Get into the G.A.ME: The Grassroots Artists Movement

Lawrence James -- Interviewed by Ron

Ron Hayduk: Maybe you can tell us a little bit about G.A.ME, Grassroots Artists MovEment and how it came into being, your relationship to it.  What’s it about?

Lawrence James: Well, G.A.ME is still developing and there’s so many parts to it.  Basically it started with the idea of protecting the rights of artists and building a union and keeping it focused on political power and economic stability for artists, and re-diverting funds back into building the Black and Brown community. What’s happening is a lot of those funds in Hip-Hop are going outside the community and so it’s not building.  In a sense artists and the people are being pimped. We organize the artists around politics.  We do not try to censor them, but to help them understand their valuable and strategic position. Teaching is like giving options, preaching is telling somebody exactly what to do. We teach.

I’m not aware of any attempts to unionize Hip-Hop artists.  This project has the potential to revolutionize Hip-Hop and the industry. Can you describe the initiative to unionize Hip-Hop artists and the industry, and how you’re going about it; how’s it going?

We had a few meetings with some unions, such as AFTRA [American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] and we got some information in terms of healthcare.  We later launched the “Hip-Hop for HealthCare” campaign because we’re getting a lot of information and really finding out what the situation with artists is on these labels.  I had a personal issue with it. I also tried pursuing a career as an artist.  I’m not trying to pursue it anymore because I feel that this fight is far stronger and this is where I’m needed.  We are building a lot of momentum and bringing in a lot of artists and a lot of people who wouldn’t ordinarily associate Hip-Hop with healthcare.

So a lot of other organizations are looking at us and at Hip-Hop in a different light.  We are mobilizing people around healthcare because healthcare is an issue that not only affects artists, but also 41 million Americans.  So it’s something that everyone can relate to.  When you’re trying to unionize, you have to get different communities involved.  You can’t just talk to the workers.  You’ve got to get the workers’ families, their friends, and everybody in the community.  That’s why Hip-Hop for HealthCare is so extraordinary to G.A.ME and so very necessary.  It’s one of our most important projects right now.

Another initiative that’s moving is developing shows for our G.A.ME artists. It builds morale and income for our membership. We can get shows, different types of events for artists to perform at.  People don’t know that most artists get their money from actual performances and not really from selling CDs, no matter if they go platinum or gold.  So G.A.ME is in quite a few different cities, even outside of the US. We have a growing Local in Lagos, Nigeria.  What we’re doing is getting these artists to perform in different places and especially in their local area.  Usually where they live they would be able to get paid from the shows, because that’s the beginning, or the underground process—getting known.

So these are some of the initiatives that bring people into the organization.  Helping artists to generate funds and to organize builds morale for the membership. Because of our strategy we get some members that wouldn’t usually join an organization.  They feel that Hip-Hop culture—and the way we examine needs¾is something you want to organize for. We are about addressing situations with practical solutions.

That’s very interesting, the way you describe G.A.ME as an organization and as an activity, organizing.  And you talked about G.A.ME existing across cities and internationally, a multi-city and multi-national organizing project.  Could you elaborate a bit more on the structure of G.A.ME and your strategies and tactics?

Well, everything is still developing but we have our own artists and we have a Lead Organizer in some good areas of the country.  This is how we would start a lot of organizing. Usually we’ll have an artist who performs somewhere outside of New York, or somebody interested will call us from the Bay Area in California where we have a Lead Organizer, and we’ll find out how enthusiastic they are, explain to them some of the responsibilities, make clear the goals and objectives of G.A.ME, and ask if they are prepared to volunteer time and effort. When you first start Local building, you anticipate that everybody’s going to be able organize and be able to do it exactly like you, but that’s not what it is.  They’re not just going to go out there and do it exactly how it’s supposed to be done. Nor are they going to be able to pick up on everything because the initial process is very difficult.  We’re all learning on the job.  We don’t want everybody else to have as difficult a time as the Central. So we have to take a step back and break down everything, try to simplify it in the best way possible for a person to be able to build an administration while taking instructions from someone in a different city.

It’s a difficult process just mobilizing people, doing agendas, and being responsible and accountable to an organization and to the people that they’re trying to assist.  All our information, all that structure-building is very important to each organization.  In New York, it’s going to be a different way of organizing than in the Bay Area because what’s going on is different.  I’m directly in touch with all the Lead Organizers about how Hip-Hop is developing in different places and what the problems there are.  A lot of them are different but the underlying issues are quite the same.

For instance, there’s this bogus issue on dividing Hip-Hop between some artists who are gangsta and some who seem more Hip-Hop or whatever. That’s a divisive kind of thing. It crushes Black people’s spirit.  And that’s something that we’re against. In New York it’s losing ground, because harder and more socio-political joints are taking over again in the underground clubs, and spots are closer together and therefore more impressionable.  But it’s pretty strong in California, where there’s a sharp contrast between what people label as gangsta rap and what people see as Hip-Hop.  It’s purism talk.  So it was very difficult to really organize around that issue, but the person that we had over there, the Lead Organizer, was able to figure out some ways to break it down and advance our greater campaign in the Bay Area.

But we also have a Lead Organizer in Nigeria, where we have the issue of how to mobilize people around Hip-Hop.  This person is working extraordinarily in building a Hip-Hop street fair and trying to get people more aware on some of the issues that are going on in Hip-Hop while deepening awareness of the out-of-control AIDS epidemic. AIDS education and what G.A.ME can do about it is our main fight over there. But Hip-Hop is the organizing vehicle. The other issue is a political issue, in terms of how Blacks and Hip-Hop are portrayed outside the US.  I don’t want African brothers and sisters thinking that Africans born in America are just advertising capitalism and sex in musical form. Some know that’s false. Just like some of us know there’s running water, higher learning, and not just animals over there. So these are some of the issues we’re attacking head on.  Every Local uses the standard way of organizing that works, but they also have specific styles based on their needs, their issues, and the make-up of the administration and membership.

You made a distinction between a certain kind of rap and Hip-Hop.  And different artists have talked about that, the difference between Hip-Hop and rap. What’s your view?  When you talk about Hip-Hop, what is it you talk about?

When I talk about Hip-Hop, I definitely include the organizations that really created it and I include five elements (lots of people say four, others they say seven or something but I try to go by Zulu Nation as the first Hip-Hop organization):  breaking, graffiti, deejaying, emceeing, and then what is called knowledge or philosophy.  KRS-One really expanded on philosophy. They’re interchangeable.  So when I think about Hip-Hop, I think about those aspects.  I think about organizing.  I see Hip-Hop as the only music genre to actually have a creed in its beginning (besides gospel music) and to be very clear.

Zulu Nation was created in 1973, a year before Hip-Hop was created.  Its development is definitely stagnant and in some areas very backward.  But when I think about Hip-Hop when it came out and even now, I think about the culture being more diverse and popular, but then I also think about Hip-Hop as being controlled and being forced to become commercial.  It compromised way too much.

I think it’s becoming commercialized or has already become commercialized because it hasn’t been organized. Hip-Hop is being attacked in Congress and on television, exploited in the worst ways, and its artists are being exploited.  And then the people, especially the youth, happen to hear some of the exploited and commercialized music.

There is a huge contradiction because artists don’t have much power to say the kind of things that they want to say because they have to eat.  Some bus drivers would allow New Yorkers on to the bus for free instead of forcing them off when they haven’t the $2.00. But, they recognize life-changing consequences for bravery and sacrifice. So I have seen too many told to get off the bus in the cold.  Damon Dash explained that many companies like Hot 97 and MTV tell his label Rocafella what will get played on the radio and video. Without radio you can’t sell a million records. Rocafella is one of the most influential, consistent, and played labels around, so him making that proclamation definitely makes my point.  A lot of people have been saying that before he said this on a Source magazine panel.

Hip-Hop has so many different things going on.  When you think of Hip-Hop you definitely think of percussion and you’re always listening for a message.  The messages are always there and when you think about Hip-Hop you tend to think about Black and Brown communities.  Especially in Black culture, when you listen to certain music in Hip-Hop, you automatically see it as Black music.  So what they’re doing in Hip-Hop has people outside thinking, “is that what’s going on in the Black community?”  “If they’re talking about smoking and getting high, well they must be doing that in the Black community”even though it’s not the case with other music genres.  You don’t think—in terms of contemporary rock and roll—that every White person is acting just like a rock artist, but you do make that kind of connection with Hip-Hop and Black music.

It’s significant because there’s some truth to the idea that Hip-Hop imitates the situation Black people are currently in, but the Hip-Hop that’s being portrayed on the larger scale or mainstream is made-up nonsense. Those who are being themselves are on the grind, struggling, trying to speak from the heart, not imitating nonsense. If you wanted to ask “what are they doing inside the Black community?” when you heard or saw a Hip-Hop show back in the mid-‘70s or even the late ‘70s, then you might have had some certainty, because the Hip-Hop leaders and entrepreneurs were Black.

Contrary to public belief, P. Diddy and Russell Simmons don’t run Hip-Hop.  The first Hip-Hop labels were Black and therefore they had a say in it.  You could explain what you were saying and expand on it. You had an influence on it.  And you could be accountable. That’s hardly possible now. Now, if you have a label and you’re Black in Hip-Hop, unless you’re a Master P, you belong to a label that’s under a label that’s under another label, and even Master P who has a label, his distribution is set up in such a way that even he doesn’t have that much power.  Most labels are just a company on paper. It’s just a piece of paper that can be ripped up at any time.  A lot of labels are downsized because they belong to music groups [the big five, discussed below—Ed.].

That’s deep. What you were describing is the corporate capitalist commodification of Hip-Hop, culturally, but also in the industry. It’s tough to break in and not be broken, not be co-opted or commodified or commercialized.  Obviously G.A.ME’s goals and initiatives are aimed at trying to take ownership—literally and figuratively—back and give artists power to control their product and benefit from that.  That’s a big challenge.

We were talking about that in our last meeting actually.  In each of our meetings we start off with a PE or political education.  We talked about how difficult it was and how G.A.ME is working on the solution, so nobody is supposed to just explain how to do it. When you talk about trying to really attack this, you’ve got to break it down in a number of different ways, in terms of who leads the industry.  I feel that power is definitely with the people who organize, but more and more people are demoralized about this.  So you’ve got to really bring them back into a political life, especially when you’re talking about underprivileged communities.

Usually in poverty you’re going to be demoralized: lack of health care, housing issues.  All of these things come into play.  So how do you get to that person and say, “you have time, organize”?   How can that happen with the usage of Hip-Hop?  Hip-Hop has the power to really wield a lot of influence, a lot of resources even with elected officials and with doctors.  We’re having a healthcare screening that’s coming up.  We’re going to have people actually deejay there, get on the mic, and it’s going to be festive, but at the same time, it’s going to be meeting people at their needs in terms of having free healthcare screenings for that day, and we want to do it on a regular basis.

So we want to show people that Hip-Hop is a way of really organizing people.  We know that if we bring them to Park James they can address issues such as healthcare and housing.  And there’s a number of different things that we’re trying to incorporate into G.A.ME to be able to take on this monster.  I think that people will definitely organize around G.A.ME, especially if they’re willing to pay $10 for a CD—or more—or go to a show for 10, 15 or even 5 dollars.  They’re going to support their artists and support the struggle at the same time.  They’ll show up to a show, or show up to the store or to a rally or something that G.A.ME is doing.  Hip-Hop has always been about having fun and socialist ideals, organizing people.  It’s been politically conscious from the very beginning, talking about the issues in the community from the very beginning.  That’s what’s being lost.

Very few songs on the radio are talking about what’s going on in the community, what’s going on on the issues.  It’s people coming on, it’s this understanding that everything is all good because the music must tell the time.  It must be explaining the times that’s going on right now.  People must be at home sipping Moët and going out to parties.  No, people are struggling, trying to cope with it but at some times maybe go to a party here or there.  Maybe they have to run away from their issues by smoking a little weed but they have to come back to reality and what’s going on.

For the majority of people, it’s real issues.  And the artists are still doing songs that are talking about what’s going on in the community, how to address all of these problems who are their friends and who are their enemies, who’s this and that.  Because they’re not saying the same things over and over and over, a lot of these artists.  Some of them are putting out the same thing on the radio but have other tracks that address a deeper issue.  And they won’t be played on there.

You know how many times artists are kicked off labels and they leave so many songs, because those songs are now the property of that label, of that music group.  So that’s what’s going on.  People, they hear a song on the radio and all of a sudden they think, “these artists, oh my goodness!”  You never hear them complain about SONY or BMG or Universal who’s really behind it.  They never bring those names up.  It’s just what they see, which is understandable.

The general public is under the illusion that artists have this power of creativity to do whatever they want.  And this is what makes unionizing an urgent issue, because artists are employees rather than independent contractors, and so their scope for creativity is actually quite limited.  Employees are told what to do and how to do it whereas independent contractors are told what to do but not how to do it.  But artists are labeled independent contractors.  This makes it more difficult for any artists’ union to be officially recognized by the National Labor Relations Board, a federal entity.  So our task of unionizing becomes more difficult.  Artists like other employees are to a short extent told what to do in the recording booth or on stage. It’s sometimes blatant like, “no, you can’t talk about that, try doing this, this is better.”  Only a limited number of artists are lucky to get out of those situations with some money in their pockets.  But, most are pimped or programmed.  It’s like an urban drug-dealer working for CIA.  He thinks he’s working on his own terms.  But, when he’s no longer useful to the government they come right down and get him.  Same thing with some well-known artists, when they are no longer necessary, they’re gone.  That’s fucked up options.

Most of the artists who try to go against the grain are snuffed out, thrown off the label.  Before Eminem got big over at Aftermath (Dr. Dre’s label under Interscope Records), they had an artist by the name of Last Emperor, a very, very talented artist.  I loved this artist as soon as I heard him, but they threw him right off the air and put Eminem on.  There was actually an artist before him, which was King T; I’m not too familiar with his work, but those are just two artists.  So it’s all about marketing.  And Last Emperor, he’s not talking about the same ol’ commercialized stuff.  So he didn’t want to compromise at all.  He jumped around from label to label.  It was a big thing to work with Aftermath Records, and some artists will go to those lengths and say they want to do their own kind of music.  But you’ll never see that artist, especially if they’re Black.  MTV won’t tell you about that artist.  HOT 97 aren’t going to tell you about that artist, about these artists’ fights.  We know they’re out there and going through it on a regular basis.  Still, some of these artists will not compromise.

What we’re trying to do in G.A.ME is really educate people on Hip-Hop.  People have this understanding that Hip-Hop is about this and that.  Some artists in certain places, they talk about it real hard and real dynamic, but sometimes they’re just exploited.  Even if you’ve been in Hip-Hop a long time, it’s really difficult to know the difference between the two sometimes.  Most times I think I’m able to see what’s going on.  But the way you’re able to know an artist is to know what label are they with.  That’s why we do a lot of research on these labels.  A lot of times they make it easy, but they’re making it more difficult now.  I remember when I was able to go to the websites of each of the music groups that own distribution and manufacturing and labels, and that can license labels.  They talked about their strategy, and how many labels they owned.  Some of that information is gone.  You cannot find it anymore.  What we want to do is put that information out there and get it to the community, bring that organizing strength to the community in a real grassroots way, to be able to master working with the media and be able to take advantage of Hip-Hop’s popularity and be able to get in in different areas, in different cities, in different countries.  Then we’ll be able to lay it down and find out what’s going on, find out that they’re putting out this fake message on what Hip-Hop is.

Five music groups alone own over 90% of all music.  That’s any album that comes out.  That means over a 90% chance that it belongs to them, probably more like 95%.  Any music that you hear on the radio is usually going to be from the major music groups especially before 12 midnight, so it’s definitely going to be a real battle, but it will take the people being educated.  These are the consumers, the people who buy, who supposedly request this and that, so it’s definitely an organizing effect.  These are some of the strategies that we’re trying to incorporate into really attacking this beast.

That was awesome.  It reminds me of a quote, Stic from Dead Prez who said, “We’re victims of a capitalist system, as workers we are exploited, as people we have no power over our own lives, no self-determination, no ability to reproduce the things we need for ourselves, so we’re dependent on people who historically have beaten us, jailed us, lied to us, etc.  I don’t see any freedom in that.” G.A.ME’s response to that?

I would say that’s the truth of it all.  You get artists coming into the industry.  Now, a lot of people say, why do you have to do the same thing and talk about pimps, hos, and this and that?  Okay, there are some artists that are politically gifted and don’t talk about those things, but suppose they want to go out there and develop their own label.  It’s difficult to do that because first off the major companies that you want to distribute to, there’s like ten of them; Walmart, they’re not going to take any other labels.  It’s almost exclusive, certain labels that they will take.  Then you have Tower Records which takes some independent stuff.  You’ve got Target.  A lot of these chain stores work with these music groups in a very exclusive manner.  So they’re not going to be able to take music from labels that are not part of the music group.  These music groups have about 50 to 100 labels which they distribute.  They buy a lot of independent companies.  They’re like a monster.  So when you’re trying to get out there, people say this is capitalism and you can really make it.  Not with these conditions.

Blacks are making that effort to really develop, but it’s like they’re going backwards.  They’re being exploited in a certain way and only a few people are getting some of these riches.  So you have these artists who have their own label.  But these labels don’t have any money.  They don’t have any power.  They have to work with distribution companies.  Master P had to work with distribution companies, even though he has enough money to do his own distribution.  Now I’m not totally sure on this but I do believe there is definite pressure to prevent Blacks from having a distribution company.  That would be too much for companies like BMG, Warner Brothers, EMI, SONY and Universal.  You’ve got these five companies that are not black-owned, and they’re definitely not going to allow that to happen.  Most of their Hip-Hop artists happen to be Black.  And they understand that of course these artists would prefer a Black distribution company because they feel that they would be treated better.  Some of these labels are racist, they’re outright racist.  So they definitely wouldn’t be a part of that.  What G.A.ME is trying to do is divert those funds back into the community so we can have ownership over our own destiny and make the next logical steps, for someone to be able to control their own resources and not have to depend on welfare.  People don’t want to depend on welfare.  People feel like if I get off of this, where am I going to go.  You’re just going to Ronop right into poverty.

Many people that come to my office, when I tell them I work in politics and I work with constituents, they don’t want to.  They feel less dignified in the matter.  They think that I’m some Democrat, that I don’t understand, which is understandable; look at where I’m working.  You’re in a situation thing.  You would like to get out, but it’s a cycle that you really can’t get out of and then you become demoralized.  It’s been real clear for me in seeing that happen so often.  So you take this artist who’s trying to get on the radio and at the same time trying to get a distribution company, but it’s not going to happen.  To get on the radio you’ve got to have some money.  You’ve got to pay for play.  People think that payola is illegal, which it’s not.  It’s not illegal; it’s very legal.  If you don’t have that money to get on the radio, and if you don’t know somebody, you’re not going to get your album played.

It’s a way of really stifling an artist, putting a stranglehold on them, the same stranglehold that’s being put on the community.  Some of these artists that seem to be well off, once they get out of terms, that’s the end of their careers.  There was a thing with Puffy and with his trial, the trial that he had with the gun and the shooting.  BMG owned 50% of Bad Boy, his creation.  He’s off now, he has 100% of Bad Boy. But before that, he wasn’t an independent; they had a clause in his contract that stated that if he was to get locked up for 6 months or more, they would keep his whole label.  His whole label would be theirs by default.  So he had to struggle for his life to make sure he got Johnny Cochrane to hold onto his label.  They ended up giving it back to him, and he’s got enough money to buy himself out, which a lot of Hip-Hop artists can do if the label will accept your money.  But if they see a label going down—I mean it’s capitalism, and the label may still be making money, but just not enough of it¾then capitalism says, no, you should be making 300% not 100% annually.  So if it’s not making the same amount of money that they would hope, then I’m sorry which I figure is how he was able to get out.  But those kinds of contract exist.

So a lot of that’s going on.  It’s making it more and more difficult to be self-determined right now.  And that’s one of the primary reasons that I really didn’t want to pursue artistry and just rocking on a mic because you’re owned in so many different ways.  It’s so difficult.  It’s not a fair market.  So my thing is to really fight for other artists to be able to get that message out.  Even people who definitely love some of the usual songs, they want to hear something different.  They don’t want to hear the same thing over and over and over again. It gets to be a little tired after a while.  We want to create self-determination, getting music played on the radio and making sure that it’s fair.  Some artists, they don’t have to have their song played twenty times a day.  It’s not necessary.  Open it up.

A lot of people would say, this is capitalism and that’s how it works and you pay money to get it played more.  These are the people who say that that’s business and we need to be businessmen.  These are definitely some of the issues that we would love to attack.  We would definitely love to have distribution working in a strong way.  We would definitely love to have healthcare like most other industrialized nations.  We’re not just working on things for Hip-Hop artists.  We’re also working on this for working-class families, working-class communities all over.  If these funds come in, then we’ll be talking about housing, how do we attack housing in a real way after we’ve been successful with the Hip-Hop for HealthCare campaign?  This is definitely an organization that is using Hip-Hop as a vehicle.  People in it are very skilled and understand Hip-Hop in a cultural aspect, understand the business and understand politics.  A few are in it because they love Hip-Hop.  They are part of these issues.  They actually live in these communities.  They would love to be over their own destiny and be self-determined.

How would someone find out more about G.A.ME and how could they get involved with G.A.ME here in New York and other places around the country, around the world?

All you have to go to is  There’s a membership form on there, on the right.  Just click it and sign up.  Read all the information.  Find out what’s going on.  Check the message board and see some of the things that people have said.  Our message board is our forum.  So contact our number as well, it’s on the website.  I’m a very public person around there, I don’t have a problem with people calling.  People call my house at 12-2 o’clock in the morning.  My wife doesn’t have a problem with that at all.  She’s a member of G.A.ME.  Definitely if they’re outside of New York, I’m pretty sure there’s somewhere in the US that they can be organized.  If there’s not and they feel enthusiastic enough to be a leader and create, they can build G.A.ME as well.