WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com)–From music to fashion to voter registration, hip hop has become the major means for influencing youth worldwide. Community organizers now want to use the music culture to guide youth to better behavior.

“It makes perfect sense that hip hop serve as a contextual backdrop to encourage healthy lifestyles and academic excellence among America’s youth, especially when we consider that traditional means have not been successful,” said Dr. Thandi Hicks-Harper, president and CEO of the Youth Popular Culture Institute (YPCI).

Her group sponsored an Oct. 31- Nov. 3 “Turning the Tables of Hip Hop” conference to address ways hip hop culture can be used to motivate youth to make better health and education decisions, involve them in developing a public policy agenda, increase “hip hop cultural competence” among the professionals who work with them and create an open dialogue among youth and adults through understanding youth popular culture.


Hip hop artist, political activist and author Sister Souljah told a Nov. 2 luncheon audience to get up and do something for themselves. She also encouraged the audience to read and learn more about their history.

“People who don’t read have stupid conversations. They don’t know what’s going on in the world. What you’re reading tells the world who you are and what you’re doing.”

She discouraged the audience from drug use. “Most of the people I know who smoke weed have a great plan of what they’ll do–tomorrow. People who smoke weed have high aspirations but are robbed of the energy to accomplish it,” she said.

On the influence of hip hop and in the wake of the violent murder of hip hop pioneer Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell, she explained that while studying abroad in Spain, “I learned that whatever the hottest record or movie was shaped the image of Black people worldwide. Eighteen and 20-year-old rappers were controlling the image of Black people. The image of African women as being a freak is so high that people responded to me like that, as if I was one.”

Yet, with all the power and influence that hip hop has, Sister Souljah is not so sure it can be the force for change the conference hopes it can be.

“Hip hop is a powerful platform but hip hop can only take us as far as the individuals with- in it are willing to go. So far, I believe the overwhelming majority of hip hop artists have proven that their goals are selfish and primarily disconnected from the collective good of our people,” she said.

What started as a fun, creative way for Black youth to entertain themselves has now become big business.

“When you mix business with culture, culture disappears and the business takes over. It becomes more about the business and less about the culture,” she said.

So what can be done to turn the tables of hip hop?

“It’s up to people to reject the direction hip hop is moving in and force a change. Without movement there is no change,” she said.

The YPCI is trying to be that movement that creates a change. Nearly 300 youth and adults traveled from around the country to participate in their event. They came for workshops on issues such as “Spirituality in Hip Hop Culture,” “Eating 2 Much and Moving 2 Little” and “Graffiti Art: A Positive Hands- On Experience.”

Shawn Allen of Wilmington, Del., directs two programs for adjudicated youth. He brought one of his clients, Kalief Ringold, with him to participate in the summit.

“The summit was good but we need to deal with the reality of the lifestyle these children are facing. They have welfare mothers strung out on crack. They have interpersonal issues that prevent them from dealing with some of the issues presented here,” Mr. Allen told The Final Call.

For Mr. Ringold, it was a positive experience. “I really liked the way things were portrayed, especially the workshops and the information. I found out that you can’t learn how to be a man from what you see on television.”

Highlights of the weekend event included a dinner awards banquet featuring BET’s Teen Summit Host Jay Cooper.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was a co-sponsor of the conference and is very interested in its success. “The tobacco and alcohol industry are definitely in tune with youth and it is incumbent on those of us concerned about their health and well being to provide alternative models,” said Robert Robinson, associate director of Program Development for the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health.

“The summit is critically important to the CDC because it will provide us with lessons and practices that we can follow that will be attractive and relevant to youth. We have to do more than decry bad habits. We must compete with the forces that are cultivating the behaviors leading to disease and death,” he said.