How Many Mics?

If, like Chuck D said, Rap is the black CNN, then whites are as prone to be enraptured by Rap's unfolding black updates riding a dope beat as blacks are to write, record and videotape them. This mar

If, like Chuck D said, Rap is the black CNN, then whites are as prone to be enraptured by Rap's unfolding black updates riding a dope beat as blacks are to write, record and videotape them. This marriage between voyeur and Negro Petting Zoo birthed a business largely financed, consumed and appropriated by white America.

Whites swarming and then storming Hip Hop is a postmodern cultural re-gift starring Bo Derek in braids (understudied by Lil' Kim in a blonde weave) with a million-selling soundtrack by Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Clapton playing Blues they pickpocketed from broke-ass dead black Bluesmen.

Blacks have grown accustomed to this fate.

It's a hilarious cultural train wreck watching Vanilla Ice and more recently Eminem ape Hip Hop in whiteface. It's like watching the only white guest fuck up the electric slide at your cousin's ghetto wedding reception.

But if they came to the jam, I'm glad they came. Same goes for Gavin Leonard.

I didn't know what to think when I met 23-year-old Leonard, the spearhead behind Elementz Youth Arts Center (nee The Hip Hop Youth Arts Center) that opened Feb. 24. Actually, I did.

I thought: Here's another bottom-feeding white man about to bring my black bottom back to me.

With Leonard, though, there are Elementz of surprise. He'll be the first to say he's no white shadow sent to save Cincinnati's black urban youth. (See "Elementz of Youth," issue of Feb. 16-22; "A New Home for Hip Hop," issue of July 7-13, 2004; and "Hip Hop Hope," issue of Dec. 3-10, 2003.)

He knows sometimes his entitlement and privilege set him on shaky ground. He knows sometimes he needs scooting back across that invisible cultural line we can't see but live behind.

Leonard lives, works and spends his money in Over-the-Rhine. At the epicenter and highest tensions during and post-April 7, 2001, he was armed with a video camera as part of CopWatch, a fledgling chapter that did precisely what its name implies.

Leonard has entree, trust and credibility in O-T-R — a white man with a hall pass through the colored section. While poor black and white O-T-R residents live there by socioeconomic circumstance, however, he can afford to live around (not in) poverty.

As he neared his goal of luring 14- to 24-year-old Cincinnatians to a social home with Hip Hop as the hook, I've seen Leonard go through the grinder of black apathy and corporate indifference as he begged for backers and a board.

Busy and disinterested, I became a phantom board member. I introduced Leonard to a potential backer and then I backed up my involvement, clucking my tongue at the list of big-money Negroes who wouldn't even give him a meeting.

Maybe it's a generation gap.

At 40, I lived through the birth and life of Rap and the splintering off of Hip Hop, just one of Rap's subcultures. Even so, I don't always understand modern Rap's orgy with them bitches Violence, Bling and Misogyny dripping in ice from African slave mines. But I know what I feel is the seductive bombast of Biggie's "Going Back to Cali," the elbow throws of Ludacris runnin' over niggas like a redneck trucker and the mellifluence of Lauryn, Posdnous, Mos and Talib.

I could've shaved a decade off the time it took me to find footing if there'd been an equivalent to Elementz when I was a kid.

As Elementz fights society's fear of Hip Hop's black penis, builds programming and garners attention, watch for a parade of councilmembers and mayoral hopefuls. And look for CityBeat to continue watching Elementz, despite being anemic on Hip Hop coverage.

Regardless, in the end Leonard, Elementz and all the people — black, white, rappers and others — who did lend support can show the city-at-large how this is done. No disrespect to the Girls and Boys Club or the YMCA, but there'll always be young people those programs won't get. Until Elementz, few programs have stood in the gap.

We've effectively ignored and then blamed black youth culture. We've pitched these youths in harm's way, driving them to corners, to hypnotize themselves with X-Boxes, to running from cops on bullshit or to just otherwise quietly wasting away.

Reaching the youths Elementz targets won't mean giving them mind-numbing minimum-wage jobs or force-feeding them the oppression of traditional education. It'll mean reaching them where they are.

And right now the youths within walking distance of 1599 Central Parkway are in the streets cuing a soundtrack that might alienate you but that makes perfect sense to them, and it sounds like Ca$h Money, Trillville, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and Jay-Z.

For every appropriator who merely does drive-bys on Hip Hop, there's a dozen black kids who can't shoot a basket or run a touchdown out of the ghetto. But they breathe freestyles, they've got notebooks filled with rhymes and they make beats in the studio in their heads.

Who cares who hands them a mic?

Like Black Thought said: "You better be a true friend to 'em/ before this shit puts an end to 'em/ or give a pen to 'em/ or lock 'em in the studio with a mic/ 'cause on the real it might save his life."

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.