Hip-Hop: The Medium of Urban Youth
Oakland, CA. Land of dope, home of the sideshow. The pimps have the strips, the pushers have the corners and the youth travel in-between with little or no outlet. If this sounds familiar it’s probably because there are cities similar to Oakland all across America. In environments such as these, where it is evident that the system has somehow broken, people pick up the pieces and make culture: Hip Hop!
When I was seventeen I developed confidence in my abilities as an Emcee when, much to my surprise, I won a school-wide rap battle put on by the Hip Hop Fanatics—a high school club run very much like B.U.M.P Records at Bay Area Video Coalition in Oakland, CA—the program I currently artist mentor for. Winning that battle did more than give me bragging rights for the rest of the school year, it affirmed in my mind that I had the ability to draw emotion out of people—which gave me confidence. I suppose that’s why I am drawn to the “Big Brother” role I’m in now, as it affords me the space to recreate that same experience for the young people I work with.
After decades of dilution by commercial interests, Hip-Hop is just beginning to gain recognition in the area of education, but for those of us who were raised Hip-Hop, it has always been an arena for personal development, mentorship, the transmission of ideas and ideals, and creative community building. Because of it’s prevalence among urban youth as a form of cultural and personal expression, hip-hop is the most relevant format of story-telling in cities like Oakland and we, at B.U.M.P. records are laying down the groundwork to develop and distribute those stories.
Hip Hop is a culture of expression. The beauty of hip-hop culture is that it affords people who have limited resources the opportunity to make something out of nothing. Through these opportunities, people realize the power to not only change their situation but maintain control over it.
In the mechanics of Hip Hop culture we find the keys to better communication between communities and ourselves. It’s not easy to sit down and recollect something as emotionally traumatic as losing a loved one, let alone record such a song for the world to hear.
Song writing gives the artist space to vent or the ability to fantasize and explore one’s self. At the same time, it allows the listener who might be going through something similar know that they are not alone. Making hip-hop builds community. For young people, the process of completing a hip-hop piece aids in building a stronger sense of self worth.
Young Emcees are echoes of their habitat—reflecting their surrounding social and economic culture. They are ordinary people in the sense that none of us are exempt from socioeconomic conditioning, and they are extraordinary because, as a storyteller, the Emcee is a communicator and a representative of those factors. As an educator, my role is to mediate the translation of youth experience to music and lyrics and advocate for a generation of Hip-Hop artists to build on this community of culture.
For example, one young man from B.U.M.P. reflects in his piece, “ya’ll don’t know nothing about the racism I faced as a kid// You don’t know nothing about the places I been //.” Too often this type of content is overshadowed by boasting lyricism or negative depictions of ghetto life in hip hop music. But mixed with mentors and media literacy, young people feel confident to use hip-hop to express their social and political views, which can open a platform for conversation across the lines of race, class, gender, age, and sexuality
Founded in 2003, B.U.M.P Records is a music performance and production program for Bay Area youth age’s 14- 19. With the help of industry professionals, young people learn to compose music and lyrics, DJ, and produce and record original music using industry-standard technology. Originating from a disused storage space on the campus of a West Oakland public high school, B.U.M.P. Records creates a space that integrally combined artistic development, community and self-awareness, and 21st century skills literacy under the moniker of a Hip- Hop record label. BAVC’s youth programs central philosophy is based on an idea of digital storytelling. We know that storytelling has the power to raise awareness around shared issues and empower young people to assert themselves on a cultural landscape.
Students present their work in community performances and screenings, and during peer critiques in which they describe production, story, and stylistic decisions. Projects are based in young people’s experience and concerns, and creatively cover topics such as the environment, family health, history, and violence.
Students from the early generations of B.U.M.P. records are now working with engineers, instructors, and event producers both within the organization and in the wider music community. When asked how we measure success in our programs, we look at the usual measures applied to youth development—lowered rates in school truancy and increase in pursuits of higher education and job placement. But I believe our greatest measurement for success with B.U.M.P is most visible in the community of artists that develop under the mentorship of the record label itself.
Educators need to set high expectations for young people to think in their own words and on their own experiences when developing hip-hop—making beats, looping, rhyming and rapping. At B.U.M.P. records, we teach how to make beats and coach youth through their delivery of hip-hop.
I remember when B.U.M.P records had just begun its first recording sessions at Sound Wave studios in West Oakland. One day I made a mark on the white board and asked, “What do you see?” I heard “A point, a decimal, a blemish, a black hole, a pupil” etc. All I had intended for this mark to be was a dot. Everyone saw the same thing but described it with a different word. You could use eighty different words to describe something as simple as a dot. So why approach music or life for that matter from the same direction that everyone else chooses?
As an educator, I push young hip-hop artists to think about what inspires and outrages them and to look for ways to express their realities and ideas for change.
Before our artists sit down to make music and lyrics, we ask them to check in with themselves in a way different from other activities. Queries such as “How do I feel? How do I want other people to feel?” help young artists become aware of themselves, which leads to awareness of their situation, followed by their environment, and how to change it. Imagine how our schools would change if this check-in system was implemented? Imagine how our families our friendships would change if we took the time for this simple question to guide us?
However, one of the most frustrating occurrences I encounter is a sense of apathy among youth people. I don’t fault them—it’s a defense mechanism to the challenges they face day to day and the lack of resources to deal with those challenges. However, when it comes to making music, apathy disturbs me. I make it clear to my students that emotionless music is easily co-modified which in turn, waters down culture and that emotionless people make poor agents for social change. I believe that the innate need in human beings to create must be nurtured especially in young people and I believe that what they create is capable of making things change. The evolution, elevation and expansion of hip-hop culture lies not only in cultivating our skills but preserving the humanity in ourselves through our art.
In my attempts to introduce young people to the larger picture, I remind my students they represent the pinnacle of the previous generation—they pick up where we left off. I remind them that it was people their age who made some of the most critical contributions in innovating Hip-Hop culture. In facilitating and encouraging their growth, I remind students that whether through song, performance or a quick interaction with another artist, they will similarly influence the generation coming after them.
Educators in the youth media field need to value and use Hip-Hop music as one of the most relevant and persuasive digital storytelling formats available to urban America. As a highly important medium for urban youth to share their personal perspectives, educators must emphasize ways to resist conforming to the genre’s recognizable format and the mainstream’s stereotype of urban culture. Young people gravitate to Hip-Hop because it has the potential to amplify their voices. It is up to youth media educators to support young people as they re-create Hip-Hop to reflect the true cultural fabric of urban youth.
Davin Thompson, talent and lyrics coach since B.U.M.P.’s founding, is an Oakland native and member of the Hip-Hop group “The Attik.”