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: http://soundcloud.com/fulfillthedream/storms-of-life-1#
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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=737xmhVLo5A
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Love and Liberation,
Roberto C. Rivera