This distinction, and Roderick's consequential desire to promote street level hiphop, is the guiding principal for Hiphop in the Park, the day-long festival featuring music, speakers, spoken word, and political tabling, which is happening at Alberta Park on October 7. As Roderick sees it, grassroots events like this one are one of the few ways to heal the damage to hiphop and black culture inflicted by multinational labels and MTV. As Roderick's argument goes, since corporate America's priorities include sensationalizing violence and death--and corporate America is the primary source of musical funding--hiphop musicians who want to be successful are pushed into rapping about "guns, pistols, drugs, and violence."
But Roderick is also careful when making the distinction between sensationalizing these forces, and writing and singing about what is real. "The difference between street hiphop and gangsta rap is that in street hiphop we're talking about real things--our boys goin' to jail, girls sold, people without education, grandmas put out of their houses because of gentrification." Gangsta rap, he says, is the glamorization of all those forces--and the sacrifice of black people for entertainment. "Who are the first people to die in movies today?" he asks. "Black people. People who are poor or black are dispensable." And most of the time, he argues, poor and black is one and the same. "In America," he explains, "class is race."
On a recent Tuesday night at 6:00, Michael Crenshaw stands in front of the white board and gives his class a lyric-writing assignment: "Write from the point of view of an anti-imperialist terrorist, someone about to die or suffer as a result of events beyond their control." He's referring, of course, to the WTC, and stops to clarify his question.
"Do you all know what I mean when I say anti-imperialist?" he asks. "It means someone who's not down with this country's foreign policy."
The class--comprised of about 10 kids, mostly male, from the ages of 17 to 21--dutifully begins writing, though the silence is broken after just a few minutes. "Does anybody know the name of the street that the World Trade Center is on?" one girl asks. The discussion continues from here about the WTC attack, and Michael encourages his students to talk and write about how it affected them individually.
The class, which happens twice a week, is free and is held at the Youth Opportunities Center (YO) off of MLK and taught exclusively by Michael, who is also a member of the local hiphop group, Hungry Mob. The focus of every class is hiphop music and how to write it; it also becomes a lens through which Michael and his students discuss politics, their feelings, and their futures. They start each class with discussion, then freestyle for awhile and often record by the end of the session.
"I'd like to write about how WTC didn't really affect me," says one student. He proposes a rhyme: "As people under the rubble bleed/I went home to smoke a blunt."
"Well," says Michael, "This could be interpreted in a few ways. I don't mean to put limitations on you, but program directors are going to be listening to this. If you need to talk about smoking a blunt, well, that's fine. But I'd ask you to really think about that." Talking about the power of words and music is one of Michael's primary objectives, and discussions like this occur in almost every class. Though the students often have short attention spans, they are there voluntarily and are completely engaged with Michael the entire time.
Later, the conversation turns to Tupac. "What made Tupac such a threat in his last days, was what Marxists like to call the unorganized proletariat," he says. "Tupac had the power to speak to all the thugs, to mobilize the unorganized masses."
THE FUNCTION OF ART
Michael's class is just one of the many neighborhood forces that Roderick has mobilized to help him with Hiphop in the Park, and it's a perfect example of the street-level hiphop that Roderick endorses. In fact, in that same class, Roderick came in to speak with the class about what they could do to help Hiphop in the Park. He suggested that some of the kids could volunteer to be his assistants, and also pointed out the value of having experience like this on a resume.
"Roderick is really doing work that needs to be done," Michael says of Hiphop in the Park, and explains that he believes the event and his class share a very similar foundational philosophy.
"Traditionally in indigenous African cultures, art is functional," he says. "It serves the community for a greater good. I always try to stress to the kids that we should take our art and use it for a purpose."
Michael tries to follow this creed when he's planning his curriculum, as well. "When I first started planning this class, I sat down and created a curriculum. I decided that we'd first talk about the history of hiphop as a culture, how hiphop basically appropriates from everything. I mean, if you look at the roots of breakdancing, you can trace them back to slavery."
ROCK IS CHEAPER THAN RAP
But as sincere as Michael and Roderick are, it's amazing how often they're misunderstood. When Roderick called the city to discuss the insurance policy for Hiphop in the Park, he was told by Gale's Creek Insurance, who contracts with the city, that for this year's show, the insurance would be marked up from $200 to $700.
"I asked the woman, 'What if this was a rock show?'" Roderick explains. "And she answered, 'Well, then it'd be $200. Hiphop shows are an additional $500 for insurance.'"
Luckily, one of Roderick's greatest skills is mediating and networking, so after a great amount of protest and explanation that the concert would not be an exclusively hiphop show, Roderick was able to have the insurance dropped back to $200.
After he completes this event, Roderick hopes to network with groups from California to have a similar function in San Diego. "You've just got to work from the ground up," he explains. "Pretty soon, our movement's gonna be national."
Hiphop in the Park is at Alberta Park (NE 22nd and Killingsworth) on Sunday, October 7, from 1-8 pm.