Soundtrack for a revolution

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In the late 1970s a new expression of rebellion emerged from the poor areas of New York City — hip-hop. From rapping to break dancing, from language to graffiti — hip-hop gave rise to a whole new culture. Especially for the Black community it was a way to expose realities of life in the ghetto and buck the status quo.

In its beginning hip-hop had the ability to unite poor people of all races and nationalities and find commonality in their poverty. So, as with jazz, blues, and R&B in earlier times, hip-hop was co-opted and turned into a moneymaking industry. This meant being marketed to those with money – young middle-class white guys. Like everything produced purely for profit, it became the exact opposite – the big labels only promote artists that reinforce stereotypes that maintain divisions: between Whites and Blacks, Blacks and Latin@s and Asians, males and females, heteros and queers.

But there is still hip-hop with a conscience! It may take some digging, but you will be rewarded with a form of music that is poetic, optimistic and invigorating. If you’re turned off by displays of sexism, opulence and homophobia in corporate rap, the following artists are a few of the bursting activist-artists that will not insult you.

The Coup,

from Oakland, Calif., is an African-American duo, and the best I’ve heard in twenty years. I might be biased because they are openly Marxist (“pro-people-control of the cash and corporations”) and revolutionary (“you can’t change shit if you ridin’ the fence”) — and stress those ideas with brilliant rhymes (“we’re the have-nots, but we’re also the go-and-gets, and not just talkin’ ’bout the Lex with the chrome kits”).

They are also full-time activists. Front man and writer Boots Riley has been a community organizer since he was a teenager in Oakland’s public schools. He has served on the board of the Progressive Labor Party, was president of the Youth International Committee Against Racism and helped build California’s Anti-Racist Farm Workers’ Union.

The spinner, DJ Pam the Funkstress, is a crucial piece of the Coup, with her diverse taste in music. She was first on board for the founding of Bay Area Sistah Sound (B.A.S.S.) as a call for sisterhood in a male-dominated club scene.

Their politics have developed over the years, so I recommend any of their albums.


is from and reflects the multi-culturalism and internationalism of Los Angeles. White, Black, Latino and Asian come together in a collision of hip-hop and salsa, samba and funk. It politically excites me to hear salsa with English rapping switch over to Spanish ballad and back to rap. This is the integration major media tells you is impossible. The group also fuses around a message of revolution. Ozomatli formed to play at an L.A.-area labor protest in 1995 and has been performing ever since — at community events, protests and even in elementary schools. They’ve gained fame, so it won’t be hard to find them online or in stores. The newest album, Don’t Mess With the Dragon, is musically solid, but with bigger contracts came a relaxing of their more leftist messages — so look for their older material.

Embrace the Chaos

has a beautiful track, “Dos Cosas Ciertas,” that updates a famous Mark Twain quote about death and taxes. The constants Ozomatli recognize are death and change.

Street Signs

has furiously optimistic “Saturday Night,” which is when “the revolution will begin.” They are even more powerful in concert, so take advantage if you get the opportunity. For the U.S. and Europe tour info check

The Conscious Daughters (TCD),

a female duo also from Oakland, have a new album on the Guerilla Funk label called The Nutcracker Suite. They started as Gangsta-style, but this album is more politically focused thanks to Marxist producer-rapper, Paris. TCD rhyme about domestic violence, single motherhood, violence in Black America and the U.S.’s illegal wars and occupations. “Damn it feels good to be a female,” they declare, because of the power women wield, so “apply yourself or deny yourself.” This album bumps like old school, but is fresh with women’s street knowledge and empowerment. A tour is coming, so check for updates.

That’s all there’s space for, couldn’t even get to dead prez, Blue Scholars, Brother Ali, Immortal Technique, Ms. Dynamite, Truth Universal…

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