Baker-Yeboah dismissed his class, called "Community Through Communication," opened the door, and told the rowdy singers, "You're sounding good out here, y'all" as he walked by. They ignored him. They weren't interested in Baker-Yeboah's feedback, and furthermore, they were just trying to sneak into the room to watch Rap City, a music video program that features the big & bad, tough & sexy stars who rap about how they stand tall and live large.
This scene, which took place at the Garfield Teen Life Center at 23rd Avenue and East Jefferson Street next to Garfield High School, is a case study in hiphop's ethically loaded tug-of-war.
Two days a week, Baker-Yeboah conducts a class where students come to write and perform lyrics, and give each other feedback and support. Baker-Yeboah is a tall, black 22-year-old O'Dea High School graduate who is soft-spoken and has a friendly face, but also a commanding, self-confident presence. He's an emcee, and belonged to Seattle hiphop collective Basement Nation before they disbanded last year. The class is made possible by Arts Corps, an independent, nonprofit arts education program that sponsors dozens of after-school programs around Seattle. This term, 10 kids found out about Baker-Yeboah's class through school and community centers, and enrolled.
In the class, Baker-Yeboah leads writing workshops and also discussions about rap music and the larger issue of "hiphop culture," and he talks about the history of hiphop and hiphop rhetoric. In the class I attended, it was generally agreed, with Baker-Yeboah's guidance, that hiphop is a "movement," that it's all about justice, positivity, and love; and also, that it's not about sex, money, and thuggery--the popular conception of rap music. In fact, the class is collaborating with the video production class on a music video that will make fun of thugged-out, big & bad Rap City-type videos. It's a principal point of the class to dispel the myth about the importance of that kind of rap.
It's very a high-minded, morally erect rap class, and in turn, it's highly problematic. For one, it's not very fun; it feels like class, not like rap. Also, it mandates that students inform their creativity with politics and/or morality, which gets dangerously close to propaganda, where the "message" is ultimately the most important aspect of the art. Even more problematic, the class seems to dictate what that message should be.
In the multiracial class I attended, four kids were on hand: one junior and two seniors from Garfield High School, and one high-school dropout--three guys and one girl. First the students took turns standing and delivering a rap (or spoken word piece). All the raps had the same theme: Society has got them up against the wall, but through their self-knowledge, they are fortified against its oppressive forces. Heavy.
Baker-Yeboah offered technical input--telling one student to bend his knees to increase the flow of energy--but he was more committed to offering guidance on what to rap about. One student, he said, seemed to be "passing on wisdom," and noted that the spoken word has been the source of wisdom through the ages. Baker-Yeboah speculated that another student wanted to "transcend" physical boundaries in his rap, which is the highest purpose of words. The girl expressed an access to God in her spoken word piece, and Baker-Yeboah cheered the ambition.
The room is filled to the brim with stiff righteousness, but is surprisingly mellow. Then class gets out, and the Rap City crowd rushes in.
Rap City is on BET Monday through Friday from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. It features mainstream rappers like DMX, Master P, Bubba Sparxxx, and Ludacris. For the most part the music and videos are not great, but they are appealing in their brash and sometimes outrageous confidence.
I talked to a group of about 10 black teenagers (male and female, including a couple of preteens) about Rap City. I asked what kinds of "messages" the program gives, and they all looked puzzled. I remarked that people say Rap City "gives bad messages," and they all rolled their eyes and erupted into a grand, "No, it doesn't." They told me that when enjoying rap they listen for the beat and the words. Taking a cue from Baker-Yeboah's "Community Through Communication" mantra, I pressed further and asked about the words. What topics do they like to hear about? Again, the kids seemed uncertain. They didn't know what I was getting at. "It's just music," one girl offered. "It's about how the rapper flows on the beat, and how they look." Another girl interrupted, laughing: "He asked about the music, you're talking about how they look." By equating looks and music, though, the first girl offers an insight to why Baker-Yeboah is misguided in his battle: Trying to take down the evils of Rap City hiphop with high morals misses the value of pop art. It is like Bible-thumping at a carnival.
But Baker-Yeboah soldiers on. "The essential difference," he later said to me over the phone, "is between people that are given the concept that hiphop is a consumer product and the other kids in [the "Community Through Communication" class], who have the concept of hiphop as a tool they can use to strengthen themselves. A lot of kids are fundamentally weakened. All they've been fed is those [Rap City] images. There's a whole world they haven't been given the opportunity to experience."
Luckily, the Garfield Teen Life Center's program director, Mazvita Maraire, isn't as righteous. In fact, he isn't freaked out about it either way. "We definitely deter [the teens] from just coming in and watching the videos," he says. "Watching Rap City is not part of the Teen Life Center's program," he adds with a shrug in his voice, "but it happens."