It’s Friday morning at Lighthouse Charter School in East Oakland, and the kids in Ms. Baumert’s ninth grade class have a visitor.
Malik Diamond is at Lighthouse to teach a lesson about the wisdom of hip hop—not just the music, but also the associated history, culture, and community.
Diamond is the education coordinator for Hip Hop for Change, an Oakland non-profit whose programming promotes underground hip-hop with positive, complex messages in Bay Area schools. Diamond is motivated by his own experience as a longtime hip hop fan. “I heard the change in the music,” he says. “You used to hear all kinds of stuff. Queen Latifah used to be on the radio singing about domestic abuse and sexism and all this kind of stuff. I grew up with that. And then suddenly it was like [Lil’ Kim’s 2000 release, featuring Sisqo] ‘How many licks?’!”
Hip Hop For Change has been around since April 2014. It is the brainchild of Oakland MC Khafre Jay, who sees great potential for hip hop. “Most of the rappers I know here in the Bay are activists and educators,” he says. “I know a principal. I got people rapping about vegan hip hop movements.”
Jay, who started rapping at a young age, grew up in a rough area of San Francisco’s Hunters Point. “I was rapping about having cars and girls and money. And I was broke and had a fast pass for the bus and no girls liked me,” he says, laughing.
Now, he wants to teach kids in similar circumstances that hip hop can be more than all of that. He sees rap as a powerful tool for showing kids that their lives could look a lot of different ways. As MC Khafre Jay, his rhymes touch on subjects ranging from education to racism to inequality.
At Lighthouse Charter, Malik Diamond spends the workshop talking about those same topics. He takes the kids through a whirlwind history of hip-hop, starting in the South Bronx with Cool Herc breaking beats and throwing in lessons about media conglomerates, private prisons, and respecting women. Along the way, he challenges them to think differently about the music they listen to.
“So, music is a reflection of culture, right?” he asks them. “If these are my values— guns, gangs, money, partying, drugs—where am I going to end up?”
“Jail?” offers one student.
“The street,” says another.
“Where else?” Diamond presses. There’s a pause.
“Dead,” a last student offers.
“Dead, the cemetery,” Diamond says. “Absolutely.”
This kind of interaction— a like-minded role model challenging kids to think differently— is exactly what Jay had in mind in starting Hip Hop for Change. “I want our kids to see role models that are activists,” he says. “I want our kids to see hip hop lawyers and hip doctors and hip hop teachers and hip hop non profit directors and think, ‘I can do this: I can be hip hop and I can express myself in a positive way, because my community shows me that.’”
After two years of Jay’s hard work, Hip Hop For Change has fourteen employees, produces between six and ten shows per year, and visits about four schools a month to teach hip hop history, MCing, breaking, and graffiti. Jay sees the positive changes right away. “When kids start break dancing, now they’re all of a sudden worried about health,” he says. “You give a kid a pen, and they’re now worried about saying something important. Expression leads people to who they are, what they want to do.”
The next step for Hip Hop for Change is a community center. The organization is raising money to create what Jay calls a “stable platform” for local hip-hop. He imagines a drop-in center with a free recording studio that would do more to reinforce his message of strength in community. For now, though, he’s relying on his program — and his rhymes — to get that message across.
This piece was originally produced for the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
Visit hiphopforchange.org to learn more.