I read an article in the New York Times a couple of days ago about government-funded hip-hop programs for inner city youth. (Since the story has a global focus, it got no play in the blogosphere. As usual, but whatever.) The piece details how an arm of the Brazilian government, Culture Points, is now investing in hip-hop programs for youth in the favelas. The organization awards small grants to community groups, hoping “to channel what it sees as the latent creativity of the country’s poor into new forms of expression.” (I am guessing their creativity isn’t so much latent as it is unappreciated, but whatever.) Speaking on the subject of hip-hop culture, Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil had this to say:

These phenomena cannot be regarded negatively, because they encompass huge contingents of the population for whom they are the only connection to the larger world. A government that can’t perceive this won’t have the capacity to formulate policies that are sufficiently inclusive to keep young people from being diverted to criminality or consigned to social isolation.

The fact that many governments are now embracing hip-hop as a social tool to reach at-risk youth is an interesting development. Hip-hop organizations that focus on community development exist all over the world. I have been to slums in Africa and Latin America, and each one that I visited had at least one hip-hop group, usually several. Many had hip-hop schools that taught the four elements, and provided youth with concrete skills such as graphic design. I remember being in Soweto, South Africa (shout out to Black Sunday) for a block party and meeting some of the students of their hip-hop program. One young guy, Siya, was learning how to be a documentary filmmaker. He spent the entire day filming the show on a camcorder. He must have been about 7 years old. 

A lot of these types of programs have a strong independent entrepreneurial thrust, and with good reason. Black Noise in Capetown, for example, sells its own t-shirts, self-produced CDs, and self-published books as sources of income for members of its collective (shout out to Emile). I think these programs are huge assets to their communities, and if governments choose to fund them without any interference, the results can only be good. I couldn’t help but notice this paragraph in the Times story though:

Some important exponents of hip-hop culture in Brazil, like the rapper Manu Brown and the writer Ferréz, remain skeptical and have chosen to keep their distance from the government program. Others are participating but complain of the bureaucracy involved.

Which leads to the question: what if governments want to dictate content? In Vancouver, as part of an elaborate (and expensive) program to combat the graffiti “problem,” the city opened an anti-graffiti office and started to hire graff writers to paint murals. I remember interviewing one of the special anti-graffiti police task force for an article I did, and she mentioned that the mural program would only be useful if the artists painted things that everyone could appreciate, like giant “Welcome to Vancouver” signs, for instance. I’m sure the graff dudes were thrilled by that prospect. 

I’m guessing that in order for any hip-hop outreach program to be even remotely successful, it’s going to have to be run by hip-hop heads—or at least by people who have an understanding of both the art form and the particular issues that face the community as a whole. And let’s be honest, if they want to keep kids on the straight and narrow, they need to provide them with concrete financial opportunities.

While many recognize the link between poverty and criminality, there seems to be an assumption that hip-hop can single-handedly break that link. People are putting too much pressure on hip-hop to cure society’s ills. Hip-hop is an art form, and while it certainly gives youth both joy and hope—it’s not going to help them avoid crime unless it can present viable alternatives for income. Recognizing hip-hop is great and all, but supporting hip-hop heads to find jobs and build lives free of crime and violence is another undertaking entirely. Community-based groups get that, but I’m not convinced that governments do.