and Theodore revolutionized the way that people today see the turntable. If you go to a music store today that sells instruments, you will most likely find turntables being sold, but this hasn’t always been the case. Back in the day if you told someone you were going to go home and play your turntable as an instrument, people would have looked at you strange. A turntable, up until the last thirty years was seen as an appliance like a toaster or a blender. If you told people it was your instrument, they would have thought you were crazy, it would be like telling people you were going to go make music with the blender by playing it at different speeds. It was the knowledge of Hiphop that transformed the way that the turntable was seen and played.

Herc was the first to really start pushing the limits with the turntable. Coming up as a kid from Jamaica, Herc had always seen the power that music had to bring people together and develop a sense of unity and consciousness. In Jamaica when he was coming up, the radio stations were run by the government, which was acting corruptly and oppressing the people. For this reason they banned playing music that was politically charged and delivering a powerful message to the people to stand up against this power system. Bob Marley, Black Uhuru,Peter Tosh, and Burning Spear are all examples of music that was dealing with the struggle and advising people to fight the power. Seeing this as a young child, Herc took this idea with him when he moved to the Bronx with his family.

Herc saw his opportunity to sample from this consciousness when the gang peace treaty in 1971 (which I will get into later) was sparked off. Also seeing that the radio stations were not playing music that people in the Bronx and surrounding areas wanted to hear, he had the idea to throw a party with his sister to bring folks together. He was a master at playing various styles of music to keep people engaged, and at one party he experimented with extending the “break” or funky instrumental version of the record to see what would happen. By hooking up two turntables and getting two copies of the same record, Herc began a tradition of revolutionizing the way that the turntable was seen and used. By mixing the “break” of the same record, he was able to extend this funky instrumental version of the record, which allowed for a new form or music and dance to emerge (more on this later). DJ’s like Flash, and Theodore perfected this craft and started doing their own experimenting with blending, mixing, and even scratching records to create their own sound. This effort, similar to what Miles Davis, and Coltrane did to Jazz, totally transformed the way people look at the turntable. Now if you go to any music store or music trade show in the world, you will see next to the violin, and Cello’s being sold, there are turntables. You can also look up international turntables competitions on you tube where dj’s compete to see who can scratch, blend, juggle, and mix the best.
The knowledge of Hip-hop again says that we can sample from the past and remix it to represent who and where we are in the present. With that rooting in being authentic, we can get a better vision for where we want to be in the future. Just like DJ’s borrowed from other forms of music and producers sample from old records, we can sample from our histories and remix the best parts to help us be more real and empowered. Big Business doesn’t like this because it means that they can’t manipulate us and tell us to be something that what we really are not. By getting connected to our own roots, and valuing our own histories and experiences we start to tap into the power of Hiphop and take control of our own lives. Connecting with our parents and grandparents can be a powerful connection that can keep us rooted so that we can produce our own unique fruit.

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Using The Knowledge of Hiphop To Transform Self and Society Article One: Reality Check

Society would have us to believe that if we don’t have money that we cannot be rich or powerful. According to society, young people living in the South Bronx in the late sixties and early seventies didn’t have anything of monetary value and were seen as expendable. Battling this label, young people began to tap into other forms of wealth: they began to get the knowledge of their histories, they began to find innovative ways to express themselves, they started formulating crews, the caught a vision for how they could better their lives and the lives of people living in their communities. These young people tapped into something that was so rich that the bi-product of this movement was a billion dollar industry. When hip-hoppers say that they learned how to make something outta nothing, it is a challenge to the mainstream because the mainstream cannot see these other forms of wealth that go beyond finances.

The billion dollar industry is just a bi-product of this more real wealth. A bi-product is something that is created on the side from what the real focus is. For example when people extract oil from the earth and turn it into gasoline or diesel, the bi-product of this process is petroleum jelly. Now Vaseline, or petroleum jelly is something that you can buy at just about any store. Those who own the company that sells Vaseline jelly make millions of dollars a year. This is nothing in comparison to those who sell gasoline and make billions of dollars a year because that is the real substance that is more valuable. What I am saying is that Hip-hop is so raw, so powerful, that the bi-product of this movement is a billion dollar record and entertainment industry. However, so many people are now focused on the industry that they have lost sight of the real wealth, the knowledge that is the real substance. This real substance, otherwise known as the knowledge of Hiphop, is the real reason why Hip-hop has spread like wild-fire all over the world.

Hip-hop culture has empowered youth all over the world to find ways to express themselves, tell their stories, and build communities that are changing their realities. It is empowering young people in Brazil, Senegal, Cuba, and Hong Kong to challenge the oppressive realities around them and make real changes. It is this consciousness that is allowing youth to transform themselves from being consumers addicted to buying the next trend to being the creators of the next trend. Hiphop Culture says that no matter how little we have, we can be creators, and that we can be powerful. Hip-hop culture says that we don’t need to escape from reality, but that we can face reality, and equipped with the knowledge of Hip-hop we can change our realities for the better. The purpose of this series of articles, is to help you discover this power that is within you and your community and use it to follow your dreams and change the world for the better. The world is waiting for you to stand up and reach your true purpose and potential.

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To Be or Not To Be: The Power of Culture to Create Social Change

I once had a class taught by Bill Ayers where he challenged us to explain in an assignment what it meant to be human. What seemed at first to be an easy assignment proved to be increasingly complex and challenging especially as I began to really think about verbalizing this answer. What seemed to be easier to do was to reciprocally ask what does it mean to be dehumanized? The answers this time came up a bit easier as I expressed that: No one should be challenged or resisted for attempting to live healthy whole lives where they strive to flourish in the multiple dimensions of the self: body, mind, heart, and soul. Along with that, no one should be restricted in connecting with others or made to feel inhibited in expressing  their identity or intimacy (in to me see) with others, and lastly, people should not have their voices silenced or made to feel devalued for voicing their dreams for a more equitable and just world.  These are my ideas regarding what it means to not be dehumanized, but what I learned from this exercise are two things that I would like to expand upon more specifically in this article. First off, why is it that we as social justice educators and artist activists in general talk more about what is wrong with the world than what is right with it? Secondly is social change only possible by politicizing our every public effort, or are there other ways of creating major change in the world that can give ordinary people the power to influence our environments?

I attend a wide variety of social justice conferences and try to stay abreast on the newest developments with this progressive movement. The overall tone of the majority of articles I read and the workshops I attend is one that is pessimistic and focused on what is wrong with the world. I totally understand the importance of being critical about what is happening with issues like the budget crisis, broken education policy, the war in Iraq, etc. But by constantly looking at what is wrong with the world, we find ourselves being driven by fear, panic, and find ourselves easily feeling overwhelmed and burnt out. Is there another way to better fuel out work? I believe it was Paulo Freire that said, “our revolution must not be driven by the hatred of our enemies but by the love that we have for ourselves and our communities”. With this said, how are we as progressive people taking strides to seeing what is right with the world (demonstrating real love, beautiful and courageous) and building off of it? I believe that is it far more powerful to give people a vision directed towards building off of what is right in the world rather than solely focusing attention on everything that is wrong with the world.

In a recent discussion with a friend of mine about the drop out rate of Palestinian youth in Bethlehem, the discussion got hot when we were talking about the examples being set by older men. The argument my friend rightly brought forth was that the young men should learn from the examples of older adults that not finishing school is not an economically feasible or sustainable way to live. Reflecting on my own experience and not being engaged in school or society, I realized it was not until I had someone who embodied how to be engaged with it that I began to  realize I could live my life differently. I have come to the conclusion that you can have hundreds of examples of what not to do, but if a young person has a relationship with even one person who is doing the right thing, that can have even more impact.

As an educator who teaches about hiphop and education, I get teachers all the time that ask me how they can have more influence than a Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, or someone like that. I tell them that it is true that Jay-Z has some major influence, but nothing can replace the relationship a young person has with a real human being. Being relevant does not mean that teachers have to change who they are and add extra swagger to their teaching style or mannerisms, rather it means that they are authentic and allow their students to do the same. Having real relationships with youth and being an example of an engaged citizen can have profound effects on young people, and there is much research that backs this up. At least this is the case in the looking at the qualitative case study of my own life.

Growing up, I could feel that something was wrong with the world even if I couldn’t articulate it. There was something wrong with being pulled over with my family and having the car searched. There was something wrong with being arrested for no reason and having to be in a line up. There was something wrong with the names and labels the teachers were giving to me. But I didn’t see anyone acknowledge these things in a way that was positive. I just heard Ice Cube say “Fuck the Police”, or other gangster rappers talk about school being a “bunch of bull shit”. Looking back, I was drawn to rebel in this way. It wasn’t until my grandfather came into my life more that I began to see there was another way to dealing with this grief and frustration. My grandpa demonstrated that you could change things by redirecting things from within the system. Being discriminated against himself, he still went to college and became a lawyer, helped to challenge unjust policies, and supported equal rights throughout his professional career. He taught me that I could take my fire of frustration and do something positive with it. Did NWA, Ice Cube, and Ghetto Boys have influence on me, no doubt! But nothing could replace the impact my grandpa had in being his authentic self and challenging me to deal with my frustrations head on and in a way that was not hurtful to myself or others. Through this experience I learned that vision for doing the right thing is far more powerful than vision for how to not do things, especially when expressed through real relationship.

Can this vision of constructive forms of rebellion be expressed beyond just mentorship? Absolutely, this vision must be expressed in various ways if we are to truly see real social change. But in order for this vision to change the world, it must permeate all spheres of society, not just the realm of politics. One of the critical methods for creating change historically has been politics, and this certainly has had tremendous impact especially when we look at movements such as civil rights. But what is equally important, but not often discussed, is not just looking at the laws that changed during civil rights but the attitudes and values influenced by popular culture at the time. Music played an enormous role in expressing black pride, the importance of standing up for what was right, and the coolness of diversity. Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and many others provided the sound track for the revolution that was heard around the world. It was the cultural movement, created by young people, that influenced the next generation to not just obey laws for diversity but allowed them to celebrate it.

The power of youth to create a cultural movement to influence the world is also seen in Hiphop Culture that emerged out of the South Bronx in the early 1970’s from youth making the most out of what they had. Youth in these circumstances, demonstrated their powerful voices, tremendous resiliency, and redemption in the face of hidious injustices such as white flight, red lining practices of banks, and other forms of institutional racism. Youth developed a form of music, dance, art, and style that gave other young people around the world voice and hope that they too could raise above the ashes of oppression and despair and find redemption through their expressions. Now the influence of Hiphop has been seen to influence popular culture around the globe ranging from fashion, and art shows, to television shows, and marketing. This form of social change expressed through culture shaping is something that gives power back to everyday people, especially youth. Politics far too often, puts power solely in the hands of elected officials. Far too many people vote a candidate into public office so that they feel justified in not having to deal with any private issues of fighting some of the real day-to-day fights for themselves.

Imagine a world where young people, like the ones who started hiphop, focus on what they have and make the most out of it. Sure they see what is wrong with the world, but focus most of their energy in seeing what is right and building off of it. Now imagine these young hiphoppers not just being good rappers and visual artists, but being engineers and lawyers. Imagine these folks being living examples that they can constructively rebel by first demonstrating their ingenuity and hard work, and by doing so gain the influence to redirect their institutions to being more equitable and just in their policies and practices. Imagine people not just discussing what is wrong with the world, but like Ghandi said, “being the change that they want to see in the world”. This means not letting our pessimism blind us from the assets and opportunities that are right before us. This means getting our hands dirty and helping people who are in need and not just focusing on electing others to do this from a macro level but being about the work of justice everyday by loving ourselves and communities even in small ways. This means operating with authenticity and passion so we can influence our places of family, work, community and school. This means to connect with people in real and authentic ways, and have the agency to voice our dreams of a more equitable world. What someone saw as an old spray paint can, rusty microphone, and broken down turntables, others saw as the tools possible to start a cultural movement. In focusing solely on the negative aspects of life, and what is wrong with the world, we are blind from these tools and opportunities that  allow us to connect with others and build culture that can change the world. What tools are before you, what people are around you, and what are you waiting for….to humanize a dehumanizing world is to change it! Maybe this was what Mr. Ayers was getting at when he asked us what it means to be human!?

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From Pain To Propane: Hiphop As A Tool For Healing From Grief

Grief is a major issue in America that has been given little if any real examination in mainstream society. Extensive research in popular culture proves that there have been few viable strategies made available to the general public on how to deal effectively with grief. I recognized this harsh reality when forced to deal with my own grief when my little brother Gabe was diagnosed with leukemia. After bravely battling this dreadful disease for two years, and even going into remission for six months, the illness took his life at the age of 8. February 26, 2005 was the day that my little bro took his last breath in my arms, and as he did so,  we were knocked off our feet by a tidal wave of grief and bereavement. His passing was literally devastating to my family and I.

During the time of his passing many family friends helped out and cooked us meals, brought us flowers, and offered us their support and encouragement. Among the people who offered their condolences and support were my co-workers and boss. I was allowed to have some “family time off” and my co-workers stepped up to cover my hours at the office. When the ten days passed, I was probably just transitioning out of the stage of shock, when I was expected to return to work as “normal”. Of course people were sympathetic, but by the end of the week things were expected to be back to “business as usual”. I desperately tried to act the part but internally I was still very broken and struggling to hold things together.

Thinking that there must be something wrong with me for still wrestling with the reality of my brothers loss , I started to do some research on grief. What I quickly came to realize is that America has a very interesting way of dealing with grief, in that we really give people very little space to deal with it, if at all! In contrast to this, other countries mandate at least a 40 day period for actively grieving the loss of a loved one. In some cases society even gives family members a longer period of time, and in such contexts, not actively grieving is seen as non-normal or strange behavior. America, on the other hand, gives people some space at the funeral, maybe a little time off (a week or two), and presto! You should be done grieving and ready to go back to being a productive worker.

I asked some co-workers how they had dealt with their own grief of losing a loved one, and what I got in return were blank stares and them asking me, “what do you mean deal with the grief”? Looking for help, I decided to see a grief counselor and she recommended a book called: The Courage To Grieve. I began to read the book, but my eyes just hovered over the pages until I got to a chapter called Creative Grieving. What the chapter said in essence is that the best way to grieve is to do something creative with that grief. This seed was watered in a powerful way when I sat down with an old poet friend (Eric Mata) who asked me how I was doing. I told him, “I feel like a train that has been weighed down with a bunch of coal and I’m pathetically trying to get up a mountain”. He then asked me what I would need to do to get to the top of mountain, and something clicked when I told him, ” I need to use my pain as propane to get up the mountain “!

What I began to realize is that my connection with Hiphop Culture had already given me tools to move this coal of grief into the fire of my life. I realized that I needed to creatively process through my grief using my passion for rap and poetry and begin to channel this pain into the propane using the tools of Hiphop. I started to write and rap, some of the songs I felt literally wrote themselves. At the end of writing some of these songs I just bawled, but with each writing, like an onion, the layers of grief started to peel away and I would feel “lighter” and more power to keep moving forward. And in so doing, I realized anew the power of being a Hiphop MC was not just to Move the Crowd or Master the Craft, but to Make a Change, and that change needed to start deep within my heart first. One of these songs has been uploaded for you to listen to here:

What I began to realize even further is that our disconnection from true Hiphop Culture, through its co-optation from mass media and big business, has cut the masses of people, especially young people of color, off from the only viable method of grieving that they have: doing so creatively with Hiphop. Disconnecting the movement of Hiphop from its roots that give it power like blues, gospel, and jazz, disconnects people from their realities and renders them powerless and stuck in a fantasy world. Not to be on some conspiracy type stuff, but could this “being stuck” not only be detrimental in that we are less productive with our grief, but that we become hyper consumers in a desperate attempt to cover it up? Thinking back to my co-workers who were staring at me blankly when I asked them about dealing with their grief, I remember one of them ordering another round of beers. I think about how in the 100 years GDP has gone up and Americans have increased their income and acquired more “things” but, according to studies coming out of South Carolina, we are also more depressed than ever. Could this be at the root of some of our addictions to food, alcohol, tobacco, pills, sex, entertainment, etc? I think this especially true in that grief is not only associated with the loss of life but the loss of health (due to illness), the loss of relationship (divorce or break-up), or even the loss of a pet.

Instead of escaping the reality of the pain of grief, Hiphop Culture invites people to deal with it head on and to transform that pain into something productive. Instead of living in a fantasy world and retreating into isolation and depression by keeping our stories to ourselves, Hiphop invites us to enter the cypher: a place to share our stories, connect with others, and find redemption. What I learned first hand ( and what is supported by research) is that telling one’s story creatively is not only healing for oneself, but when that call is put out, it is able to ignite a healing response from the communities that we interact with.

Energized from my own transformation and the revelation of the need to create spaces to “creatively grieve”, I connected with a long time friend and activist (Lacouir Yancey) and we planned a city-wide event called The Hiphop Revival on May 28, 2005. The purpose of the event was to not only to bring the collective elements of Hiphop (breaking, graffiti, Deejaying, and Emceeing) together in the city of Madison-WI,  but to offer a space for sharing our stories and finding collective liberation. I remember at the start of the event saying, “I am dedicating this event to the passing of my brother Gabe, a little boy who taught me the power of love to overcome anything”, and in saying that, I began to feel liberated and felt my fire to do something purposeful with my pain ignite even further.

Reflecting on this event, I realized that I needed to quit my corporate job and continue this journey of creatively grieving through hiphop and that I needed to share this journey and these tools with others, especially youth labeled “at-risk”. Taking time to research social and emotional learning and the drop-out epidemic in America, I quickly realized that it is nearly impossible for youth to learn new academic material when they are stuck in a stage of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, etc). We decided to do an experiment and share the social and emotional knowledge embedded in Hiphop culture with youth labeled “at-risk” at a nearby middle school. The results were unprecedented in that the students not only did an amazing performance  and shared their stories and expressions at the culmination of the workshops, but in grieving creatively through this process also increased their G.P.A’s, started attending school more frequently, and had less behavior issues. You can see a video capturing this transformation at:

We have since started an organization called Good Life, we have organized 7 Hiphop Revivals around the nation including in: Los Angeles, Chicago, and Madison-WI. We have developed a formal Social and Emotional Learning curriculum entitled Fulfill The Dream that teaches youth how to tell their story in relevant ways, so they can authentically connect with others, and collectively author new stories for themselves and their communities. I have also gained my masters degree in youth development (at UIC) and have committed my life to empowering youth to become cultural change agents. We have also recently published a book sharing these stories and connecting youth from across the nation. This book is entitled Youth Voice Nation: Taking the Voices of Youth Off Mute and is coming to ebook soon!

To hear more about out our organization check out our updated website at: http://www.thegoodlifeorganization. or contact me directly at:

Love and Liberation,

Roberto C. Rivera

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Individual, Interpersonal, and Institutional Transformation…a talk with Vincent Harding

I was really blessed not too long ago, while at a conference in Denver, to meet a man named Vincent Harding. Vincent is a man who has a great amount of wisdom and experience and when you sit down with him, he is like a grandpa full of stories of love and struggle. Vincent marched with Dr. King during Civil rights, was one of his closest friends and even wrote many of his speeches including the one where Dr. King spoke out against the Vietnam war. Vincent is an author of many books including Hope and History, There is a River, and We Changed the World. Vincent was also the Executive Producer for the documentary series: Eyes on The Prize. This opportunity to have dinner with such a man was truly a gift and I want to share a few things that he shared that had a powerful impact on me.

As we broke bread together at a seafood restaurant in Denver, I began to ask Vincent how he ended up in Denver. He started to tell me that he was given the opportunity to be a professor at a university there where he could teach on anything he wanted to. He said this was like a dream come true, so he took up the offer and started teaching on the “role of the religion in creating social change”. Fascinated by this topic, I began to inquire more and asked what was the role of religion in creating social change. He began to explain that often in the west, the ” religious church” thinks of transformation in terms of it taking place on an individual level. Our fascination with hero stories and individualism tends to overemphasize the changes that take place on a personal level to make someone heroic. As it pertains to religion places of faith really emphasize the importance of aligning ones life to the beliefs held by the wisdom literature of their religion (the Bible, the Koran, the Torah of example). He explained that transformation on this level was indeed important but that there was more to transformation than that.

He began to explain further that there was also a transformation that took place on an interpersonal level. Vincent stressed that most people truly only experience transformation while being in relationship with others. He said, some churches really understand this principle and that is why they emphasize the importance of missions, evangelism, and reaching out to others. He said that the only problem with most churches in the west is that they think that if they are doing this they are walking in the fullness of what church and transformation is all about, but they have forgotten another sphere of transformation…

This sphere of transformation is the sphere of institutions and society as a whole. He began to explain that people must understand that Jesus didn’t come down to save us from earth to take us up to heaven, Jesus came to teach us we could collectively bring heaven down to earth. Faith and religion, he explained, is able to really flourish when taken to the public sphere as it is applied to help shape society. He illustrated this point by discussion how the Civil Rights movement was a revival of faith because people were taking their values and beliefs and through faith were attempting to live them in a world that was lacking these values of equality, justice, and freedom. He said, you had children, teenagers, and adults growing in their faith (privately) and in doing so they saw a discrepancy (publicly) between the reality of how things were  and what the bible said was how things should be. These folks were the ones who took a leap of faith and in doing so together no only transformed themselves but society as well.

As I began to reflect on this lesson, I can’t help but also think about the application this has to being a social justice educator. What I have learned is that, working in the public sphere, the emphasis is always on trying to make change in the world but little if no emphasis is on the individual and interpersonal changes that need to take place in order to sustain this change. What being part of a Good Life community has taught me is true social and institutional change is created and sustained by people also committed to individual and interpersonal change as well. My experience is that in focusing so much on the external change without the internal change really just leads to burn out. Community, I am learning, is the key that connects that gives individuals the power to transform self and society. On that note, I must say that I am deeply blessed to be part of a Good Life community that lovingly gives me space to work on transforming myself and society. I confess that without this space, as it pertains to sustainable change, I am absolutely powerless and ineffective. My encouragement to others seeking to live the Good Life is to embrace the gift of community and the opportunity to transform self and in doing so we will have the power to transform society.

Love and Liberation,


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