This post was originally published on Sacramento Observer

By Kayla Wood-Henderson 

Hip-hop lovers, nonprofits, eager learners and artists gathered on July 16 at the Guild Theater for a hip-hop and civil rights symposium that combined activism and music to spotlight gun violence.

Hosted by Organized Voices, the event featured several local nonprofits, a comedian, community members, performers and headliners DJ Yella, a onetime member of N.W.A., DJ Cli-N-Tel and Lonzo from World Class Wreckin Cru.

The event provided an opportunity to return to the core elements of hip-hop: community, storytelling and activism.

Sacramento has seen several incidents of gun violence in the past year.

Organizers Jordan McGowan from the Neighbor Program, Henry Ortiz from All of Us or None, and criminal defense attorney Keith Staten spoke on the first panel to address gun violence in Sacramento. All three have witnessed the toll it has taken on the community — particularly children and families.

Staten spoke to the importance of early education so children do not have to navigate situations by themselves or seek advice from the wrong people. This was echoed by DJ Yella in the second part of the panel.

“A lot of problems with the neighborhood is a single parent: just a father, just a mother,” DJ Yella said. “You don’t have – especially the boys – you don’t have anybody to talk to.”

McGowan said the community needs basic needs met first. “People are literally starving, dog,” he said. “And that’s not the people’s fault.”

Jennifer Redmond, a mother of three children who grew up in Sacramento, spoke of gun violence’s effect on her family. On Sept. 25, 2020, Redmond’s daughter, Sarayah Jade, was at her friend’s apartment in South Natomas when she was shot and killed. The family still does not have answers. With a picture of her daughter pinned to her vest, Redmond urged people to take accountability for their actions and condemned those who chose to look the other way.

“The community has failed my daughter and has forgotten about my daughter. By not coming forward, and remaining silent, you’re just as guilty as the person that murdered my child,” Redmond said.

That sparked an important conversation in the second panel around what it is and isn’t “snitching.” DJ Cli-N-Tel, DJ Yella and Lonzo spoke about what it means to hold your community responsible and whether rap music is hindering, rather than helping, Black communities.

Hip-hop started as a movement for peace, unity and acknowledgement of what communities of color were going through. Journalists and media outlets were not covering police brutality or what was happening in communities such as Compton, where N.W.A. was founded.

“Channel 7 news is not talking about this; Channel 2 is not talking about it; KOIN is not talking about it,” DJ Cli-n-Tel said. “We want to talk about it because we are telling you what is going on in our neighborhoods.”

If we don’t protect ourselves, who is gonna protect us.

Since the ’80s, the meaning of hip-hop arguably has been lost in translation. The original intent was to serve as a vehicle of history and alert others to the atrocities Black communities face.

“We weren’t trying to perpetuate or promote gang violence,” DJ Cli-N-Tel said. “We weren’t trying to push a certain gang agenda. What we were saying was ‘Hey, America!’”

Rap now often centers around violence, drugs and the objectification of women. Mozzy, Sacramento’s biggest rapper and a major influence in the Bay Area music scene and beyond, is a reflection of this era.

The panel collectively asked the crowd a series of rhetorical questions:

“If we don’t protect ourselves, who is gonna protect us?”

“Where did we get this idea that somehow we should not talk to police or we should not tell when there is a crime being committed that impacts our community in a negative way?” 

“What has gang banging ever done for anybody? How has it benefited the community?” 

The questions were met with audible sighs in agreement and grief. Many in the room were affected — directly or indirectly — by gun violence.

Rap and hip-hop are bound to continue to evolve, but music remains at the center of healing. Performers including RaiiN Ali, Lee Henry and 15-year-old rapper Meir Rich offered different styles but a unified message. Lyrics spoke to issues of gun violence, incarceration, passions and self-love.

Elizabeth Kim, founder of Organized Voices, also gave out social justice awards to honor the DJs at Twelves Wax Records — DJ Fooders, DJ Madsticks, DJ ABS, DJ L-Boogie and DJ Gio — for their positive influence on the community through art.

The event ended with a crowd-rocking performance by the headliners, all taking to their feet to cabbage patch, two-step side to side and sing their favorite classics.

“We have to unite, we have to heal , we have to show up to these spaces, we have to learn to grow,” Ortiz said.

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