In the decimated South Bronx of the late 1960s and early '70s, a bloody war raged between a dozen youth gangs, among them the fearsome Black Spades. One sharp and very young Spade from Bronx River, already a natural leader, made a name for himself by crossing turf lines to recruit and forge alliances with other gangs, swelling the ranks and reach—and soon getting himself promoted to warlord of his set. After the historic 1971 gang truce, he founded the peaceful Bronx River Organization (later just the Organization) as an alternative to gang life, and threw block parties, spinning Joe Cuba, James Brown, and the Monkees (his other Spades title "Master of Records" applied here as well) for the massing crowds. In high school, he entered a UNICEF essay-writing contest, winning the prize of a trip to Africa, touring the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Guinea-Bissau. When he came home—inspired by the sight of black people determining their own destiny, and revisiting a childhood dream he'd had since watching the 1964 epic Zulu—he recast the Organization as the Universal Zulu Nation.
This man, their founder, was of course known as Afrika Bambaataa—the godfather of hiphop culture. Having literally turned thousands of gang members into a peaceful unified tribe, squashing black/brown tensions, Bambaataa decreed that hiphop's true values were "peace, love, unity, and having fun"—and that hiphop culture comprised four elements: b-boying, MCing, DJing, and graffiti writing.
"He's just so genuinely humble and down-to-earth," Seattle native Daniel "King Khazm" Kogita says of the Universal Zulu Nation's hiphop-pioneer founder. "Whenever I've had the chance to talk with Brother Bambaataa, we never talk about hiphop—just life: health, spirituality, herbology even. He tours all over the world constantly, he's a legend with an incredible Hollywood-worthy story, and he's still so underground—while we know about all the Clear Channel–supported stars, he's kind of taken for granted in this culture."
I met Kogita at Franklin High School in AP art class when we were both juniors—right away, his illustrations blew me away with their detail and power. I was amazed at how he drew, too—he gripped pencils and pens between the webs of both hands to draw; a childhood car accident left him in a wheelchair, his hands not fully functional, but that couldn't stop him from being one of the illest artists in school. We quickly found that we shared a formidable obsession with collecting comics, and for years, he was one of my closest friends.
A couple years and a lifetime later, after finding a new obsession in local hiphop, I found that he, along with a small collective of friends, had started the MADK (Madness After Dark Krew) collective, and in a house across the street, maintained a studio called the MadLab. My boy Danny was now called Khazm (a name I remembered from his own homemade comics)—a prolific graf writer, MC, and producer. "Around then, I'd been attending different b-boy events around the country," Khazm tells me. "Freestyle Session, Miami's Pro-Am, the Zulu Anniversary in NYC—I noticed that wherever it was, there was a strong Zulu presence, and I was fascinated with them. I knew the Zulu Nation was very significant to hiphop, but didn't really know the context," he says. "Through doing the knowledge, hearing stories from elders, I came to know about their role in shaping the culture—how they spearheaded the social-consciousness aspect. I was really right in line with all of that, and I got the blessing from Afrika Bambaataa to start a Seattle chapter. It felt like a natural continuation of what MADK had been doing."
Now crowned with the Zulu honorific of King, Khazm and the Akhis (brothers) and Malikas (queens) of 206 Zulu put in much work spreading the gospel of, and access to, the first four elements of hiphop culture as outlined by Bambaataa—but especially focusing on the all-important fifth element Bambaataa added later: knowledge. 206 Zulu has partnered with a lengthy list of nonprofits and organizations throughout the city in its mission, maintaining a home base in Seattle's historic Washington Hall for the last three years, where it's one of the three anchor partners (along with Hidmo and Voices Rising). They helped get an elevator installed in the 115-year-old hall and are soon starting phase three of its redevelopment: building classrooms and a multimedia studio. As in the MADK days, 206 Zulu also releases music and holds down the weekly Zulu Radio show on Bellevue College's KBCS.
"I really started all this primarily to create space for my art, and for other people in the community, and to foster unity," Khazm explains. "Since then, we've been blessed to have built a rapport with the city council and city hall. [In 2006, King Khazm won the Mayor's Award for Excellence in Hip Hop.] We got the month of November recognized in Seattle—and the city of Bremerton—as Hip Hop History Month. We do workshops in juvenile detention facilities and schools, engaging youth about what hiphop truly is—that it has transformative properties that enable us to pursue our aspirations, to have a sense of identity." Just the sort of thing we've seen that can save lives and whole neighborhoods.