Speaking to Mother Jones magazine prior to the 2004 US Election, Public Enemy's Chuck D beefed, “We don't see the people who are doing real things getting enough props. We often see politicians who are everywhere but nowhere at the same goddamn time....You see them everywhere on television but nowhere in front of your face.” Next Thursday (June 22), Vancouverites will have the opportunity to witness a rare exception to the rule. Props will be given, and plenty of them. Furthermore, politicians””from all over the world, no less””will appear right in front of your face.
As part of the World Urban Forum 3, hosted by Vancouver this month, the event's youth organizing committee has scheduled what it's calling the Global Hip-Hop Mainstage, located at the Earth: World Urban Festival Site at 555 Great Northern Way. It will act as the culmination of the committee's efforts to ensure that youth-led initiatives are integrated into the five-day conference, during which a range of international delegates representing governments, NGOs, community leaders, and academics will hammer out sustainability initiatives. As worthy as that all sounds, the Global Hip-Hop Mainstage should also prove to be a hell of a party, offering a roster of international artists””including Madcon & Equicez, Zuluboy, Tumi and the Volume, and more””who have been recognized as leading exponents of conscious rap.
“The important thing is we aren't deciding to bring hip-hop here,” explains World Urban Forum media and communications coordinator Jess Conn-Potega. “Hip-hop keeps coming up. Young people in cities all over the world are choosing hip-hop as their medium, so it needs to be a part of the World Urban Forum. It's not a choice we're making. It's a choice young people are making. Hip-hop is incredibly intertwined in their self-identity.”
Conn-Potega's words are echoed by 25-year-old Joseph Oyoo, aka Gidi Gidi, of Mainstage headliners Gidi Gidi Maji Maji. “First of all, hip-hop music is one thing that has brought the world together,” he says, wresting himself away from a World Cup match to speak to the Straight from his home in Nairobi. “Especially where young people are concerned, because young people are honestly and vibrantly open to hip-hop music. They are ready to accept it. It's all about who you are, what you represent, and what you have to offer.”
Kohinoor, another Mainstage par?ticipant who was orphaned during the bloody Bangladesh war in 1971, and subsequently adopted by a family in Norway, speaks to the power of conscious rap to uplift and educate in the developing world.
“I was in Jamaica,” she recalls, during a call from Oslo. “And I could see they knew a lot more about the lyrics of different artists than what was in their schoolbooks. Somehow, when you can sing things in your head, the message is more easily taken, I think.”
A notable addition to this year's World Urban Forum is the integration of the World Youth Forum, something Conn-Potega characterizes as “a preparatory preconference for youth, so that young people can get together, define some goals, and figure out how to have the most impact on the forum itself” . This is meant to serve as a corrective to the last WUF, in Barcelona in 2004, where the youth component found itself marginalized. “Essentially, it was 'Sit at the kids' table,'?” Conn-Potega says. “'Here's your little conference over here, we're going to do our real conference over here, and we might let you in.' Our message is that youth are leaders of today and tomorrow.”
Significantly, with Vancouver as the forum's host city, Conn-Potega offers a fact both sobering and often overlooked. “I think Vancouver was chosen because it's consistently rated as one of the most livable regions in the world,” he starts. “The exception to that is if you're in the indigenous community here, in which case it's about 78th in the world.”
Enter Curtis Clearsky. Clearsky is another Mainstage performer, a Vancouverite from the Ojibway and Blackfoot nations. The rapper is more than familiar with the challenges that face Canada's Native population.
“I hit rock bottom about a thousand times,” Clearsky says with a laugh, recalling lost years of alcohol and drug abuse, as well as dealing.
As an emerging figure in the Native hip-hop world with a firm grasp on the profile of hip-hop on this continent, he sighs when he describes being rebuked by a young cousin for not aping the dark narratives of 50 Cent.
“A lot of people are trying to put the image out there of being the tough guy,” he says. “I don't really give a damn about being a gangsta! I'm a man! I'm a man with a lot of respect for myself, my children, my family, and my community. This ain't no fairy tale. It's real life.”
Clearsky's community work has involved a stint as project coordinator at Vancouver's Knowledgeable Aboriginal Youth Association, where hip-hop is utilized in a myriad of positive ways, from break-dancing workshops to the production of indigenous hip-hop compilations. More recently, Clearsky has been recognized by the UN as one of its Messengers of Truth, and he'll be honoured at the top of the Mainstage program on Thursday. As such, he'll help promote the UN's Millennium Development Goals, which include reducing extreme poverty in the world to reducing HIV infection rates.
Conn-Potenga says that, in the large picture, conscious rap thrives as an enormous, worldwide, grassroots phenomenon.
“The community-engagement side of hip-hop has been absolutely flourishing,” he reports. “As we've been doing this work, we've been finding there's thousands of organizations all over North America and the rest of the world that have been using hip-hop in their work... There's so many organizations that are using hip-hop as an outreach tool and as a focus of their work with young people.”
“Other forms of music can impart energy,” Conn-Potenga concludes, “but for imparting actual, specific messages, hip-hop is simply unparalleled.”
Being something of an inaugural world block party, the Global Hip-Hop Mainstage event will no doubt offer plenty of both.