The first step toward breaking racial barriers was taken when Barack Obama was elected president, Benjamin Chavis, Jr. told students at Boston University’s Howard Thurman Center Tuesday.
Chavis, a former head of the NAACP and co-founder of the National Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, spoke as part of BU’s African-American studies program’s lecture series for Black History Month.
Change is an ongoing process and students must continue to speak out against the segregation and discrimination that still exists, Chavis said.
‘We send a brother to the White House, then a brother in Oakland, California on a subway gets shot. That sort of thing still happens,’ Chavis said. ‘We still have a long way to go. But I’m an optimist. I think we’re making progress.
Chavis spoke about his work with hip-hop artists including T.I., Jim Jones, DMX, Young Jeezy and others, using hip-hop music to encourage youth activism.
In 1995, Chavis organized the Million Man March in Washington D.C. with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. The march was aimed at encouraging black men to vote. After gaining the support of famous hip-hop artists, the march received massive global publicity. Six years later, Chavis and Simmons created the first National Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, the largest national coalition of hip-hop artists, youth activists and hip-hop leaders, Chavis said.
Chavis said he sees a ‘direct continuity’ between what inspired young people in the civil rights movement and what moves them to action today in the hip-hop community. Hip-hop is a ‘global cultural phenomenon,’ he said.
Co-Captain of BU’s XCeption Step Team Jonathan Priester said rappers had a real impact on the presidential election.
‘I think rapper Will.i.am. from the Black Eyed Peas is one major example of a hip-hop artist’s influence. He put together the ‘Yes I Can’ videos on the Internet to encourage young people to vote,’ Priester, a College of Communication junior, said.
Chavis said that he works with many hip-hop artists who set a good example for the young people that listen to them.
‘Most people don’t know this, but for eight years, Eminem has bought coats for thousands of people in Detroit,’ he said. ‘He wanted it to be anonymous. He does it because he cares about the hood where he’s from.’
A Recording Industry Association of America study showed that the hip-hop artists give back to their communities more than artists of any other music genre, Chavis said.
College of Communication freshman Jessica DeJean said she liked how Chavis talked about hip-hop artists’ influence on voter turnout in the recent presidential race.
‘I love how it all relates ‘-‘- music, politics and youth activism,’ DeJean said. ‘It’s very inspiring.’
‘The foundation that he started with Simmons to encourage hip-hop artists to have better images really impressed me,’ College of Arts and Sciences junior Anya Bazzell said. ‘I didn’t know that artists were that philanthropic and cared about how they affected young people.’
Chavis said students should remain optimistic and continue furthering the positive change that his organization and the hip-hop artists he works with have begun.
‘The major thing I want people to do is to be encouraged to continue to speak out for further social change,’ Chavis told the Daily Free Press. ‘With Obama winning the election, everybody is celebrating the victory, but the pessimism of the economy sets in, and I think it’s important that students keep optimistic.’