“Minds are the real-estate of the 21st century.” - Chuck D of Public Enemy
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In this new era of growing war and occupation, economic recession and emerging political polarization, there are growing numbers of people connecting with Hip Hop while simultaneously struggling against poverty, violence and exploitation war and occupation. As a result, Hip Hop culture has been percolating within regions like Latin America and the Middle East actively engaged in struggles for self-determination against the governments and ruling classes of countries like the US, Canada, Britain and France. These battles are against forces behind the loss of millions of innocent lives, destruction of civil infrastructure and evaporation of basic necessities and essential services for poor and working people. Within refugee camps filled with Afghan people, Abu Gharib Prison in Iraq, the concentration camp that is Palestine, the overwhelming poverty of Haiti or Somalia to the decrepit under supplied Native Reservations in Canada as part of an ongoing genocidal project, the struggles of oppressed people fighting for social justice and peace are being taken up by Hip Hop.
After 30 years; beyond profit and hype, Hip Hop culture provides means to connect with young people and introduce antiwar politics / the struggle for peace. This idea and effort is the basis of the Vancouver International Hip Hop Festival Against War and Occupation; A unique series of events that showcases international, local and Indigenous talent. The festival is held in Vancouver, Canada and organizined by anti-war coalition Mobilization Against War & Occupation (MAWO). The festival is free, all ages and continues to have programs representative of the most oppressed and marginalized layers of society. This year’s festival was aptly titled, “HIP HOP VERSUS WAR 5,” being in it’s 5th consecutive year in the Greater Vancouver Area and captivated a crowd of hundreds over two days.
This year was that of the ‘Cuba Libre,’ served in the way of a three person outfit known as – ‘Obsesion,’ direct from Cuba. As one of the islands most successful and outspoken groups Obsesion has garnered the attention and admiration of fans, international media and superstar artists like Afrika Bambaata, Mos Def, and Philadelphia’s, The Roots, who shared a stage at the Apollo Theatre as part of Obsesion’s landmark American tour in 2003. The group is comprised of Mc’s, Magia (Magia Lopez) and El Tipo Este (Alexey Rodriguez, also a producer) as well as their DJ and gifted beat-smith, Isnay Rodriguez. This highly respected trio has become relative pioneers in the Cuban Hip Hop scene, collaborating, supporting and promoting an extensive list of local talent and legitimate narratives of Cuban society. Equally as significant, is Obsesion’s active participation within the ‘Agencia Cubana de Rap’ (government sponsored Cuban Rap Agency developed in 2002 as a way of encouraging and making space for young artists developing their skill and expressing what was important to them) and organizing around women and Afro Cuban rights struggle. Suffice it to say, the first thing Obsesion did when they landed in Vancity Vancouver was grab their warmest jackets, THEN, proceeded to tear through a week long offensive of live shows, collaborations and interviews that culminated in performances on both days of this year’s festival. All fears of language barriers were quickly extinguished as they took to their microphones and turntables and lit up back to back epic sets that had fans and casual pedestrians alike chanting, ‘Otra’ (Spanish for ‘more!’). Obsesion succeeded in bringing a Cuban fighting spirit Sierra Maestra style that ambushed us here in the frozen north with a searing heat!
Alongside Obsesion was a posse of individual artists, groups and antiwar organizers representing global communities, including indigenous nations, women and other oppressed groups. This talented roster represented the four major elements of Hip Hop; DJ’ing, Breakdancing, Graffiti and MC’ing, as well as Beatboxing and exemplified the international pulse of anti war Hip Hop culture.
Day 1 of HIP HOP VERSUS WAR 5 took place in the Whalley area of Surrey, British Columbia (BC); a largely poor and racialized area that faces increasing poverty, gentrification and social program cutbacks. It opened with an indigenous welcoming ceremony by Kat Norris organizer with Indigenous Action Movement, calling for unity, wishing success for the event and highlighting the continuing genocidal attacks on Indigenous peoples in this country, and across the world. Up next was the forum titled, “Hip Hop: Rebel Without a Pause,” which included artists, festival organizers and special guests, Obsesion. Each spoke on different issues, from Indigenous struggle, to women in Hip Hop, to the history of Hip Hop, to international Hip Hop and Hip Hop and the antiwar movement. This opening forum packed the Ukrainian Hall with a crowd that spanned age, ethnic and gender spectrums. Riding on this initial success, the day progressed into a duo of interactive workshops; ‘Bring the Noize,’ an MC’ing workshop run by Joos Justice (of Killawatt Records) and friends, which introduced the method and art of freestyling. The following workshop, ‘Put it Up,’ was facilitated by Savage Rock and Yutang (of world champion Bboy crew, ‘Now or Never,’) and delivered to a rowdy and exuberant audience the philosophy of breakdacing and how-to’s for an assortment of styles and moves. The festival then moved into its evening showcase, ‘Louder than a Bomb,’ –that had all of Surrey bouncing right up until the show’s end, including acts like Ra Focus, Lil’ Precious, Conspirituality and of course Obsesion! The evening ended to see a pack of sweaty smiling participants gearing up for day 2 of the festival.
Day 2 of HIP HOP VERSUS WAR 5 erupted at the Vancouver Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver, under a clear sunny sky and a vibrant Indigenous welcoming ceremony by Kelly White (Indigenous Rights Media Activist and Coast Salish Elder). The all-day program included artists like: Manic 1derful (Stressed Street / Urban Buffalos), Ndidi Cascade & Deanna Teeple, Joose Justice (Killawatt Records), Fully Faded, Estea & Krec, A-slam (Punjabi / Rnb fusion), Discreet Da Chosen One, Speeches Beyond, JB the First Lady, Heatwave (Killawatt Records), Groundbreakers Crew and Skruffmouth (Spoken Word Artist / Advocate and Slam Poet / Champion) The day’s program resonated with radical messages for peace, party grooves and a record crates full of choice samples and spontaneous freestyling sessions.
In the early afternoon the breakdancing floor opened up and captivated droves of people who formed a ring around the dancers that was 500 people deep! The lust for breakdancing battle was thick and people of all skill levels joined in for this top notch annual breakdancing showdown!
Along side the main stage and breakdancing ring was the Malcolm X tent; an assemblage of images, quotes, and information about the man who struggled for human rights and dignity. Within this tent dedicated to the man who once said, "The only way we'll get freedom for ourselves is to identify ourselves with every oppressed people in the world. We are blood brothers to the people of Brazil, Venezuela, Haiti... Cuba - yes Cuba too,” was also a section dedicated to Cuba solidarity. This section gave participants and passersby information about the struggle of this tiny island and its heroic people under the illegal and inhuman US economic blockade
As Obsesion stepped up for their final set, the crowd in front of the Art Gallery steps was packed tight, shoulder to shoulder, with clenched fists pumping in the air! There was Spanish in the rap but in the air was a sentiment of resistance, hope and that international boom bap!
Hundreds had participated over the weekend and many lingered long after the custom graffiti walls were taken down. They collected materials and leaflets for upcoming rallies, forums and pickets. They signed up on email lists and petitions, and they continued conversations and debate that began throughout the performances. In the end many people left commenting that they had experienced a truly original and special collaboration of art and politics, already asking how they could become further involved.
Seminal Hip Hop pioneer, Afrika Bambaataa, once said, “How you act, walk, look and talk is all part of Hip Hop culture. And the music is colorless. Hip Hop music is made from Black, brown, yellow, red and white.” Well, if the annual Hip Hop Festival Against War and Occupation – HIP HOP VERSUS WAR, is any sort of proof, then Hip Hop is also - how we resist - Hip Hop IS antiwar!