There is a fire burning in Roxbury, just up Washington Street from Dudley Square. At 2181, just after you see the Payless, you can find Project HIP HOP. Project HIP HOP, the acronym means ‘Highways Into the Past – History, Organizing, and Power’, is a youth-led, peer-to-peer organization that utilizes the Hip Hop aesthetic to generate a balance between entertainment and a response to the needs of the community. A combination of art and activism, which is interpreted through activities including flash mobs, unscripted chants, plays, and rapping interviews back to people verbatim. All of these performances are done on the street: the chosen canvas of all revolutionaries.
Led by the Executive Director, Mariama White-Hammond, this youth-fueled fire is burning down old rules and outdated restraints to make way for the generation of inclusion. White-Hammond has been with PHH since 1994, joining HPP within a year of its origin in 1993. She is driven by the aspiration to create a community where kids grow up with adults in their lives. A community where young people can be a catalyst for addressing social justice issues. A community where light is shed upon shy ignorance and exposes assumptions, such as the assumption that a welfare applicant requires a DNA test to prove paternity. And to turn this awareness into action. White-Hammond gives an ultimate call to arms: “No one person will build the society we need.”
Project HIP HOP’s young people are responsible for the creation and direction of all of their performances, with an emphasis on improv. Like jazz, improvisation is structured freedom. White-Hammond is charming but firm: “there is no excuse for sloppy art.”
Despite being formed here in Massachusetts, the PHH has gone on multiple tours of the South, spreading their message to the states that need it the most. The organization was also invited to take its “rolling classroom” style mission to South Africa by founding member Bill Batson. $30,000 needed to be raised, and over ten months of tedious fundraising (including a generous donation by last month’s feature Cornel West) our visionaries did just that. Coming in two years after South Africa’s 1994 election, the group noted a renaissance in South African culture including Kwaito, a form of hip-hop native to the land, and an abundance of break dancers and graffiti artists. While the culture paid homage to early American hip-hop, here it was new, on the rise, and made personal to South Africa. Leading the culture. Painting the streets. Coming back to the States, inspired and with forward motion, the PHH was able to get with other organizations of mutual interests and lead the formation of “Youth for Action”. By September ’01, the PHH, formerly backed by ACLU, was able to become entirely independent and establish a home base.
So who are the kids? Briana is 16 years old. She has been with PHH since April and speaks with a calm assurance that is beyond her years. She is also charming, and makes time for laughs. Briana’s interest is in culture and writing. She seeks to master her craft to better relay her mantra: “Do not let anyone tell you that where you came from is where you have to stay. Don’t let anyone tell you who you are.” She refuses to settle for less and aims to lead by example. When asked of her peers at PHH she says they are all “Dreamers and Do-ers”, they are future Oscar winners, and they are fully aware of the long road ahead. Briana plans to attend Berklee College of Music to study voice. She hopes that one day, as a mother, she can show her children what it means to live a fulfilling life.
On their most recent tour, Briana and her peers had an unexpected meeting with Reverend Jesse Jackson at a press conference in Mississippi. The conference was in defense of a Chavis Carter, a black, left handed youth, who had allegedly committed suicide in the back of a police car in Jonesboro, Arkansas: with a gun in his right hand which he had somehow got past the search and into the vehicle. This constant growing fire is in need of more members and support.