The Root Cities: Oakland's Hip-Hop Activism

In the final article in a series exploring the Bay city, hip-hop historian Davey D takes a look at the marriage between hip-hop and politics in Oaktown.

Boots Riley of the Coup (Getty Images)

One of the hallmarks of Oakland, Calif, is its activism and politics and its longtime alignment with hip-hop culture. When I say "aligned," I'm not talking about a rapper doing a song where he spits a couple of cool verses with a socially relevant message. Don't get me wrong; that's important, too, but that's just surface stuff. Political involvement requires much more. As a radio journalist, writer and activist who's been living in Oakland for the past 22 years, I feel privileged to live in a city where hip-hop and political activism are so closely linked.

The attitude in Oakland is that everything is political. Even being apolitical is political. Folks understand that politics is a rough-and-tumble sport; a closed mouth doesn't get fed. Here, the end goal is not just getting the chosen one elected into office. Holding folks accountable is paramount, and going beyond the limits of electoral politics is how many see the political landscape. Voting is a tool, but not the only tool to bring about change. Hip-hop is another tool, a potent way to communicate with the masses.

In Oakland, hip-hop activists have been intimately involved with progressive movements originating in the Bay Area, from "Green for Jobs for All" to "Justice for Oscar Grant and Police Accountability" to "Media Justice" to the landmark 1999 "Fight Against Prop 21" (Juvenile Crime Bill). In addition to creating mixtapes and compilation albums and doing shows and performances at rallies and demonstrations, many artists and practitioners are also organizers, message framers and rank-and-file participants.

There's a long list of Oakland hip-hop acts who see themselves as political organizers and musical artists: Boots Riley from the Coup; Ise Lyfe; T-Kash; graf writer Refa 1; Queen Deelah of Turf Unity/Silence the Violence; Prophet of Anhk Marketing; Zakiya Harris and Ambessa Cantave of Grind for the Green; Malkia Cyril of the Center for Media Justice; Marcel Diallo of the Black Dot Cafe; Seazons and J-Bless of the Oakland Green Youth Arts & Media Center; and Marc Bamuthi Joseph of Youth Speaks

The notion of the artist as activist is rooted in a long tradition that goes back to the heyday of the Black Panthers, the Black Arts Movement and other organizing efforts around the Black Power movements and liberation struggles that were popular here in Oakland during the 1960s and '70s. Back then, activists figured out that one of the most effective ways to engage a community was through cultural expression.

The Panthers did this effectively with the artwork of Emory Douglas, who was their minister of culture. They also did this via their revolutionary band, the Lumpen. Acts like Last Poets, the Watts Prophets and Gil Scott-Heron had an influence on early hip-hop in Oakland. But so did the more politicized works of popular acts like James Brown, Sly Stone, Parliament and Fela Kuti.

Early on, key elders from past liberation movements, such as former Black Panther Kiilu Nyasha, aka Sister Kiilu, sat down with Oakland's hip-hop community to educate them about activism. Sister Kiilu said that in the late '80s, when she was organizing events in support of then-political prisoner and former Panther Geronimo Pratt, her daughter was heavily into the emerging gangsta rap scene.

To turn things around, she used Pratt's birthday party as a way to engage some of the rappers. She invited them to perform and help organize the event, but she had a caveat: In return, they were required to take her political-education classes at her home. One or two sessions grew into many; other elders from the freedom-struggle movements started coming, too, including poet-author Piri Thomas. Among the younger generation who showed up: Money B of Digital Underground, Boots of the Coup, Michael Franti of Spearhead, Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Chris Burger of Alphabet Soup.

Tupac Shakur didn't come to Kiilu's lessons, even though Kiilu and his mother, former Panther Afeni Shakur, were close friends. Once, she said, 2Pac, who was part of a writer's collective in nearby Marin County, rapped about Pratt, who was his godfather.

Also working with young rappers was the late Rafiq Bilal, a former member of the Black Man's Volunteer Army of Liberation, an offshoot of one of Malcolm X's organizations. Bilal, a Muslim and former drug counselor at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, saw the potential of hip-hop. Wanting to create a safe space for those gravitating toward the culture, he opened the Upper Room, an alcohol-free spot in downtown San Francisco, ostensibly to create a space for his son, Mohammed, a local rapper with the group Midnight Voices.