“And it is precisely because of hip-hop’s ability to survive, to teach survival, to unite people, to give an expression for oppressed people, that it can be used as a culture of challenging oppression while raising consciousness.”Luis Rivas and Calvin Ratana
Mention hip-hop these days, and most people think of the rough, raw, sexist music that defines many of the top artists in the business today. Yet, what you are seeing and hearing is a commodified version of hip-hop, which has been created as corporate interests began to see dollar signs in the genre.
But there was a time when it started out as voices, as poetry, and as social consciousness. At its core, hip-hop began as a way to fight against racism, sexism and other injustices in this world.
‘I see it as the folk music of the ‘60s,” says Dr. Carol O’Connor, a local educator and founder of the Rhyme-n-Reason Foundation. O’ Connor recently hosted the foundation’s first hip-hop concert at Burdette Hall in San Carlos in March. The event included both international and local performers, as well as a panel discussion on wellness and the role hip-hop can play in saving lives.
O’Connor, who is a 70-something, white, petite, freckled, blonde, middle‒class woman with a Ph.D in higher education, may seem contradictory to a world defined by the likes of Jay-Z, Eminem, and P. Diddy. Yet, when you see hip-hop as others do—for its ability to give a voice and a face to the inequalities in society and to reach large audiences of disaffected and underserved people—you’ll begin to understand her attraction to the genre and her desire to connect through hip-hop.
“It’s the blemished skin of hip hop,” O’Connor says of mainstream hip-hop today. The real roots and culture of hip-hop, however, go much deeper, dating back some 40 years and encompassing everything from rap music, DJing, dance, graffiti, fashion, language, belief, and attitude. It has expanded into virtually every country and every sector of society. And today, it is being taught in over 175 courses at prestigious institutions like Harvard and Stanford.
According to O’Connor, hip-hop not only saves lives, but is an avenue for opening up discussions which lead to critical thinking.
“There are people out there who have had no voice at all,” she says. “And when people don’t have a voice, they do things… People need a chance to speak, to perform… through art, dance or… rap.
“The need to be heard and understood is essential for all human beings,” she adds.
Last year, she joined a panel discussion during the Trinity Hip Hop conference in Hartford, Connecticut, on the healing powers of hip-hop. There, she met Minister Server Tavares, who is the founder of HIPHOP Ministries Inc. He likes to say that hip-hop stands for “higher infinite power, healing our people,” and like O’Connor, states that it can literally save lives and enrich spirits. He has established 18 principals that advocate freedom from violence, and offers advice and protection for the development of the international community.
O’Connor has been an educator for the last two decades, beginning in 1996, when she got her first classroom teaching assignment in San Carlos. There, she got her students involved in writing poetry.
When the discussion lead to language, and she was asked why they couldn’t use the f-word, she told them it was fine in some circumstances, but not in school.
“There are different ways to speak in different context,” she said. “Find another word.”
They did, and she later helped them publish their work in a book called “Images” using limited class funds and Kinko copiers.
One of her students, Layman Watterman, did the artwork for the covers.
“He had been one of the naughty boys” she smiles, and says, “…he would never do any of his work. He would just sit at his desk and do graffitti… I wasn’t interested in hip- hop music at the time, but I’ve always been interested in beautiful art, and what he was doing was beautiful, so I asked him if we could use his work for the cover.”
He would go on to do the cover of all three books and later perform at the recent hip hop event at Burdette Hall.
She didn’t know it at the time, but she was living hip-hop even back then, giving voice to those who had a lot to say, but had nowhere to say it.
O’Connor ‘came to hip hop’ during a dry spell, when she hadn’t listened to music for a long time, and decided she need to put some music back in her life.
She walked into a Borders Bookstore, intent on getting back into music, and found herself in the World Music section. Not wild about Celtic—and not finding any music from Kazakhstan—she says jazz seemed too familiar and dull. She eventually worked her way down the aisle to hip-hop and rap.
“I remembered picking up a TIME magazine earlier that year and reading an article on a rapper from St. Louis, so I picked up his latest CD and put on the headphones,” she recalls.
“That first song literally changed my life,” she adds. “It’s simply called, ‘Nellyville.’”
There were no bubble gum lyrics or smooth jazz to take you away into another world. These were lyrics that brought listeners up close to real life. It’s not always pretty, but for all the real problems that people deal with, there is also an energy of fighting back, finding the high ground, calling out injustices, and yes, maintaining a sense of optimism.
The lyrics and the pulse of the music grabbed her and they’ve never let go. She recites a line from the song by Nelly:
“Imagine blocks and blocks of no cocaine, blocks with no gunplay.
Ain’t nobody shot, so ain’t no news that day.”
At that time, she was still a principal for the Miami School District, both at Lee Kornegay and the later opening Bejarano. She would keep photos of rappers David Banner and Too Short on her desk. They were reminders of fighting adversity, being true to one’s self, and calling things out in the world. That, and their pictures prepared her for heated meetings with angry parents in her office, bureaucratic snafus, road blocks, and other small injustices she found in her own world.
Four years later she would leave Globe-Miami and form the Rhyme-N-Reason Foundation as a 501(c)(3), aimed at promoting education, economic development, and collaboration among underserved youth internationally. The journey has taken her to Mississippi, where she earned her Ph.D in Urban Higher Education and taught at an inner city school, and Ethiopia, where she was hired by a Phoenix non-profit to teach classes, but also explored and planted the seed for hip-hop expressions.
Today, she is back in Globe and teaching at the Inspired Learning Academy.
She says she uses the words and stories told in hip-hop to build critical thinking among students, often asking them to look past the bling and the beat, and to consider the message.
“Do you think this is a good idea?” she’ll ask. “Is this where you want things to go? Was there another choice he could have made?”
In March of this year, Rhyme-N-Reason Foundation hosted the first hip-hop concert in San Carlos at Burdette Hall. She was able to get her friend, Minister Server, and Ethiopian artist Lij Yared, to fly in for the event, making it “international.” Her former student, “naughty boy” Layman Watterman (L-Dub), was one of the performers, along with San Carlos rap artists Louie Miles, J Starr, and Shaun Casoose. DJ Wiskers, also from San Carlos, provided the music.
Myron Starr coordinated live graffiti art by Robert Wilson, Carrie Curley, and Lij Yaared, who created large panels alongside several kids who attended the event.
The Rhyme-N-Reason Foundation also produces books of student work, titled “Telling Our Stories.” Two have been published in the last five years, and a third one is in the making. They include poems and art from O’Connor’s students in Ethiopia, Mississippi, and San Carlos, and are handed out free to schools, organizations, and other artists.
The event in San Carlos included a panel discussion titled, “Hip Hop Saved My Life,” led by Minister Server. San Carlos residents Kevin White, Carrie Curley, Amelia McIntosh, and KC Randall shared ideas about physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and financial wellness, as well as ideas on how to care for the planet.
Guest Contributors include press releases, guest authors, and columnists who contribute less than 4 times a year.