'Hip hop is a positive culture... Don't believe the hype. Believe the truth.' MK, Invizible Circle Education

Our Media Activist Jay Baker talks to grass roots, community 'edutainment' org 'Invizible Circle Education', about the positivities of hip hop culture and why it has gotten a bad name for itself.

MK has been involved in the music/entertainment industry since he was 17; starting out as a DJ, then promoting his own Hip Hop, soul and funk nights at 21 before beginning a 15-year plus career in the youth and community sector. He continued to be a positive Hip Hop artist, practitioner, and activist, and in 2007 he set up and launched Invizible Circle Education, a grass roots, not for profit youth and community 'edutainment' organisation. "Edutainment" is education through entertainment and the organisation educates on a range of social issues through the elements and culture of Hip Hop.

I interviewed MK on June 17th, 2010 in Leeds about the positive aspects of Hip Hop. The interview was based on the premise that he would address the claims that hip-hop is a damaging, dangerous culture. My first question was, “Can you tell me why do you think it is that hip-hop gets a negative portrayal in the media?”

“Well, hip hop culture was started in the 1970s, in New York,” MK told me. “It was a response to poverty, it was a response to not having things to do, not having the money to go to the clubs uptown, so down in the Bronx they’d throw a free party. So hip-hop’s a lot bigger than what you see on TV at the moment. It’s a culture – it’s acknowledged as a culture – there’s a lot of worldwide cultural groups that use hip-hop.”

Of course, not everyone understands exactly what hip-hop entails. “It’s got a variety of elements,” MK explained. “You’ve got DJing, you’ve got MCing or rapping, you’ve got beatbox, you’ve got graffiti art, and you’ve got B-boying, also known as breakdancing.” However, he adds, “the only element you really see out there is rap -- the MCing, therefore most of the other elements you don’t find out about. I can take you places and show you B-boy culture like it was in the 1970s; lino on the floor in the park, you know: free party, everyone in there, nice family vibe, clean lyrics, positive messages.”

This didn’t sound like the hip-hop I’d seen on TV. MK’s response to that? “It depends where you’re looking. And we’ve got a big problem with music television, that kind of generation, ‘cause that really just shows that one dimension. I align it to football a lot of the time…there’s no disputing that there’s hooligan groups attached to football. If that’s all you saw, day in, day out, night in, night out, and you didn’t see ‘The Beautiful Game,’ you didn’t see the World Cup, you just saw the (fights) on the terraces that stay at the bars after people have watched football – and just ran through it – (you’d be) showing a tiny percentage of football, and then people would have a negative opinion of it. (It’s) the same with hip-hop, I think: the positives aren’t often shown – us, as a community organization, using hip hop, don’t get that much press.” MK offers an example. “When our graffiti artists lobbied for legal wall spaces, we got interviewed on (BBC) Look North. They talked about the positive things in graffiti, visual art, the history of it; the reasons for it.” He adds, “It got cut, and sliced, and it (became) a vandalism article. So, again, they even seek out the negative in it.”

I ask him, “Do you think it’s a case of commercialization – the mainstream has kind of co-opted hip hop?” He tells me that that’s true, because edginess sells. “The mainstream know that a positive track about (the effects of) gun crime doesn’t sell as many units as the slick and slack versions that you get on MTV with the girl dancing in the bikini, the man showing the materialistic lifestyle of, you know, ‘slug the champagne, don’t listen to anything else, forget about the global problems, everything’s good, take your singular kind of outlook on life, get what you can while you’re alive.’ But I don’t think it’s just hip-hop that’s like that, you know, a lot of society is like that – it’s throw-away culture, it’s about getting what you can for yourself.”

I asked him why hip-hop was being demonized, in a sense – why would hip-hop be targeted for such a bad rap, no pun intended. He rubbed his beard as he considered the reasons. “It’s obviously one of the biggest selling musical art forms: it goes into clothing, it goes into selling nearly everything,” he explains, referring to TV commercials utilizing hip-hop culture. “It’s the edginess that they’re seeking. You know: it’s urban, it’s cool – it’s all these things.” “So that’s the hook?” I ask him. “I think that’s the hook. Anything that you create to be edgy and don’t show positives, at any point in time you can get rid of. I don’t want to name names…” He corrects himself, “I do want to name names, but I won’t name names…there are large companies out there who have subsidiaries which control the rap element, and when gangsta rap was huge, it was one of the biggest entertainment organisations in the world having Death Row Records underneath their umbrella because it made money. No consistency with their other ‘brands’; their wholesome (image), but because it made money, it was good for them. Edginess sells, they wanna sell, they wanna make money. It doesn’t serve in their interests to make it too powerful, as well, because…they know all the young people are eating hip-hop and the culture and the style and everything, so if positive people get out there with messages, then, in theory, you can change the world, in a positive way, because you’ve got numbers worldwide who are supporting hip hop in different forms.”

But what was this positivity in hip-hop he was talking about? I asked him for examples. “We do a lot of programmes in communities and in schools and some pan-European programmes looking at how we can use hip-hop to make positive change. And that’s on a range of agendas: from getting young people enthusiastic again about education, to knowing their rights, to weapons and gangs programmes – giving positive alternatives to them; going into that kind of street life. In America it’s massive, and it’s the old hip hop: the ethos of doing it for your community, not for yourself…trying to inspire change and growth in people, and that kind of solidarity and unity. I think it was Senegal where in a recent election, they used hip-hop to try and encourage the young people to vote. So, hip-hop was used essentially to motivate the young people to get involved in politics that were affecting them. And again, it brought about massive change. And that’s on a political level. So hip hop is often a tool of engagement in a lot of places where you can get people really passionate about getting involved in something, and that’s without getting to the point where they’re getting huge scope for voice and expression, where, often, they’re not heard. We can make it a positive hip hop video, equip them with ways of feeling like they’re something again; giving them value. They can learn that, ‘Okay, I have got something in me…I’m not that piece of ---- that people tell me I am.’”

Of course, one of the criticisms of hip-hop is one of it exploiting women, or favouring men. Again, MK compares the culture to football: “Even though there are women’s football leagues, they’re paid less; there’s less of them – (that’s the) male-dominated world we live in. So it’s a product of that. But,” MK adds,”there’s a lot of women involved in hip-hop; a lot of b-girls on a higher level teaching all around the world. A lot of the original crews had a lot of b-girls in them. There are a lot of female MCs and, again, not just the ‘MTV generation’ ones, but some very good MCs from back in the day who were very positive, not just dressing the way the men want them to dress – dressing like they want to dress. And hip-hop was built on ‘battles’ – instead of having beef and battles on the street and weapons, it was about leaving your knives at home, and bringing your skills to the ‘battle,’ so it was about that artistic kind of ‘battle.’ Therefore, men and women (are) equal in that battle, because it’s about your skills and your art forms; it’s not about your gender. So it’s an equal playing field. It’s nice to see a b-girl battling a b-boy; it’s all good. It’s nice to see MCs ‘battling’ each other on the mic, and that can be male ‘versus’ female, male-male – doesn’t really matter. We work with a lot of young girls.” But why don’t we see them flourish through hip-hop? “It’s difficult because, again, the mainstream doesn’t show those role models for them, so it’s difficult to get girls really involved,” he explains. “But we get them involved. We show them that (they) can do these things in the community with us.’ Then they start to realise that there really is a part, and a role for (them) in hip hop that’s beyond just being a dancing girl in the background; it can be bigger than that.”

It seemed like, despite numerous hip-hop movements trying to do good, the mainstream was constantly an obstacle in its way. MK’s own enterprise is an example of that. “Invizible Circle has been going as a record label and network for hip hop artists in the North of England for eight years,” he told me. “Invizible Circle Education has been going about three years. Basically, I’d worked for a lot of different people utilising hip-hop in my work, but then I thought it was time to do it on our terms, and do it so that we don’t get swayed by government agendas – we stay on the agendas that we know are key, and often they’re your basics: they’re unemployment, education, housing, you know, the basic needs of people. So often the gang agenda will just come along, and everyone will just forget that if you didn’t squeeze kids out of school, they’d be better educated, they’d have better life chances – then they wouldn’t drop into the street life; they wouldn’t be in the gangs. That gets forgotten. The whole focus becomes: ‘another young man stabs another young man.’ But that’s not the thing. And that’s one of the reasons we set it up – because we know that’s not the thing. That’s just a product, a consequence, of lack of investment in certain areas; lack of opportunities for certain people.” Specifically, he told me, the Invizible Circle Education programme had been working with these disadvantaged young people “around issues (of) involvement in gangs, and looking at the positives that they feel they get from involvement – it’s often the same as what we all want: we all want to feel the part of a group, and feel like they respect us; we’ve got roles – all of these things. So if a young person’s been thrown out on the rubbish heap at 8 or 9, and told ‘You’re not really gonna make anything so you might as well pick up the brush and start looking how you’re gonna clean places,’ if that’s where they’re at already, and a gang comes along and says, ‘We’re gonna make you second-in-command of these couple of streets and you’re in charge and you’ve gotta recruit another couple of youngsters to do something else,’ suddenly, you know, they’ve got a role, it’s attractive, they’ve got responsibility, they’re looked after – they think – it’s all good for them; they feel like they’re valued again. So it’s about a lot of the institutions and the structures as well. In our hip hop, we try to encourage young people to question those things, and look at how they can access politics and influence and make change on a local level, but also broader than that.”

“Going back to the broader perspective,” I ask him, “if you were asked to sum up hip hop, how would you do it?” “I’d say: Hip-hop’s a culture, it’s global, it’s full of energy, it’s got many lessons for a lot of us, it can have huge impact, and some of the principles in hip hop would be around knowledge, wisdom and understanding, peace, love, equality, unity, and having fun. It’s all of those things that we need to grow on. It’s bigger than just music, it’s bigger than rap – it’s bigger than 50 Cent – it’s bigger than all of those. So it’s gotta be seen as that…if it’s allowed to be shown even in a neutral light. Hip-hop is a positive culture if you look hard enough. It’s good. Give us a chance. Look at hip-hop beyond what you see in the newspapers and in the music videos that are on MTV; look further – look further and you’ll find a whole different culture and a depth of culture and understanding that you’d never thought was possible if you believed the hype.”

He reiterates: “Don’t believe the hype. Believe the truth. Peace.”

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