Hip hop activism workshop explores how music can lead to social change
Monday evening, a small group of students gathered in East Quadrangle for a workshop focused on the intersection of hip-hop and social justice. The event, titled “Hip-Hop as Activism Workshop,” included presentations on hip-hop culture as well as spoken word and breakdancing performances.
The workshop was one of the first events featured as a part of Detroit Week, sponsored by the Semester in Detroit program, which is dedicated to learning and celebrating Detroit culture at the University of Michigan.
Piper Carter, founder of The Foundation — a nonprofit that aims to shift the gender balance in the hip-hop field— began the workshop by sharing her experiences as a female hip-hop artist growing up in New York and Detroit. When Carter moved back to Detroit as an adult, she said she felt there was a lack of safe spaces for female hip-hop artists.
“I moved here from New York City, where I am a part of a lot of women in hip-hop — it is just normal, there is a huge woman in hip-hop movement there,” Carter said. “And when I came to Detroit, when I met most of the women that really love hip-hop, they had so much internalized misogyny and oppression.”
Her group, which began as an annual event, now works to achieve its goal of shifting gender paradigms by creating spaces that both welcomed and demanded respect of women.
“We wanted a space where everybody could come and join in and feel free,” Carter said.
She noted that spaces which draw on community have always existed in hip hop, saying it was born in the 1970s due to community collaboration.
“What the hip-hop space was created for was to harness the strength of the community,” Carter said. “Children began gathering in these spaces so they can express themselves and come together.”
Michael Reyes, a spoken word artist from southwest Detroit, echoed Carter’s sentiment in remarks during the workshop.
“For me, hip-hop is a tool that I use in engaging in critical thought around issues of social justice, so it is one tool in my tool box,” he said. “Another tool may be door-knocking, another tool is organizing in my community.”
Reyes mentors young rappers and artists in both Detroit and Chicago, where he worked with artists such as Chance the Rapper and Childish Gambino. He said he thinks the current state of hip-hop is more accessible than when he was growing up in the ‘90s, amid a battle between underground and commercial music.
“It’s really interesting for me to see where music is now with young people because now all you need is a computer and a microphone and you can create a really awesome album,” Reyes said.
Benito Vasquez, a breakdancer, dance instructor and community leader in southwest Detroit also known as Mav-One, said the work that he and the other speakers are doing is based on the principle “each one teach one.”
“We have such a small culture as far as actual beat boys and beat girls go, anytime you’re out there you should be teaching, you should be engaging, you should be talking to people,” he said.
LSA freshman Jason Young, who is participating in Semester in Detroit in the fall, said he thought Monday evening’s event better prepared him to explore the city firsthand in September.
“I am just really excited to, one, be in Detroit in a few months,” he said. “I am then going to be able to get a better look at these things and hopefully check out the actual culture, that is hopefully still there.”
Alana Hoey Moore, program coordinator for Semester in Detroit, said she was very pleased with how the event turned out.
“I am just really glad we can have an engaging conversation,” she said. “I don’t really care how many people are present as long as those who are there are making real connections with one another and having transformative experiences, so I think it was a great kickoff to the week.”