Hurricanes and Hip Hop

The Positive Side of Hip Hop

C. Matthew Hamby

"Them drums say the revolution is near. Are you listening? Are your eardrums open for christening?"

— De La Soul's Posdnuos (Plug One)

The artwork that accompanied my September 2005 column, "A Nation (Almost) Unified," spoke volumes more than the actual article itself. The cartoon depicted a single hand holding a microphone and emerging from the water in what appeared to be an abandoned, Hurricane Katrina-flooded area.

The art suggested (or warned) that the Hip Hop Nation could be flooded out, yet never silenced.

That was then.

It's been just over a year since the devastating floods left over 1,800 people dead and many thousands more homeless throughout Louisiana and the Gulf region and yet the relationship between music activism and tangible, sustainable action seems more symbolic than actual.

As Hurricane Katrina's one-year anniversary approached, I became increasingly aware of the psychological, economic and educational devastation the flood left behind. Yet for some artists representing the Hip Hop community (more on this later), the tragedy has been reduced to an obligatory 16 or so bars worth of pseudo-political rhetoric, as if one must mention Katrina in order to appear relevant, concerned, and in touch.

Others seem to have simply moved on.

In fairness, in nearly every conversation or interview I've had with Hip Hop producers, DJs and MCs, I've been told that many nationally recognized artists do good things behind the scenes and that their work goes largely unrecognized by a media that prefers to concentrate on the tabloid aspects of their lives.

I'm inclined to agree and suspect that there might be a dozen or so celebrity MCs digging through debris in New Orleans this very minute in an attempt to quietly help clean and rebuild the city without any media fanfare.

Yet with all the revenue generated by the Hip Hop industry ($5 billion annually and counting), I'd expect NOLA and the surrounding areas to be in much better condition than they are now.

I recently performed an Internet search using the phrases "Hurricane Katrina," "Hip Hop" and "activism" as my criteria. I skimmed a few dozen of the hundreds of results and discovered that many of the sites referenced grassroots, community or Internet-based efforts launched to help Katrina survivors. Many of the people involved were dubbed "Hip Hop activists," meaning regular members of the community like you and me.

One such activist is Kevin Powell, New York-based Hip Hop journalist and former congressional candidate. Powell recently organized a "Hurricane Katrina: One Year Later" rally to raise money and provide housing and relocation assistance for Katrina survivors. Recognizing the fact that many community-based initiatives might have lost momentum over the course of the last year, Powell suggested that "Hip Hop heads ... need to step up again" in an online interview available at

Powell seems to have tapped into a key principle that drives the way consumers receive and process information. For better or worse, repetition is the key to reinforcing a perception of what's important and what matters. (Tune in to your local Urban/Hip Hop-formatted station to witness how well they've mastered the art of repetition.)

It's no different for the victims of Katrina. Throughout the past year, survivors have had to compete with a string of equally horrific news items: the threat of pandemic flu, the continuing occupation of Iraq, missing children, brutal murders and more.

But Mos Def's freestyle "Katrina Klap" (performed over the instrumental of Juvenile's "Nolia Clap" single) is yet another stark reminder that little has changed in the 13 or so months since the floods. Interestingly, as Mos performed the song outside of the recent MTV Video Music Awards, he was hauled away by police officers and arrested for performing without a permit. Fortunately, Big Brother, the Illuminati and other shadowy figures haven't gotten around to pulling the downloadable track from the Internet ... yet.

Since the early '80s, Hip Hop has served as a blueprint for other forms of musical expression. And with an ever-increasing number of genre-bending collaborations climbing the charts, it seems as if everyone wants to be down with the Rap scene.

So, if the Hip Hop community (including artists, A&R representatives and over-paid label execs) ever decides to emerge as the primary rebuilders of New Orleans — and, ultimately, all of our communities — will the rest of the world follow?

In the end, Hip Hop music and culture should provide some degree of benign escapism and an opportunity to feel free. Yet in troubling times, Hip Hop music can also serve as an alarm clock for the issues that should remain at the forefront of our consciousness: freedom, justice and equality.

As with any clock, you might choose to snooze for a moment, but eventually you will be forced to wake up and face the music.

5 on theledge

· "Dollar Day in New Orleans (Katrina Klap)" by Mos Def: Mighty Mos airs out well-meaning Rock bands and brings the noise on this visceral indictment of everything that went wrong with the handling of Katrina.

· "Hell No We Ain't Alright!" by Public Enemy: In his characteristically angry demeanor, Chuck invokes the words "refugee" and "Halliburton" in the same song. Gotta love it.

· "Georgia ... Bush" by Lil' Wayne: Despite the useless profanity and a reference to having diamonds surgically embedded into his wrists, Wayne raises a thought-provoking comparison between Katrina and 1965's Hurricane Betsy. For the record, Katrina was much, much worse.

· "Seein' Thangs" by DJ Shadow featuring David Banner: Banner's been down since day one with his nonprofit Heal the Hood Foundation. This track off Shadow's The Outsider album is indicative of his struggle to keep the Gulf Region on the map. Literally.

· "Refugees" by Suheir Hammad: In this beautiful spoken-word piece from K-Salaam's The World is Ours LP, Hammad asks, "What do we pledge allegiance to? A government that leaves its own to die of thirst, surrounded by water?" That just about sums it up.