One lesson that children learn early in school, is that history is written by the victors. The narrative is everything and everything is narrative because description drives perception. Thus, he who controls the story controls so much more, especially in today’s world. In the case of hip-hop, the narrative pen was long ago taken from the original and authentic owners and forcibly guided into creating narratives, that instead of speaking and reporting on an individual’s life, glorified the lowest common denominators of life. Hip-hop is not just sex, drugs, and guns, but if one’s only source of information is the mass media, there is a minimal chance they’ll know any different, especially if this person is a white, suburban dweller. Their viewpoint will be distorted through mainstream/radio hip-hop culture, which long ago lost control of its own narrative to culture vulture labels who could care less about the artists as people and the messages they are attempting to convey. Once label heads discovered they could sell many multiples of albums more by getting these suburban kids hooked on the sellable narratives from the hood, it was game over. One of the most beautiful and vital aspects of hip-hop is how it can connect across cultures, telling stories in ways that are able to be understood by anyone who is trying to listen. But when this ability is taken away, precisely due to a fetishization of black bodies by outside (white) culture, then the truth becomes obscured in a murky mix of bullshit external forces dump disinformation, sow the seeds of distrust. There is no real ability then for the facts to reach those who need to hear it the most.
I was able to sit down with Khafre Jay, the Executive Director of Hip Hop for Change, a nonprofit whose focus is on breaking down the insidious, leechlike corporate powers that have controlled mainstream hip-hop from its origins and replacing them with an open platform which allows for true-self expression within hip-hop. The goal is to enable artists who speak on all aspects of life, especially those that would generally be bypassed by the powers. This loss of narrative control is what Khafre and Hip Hop for Change focus on the most, as their end goal is putting the reins of individuals’ narrative power back in their hands. When artists become solely dependent on labels for their income, they are forced to alter their narratives to boost the labels bottom lines. The tale of the starving artist is as old as time itself, its modern twist coming from the various illegal activities that have so commonly become associated with hip-hop. And honestly, it is hard to blame artists for resorting to methods outside the system to support their careers when they are so often underpaid or not paid for their creative output. For so long, the only viable routes into hip-hop have been through these insidious major label fun-houses, so why would a black man not exploit these same labels to make money and feed themselves?
In the three years since Khafre opened the doors, he has raised 2.7 million dollars for hip-hop education within grade schools. One of their main focuses is giving artists with socially positive messages money and a platform to pursue their craft, especially those cast aside by the mainstream industry. During our conversation, he stressed the importance of allowing the artists to express their true selves, and tell the stories that hold weight within the community. Khafre explained how they have artists go into grade schools, working with the kids to properly teach them what hip-hop is, where it comes from, teaching classes/giving lessons on battle rap, and dancing. The hard work and dedication put into raising money for the foundation are equaled by the output of charitable work, as Hip Hop For Change has been able to educate 22,000 kids since its inception. Khafre also works to put together shows where local artists can come together and get their experience levels up. The drive and dedication behind the vision was precise within Khafre’s voice as he spoke on the importance of wresting control of the narrative path back into the hands that need it the most. He is able to do this by forcing individuals to have the conversations that they would typically not have. The 131 community activists whom were employed with a living wage in the Bay Area by Hip Hop for Change in 2019 spent countless hours having over 30,000 conversations regarding patriarchy, race, and the influence labels play in minority communities with relation to the outsize role they play in shaping minds.
21 Savage stated on “Nothin New,” ‘They thought I only rapped about murder and pistols, I’m tryna feed my family I aint bein political.” It may seem like a lifetime ago that his gravel-voice laid these lyrics down in 2017, but it is incredible to see a place where something that seemed so off-hand to most people (but made sense to those who understood) is coming into reality. It is not yet a widespread reality, but through the slow and steady grind, and with the unbridled passion that drives the team at Hip Hop for Change it looks like the guard is changing. Hopefully it will be just a short time before we can look back and believe that it was insane all artists weren’t allowed full narrative control over their art, being able to spread whatever message they want, no matter how socially conscious. Definitely check out their website, but most importantly, begin to look around yourself and understand how the influence of these labels have potentially shaped the viewpoint on hip-hop, and take it upon yourself to have those difficult conversations with those around you. The most significant changes in this world do not occur from throwing money at problems. They happen when someone with a vision for this change can influence enough people that we need to fog up and wipe off our glasses and take a second look. Khafre and Hip Hop for Change are more than ready to stand on every corner until the fog collectively lifts, and they are on the way already.