The Politics of Hip Hop

Honorable George Martinez -- Interviewed by Ron

Ron Hayduk: How did you get to be called “The Honorable Rithm”?

George Martinez: It’s not like I didn’t have honor before I got elected, but the title Honorable was conferred on me in September 2002 when I got elected as the District Leader and the State Committeeman of the 51st Assembly District in Brooklyn. In that capacity I served as a member of the Democratic Executive Committee for Kings County [Brooklyn]. I am the first Hip Hop MC to get elected to political office in NewYork.

How was it that you got into electoral politics?  What is your background and history?

I have been blessed to have lived and accomplished so much at such a young age, and I do not take that for granted. Most of the things that I have been able to achieve were completely foreign to my life growing up. My world was poverty and Hip Hop. In poverty I gained the strength to survive and overcome all obstacles. And in Hip Hop I found a way to articulate my voice. I grew up in a single-parent home on welfare; it was me, my mom and my sister. In terms of schooling, I was the first person in my family to graduate high school and attend college. I was a doctoral fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center and began teaching college courses at the age of 24. I am currently in my sixth year at CUNY and teaching at Pace University.

In terms of Hip Hop, I was the unsigned hype in the March 1996 issue of the Source Magazine, as Rithm, a founder of the group Ground Zero. As a member of Ground Zero I produced a radio show on 105.9 with Red Bandit, and now, as VP for Political Affairs for the National Hip Hop Association, I co-produced and hosted a live TV show on Free Speech TV and MNN. In 1997, I co-founded the Union Square Award-winning Blackout Arts Collective, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering communities of color through arts, activism and education.

In terms of public service, I was an organizer and activist since before I knew that’s what you called what I was doing:  first, through church groups organizing rallies and homeless outreach, then through civic and school organizations where I learned about local politics and issue advocacy. I never thought that I would run for political office, but I decided to after growing tired of mediocre leadership in my community. I ran for the NYC City Council in 2001, becoming the first MC to run for office. I ran against Angel Rodriguez. Then I got elected in 2002 and founded the South Brooklyn Democratic Alliance. I have consulted and been involved in many significant races and political happenings in NY but am most proud of my creation of a Student Credit Protection Law that is being championed by NY State Assemblyman William Boyland Jr and NY State Senator Kevin S. Parker. Most recently I was the Assistant Director of Intergovernmental Relations for New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

Can you describe your Hip Hop background?

I was a junior member of the Breakin Crew, Breakers in Action (BIA), and quickly moved to rhyming. As a rapper I was known for an unusual voice and slick flow. But perhaps what I have been most known for is my ability to “move the crowd” or MC. That’s why I say MC instead of rapper, because in my mind that’s what historically separated the real from the phony. I grew up playing multiple musical instruments and listened to all types of music. But in Hip Hop I found my home. I mean, I was hooked from Rapper’s Delight, my favorite crew was UTFO and my favorite song was Eric B for President.  I was and am what you would call a conscious artist. One of my life’s inspirers is Chuck D from Public Enemy.

Share with me your thoughts on the state of Hip Hop, then and now.

First off, I believe that Hip Hop is the engine and cultural vehicle for the next phase of the civil and human rights movements. But we have to make a distinction between the rap industry and Hip Hop culture. The rap industry, to me, implies something that mainstream corporations have embraced: a few controllable and profitable pieces of Hip Hop culture.  They embrace rap and the language aspects (slang) and even clothing. The problem is that Hip Hop culture is not something that was created in the boardroom.  Hip Hop was created on the block; created from the struggles of urban life coming out of the ‘70s, the ending of the Civil Rights era in terms of all the excitement, and moving toward the Reagan era, which centered conservatism and altered the political landscape significantly.  The tone of the country was different.

In the face of all of these dynamics, cats in the hood were poorer than ever and they wanted to engage their voices; they wanted to say and do something with themselves. People wanted upward mobility. Or at least the local respect that came with being the dopest pop-locker in your school. But we also just wanted to hear ourselves, our voices, our ideas¾more than even having any political direction¾early on. Hip Hop comes from the community; it comes from transforming public spaces like a park or a sidewalk into a community recreation center.  You walk into a New York City park, you open up the lamppost so you can expose the electrical wires, plug in your turntables.  Now all of a sudden, you’ve transformed a park into a dancehall and a sidewalk into a stage.

Hip Hop was born out of many struggles: poverty, crime, drugs, racism, police brutality and others. The creation of rap music for example comes from folks just saying, you know what, we have no musical training, but I hear music in my head and can make a beat with my body.

I think there are three stages to the political development of Hip Hop and the Hip Hop community. To be clear, the emergence of one stage does not mark the end of the prior stage. In fact, these stages are not coterminous and to a large extent are functions of generational replacement. One of the most important aspects to remember and one that makes me so confident of the power of Hip Hop, is that Hip Hop is the most powerful intergenerational force in the world and is still growing.

The first stage was the cultural emergence stage, marked by the identification and recognition of our voices through music and art. Through the original four elements of Hip Hop (breakin’, graffiti, DJ’in’ and MC’in’), young people found vehicles to criticize and critique, to define and salute, and to empower and build.

The second stage is the social creation stage, marked by the development of independent alternative institutions and non-profit organizations, like Blackout Arts Collective, which we founded in 1997. In this stage, members of the Hip Hop community began to build organizations to empower their communities through grassroots organizing and issue advocacy. Now while Blackout isn’t the first Hip Hop non-profit organization, it represents the emergence of the second stage.  As those young folk who were laying down the foots prints of Hip Hop in the ‘70s and ‘80s got older, they began to create tangible institutions to hold onto and actually feel empowered. From record labels to non-profit organizations, Hip Hop heads started organizing. We began to stake our claim in American society, from entrepreneurship to education, and Blackout Arts Collective represents that dynamic for me. So you move from the cultural recognition of your voice, the emergence of that sound, of this art form, of this cultural dynamic, into creating independent institutions that advocate for change through grassroots community organizing.

The third stage, where we are now, is the political stage, marked by recognition of the power, and organization of the ability, to affect electoral outcomes.  For the most part, people in the Hip Hop community and organizers in stage two have tended to reject electoral politics.  I think some of this is the failures of the civil rights era leadership.  I don’t want to go off into a harsh criticism but the question must be asked, why are our young folk so disconnected from electoral politics and political engagement when our parents lived some of the most socially and politically active times in modern history?

We need to rethink our approach to political and civic engagement starting with the creation of a national political and civic literacy initiative.  As we matured in stage two we were disconnected from electoral politics.  Many of us asked the question that I asked myself, which is the reason why I ran for office in the first place:  why do we have to keep knocking on doors of folks who don’t care about where we’re from, don’t care about our issues and will not do anything about it?  We have to keep lobbying them and knocking on the doors and get more signatures so hopefully they’ll do something about it and if not, well tough luck.  They still have their job.  They still have their salary.  They still have their pension and the title and all of the perks and you’re still struggling in the trenches because you can’t get support for a good education because the funding wasn’t there.

But even beyond frustration with not being heard, our generation has had more access to education than any other generation of people of color in the history of the United States, and we are learning how to engage electoral politics on our own terms, from a Hip Hop perspective. And the same way that we became CEOs and college professors, Grammy winners and movie stars, doctors and lawyers, we will and are becoming political leaders. We are finding out that we can make a difference through electoral politics. For me in Brooklyn, I didn’t win the first time I ran for City Council in 2001 running against Angel Rodriguez.  I think that the success was that I was able to really affect the dialogue, the discourse, the conversation; to talk about things that people were not talking about or not willing to talk about. Along with a ragtag group of some Hip Hop folks, some non-hip hop folks, but many young people who were for the first time engaging in the process themselves, I made the would-be speaker of the City Council—potentially the second most powerful man in the city—respond.

Because Hip Hop comes from the streets, our politics must come from the same place.  My most important message to folks is, don’t believe the hype. What I mean by that is that we have to be careful to not buy into the Hip Hop elite’s political agenda. For example, I don’t have a problem with Russell Simmons wanting to register 20 million people.  Because you can’t vote unless you are registered to vote, cool.  But the problems of registering people to vote haven’t been the issue for a dozen years.  We’ve had motor voter and other easy ways to registration.  It’s the problem of getting people to vote, mobilized, energized. If there’s no connection to why you’re voting, then it’s not powerful at all.  But it’s a great smokescreen, a great show.

You mentioned the Blackout Arts Collective.  What is this collective and your relationship to it?

I was one of the co-founders of Blackout Arts Collective.  It’s a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering communities of color through arts activism and education.  They have chapters in seven or eight states now.  Young people who are hungry, want to get engaged, want to use their art, whether it’s spoken-word, Hip Hop or any other sort of art form not only to empower themselves and the art community, but to go into classes and teach (because arts programs have been cut all across the country), have a chance to do that through us. We thought it was really important to bring our generation’s form of art into classrooms and use that as a vehicle to educate and learn.  And actually, I’m part of a group called the National Hip Hop Association that held a summit last year in November, called H 2 Education, Hip Hop to education. This was one of the first times that teachers were gathered to hear from real practitioners how Hip Hop has or has not been successful and to develop strategies for using Hip Hop in the classroom.

You used some imagery that I also saw on the Blackout Arts Collective website. The webpage opens with an image: “a view from above, looking at the city from high above, from a place of darkness like the sky and space, you see the brilliant glow of the city and that contrasts with the infinite blackness of space and what would happen if the light went out. We would wonder where did the power go.  We would have to come to grips with [the existence of] a generator of that power that brought that light into being.”  And this is the same king of generating force that animates Blackout.  To read further from the website, “Cultural and artistic expressions of communities of color have long been that generating force in the shaping of the arts in America and around the world. The arts have also been a regenerating force within communities of color, giving a voice to the voiceless, stimulating social awareness and delivering change.”  Could you describe how Blackout generates energy and engages in various activities to bring about social change?

Well, one way is definitely through the classroom, because many of us are teachers.  The classroom is an incredibly important place to reach young people directly, and Blackout provides an innovative way to teach.  Blackout does a national spoken-word tour called Lyrics on Lockdown, which slams and educates around the Prison Industrial Complex. This is our third year and it’s been incredibly powerful because it gives us a chance to network and build relationships with folks doing great work in their communities. I think it’s real important that folks in the Hip Hop community don’t think that they’re the only ones talking.  One of the most powerful things about Lyrics on Lockdown and about Blackout in general is that we do not believe in an exogenous organizing model.  We believe in indigenous community-building, which means that because each community has a distinctive character and life, each chapter is community-specific in terms of how they organize themselves.  However, no matter what Blackout chapter you visit, the unifying principle is the same, to empower communities of color through arts activism and education.

Can you contrast the civil rights era with some of the other current political trends in Hip Hop?

The Civil Rights Era.  Fire on the streets.  People were hot—White folk, Black folk.  There was the Vietnam War, there was the civil rights movement, assassinations of JFK, Dr. King, and Malcolm.  A lot of shit happened during this period.  With the Civil Rights Act in ’64 and the Voting Rights Act in ’65, the African-American community became more engaged and empowered in the political process.

There was a Black elite that rode the wave of that fervor.  They rode the energy of the era in a destructive way, for as they organized and experienced electoral success, they moved further and further away from the actual people in the streets.  So you got the emergence of this Black elite that we still have the remnants of today.  For example, Charlie Rangel in Harlem. I love Charlie Rangel, but how connected is he to young people of color of the Hip Hop Generation?  And more importantly, how connected is Charlie to our parents?  He’s from the same era, but most of our parents never got the ability to experience success like the Black elite.  And many are holding onto their power or have passed it on to their children or long-term allies.  I think this is one of the reasons why the Hip Hop community is disconnected from electoral politics, because we see the nepotism and patronage and know it’s a lot of bullshit.  Cats say, yeah, you want to organize us, you want to get us to the rally, and then you want to run for office and forget us.

Example, this Rockefeller drug rally with Russell Simmons at City Hall in New York. Who’s standing in the front, co-hosting?  Andrew Cuomo.  Horrible, horrible.  I wanted to kick him in the back off the stage.  I was pissed that Andrew Cuomo was co-hosting this Hip Hop rally thing and that Russell was exploiting it so hard.  I don’t remember seeing Andrew Cuomo in Wild Style.  I don’t remember seeing him in Breakin’, Beat Street, nothing.  I don’t remember Andrew Cuomo ever standing up with the Hip Hop community before he wanted to become the governor and say, I really believe in this movement. The biggest joke however was that thousands of high school students cut class to attend but didn’t know why they were there.  They thought it was a rap concert; all they wanted was to see Jay-Z.

Then we see artists saying, let’s vote, rock the vote, rap the vote, and yet they don’t vote themselves. Rap celebrities, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Puffy, Master P, Eminem, out of all those folks only one person has voted in the last four elections.  Only Puffy voted.  Jay-Z registered in ’88 and never voted for office ever.  50 Cent is not even registered.  Yet these people perform and go out and spit that rock the vote and rap the vote stuff.  First of all, Hip Hop cats are not stupid.  If Hip Hop is a form of cultural communication that was developed from nothing and created something, well that’s fuckin’ pretty smart.  Well, if that’s pretty smart and if Hip Hop come from struggles of urban poverty, violence, drugs, lack of education, lack of opportunity—well that means folks know what time it is.  You can’t tell people, “well, you’ve got a good education system” if they know it ain’t.

These clowns had an old model.  Let’s put the celebrities up there, these tokens, and the sheep, the people, will move.  The problem is that the Hip Hop Generation—Generation X, our generation—is way more sophisticated than that, way more savvy than that.  Our generation is looking for sustainable change.

The phrase “sustainable change” is a frequently expressed goal. How do you think hip-hop activists can sustain change¾can keep the social motion at the community level among young people going? You said that the Civil Rights movement was able to bring about some significant change but that it was like that old expression, one step forward and two steps back; some co-optation or some disconnect occurred.  You talked about how Blackout helps grow artists, create a safe space for people to perform and a place where conscious lyrics and messages can emerge that can hopefully help translate into real change.  But capitalism is a very powerful force that can commodify people and processes, such as how you talked about the rap industry. How do you envision, or how does Blackout envision, that you can avoid some of the pitfalls that occurred in those earlier movements or with rap?  How can you sustain energy and activism to produce real and lasting change? Is it possible?

We gotta keep it real.  We can’t sell false expectations, and we need to hold some of our would-be leaders accountable. Cut through the hype and get down to the substance.  Our politics must be bottom-up. If we allow our politics to go the same way as in the Civil Rights era, when there was a Black elite that emerged as the electoral leadership and they were the political cream-of-the-crop across the country and were giving the cues to the community of what to do, that’s a problem.  Hip Hop is not that.  Hip Hop is not Russell Simmons or any other leader or supposed leader saying, “This is what the community should do.  This is what we want you to do.  We’re going to tell you who to vote for.”  No, no, no.  This generation needs new leaders, different types of leaders, leaders with proven and clear abilities to not only listen and be responsive, but to really be one of the folk, be on the level with the people, where you’re not trying to be part of an elite leadership.

Hip hop politicians have to do everything institutionally and structurally to facilitate that bottom-up voice, create mechanisms for continuous communications like what I did during my campaigns, lyrical town hall meetings, using new forms of technology to facilitate constant education, outreach and articulation. Because, if you ask any young person about politics, they all come back to the conclusion that they are never heard and that no one cares about what they have to say.  Somehow people have to have the ability to articulate what they think is important and know it will hit the agenda.  People want to know that they can impact the structures that affect their lives.  And I think the Hip Hop community wants to know that our politics reflects our culture and if our culture is from the street, then our politics has to be from there too.

We need to do what Adam Clayton Powell did.  He brought Congress to the streets of 125th Street.  That’s powerful.  That’s innovative shit.  Okay, cool.  Let’s keep that model but build around those things.  I think using the new forms of technology in our generation is going to be critical to facilitate a further engagement.  We will definitely as a country have to move to electronic voting and taking better advantage of the Internet.  But before you can get there, you have to close the digital divide.  I also believe that we need to re-introduce civics and create a national political literacy imitative in the classroom.  Give young folk the ability to talk and learn about government and politics from early grades.

Because Hip Hop is intergeneration, 35-year-olds share the same language and modes of communication as 15-year-olds. This gives us older Hip Hop heads an unprecedented ability to teach our youth on common ground, but vice versa for our youth to exercise their voices in ways that we couldn’t when we were young. Our generation is unique and our time is unique.  Our challenges are great.  But we have the real technological ability to change the predominant paradigms and to affect the world.

Hip hop is now a global phenomenon. It was started in the Bronx, as you described, by folks who didn’t have a whole lot of anything but figured out how to make something out of not a lot. That creativity, that savvy, that smarts and that energy is now a powerful global force from Newark to San Juan to Caracas to Ramallah, Delhi, and Johannesburg. From the way people dress, to the way they talk, to the way they act, Hip Hop is a rhythm and a life force that is global.  It’s remarkable that in less than thirty years this has become a worldwide phenomenon that has grassroots links and origins, partly due to the new technologies you refer to.  Undeniably, Hip Hop is an international force that must be reckoned with.  How do you anticipate things going as this global movement comes increasingly into contact with forces that want to commodify it, contain it, and co-opt it?  How do you see that larger dance play out?

The power of Hip Hop can’t be contained by capitalist forces. But people can be confused by those powerful forces. For example, if we fail to educate ourselves about the history of Hip Hop, then those that control the rap industry can recreate the history in the image that is most profitable for them.  The commodification of Hip Hop is highlighted already in the problem of the rap industry. So from a global perspective, the challenge is the same.

In terms of cooptation, why would they need to?  First, they control the rap industry, which is to some extent more powerful than real Hip Hop in terms of reaching people. Second, doesn’t underground conscious rap promote American values and democracy?  For example, we do a rap show in Palestine, in Ramallah, and we have a lot of folks excited and everybody’s bumping and even if the artists are critical of the President, it only highlights the American values of freedom of speech and expression. But it also highlights the ability to engage in nonviolent political activities.  So it cuts both ways.

I want to come back to this marketing business.  A lot of folks say that Hip Hop is a style, an attitude, a sound, but that it’s devoid of some of the content that you’re talking about.  How can you make sure that the message isn’t lost?

The Internet, MP3s, cd-burners, and other new forms of technology facilitate the entrepreneurial spirit of Hip Hop. Not only did we learn how to be our own music creators and producers, we learned to be our own CEOs and businessmen now.  But that’s all part of our aging.  As our community ages, we start saying, yeah we’re getting older and now we should run the company.  We should develop a network.  We should develop independent media to do battle with the majors.  Every major industry has always had a decline when new technologies came about that gave outsiders the ability to affect the market.  Everyone makes CDs now, we make our own stuff.  There’s an underground market, there’s the ability to communicate with each other without being on MTV.

And that grows at the grassroots level.

Right in your house.

It’s a different production system that’s parallel to the mainstream system?

And potentially you can shatter lots of shit because of that, because it’s a different market model.  The beautiful thing about our opportunities in this new era and our access to resources and technology, is that the stages don’t end, they’re not coterminous.  So the recognition of the voice, of the Hip Hop voice, didn’t only happen in the ‘70s, it’s happening right now in a classroom in Brooklyn, for example, where Blackout is teaching.  Blackout is at stage two and I’m at stage three in terms of what we’re organizing.  There are some young people who are now just experiencing stage one.  So the ability for all to operate simultaneously and to be intergenerational is powerful. That’s how you connect the three stages and that’s how I think potentially we can sustain the movement.

Rithm, excerpt from See the Matrix:

In '01 I stepped in With a plan to begin To knock down doorways and march soldiers in Got white folks protesting Old black folks are testing Civil rights leaders replaced by the next thing And Russell is pimpin’ these rallies with children We working the streets while they empire building Got white folks scared so they selling them shares Of the conscious black market and then call the shit theirs It’s so funny, what they do for money Got LL endorsing Pataki so who’s the monkey Not punky so don’t call me Brewster for millions I’ll make ya’ll stand there and reach the fuckin’ ceiling