‘Hip hop activism against youth behind bars’ off to a slow start


News Analysis

By Dwight Hobbes

Contributing Writer


“Local Hip-Hop community speaks out against youth and the prison system at Boneshaker Books,” is how the press release read for “Hip-Hop Activism Against    Youth Behind Bars.”  Sponsored Nov. 15 by Twin Cities Save the Kids and Center for Excellence in Urban Teaching at Hamline University, moderated by Anthony J. Nocella II of Save the Kids, the informal presentation showcased three speakers: spoken word poet Antonio Rice, poet Chaun Webster, and author Daniel White Hodge, Ph.D. (Heaven Has a Ghetto: The Missiological Gospel & Theology of Tupac Amaru Shakur and The Soul of Hip Hop: Rimbs, Timbs, & a Cultural Theology).

Through its juvenile courts and adult criminal justice system, America incarcerates more of its youth than any other country and, of course, a disproportionate number of those are Black. Reached by email before the event, Daniel White Hodge noted, “The majority of the population of youth incarcerated in the U.S. are youth of color. Youth in this country, once they get involved in the U.S. criminal justice system, are caught in a revolving door, technically referred to as recidivism.

“The rate of recidivism is extremely high,” Hodge continued, “which notes two things. The community is not helping these kids, and the system is not helping these kids. We need to change the criminal justice system and provide more community-based programs.”

Asked specifically what aspects of youth and the prison system would be addressed, he responded, “Unfortunately, in post-9/11 America, youth and the prison system are almost synonymous. To be more specific, urban youth and the prison system. Thus, this will be a conversation of this seemingly revolving door and the sticky web it seems many of our teens find themselves in.

“It simply cannot be all the person’s ‘fault’ when you have alarming rates of, particularly, Black youth being incarcerated these days; it is not merely evidence that ‘this group’ or ‘that group’ is more dangerous and prone to prison,” Hodge said. “While those areas do have a part, it is more a discussion into the systems, social structures, and societal mores which create these spaces and contexts in which many youth find themselves connected to prison and the industrial commodification it has, almost secretly, become. That is at the heart of what I hope to engage in.”

What did Hodge expect this forum to accomplish? “To bring awareness to an issue that has gone far too long overlooked and to begin the discussion towards solutions of this plague in many urban post-industrial communities.”

Antonio Rice answered the email inquiry, “To give information to people that they might not already be aware of. Enlighten somebody to do something they might not have done or thought to do before.” Chaun Webster did not respond.

The concept of hip hop being utilized to do something about the runaway rate at which youth of color are locked up is noteworthy in that one thing it hopefully could do is reach the genre’s teen audience with advice they can understand in their own language to adopt a lifestyle steering well clear of criminal circumstance. That is, at any rate, one consideration.

To the point, however else hip hop may be of aid in addressing the overall dilemma, the forum at Boneshaker Books in South Minneapolis never quite got around to it. The presenters spoke from 6 pm until 7:30 before Nocella opened the evening to comments from and dialogue with the audience, which promptly concerned itself with whether the Occupy Wall Street movement legitimately addresses issues faced by women and people of color.

Antonio Rice spoke about society’s over-dependence on media for misinformation and on “government and court systems to define who we are.”

Chaun Webster decried the lack of opportunity for poets to publish in a corporate industry he says is run by “five obscenely rich White men [who] control 80 percent of not just print media. This is a wide range of media.”

Daniel White Hodge, who not along ago moved to the Twin Cities from Los Angeles, recounted his experiences with overzealous law enforcement. “We feared the cops more than we did other gangs.”

He also detailed an incident in which police at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport went far out of their way to accuse him of weapons charges. As a result, Hodge and his attorney are now embroiled in defending him against prosecution that he says is more persecution than anything else.

The audience of a dozen attendees didn’t object to the announced topic not being addressed and were attentive to what Rice, Webster and Hodge had to say. Ironically, while all three men are Black, there were two Native Americans, one young African American woman who left early, and nine White people present.

“That was,” Hodge said by email the next day, “a concern [that] has to do with four major areas.” Those areas are: a failure to adequately get word out to Black communities, particularly churches, community centers and schools; what he calls “good old-fashioned nihilism from many Black youth [who] see events like this as nerdy” and too “White”; lack of transportation and a conflict with dinner schedules; and the consideration that “Black college students typically work one to three jobs on top of [attending classes].”


Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403. 

Photo above: (l-r) Daniel White Hodge, Chaun Webster and Antonio Rice at Boneshaker Books