Universal Zulu Nation brings hip hop politics to Cities

Afrika Bambaataa (center), founder of Universal Zulu Nation, on a recent visit to the Twin Cities, with Omega Zulu President Charlie “Step Child” Thorstad (l) and Omega Zulu Secretary Annie “AnnieUP” Aldag

By Sarah Janel Jackson
Contributing Writer

In recent years the Twin Cities have become nationally recognized as a haven for independent hip hop music and urban cultural education. This recognition is due in no small part to the success of the Rhymesayers record label that has produced such successes as Atmosphere and Toki Wright.

The Twin Cities also boast annual events like B-Girl B, a month-long celebration of women in hip hop held at Intermedia Arts, and the Groundbreaker Battle, a free celebration of hip hop dance held at the Cowles Center for Dance & Performing Arts.

Add to this mix youth organizations like Juxtaposition Arts in North Minneapolis that encourage kids to use urban art forms to empower themselves and their community, and it should come as no surprise that in the last five years Universal Zulu Nation has become a growing presence in the Twin Cities.

Also known as UZN or just “Zulu” by its members, Universal Zulu Nation is especially popular with those who identify with the social and political roots of hip hop culture. Founded in 1973 by Afrika Bambaataa as a hip hop-inspired solution to gang violence in the Bronx, New York, UZN has grown into a multiracial, international movement that embraces the experiences of youth and uses the cultural forms they create to strengthen urban communities.

In 2008, Matthew “Task Rock” Eckhard, a Twin Cities DJ and aerosol artist, brought Lonny “Phase 2” Wood — a progenitor of graffiti writing and a leader in Universal Zulu Nation — to the Twin Cities to survey the status of the hip hop community here. A year later, in November 2009, the Twin Cities Omega Zulu chapter received its official charter from UZN’s governing council in Harlem, New York and has been growing ever since.

According to Jason “J-Sun” Noer, an acclaimed Twin Cities breakdancer and the vice president of the Twin Cities Omega Zulu chapter of Universal Zulu Nation, UZN members believe that those involved in hip hop culture have a social and political responsibility to respect and preserve the experiences and expressive forms of the largely urban, poor, African American and Latino communities from which hip hop arose.

Since the mainstreaming of hip hop began in the early 1980s, many Gen-Xers have become at least somewhat familiar with the art forms that make up four of the five elements of hip hop culture — breakdancing (also known as b-boying and b-girling), writing (also known as graffiti writing, street art or aerosol art), MCing (also known as rapping), and DJing.

However, Noer and Eckhard point out that hip hop’s fifth element, knowledge, is unfamiliar to many Americans of all generations.

Noer notes that the marginalization of the young, largely poor, Black and Brown voices that helped birth hip hop results in a lack of awareness by most Americans about hip hop culture’s encouragement of the pursuit of knowledge and emphasis on the validity of knowledge that comes from those communities in particular. UZN members worry that the organization is misunderstood by mainstream culture, which mistakenly identifies it as a religion or gang or dismisses it because of negative perceptions of commercialized rap music.

The official website of Universal Zulu Nation explains, “From the 1980s on, the Rap industry and media have helped to make the terms ‘Hip-Hop’ and ‘Rap’ synonymous, leaving out the other elements included in the culture. In light of this enormous oversight, the Zulu Nation promotes the ‘5th element’ of Hip-Hop, which is KNOWLEDGE, and actively tries to educate the masses about the history and foundational elements of true Hip-Hop culture.”

In this spirit, Omega Zulu members volunteer with youth programs in the Twin Cities, including the YMCA Beacons program, to teach K-8th-graders not only the expressive art forms that make up hip hop culture, but also the history of these forms and how they can be used to promote positive individual and community outcomes.

UZN also organizes community events like “Get the Funk Down” held at the University of Minnesota St. Paul Student Center in April of 2011, which brought together youth from across the Twin Cities (as well as from several other Midwestern states) for dance battles, exhibitions, and education from hip hop elders.

Omega Zulu members recently participated in “Hip-Hop Against Homophobia” held at Patrick’s Cabaret and were active in organizing the first youth talent show at A-List Youth Center in Brooklyn Park. Twin Cities Omega Zulu holds regular sessions open to the public that provide education about the various elements of hip hop from accomplished members of the Twin Cities hip hop community; these sessions can be viewed online at www.meetup.com/TCHipHop/.

Charlie “Step Child” Thorstad, president of Twin Cities Omega Zulu, notes that while artists active in the various expressive elements of hip hop make up the core of UZN members, the organization also welcomes and needs individuals in all professions and pursuits in order to reach as many people as possible. Thus, everyone from teachers to lawyers and construction workers to chefs are welcome to get involved with UZN so long as they are committed to empowering youth and educating their community about the positive cultural forms that arise from urban America.

For more information on UZN or to get involved, contact Annie “Annie-UP” Aldag, Twin Cities Omega Zulu program director and secretary, at omegazulutc@gmail.com. For more information on the political and social history of hip hop, this writer recommends Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang.

Sarah Janel Jackson received her Ph.D. from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. She welcomes reader responses to jackson.sarahj@gmail.com.