The News Beat team recently attended the Left Forum at John Jay College in NYC. LF is one of my favorite events of the year because you see and hear it all. It’s like Marxist Disneyland. Books you won’t find on any shelf. (Are there even bookstores anymore?) Free copies of Jacobin Magazine. People everywhere who think Bernie Sanders is too conservative.
I’m telling you this conference is the best.
On Day Two, I walked in late to a standing-room-only session with Chris Hedges, Jill Stein, Medea Benjamin and Margaret Kimberley—an insane gathering of progressive all-stars—and had to head to the back of the auditorium. After getting settled, I made room for another latecomer who stood alongside me for the next hour. Pete Yarrow. You can’t make this shit up. I’m watching this intellectual onslaught of truth being spewed from the central nervous system of the (so-called) Progressive movement in the U.S. next to an unassuming man whose activism has been uninterrupted for more than 50 years.
That’s Left Forum.
The reason I was late to this session is because I got caught up with RodStarz and G1, the brothers from Rebel Diaz, in their session, “Hip-Hop versus Neoliberalism.” Yes. That was an actual topic.
First of all, they were great. Toward the end, stic.man from dead prez and Louis Jefferson came in and weighed in on their presentation with some great perspective of their own. I must have walked away with four or five News Beat topics from their session alone. More than that, I got an insane crash course on the origins of hip-hop and how so many of the expressions of this artform rose from the ashes of neoliberal policies. The topics inspired by this presentation are on the board, and our team is excited to tackle them. Hopefully Rebel Diaz will lend their artistry and insight to a couple of these episodes.
One confession regarding this panel and one observation I want to leave you with. My confession is this: I’m the least-literate member of the News Beat team when it comes to hip-hop. The very fact that I’m writing a blog post referencing Rebel Diaz and dead prez is enough to make our producer Manny Faces stroke out with laughter. I’ll go toe-to-toe with anyone who wants to throw down on topics like neoliberalism, but I couldn’t know less about hip-hop. So there’s that. Now for the observation that’s been on my mind.
As I mentioned above, there are several concepts from Left Forum that we’ll be examining closely, and this presentation was no exception. But I wanted to share a particularly poetic thought from the brothers of Rebel Diaz. As they explored the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx, they touched on the socio-economic circumstances that gave rise to the art. How did an artform that began on the streets—siphoning power from nearby light poles to power turntables in the park—travel between the boroughs until finally becoming the global phenomenon it is today?
The brothers challenged a conventional wisdom that I formed in my suburban bubble when they spoke about the importance of graffiti. Until this moment, I quite honestly hadn’t given much thought to the messages behind graffiti and the ubiquitous tags seen throughout New York City. Like most, I considered it blight and welcomed NYC’s rather successful initiative to clean up the subway cars and buildings. They talked about how subway cars covered in street art moved like rolling steel billboards carrying messages from the Bronx on down to Brooklyn, letting people know, “hey, things are happening here. Talk back at me.” The music wasn’t yet on the radio, no one was file-sharing new tracks, and the genre had yet to hit the clubs (though nightlife would soon be lit up with the sounds of DJs and emcees bringing this new truth to the underground masses.)
Graffiti on trains spreading word throughout the city that the Boogie Down Bronx had something to say. Great art is often born of repression. And great art finds a way to spread and inspire.
I still prefer a graffiti-less environment, but I sure as hell have a new appreciation for the role it played as messenger in this movement. I love learning things that challenge my preconceived ideas of how the world works.
That’s why we invented News Beat.