Viewer advisory: The video clip contains raw language, including a racial epithet.
To non-listeners, hip-hop’s power and appeal lies in its controversial subject matter — the violence, the misogyny and hyper-masculine boasting, the worship of material wealth and the use of the “N-word” and other racial epithets. But lyrics like that have tended to overshadow another important part of hip-hop culture: its use as an agent for positive social change.
For example, Jayceon Taylor, a.k.a. The Game, is better known for his gang affiliation than for his nonprofit, The Robin Hood Project, and its donation of $500,000 to mitigate lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s tap water. Sean Combs, better known as Diddy, the flamboyant CEO of Bad Boy Entertainment, has announced plans to open a social justice-based charter school in Harlem, where he was raised.
Here in New Orleans, perceptions of the hip-hop scene can be closely linked to urban violence. Some of our best and brightest artists have been cut down by gunfire or have wound up in the state’s prison system. Soulja Slim, born James Adarryl Tapp Jr., was, gunned down in Gentilly in 2003; a measure of his talent is that his musical impact continues to reverberate in New Orleans hip-hop more than a decade later.
McKinley Phipps, better known as Mac, was a hip-hop prodigy who got out his first solo album at 13. Convicted of manslaughter in 2001, he is serving a sentence of 30 years to life — though investigative journalists have raised questions about potentially exculpatory evidence that was withheld by prosecutors.
But if hip-hop mirrors the violence that is endemic to low-income communities of color, it also captures the resilience and gritty optimism of those communities. Young hip-hop artists — among them Gorealla “Sonny D” Strong and other members of the nonprofit startup called Icons for Peace — are marrying their musical talent with their networking skills in a campaign to bring hip-hop artists together and organize the communities where they live.
Rap vs. Poetry, Strong’s eclectic weekly showcase at the Healing Center on St. Claude Avenue, is a platform for local hip-hop artists, lyricists, and musicians. The performers vary; seasoned artists come to expand their network of followers while amateurs get a chance to hone their skills. Some perform songs straight from slick demo tapes, while others pour their hearts out in a capella renditions of raw rap poetry.
They come from all over the city but for the same reason. They want their voices to be heard. Together, these voices echo the soul of New Orleans. Styles vary, both on the dais and within the audience, but there is no hierarchy of social or musical values.
Participation is encouraged and no one is denied a chance to perform. In a world where slight differences can trigger internecine strife, Strong uses Rap vs. Poetry to forge urban unity. He sees hip-hop as a tool of peace.
Gorealla’s given name is Derrick, and off-stage everyone calls him Sonny. He’s been emceeing and performing at Rap vs. Poetry nights for five years. On a typical evening, a crowd begins gathering in the Icons headquarters on the Healing Center’s mezzanine around 7 p.m. White T-shirts and work clothes give way to flamboyant street wear, jewelry, sunglasses worn inside. People better known by monikers such as Ritzy Raw, and SinCity Red than their government names begin to fill up the room. Despite their flashy appearance, these are New Orleans hungriest hip-hop artists.
Some have brought their friends, others, their children. Some grew up together and have known each other forever. After everyone is introduced, Sonny and other Icons members make their way to the first-floor lobby to set up an informal stage and arrange seating. Chris, a guitar player, plugs in a small amp and begins to riff. David Strong, Derrick’s brother, picks up a conga.
As the voices in the crowd start to settle, Sonny makes his way to the stage: “All right, y’all, I’m Gorealla Strong, and welcome to Rap vs. Poetry.” Sonny orchestrates the proceedings — pulling this artist, then another into the mix, and, depending on the evening’s energy level, the fun sometimes lasts past midnight.
But the group’s ambitions go well beyond the Thursday night get-togethers. Icons for Peace is looking to expand. With support from Sgt. John Johnson and Joe Givens’ of Isaiah Institute and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, it has secured funding for an incubator in which young people can find employment, further their careers or launch small businesses and nonprofits. Strong is currently planning a Rap vs. Poetry summer camp, a safe place where inner-city youth can hone their talent and develop strategies for uplifting their communities.
Icons for Peace brings a variety of specialized talents to the business of hip-hop and furtherance of the group’s goals. Given a background in audio engineering, my personal role within the group is to facilitate the Icons for Peace Recording Project. The goal is to give developing hip-hop artists the professional resources to get their creativity out there and become self-sufficient.
Currently, the recording project is focused on two artists. Yamel Bey — or “33,” as he is known by his peers — is putting the finishing touches on a debut EP that combines lush sound with athletic lyricism. Titled “Sleep Washington,” the lyrics tie the awakening of a young man’s social conscience to the nation’s history of systemic racism and eccentric spirituality. 33 is an experienced artist, who navigates pulsing rhythms with confidence.
Teaux, another artist recording his debut demo tape, is a natural, rapidly overcoming his almost unnoticeable lack of experience. While reserved and humble, Teaux’s personal story is a harrowing paradigm of what it means to grow up black and disadvantaged in New Orleans. As the chief mentor of Icons For Peace, he reaches out to a lot of kids in the St. Roch area he grew up in. His ability to translate his life experiences into written verse is impressive, and his potential is limitless.
I found out about Icons for Peace while performing with hip-hop artists Jon Deaux and Evan Thibodeaux. Along with the music, I was interested in prison reform and advocacy on behalf of “at-risk” youth. Members of Icons for Peace welcomed me to one of their meetings and I found myself in the company of like-minded hip-hop enthusiasts looking for ways to use art to create social change.
The meeting space, network, and resources provided by Icons for Peace facilitate a culture of collaboration. Without each other, we might share the same values, but we would be working in isolation and less effectively. Seeking peace, understanding, and justice, we are working hard to become the face of a united New Orleans.
If we have some role in the redemption of our city, hip-hop has also figured dramatically in turning around lives that were running off the tracks. Many of the Icons come from tough backgrounds — the “new normal,” unfortunately — and have experienced Louisiana’s gargantuan prison system. Hip-hop has provided an alternative to a life of crime, both as a medium for personal expression and as an introduction to productive, entrepreneurial lines of work.
Treat yourself to a Rap vs. Poetry evening. Admission is free and so is the spirit of the young musicians and poets who gather at the Healing Center around 7 p.m. Artists like Gorealla Strong, Teaux, and 33 are bringing the unifying power of hip-hop to citywide scale, and using their influence to promote a culture of social justice and change.
Milan Ray is a hip-hop artist, legal assistant, and a community organizer with Icons for Peace. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org