Seeing hip-hop as a progressive political force

Baltimore Mixtape Project tries to tap into a youth entrepreneur culture

January 18, 2012|Dan Rodricks

There's a language slip in the online description of the Baltimore Mixtape Project, an effort to inspire young people to express their views about the sorry state of juvenile justice through hip-hop. Describing the project's first contest — called "Battle: Bar None" — the organizers refer to the school-to-prison pipeline that sends thousands of troubled kids out of classrooms and into juvie-jails. "Many of Baltimore's youth are intimately failure with these dynamics," the website says. There's poetry in the slip, the haphazardly on-time kind you might hear in hip-hop, so it's OK. Let's go with it.

Besides, "Battle: Bar None" is all about pointing out the failure of what we've been doing for decades — pulling kids out of school and placing them in detention centers or adult prisons and hoping they'll eventually straighten out, get their GEDs and lead successful lives. The recognition of the repeated cycle of this failure is what lies at the root of a steady protest movement against a proposed juvie jail in Baltimore. The idea for the Baltimore Mixtape Project appears to have emerged from that movement — and from the imagination of Lester Spence, who teaches political science at Johns Hopkins University and who has strong feelings about how we treat at-risk kids in this country.

Mr. Spence, author of "Stare In The Darkness: The Limits of Hip-Hop and Black Politics," has been talking for a while about urban entrepreneurs as a revivalist force in cities such as Baltimore. All that talk about the creative class and the future of cities might have overlooked the young people who grew up in them and have untapped talent and skills — not as much for fame and fortune (though that's a possibility) as for political change. Their main language, hip-hop, has gone global, so the possibilities are tremendous. But Mr. Spence is looking at how the music genre can generate local economic and political power.

He and I had a conversation about all this last year, and anyone who attended a forum on the future of Baltimore held at the Bolton Street Synagogue in December 2010 would have heard Mr. Spence thinking about this out loud.

"I created the Baltimore Mixtape Project partially in response to the conversation we had about the role of culture in urban politics in general, and in youth politics specifically," he tells me. "Its goal is to incentivize and disseminate youth-created, local, progressive hip-hop."

He says there are three "conversations" going on here:

"One conversation is about the school-to-prison pipeline and the increasing importance of organizing black communities against it," he says. "Another conversation [is] about the role of culture in political change, and then a third conversation [is] about creating political projects in ways that are both replicable and scalable."

So, for starters, they're having this contest, under the auspices of the Baltimore Mixtape Project organized by Mr. Spence and Jared Ball, associate professor of communication studies at Morgan State University, along with Zeke Berzoff-Cohen, co-founder of The Intersection, a nonprofit dedicated to training Baltimore teens in how to be community organizers; Chris Baron, program manager for the Baltimore Urban Debate League; Lawrence Grandpre, vice-president of research for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a "traveling think tank" of motivated Baltimoreans who keep after local government to improve the quality of life here; and Darius Wilmore, an artist Mr. Spence refers to as "one of hip-hop's first graphic designers."

They set up an account with Kickstarter and have raised the $2,000 first prize for "Battle: Bar None." The prize, says Mr. Spence, goes to "the best rap/spoken word" on juvenile justice.

"Although there are a number of local MCs who create progressive rap, this is the first attempt I am aware of to basically 'grow' politically progressive artists in Baltimore's youth community," Mr. Spence says.

Contestants must be 26 or younger, and the submissions are due by midnight March 12.

"Think Globally, Spit Locally," the contest rules state. "Contestants should relate the topic at hand to their own experiences and to Baltimore. Contestants should make powerful, inspiring points related to the notion of school-to-prison pipeline. Creativity, timing, originality, attitude, skill and overall appeal. The quality of beats and background music will not be considered by judges."

More information at

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His email is

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