Art at the Intersection, a Mel Phillips piece
Remembering The Movement That Grooved The World
Observing the youth reaction to the most recent high school mass murder in Florida—witnessing their raw anger and steely determination to act, to resist and push back against the all-or-nothing gun rights rhetoric in order to affect meaningful change in their schools and communities—this brings hope to my heart and a smile to my face. Youth too often get a bad rap, usually perceived as spoiled self-centered, disinterested game junkies wired into the Internet and unplugged from daily reality. But now, seeing them marching in the streets, hearing their raised voices ringing throughout the halls of justice, speaking their righteous truth to the truculent powers-that-be, one must surely readjust any hazy, negative optics cast on this vital, maturing citizenry.
When young people find a common purpose and unite around a singular goal, and join as a seamless collective, more often than not, good things follow. Forged by the fire of personal tragedy, I see in these newly wrought activists, advocates and peacemakers all the best of humanity: empathy, selflessness, courage, and a passion for good. We all should be uplifted by their tenacity, and should support and encourage them to keep it up. These kids and young adults are fine models of what action, activism and civic responsibility looks like.
Movements, like many things, come in rotations and cycles; usually each generation or so, something historic comes to pass. Maybe this youth push for responsible gun laws will be the moonrise that turns the tide on gun reform in this country. Their impact on that juggernaut remains to be seen, but I sure admire their willpower and fire. The last big American youth uprising like this present one was the Hip-Hop revolution of the late 1970s and 80s. After decades of being unheard and overlooked by the mainstream, undervalued by corporate gatekeepers, and essentially invisible to politicians’ broader vision, young Americans on both coasts—predominantly black and brown urban kids— collected to ignite a riot of rambunctious creativity that made the nation look up and take notice.
Street art is the heartbeat of many communities of color. If you want to tap into the flow of community relations, graffiti renders the true pulse of a neighborhood. A cruise around a block is revealing; if bright murals, citizen sculpture and wall art outnumber tags and slashes, this reflects a neighborly sense of pride. But reverse these trends and typically there is more urban decay and youth frustration. Urgent graffiti resembles a hospital EKG, which should have been the first sign of a swelling youth outburst. It was an inescapable, nationwide diffusion of spray painted gripes plastering the cityscapes. Graffiti—the rebel’s monogram—is street talk, the cool cryptic lingo of counterculture, created of the people, by the people and for the people. Graffiti is as ancient as written language and maybe the purest form of social commentary.
By the late 1970s, clearly the ancient scripture was already on the walls. Almost anyone caring to notice would have easily deciphered the angst imbedded in all those dark indelible memos, queries and admonitions scribed in magic marker, Krylon and Rustoleum. Adolescent distemper was rampant and something was up; the youth fringe was agitated and tense. What was up: violent crime in US cities and suburbs was up; youth unemployment was up as well as school dropout rates, teen pregnancy and drug use, STDs, police brutality and juvenile incarceration, just to name a few headlines of the times. Youth in America were fed up with being ignored, and from the Burroughs of New York to the inner cities of Los Angeles, the writing was indeed on the walls as well as buildings, subway cars, city buses, park benches, storefronts, sidewalks and school yards everywhere—the scrawl and sprawl of youth discontent.
Armed with rapid-fire graffiti, fat strips of junked cardboard, enormous boom-boxes, artistic grit, fearless natural talent and grand ideas, these fiery upstarts used original melodies and acrobatic choreography as messaging tools, ultimately reversing their collective void into one coherent voice and reshaping their misery into music with a mission. Today that music and style is called Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop is the synthesis of many creative forms. Its stylistic diversity and social potency is what makes Hip-Hop such an exciting and universal mode of expression. Of course these days nearly every advanced population on Earth is familiar with and/or uses elements of Hip-Hop culture, appropriating its musical style or clothing fashion to express themselves and tell their own narratives. Hip-Hop is a world phenomenon and it all began right here in America’s toughest inner cities.
B-boys and B-girls became the living breathing moving spirit of Hip-Hop and breakdancing found its passionate choreographic embodiment. This aggressive dance style had never been seen before, a kind of non-violent skirmish where dancing replaced gang banging and bloodshed. It is a battle of style and substance, and it was precisely this combative aspect that captivated audiences everywhere. These were breathtaking dance rituals, full-tilt, no holds barred incredibly physical feats of uncharted eye-popping choreography. Also at that instant Hip-Hop’s musical pioneers—DJs and MCs—sprang up from this same subterranean fray. These bass-beat prodigies and Rap impresarios spun vinyl gold and spat incredible melodic verses abut daily life on the mean streets in the big city.
Rappers created the literary chronicles of modern Hip-Hop. They wrote old stories anew and spoke innovative poetry in novel measures and meters. These young outsiders wrote the truths, the myths and fables, fairy tales and the legends of a generation. The songs were amazing, each cut wholly informed by life experience, elevated by sentient intelligent lyrics that, though specific to its creators’ cultural perspectives, still today speak lucidly to the larger world. Adding to the mix, genius DJs invented funky ill master beats that superpowered the lyrics, drove the groove, and energized the party atmosphere.
Together break dancers, rappers and DJs crafted tight dance routines and astonishing moves, rapped clever, timeless, homegrown stories and ballads that rung with reality, acknowledgement and a sense of pride to their neighborhoods and homies. Hip-Hop gave voice to their nearly invisible American existence. Through music and dance, they would wage war on each other and the rest of the world. There was competition in the performances and lyrical challenges and battles of the beats; there were slamming verses and ecstatic crushing crowds but no spilled blood. The war was in the words, and those spinning wheels of wax shifting, scrunching, slicing and ripping old melodies into monster mashes. Especially, the war was in the battle dances—the spins, twists, turns, flips, hits, pops, locks, bumps, freezes, ticks, slides, drops, shocks, windmills, breakdowns and moonwalks—all techniques of the art form as well as metaphors for our basic human conditions. Proudly breaking rules, breaking away, breaking down constructs, breaking tradition, breaking barriers, this is the legacy of American Hip-Hop culture.
See what can happen when the explosive ingredients of restive angst and youthful vigor combine? Who knew way back then that one day these restless rogues would transform their melancholy into an upbeat mainstream movement that would go on to create a modern entertainment genre and capture the world’s attention, dominate the popular music industry, and change the face of American Pop culture forever? Almost no one. And why? At first very few people took these New Jack prophets seriously, mostly because they were teenagers. The wider public saw Hip-Hop as a national nuisance rather than a nuanced cultural renaissance led by youth of the pan-African and Latinex diaspora. Basically, it was hard for people to see beyond Hip-Hoppers’ ages, ethnicities, skin tones, or the ill-fitted attire, or their take-no-shit attitudes, or their inventive street savvy lexicon. To most folks, these kids didn’t look like real singers and performers like on the Mickey Mouse Club. Few people were prepared for Disney going dope. With their gritty lyrics, mashy beats, torn clothes and grand marquee haircuts etched with nicknames, neighborhoods, symbols and words of peace or protest, these young messengers looked ready to revolt. Frankly, many people were afraid of these black and brown hipsters and their communal confabs in open spaces. Many cities, in attempts to quell rising fears in the greater public, cracked down on street art; rapping and breakdancing were banned in parks and other public places. Moreover, Rap artists and DJs were viewed as inferior musicians, and so-called national music critics gave the melodies thumbs down. Regardless, the groove and the movement persevered and soon Pop music’s biggest heavyweight producers took the deep dive into Rap music, creating the massive ultra moneymaker we know today.
At its core, Hip-Hop is the voice of the collective soul of America’s urban Afro-Hispanic consciousness. Great Hip-Hop has the power to compel the body, shift the mind, and elevate the senses, and in this 21st century it is the ultimate expression for orating the rich experiences of people of color. Irrepressible Hip-Hop stands alone as transformative modern art and is now in league with all its counterparts of opera, ballet, literature and film. Point in fact; Broadway’s mega-smash musical stage play “Hamilton” says it all. The truth remains self-evident, Hip-Hop is too legit to quit, and here to stay.
In less than a decade, ethnic youth in America turned a niche cult into a national culture. From a ripple of rebellion to a tidal wave of global notoriety, this is the humble genesis and worldwide influence of the Hip-Hop revolution. It was a movement that concocted a brave new artistic convention, completely captured the entire world’s attention, delivered a multi-gazillion dollar platform to the entertainment industry, as well as directly influencing the spectrum of fashion, style and design. It could happen again, a major youth revolution. Probably it won’t look like Hip-Hop, but it doesn’t have to. The magical thing about movements is they usually have a way of manifesting something previously unimagined, something unbelievable, something ingenious and a thing never before seen or conceived. Age is irrelevant where good cause work is concerned. What matters most in peace work is not age but agenda.
To the nation’s young change agents, stay on point and keep your message in the public forefront and you have a fighting chance to transform your lungpower into law power. You already have the solid backing of at least 75% of the US populace. We honor you and believe in you and your cause. Keep marching, keep yelling, keep fighting and keep looking out for each other. Never stop learning. And most importantly, endeavor to be the leaders you would follow. I cannot wait to see the surprises your current and continued efforts will bring.
“I’m 23 years old. I might just be my mother’s child, but in all reality, I’m everybody’s child. Nobody raised me; I was raised in this society.”