Saturday, January 23, 2010

David Sasaski: Hip-Hop as Cosmopolitan Citizen Media

Hip-Hop as Cosmopolitan Citizen Media
by David Sasaski
Idea Lab

Seeking greater social inclusion through new communication technologies is a strategy with a long and accomplished history that has persisted through waves of new inventions including the telegraph, radio, television, satellite, and of course, the Internet. Many such projects are highlighted in Alfonso Gumucio's Making Waves: Stories of Participatory Communication for Social Change, which was published in 2001 and features more than 20 case studies of participatory communication projects that use video, radio, theater, and the Internet. Similar projects are featured every week on the websites of the Communication for Social Change Consortium, Internews, The Communication Initiative Network, Panos, and Rising Voices.

But perhaps the most successful experiment in bringing so-called marginalized communities to the attention of the mainstream came not with community radio or the Internet, but rather the cassette tape and the boombox. With roots in the traditions of griots in West Africa, work songs from the Mississippi Delta, and dancehalls from the Caribbean, the birth of Hip-Hop as we know it today is generally credited to the Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell) who organized parties at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, New York where he joined two turntables to mix rhythmic beats with funk music. Partygoers were invited to grab the microphone and rap on top of the music as a way to creatively express themselves and show off their verbal dexterity. Those early parties on Sedgwick Avenue helped form the sound and community that would influence what are now seen as the pioneers of hip-hop: Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and The Sugarhill Gang.

In the early 1990's hip-hop's center of gravity migrated from New York City to Los Angeles, where N.W.A., Ice T, and others popularized gangsta rap as a genre of hip-hop that focused on the violence, partying, and hustling on the rough streets of Compton, California. It was only with the release of "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" in 1993 that New York City was once again nationally recognized among hip-hop fans.

From Hong Kong to Staten Island to Liberia

Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman recently caught an interview on Tom Ashbrook's public radio program, On Point with Wu Tang Clan leader Robert Diggs, also known as "the RZA." During the interview we discover an unlikely intersection in the 1980's between the lives of Ashbrook, a Yale graduate and career journalist, and Diggs, a poor, aspiring rapper in Staten Island who sought shelter in a seedy movie theater that specialized in pornography and kung fu flicks. Ashbrook, it turns out, was a foreign correspondent at the time based in Hong Kong where he supplemented his income as a journalist by dubbing kung fu movies into English. It is entirely likely that one of the many kung fu films that influenced the Wu Tang Clan's unique style of hip-hop featured the voice of public radio's effusive Tom Ashbrook.

New York City's outer boroughs today are barely recognizable yuppie incarnations of their former selves. Gentrification has taken over Brooklyn and is increasingly creeping into the Bronx. In fact, a long and costly protest campaign has sought to protect 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, the birthplace of hip-hop, from being converted into a new development. But Park Hill, the home community of the Wu Tang Clan, has changed far less than neighboring Brooklyn across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. While tourists often take the free Staten Island Ferry from Manhattan for its uninterrupted views of the Statue of Liberty, rarely do they spend anytime exploring Staten Island itself.

One of the most sudden changes to the island's demographics came in the late 1980's and early 1990's when civil war broke out in Liberia, a West African country that was founded by freed American slaves. Liberian refugees fled violence that was stirred up by the American-educated warlord, Charles Taylor, and arrived to Staten Island by the thousands. They now make up the largest community of Liberians living outside of Liberia and their troubles in assimilating to a New York state of mind have been featured in Mother Jones, The Village Voice, WNET, and twice in the New York Times.

Ruthie Ackerman is a freelance journalist who is currently writing a book about the social impact of the Liberian Civil War and the integration of Liberian refugees in the same Park Hill community that gave rise to the Wu Tang Clan so many years ago. But rather than merely speaking on behalf of Liberians Ackerman decided to launch Ceasefire Liberia, a citizen media project which teaches Liberians living in Monrovia and Park Hill how to use digital media to tell their own stories.

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