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Let’s Build an Anti-Racist Culture of Resistance

May 11, 2007

AR-15: Anti-Racist White Hip-Hop.

Turning The Tide, March-April 2007

By Michael Novick

How did AR-15 start? What is the musical and activist history of members and your circle of supporters?

The seeds of AR-15 were planted in 1998 when Raw Potential and I met in AmeriCorps in San Diego, CA. We were right out of high school and we were doing community service projects around the West Coast and Southwest U.S. as a way to earn money for college. A Filipino cat from Oakland, who was on our AmeriCorps team, taught us to freestyle rap to pass the time while we worked on a variety of community projects. So we began rapping together while we were literally serving the community. Raw and I went our own ways for about 4 years after that and we reconnected in Oakland in 2003 and formed the rap group that became AR-15.

During the 4 years apart, Raw honed his rap skills in the battle circuit in the Bay Area, CA and took some classes in college with an interest in Black Studies. I went to college at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities for Ethnic Studies and cut my teeth in hip-hop organizing, connecting rappers and activists in causes ranging from immigrants’ rights, police brutality, welfare rights, and anti-war activism.

When we reconnected in Oakland in 2003 the convergence of rap and politics happened for us. I had been trained by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond in anti-racist politics and Raw and I both went through the Challenging White Supremacy workshop in San Francisco supporting various racial justice initiatives in the Bay Area. These experiences focused our activism as rappers on anti-racism and support for racial justice work led by people of color, and generally social justice work led by people that experience social injustice.

In terms of the people that support our music nationally, their activist involvement varies. We meet people where they are at in terms of social change and social justice and welcome all new fans and friends that want to get down with a movement for justice.

How do you try to or succeed in engaging your fans and listeners, who may be attracted primarily by the energy or artistry of your work, into a dialogue about the content and ideas you express?

We try to make music that allows people to enter and enjoy it on a number of levels. Metaphors and similes are our best friends, and we use language to make multi-layered songs. One person might listen to our music and hear dope, gangsta music. Other people might hear a militant or even revolutionary message. It all depends. Our job is to create a musical space where that can happen. We don’t force dialogue, we create the artistic and physical spaces where dialogue can happen. At the end of the day, it’s really up to the people how far we take this, as artists and as a movement.

When we are on tour we partner with local, racial justice organizations led by people of color to speak at our shows and sit on a panel with us after the show for an audience Q&A. It’s brief and not heavy-handed, and creates a space for dialogue. It also plugs audience members into supporting local racial justice work led by folks of color. We also donate 25% of every paid show to local and national racial justice work. Our panels and donations show two examples of what solidarity between white people and people of color against racism and for justice could look like.

I have done many benefits for Anti-Racist Action, even with explicitly political bands like Aztlan Underground, where most of the audience streams out during the breaks between groups, rather than listen to political speakers or even watching a video or slide presentation, or where speakers get heckled by the crowd. Have you had experiences like that? How do you deal with them?

If people come to one of our hip-hop shows, they’re coming for music. So we’re sensitive to that. We give them a good show. We do have speakers during our set sometimes, but they talk for 2 maybe 3 minutes max during. We’ve seen speakers heckled at our shows and we and the speakers keep it movin. As we say, we’ve got bigger fish to fry. The panel at the end of our shows is where people that want a clear social justice message will get it. And not everyone that comes to our shows stays for the panel. We don’t feel like it’s our job to make people listen. We do what we do and if we’re doing our job right people will want to get down and build with us after the show, or follow up on our suggestions for getting involved in local work. We’re real about the fact we are only one piece of a huge puzzle of social change work, and we can’t do everything. That’s what coalition work is for. It’s like a sports team— everyone plays their own position, but we’re still on the same team coordinating plays and strategizing together to win the game.

What mechanisms have you come up with for an on-going dialogue with listeners and fans, or for moving them from buying music or going to a show, which are more or less passive or receptive activities, into activism of their own, or even organizing?

Our obvious hope is that every person that buys a cd or comes to a show leaves ready to get down and do something. But that’s just not how it goes. We reach the people that are ready for the message. But the cool thing is when we come back to a city a second time, or a fan checks out our press or website they may think twice about getting active. We do much to shine the light on books, organizations, films, resources, and fans and away from AR-15. We tell people that they have what it takes to change their own communities for the better. And we also make ourselves available for support and guidance on that path.

In terms of our company, AR-15 Entertainment LLC, we run a street team that gives people a way to support our work and to make money for themselves at the same time. People interested should hit us up on our website: http://www.AR15hiphop.com. We use capitalism against itself in this way. Sure, some people wanna street team for us just to make cash, but if that’s where they’re at, cool. In the meantime, they’re helping us spread anti-racist politics and getting money doing so. It’s a for-profit strategy for social change. The right wing’s doing it, why can’t we? Like Talib Kweli said, we’re “revolutionary entrepreneurs.” And yo, who doesn’t want to get paid making the world better? We’ll have senator and congressman’s kids running cds to the Oval Office soon. Haha!

But, for real, we hire street teamers to sling cds and sell tickets to shows in their hometown and they keep a percentage of their sales. They’re learning business skills, but also organizing skills. The street team becomes a vehicle for mobilizing study groups, political activism, and conscious community on a local level. It is a tool that creates community around politics and it’s effective because it satisfies people’s basic needs— cash in pocket, food on the table, being able to pay rent.

You have probably heard criticisms of “cultural expropriation” when white people take up hip hop or rap, and have certainly been aware of how the music industry “bleached” other Black, Mexicano or Puerto Rican musical and cultural expressions to make them palatable to a white audience. On the other hand, many hip hop performers and recording artists today are finding the bulk of their audiences and of consumers buying their recordings are white. How do you see these issues, or deal with them? Do you address them directly in your music or your shows?

I remember I was in a class on rap poetry taught by Alexs Pate (author of Amistad, the Steven Spielberg flick) and there was a debate about white kids in hip-hop acting black. “What would you rather they do—act white?”, Alexs asked. America’s racist. We know that. White supremacy exists Check. Now whether or not AR-15 is in the rap game or on TV (“‘Ego Trip’s “The (White) Rapper Show”), or in film (“Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible”, World Trust, 2006), or in books (“Other People’s Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America”, Bloomsbury Press, 2007) white people are going to be appropriating culture and getting privilege. We don’t always know we’re doing it, it’s the way the system is designed.

So what do we do about it as white artists or white people? Do we say. “Screw it, everything’s so racist! I’m done with America!” meanwhile we are still receiving white privilege and still appropriating, whether we mean to or not. Or do we deal with the contradictions, the messiness, the craziness and take a stand and get out there? AR-15 chooses to take a stand. Are we perfect? No. Are we part of the gentrification of rap? Yes. But we figure at the end of the day, we’d rather have white folks speaking truth to power and building solidarity with people of color while appropriating, then white folks ignoring racism, ignoring privilege and always cashing in at the expense of other people.

In terms of the whitewashing of rap, we prioritize working with other politically conscious artists of color, women, and queer artists as a way to use our privilege to balance out the music industry when and where we can. Ultimately, its about building coalitions that make demands on the music industry. Hip-hop is an amazing art form, however, because it’s marketability actually relies on it’s blackness. Hip-hop pioneers talk about this as a lesson learned from blues, jazz, and rock-and-roll. As a way to help ensure the blackness of hip-hop, many early artists in rap formed their own record labels and became the middle-man between artists and major labels. This system still operates today, and is a way for the big labels to have street credibility, as well as a way for the black community to maintain some control over hip-hop’s face to the world.

For many white consumers, even, the music is not “real” if it’s not black. We know this, and we also know that as white anti-racist artists we will most likely not be looking at a record deal with a major label anytime soon. But we work with the fact that there are a lot of white fans of hip-hop out there, and we reach them through the fact that we look like them AND we have street cred with communities of color because of our politics and track record in the community. We’re showing white kids that there’s another way to be down in hip-hop, and that street cred in hip-hop can come from racial justice work as well as from skills on the mic.

How do you assess the state of popular consciousness among white young people about white supremacy or white privilege?

It’s not cool to be openly racist in most white communities today, but the understanding of white supremacy and white privilege as institutions and systems is lost to most whites, in our opinion. The fact that in hip-hop you’re lame if you’re racist is an amazing starting point to politicize the next generation of white anti-racists. We capitalize on that fact. Many young white people’s favorite musical artist is black, their favorite movie star is black, their favorite sports star is black, and many white youth have black friends or other friends of color. Broadening the analysis for youth of all colors in terms of what systemic oppression is and what it looks like, and what social justice is and looks like is what our work involves. Making this process fun is the tough part, but the advent of multimedia like digital film and music can go a long way if properly harnessed by anti-racist and racial justice activists, artists, and creative-thinkers. We feel blessed to be doing what we do in this historical moment. It’s an exciting time to be an anti-racist!

The racist right appears to have a much more seamless integration of its “cultural” activity with its political organizing strategy than is true among anti-racist forces. That is, white power bands and labels generally have had close organizational ties to white supremacist and /or Christian fascist organizations, funneling money into those efforts and attracting supporters. How do you see your relationship to membership-based anti-racist organizations and networks? How can we create a closer connection between cultural and political efforts against racism and white supremacy?

I think a big part of the “success story” of the racist right in using culture to put their message out there is that they have no qualms about using capitalism and money-making as a way to recruit and politicize. Because of the history of what money has done to poor people and people of color, the tendency on the left to shy away from business moves is understandable. However, the time, money, and access that many white people on the left have (whether they are honest about it or not) can play an important role in galvanizing some of this cultural power to put out a conscious message.

I’d like to see more anti-racist white people work to infiltrate the areas of music, entertainment, media, law, medicine, business, government, etc. and use their personal or professional contacts to help build the movement from inside the ivory towers, as well as from outside. This, I think is the charge to the next generation of white folks in the movement. Instead of shying away from privilege and access, I’d like to see more white folks work to obtain privilege and access consciously and flip it through accountable relationships with racial justice organizations led by folks of color.

I’ve already mentioned that we donate 25% of our income to local and national racial justice work. I think galvanizing more money for anti-racist work in the white community has to come from white people doing grassroots fundraising in white communities (among family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances). Integrating fundraising as part of the each one/teach one process of anti-racist culture is crucial. We can’t be afraid to ask for money for social justice work!

In terms of white anti-racist organizations, AR-15 works closely with the White Anti-racist Community Action Network (http://www.wacan.org) in New Jersey, the Alliance for White Anti-Racists Everywhere (http://www.aware.revolt.org) in LA, Y-STEP (YSTEPbayarea@gmail.com) in San Francisco, and the White Privilege Conference (http://www.whiteprivilegeconference.com) in Colorado Springs this year and now Anti-Racist Action (hope this is the beginning of on-going work!) as a means of building a national white anti-racist coalition that is in lock step.

Creating a closer connection between cultural and political efforts against racism and white supremacy and for justice, I believe, is about staying in each other’s lives, reaching out, breaking bread. If you are a white anti-racist artist, are you connecting yourself to anti-racist and racial justice political work? If you are a white anti-racist activist, are you connecting yourself to anti-racist and racial justice cultural work? If not, why not? We need to become part of each other’s lives. We need each other. White anti-racists can learn much from people of color doing racial justice organizing, where integration of community, culture, and coalition is a basis of the work— many times as a means of survival! We as white anti-racists need to push ourselves to reach out and connect. AR-15 says, “Come get your hugs!” [smile]

Have you had to deal with attacks or threats from white power groups, either to your group or to shows you have appeared in?

We have had no organized resistance to our work, yet. We’re hoping for some. [smile] I guess that will be a sign we’re doing good work! We’ve received individual death threats and hate mail, some of which can be seen on the internet as a response to my video submission to “The (White) Rapper Show”. Check out: http://youtube.com/watch?v=nGItc-ej9P8. But we spend time and energy on the hate, though. We’ve got too many positive white folks and people of color who are feeling our message to connect with!

The white “pride” group Woodpile has been seeking a following among white (and other) prisoners. How do you see AR-15 appealing to or reaching working class white kids such as in juvie, jail or prison?

Neither Raw Potential nor I have been incarcerated. We’ve played gigs in juvie halls and the youth were feeling us. Raw grew up on Section 8. I always had enough growing up. We’ve played for rural and working class audiences that were predominantly white and have received tremendous support. We play wherever people want us. We hope our work inspires more white anti-racists to take a stand and reach out to their own constituencies within the white community, whether their constituency is working class or youth in juvie, jail, or prison, or another community.

In terms of Woodpile, they actually are on an anti-racist tip and a lot of people have it twisted. Check their interview with MurderDog Magazine on the blog on their homepage: http://www.myspace.com/woodpile They say, “There is going to be the people that don’t like what we are doing, promoting hardcore white boys without racism uniting with black dudes. For as many of them who have a problem with it, there will be just as many, if not more, who respect what is going down and see it as a positive movement.” They were signed by West Coast Mafia Records run by Sacramento-based rapper C-Bo who has a lot of street cred in hip-hop and most people assume would not sign a “white pride” group.

The name Woodpile actually refers to the prison term “wood” given to white dudes in prison who don’t affiliate with the Aryan Nation and who kick it with Black and Brown folk behind prison walls. Woodpile’s message is less explicitly anti-racist than ours, and as far as I know they don’t have a focus on social justice and community organizing. But obviously, any time white people get on the mic and spit about race (including us) people are going to talk.

Anti-Racist Action has had to learn some hard lessons about the persistence of male supremacy and other forms of oppression within the ranks of anti-racists, and still struggles to connect anti-sexism and support for queer rights into its work. Criticism of sexism within hip hop have certainly been extensive, profound and justified. How do you see such issues playing out in your music and the development of AR-15?

We see sexism, heterosexism, classism, and racism and other oppressions as interconnected, and so we connect our work against white supremacy with work against patriarchy, heterosexism and capitalism. As I said before we proactively choose to work with artists of color, women, and queer folk in order to be accountable to these politics. We also pay attention to the lyrics rappers are saying and have a pretty strict policy of not working with artists that spit degrading lyrics. Battling the system and battling people are two different things in our minds. Recruiting and paying street teamers who are poor people, women, people of color, or queer is also a priority for us. Their involvement in the company and as part of our work in local communities definitely helps guide AR-15 and ensures that as an entertainment company and rap group we are accountable, inclusive of all struggles against oppression, and seeking to unite rather than divide.

Any last words of wisdom, information, or questions you would like to raise with readers of “Turning the Tide”?

Turning the Tide readers should know that AR-15 stands for Anti-Racist Fifteen, fifteen principles that guide our rap group and company. These principles came out of our own mentorship by the Center for Third World Organizing (http://www.ctwo.org) in Oakland, CA and The Challenging White Supremacy workshop (http://www.cwsworkshop.org) in San Francisco, CA. The principles are explained in more depth on our website, but here they are in short:

1. Practice non-violence.
2. Learn anti-racist history.
3. Study legacies of resistance.
4. Research your family history.
5. Respect leadership of color.
6. Stand in solidarity.
7. Challenge oppression.
8. Listen actively.
9. Create anti-racist culture.
10. Act on your principles.
11-15. For future generations.

Also people should consider this an open invite to connect with us, come to a show, or join the street team. Let’s build an anti-racist culture of resistance!

Check out: www.AR15hiphop.com

Peace,
Jus Rhyme, AR-15

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