A new rep for rap: Keepers of the Art educates as it entertains

Rap has a bad rep. What started out as a way for young black and brown kids in the Bronx in the 1970s to have a voice and share what was going on in their community has been co-opted and diluted by corporate interests. It began as powerful social message, but is now vilified by being aligned with gang-banging, drugs, guns, and misogyny. The original message has been lost, and as a result the popularization of rap music and hip hop culture has meant a further perpetuation of negative racial stereotypes against black and brown people.

Ismail Al-Amin aims to change that. “Most young people don’t really have a historical perspective on hip hop,” he says. “We have to educate people on what hip hop is and why it was created to give them a historical perspective on how and why things have changed.” When hip hop started to find its way out of the Bronx, then-contemporary society viewed it as a passing fad. But in 40 years it has become a full-fledged lifestyle in addition to being a sound and an aesthetic; it is its own distinctive culture of socio-political iconoclasm. “It had that impact on kids in the late ’70s, ’80s, ’90s – shaping kids’ values, shaping kids’ lifestyles… that’s what the power of the voice did. So we have to [understand] this thing called hip hop and understand its power in how people view themselves, their communities, and the world.”

Al-Amin is the Executive Director of Keepers of the Art, a community-based nonprofit that engages, informs, and entertains urban communities through media education and alternative forms of entertainment. Al-Amin formed the organization in 2006 with his friends Monty Buckner, Brandon Buckner, Brandon Laster, and Dayshaun Cseay. “[Keepers of the Art] formed as a kind of social response. We didn’t feel [Akron] provided enough culturally relevant entertainment outlets for the young urban professionals here in the city,” he explains. “Instead of sitting around complaining about it, we decided to do something about it. We looked at it as an opportunity to fill a void.”

Al-Amin has a social work background but says he is an artist at heart. He studied public health in college and earned his masters in public administration. He has been working with youth for the past 20 years as a behavior counselor, and is also an adjunct professor at Kent State where he teaches the political, social, and economic impact of hip hop. At 43 years old, he is a “lifetime lover” of hip hop, and has seen it evolve from its earliest beginnings.

“I almost looked at it as an obligation,” he says of his work with Keepers of the Art. “Hip hop is something that really shaped my perspective of myself and my world view. It had such a positive impact on me and I know that it has shaped me from the standpoint that it promoted individualism and self-expression. When you’re operating in environments like that, very nurturing environments, that promote expression and individualism, that’s an environment where people grow. The commercialization of hip hop has stunted the growth of urban communities, as well as perpetuated negative stereotypes about urban people, black and brown people.”

In the ’80s and early ’90s, hip hop was played on mainstream terrestrial radio. There was a wide variety of hip hop to choose from – the bohemian hip hop of De La Soul, or the more political hip hop of A Tribe Called Quest or Public Enemy, or the more gangster hip hop of NWA. “It was more balanced [then],” says Al-Amin. “The balance is gone [now]. Everything is pushed towards materialism, violence, and drugs. The variety is gone.”

One of the missions of Keepers of the Art is to bring back that variety and highlight the independent and classic hip hop artists. Their first effort as an organization was a radio program called “Hip Hop Flavor,” a self-produced and self-sustained independent hip hop radio program with a mix of classic hip hop music and relevant social dialogue. It ran on the community-based independent radio station 93.1FM from February 2006 to June 2011, when the radio station changed format. “The radio show very well received in the city,” Al-Amin says. “Radio has become so corporate payola; pay-for-play is how a lot of these songs get heard, so it was refreshing for people to hear independent, underground, and classic hip hop on the radio.”

Education is large component of the work Keepers of the Art, and entertainment is used as a means to that end. “More work like the work we’re doing is important,” says Al-Amin. “As an organization we do a lot of community education around hip hop with youth. We go into classrooms, teach hip hop history and the impact of media, work with the library…” They partner with Akron Public Schools frequently, where they have access to whole student body, but doing strictly educational events has its own challenges. “The challenging thing is getting people to come out for the community-level [events]. We’re never discouraged by turnout because we know that people appreciate what we do from an entertainment standpoint, and every time we do something from the education standpoint there’s always new people there.”

Most people wouldn’t assume that Akron, Ohio is a hotbed for hip hop activism, but their annual Keepers of the Art Hip Hop Showcase, which started in 2007, brings in some of the biggest names in classic hip hop in one place to downtown Akron where up to 6,000 people come out every year. “The concert is to create a more appealing environment for young urban professionals in the city and put Akron on the map for progressive social entertainment,” says Al-Amin. “What our entertainers can’t believe is the fact that Akron is a place that thousands of people come out annually to hear hip hop. Most people would never think that! The artists’ opinions are changing. EPMD said, ‘Yeah man, I talked to KRS-One and he told me how live the crowd was here and I didn’t believe it; now I see!’ Now we have a little buzz. When we’re in our planning stages, hitting people up on Facebook and Twitter, they hit us right back now. Now it’s something people look at as legit.”

The annual concert showcases classic hip hop as well as contemporary artists continuing the tradition of the golden age of hip hop, with education programming mixed in with concert.

Since they started the showcase they’ve brought in hip hop pioneers like Doug E Fresh, Slick Rick, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, Buckshot, Whodini, Rakim, MC Lyte, Brand Nubian, EPMD, DJ Kid Capri, and Masta Ace. “The event is one of those things we use to close the generational and racial gap in the city,” Al-Amin says. “Hip hop has been the one successful social phenomenon that has been able to bridge that racial gap across the world. I can’t think of any other social movement or social phenomenon that has been able to do that, to get everyone together under one banner.”

Al-Amin says that hip hop is “5-10 years young,” meaning it is, relatively speaking, such a new music genre, lifestyle, and cultural phenomenon that it still has a lot of growing up to do. In other parts of the world, people use hip hop as a political tool. Palestinians connect with the plight of African Americans in the United States through hip hop and relate it to their own communities and their own experiences, as do African populations in France and Africa. In these places, hip hop is used as a voice for oppressed populations. “Here, in this country, it’s not that way [anymore],” Al- Amin says. “Since hip hop was bought up by major labels, the content went south.” The annual concert showcases the international scope that hip hop has, and that “it’s not this commercialized, co-opted commodity everywhere else as it has become here.”

This year the concert will be on September 6 at the Lock3Live Park in downtown Akron. They’ll have Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Das EFX, and the Jungle Brothers. They’ll also feature Gabriel Asheru Benn, a hip hop artiist, educator, youth advocate, and voice actor on The Boondocks, as well as founder of the Hip Hop Educational Literacy Program. They have invited 250 people from the Akron, Cleveland, and Canton areas to come out and learn more about the pedagogic relevancy of hip hop in the classroom.

The toughest part of orchestrating this showcase, according to Al-Amin, was really convincing the city to embrace hip hop. Keepers had to do a presentation on the history of hip hop for the city council president and mayor, assuring them that this wasn’t going to be the kind of hip hop event that has “drama.” They presented themselves well and the city has been a partner in the event for seven years now. The event is a non-alcoholic, family-friendly event. “It closes generation gap. People bring their kids because they want to expose them to a different expression of this hip hop thing that the kids don’t get.”

Keepers of the Art will also launch one of their new programs this year, the Muse Media Education Film Festival, August 14-16 in partnership with Akron Film+Pixel. “It’s a program designed to examine the impact that mass media has on society, what stories the media tells us about race, politics, gender, and commercialization,” Al-Amin explains. The festival will focus on documentaries, filmmakers, and media education. “It’s really just to promote more critical analysis of the media.”

The festival will show films like The Furious Force of Rhymes, a documentary that demonstrates how hip hop is used as a serious political voice around the world but in America it has been watered down, commercialized, and stripped of its meaning. Asheru, who’s latest album Sleepless in Soweto was born out of his travels between D.C. and South Africa and emphasizes the global connection people have because of hip hop, will be at this event as well, and will close with a concert on Saturday night. Al-Amin sees this as the next level of entertainment-meets-education-and-advocacy for Keepers of the Art. “Now people look at our brand and think of our brand synonymously with something progressive, something alternative, something thought-provoking.”

Keepers of the Art receive annual funding from the Knight Foundation and other community foundations. One of their goals is to take the film festival on the road – to perfect it in Akron and do it annually first, then expand it to other cities where the Knight Foundation has a strong presence. “The Knight Foundation’s whole mission is to engage and inform communities, and that’s exactly what our festival is doing through media education. Our goal is to take this on the road and make this something that we do every day.”