Logic, on June 17, was having a long conversation with poetry and wisdom. Debate mixed with hip-hop.
Stereotypically white culture (debate) was fused with stereotypically Black culture (hip-hop)—all in the cause of arguing the merits of a long-proposed citizen review board (CRB), which would oversee investigations of complaints against the Seattle Police Department. The at-times rhyming debate took on extra significance owing to recent claims by the NAACP that SPD is engaged in racial profiling against ethnic minorities. Why use hip-hop to debate public policy?
“Hip-hop is what the kids love, it’s hip-hop that’s connecting with the kids,” says Jen Johnson, executive director of the Seattle Debate Foundation, host of the event at the Langston Hughes Center. But “if they’re talking about social justice issues they [think they’ll] come off as cheesy. Now, they can use their talent and their visions with their abilities to articulate.”
The performers and debaters were teenagers, one a middle-schooler. The seemingly-disconnected forms of argumentation came together like a one-two punch.
“Racial disparities/enforced incarceration/here six times higher than South Africa was casin’,” came the line from “Apartheid II,” a piece performed in the event, and making the pro case for a CRB.
The pro side (Joseph “J-Infinite” Marrin Thomas and Aisha Hall) put research into their rhymes: African-Americans make up 8 percent of Seattle’s population, yet represent 57 percent of those incarcerated on drug charges. Black men are more likely to end up in jail than college. Without a CRB, they argued, there would be no way to hold police accountable to complainants.
Seattle currently has a three-member civilian review board, which reviews 10 percent of all complaints filed against SPD personnel.
The reply from the con side (Geneiva Arunga and Edward Richard) expanded from a spoken-word performance by Angel Mitchell:
“You’re treatin’ the symptoms/and not the disease/eradicate the roots/and not just the leaves.”
“We can’t send a barber to do brain surgery, but if the brain ain’t intact, can the barber cut the hair?” Arunga asked the pro side in a cross examination. During the con side’s “constructive” period, Arunga posed that a civilian review board would only address the symptoms of a more deeply-rooted problem that exists between the Black community and law enforcement.
“If you cut the leaves, the roots only grow stronger,” said Mitchell, a member of the con team.
A solution the con side offered was to support the Northwest African-American Museum (located in the former Coleman School), which could provide a place for artistic activities.
“Loitering, graffiti, vandalism, fighting, assaults—those are all antisocial behaviors,” Arunga said. “We want to implement behavior programs that change lives with the art that they do.”
The con side of the debate riffed off Angel’s lines and argued that public policy is reinforcing stereotypes already present in media portrayals of minorities. They cited the Patriot Act’s extensive profiling powers, and the disparity between drug-sentencing law for predominantly white-used powder cocaine and predominantly Black-used crack cocaine as the larger causes to address.
“The police are a product of what we are the product of,” Arunga said. “The police are victims themselves, for they know not what they do before they have been reeducated [about stereotypes].”
The event also highlighted minority urban artists and their efforts to overcome what they see as a cultural and ethnic boundary between themselves and higher education.
J-Infinite noted divergent forces in traditionally African American popular music.
There are a lot of rappers who “want you to be dumb to be cool, that’s the rap side, the gangster talk and the drug talk,” he said. J-Infinite said “conscious rappers” who stress peace in the African American community.
All in all, the event was designed to give youngsters something to which they could relate.
“The people running this country—Congress, think tanks—all have backgrounds in debate,” said Johnson of the Seattle Debate Foundation. “And the kids drop off because it doesn’t reflect them in the mirror.”
When the group added hip-hop to its debate programs, attendance swelled, and the kids enrolled became increasingly likely to be on the honor roll at school, said Johnson.
The program also put out a five-track compact disc. In “I Wanna Change,” Katsini Simani, a performer at the event, lays down her even-keeled anthem. “Education is a place/where I can be free/a place of self expression for me to be me/without the TV and a corrupted society/surrounding me/I can be all I want to be/I wanna change.”
Hip Hop Debate will be featured at the Georgetown Arts Festival on June 23 at 7 p.m. in the Dope Emporium. See www.seattledebate.org for more info.
By CHRISTOPHER MILLER, Contributing Writer