Peace, unity, love, having fun, freedom, justice, equality, knowledge, wisdom, understanding … all words and ideas that make up foundations for a wide variety of things, but more specifically, they are the ideologies that are the cornerstone of the hip-hop organization, The Universal Zulu Nation.
Formed by the godfather of hip-hop, Afrika Bambaataa, in the 1970s, The Universal Zulu Nation was born from a gang truce in New York as a positive space to flourish — a space that previously didn’t exist. South Bronx, in particular, was suffering from exponential levels of poverty and urban decay, but a hip-hop culture was beginning to emerge. Within that new culture, Bambaataa and other artists began to spread music across the world, which would continue over the next 20 years.
Chapters of The Universal Zulu Nation also spread, and dozens of major cities now have a chapter or affiliated organization — Seattle included. 206 Zulu operates under the same ideologies, and works as a nonprofit to promote hip-hop as a tool for social justice and preserve the history of hip-hop in the city. This November, the organization will be honoring the musical legacy of Bambaataa and others with “Hip-Hop History Month” celebrations.
“[The Universal Zulu Nation] unifies the whole culture between dance, visual art, DJ, MC and the educational part to pull it together as something comprehensive,” said Daniel “King Khazm” Kogita, the executive director of 206 Zulu and the Northwest regional director of The Universal Zulu Nation.
For Kogita, hip-hop became a catalyst for self-identity.
“Being from the hood and having to grapple with a sense of identity like being biracial and disabled,” he said. “Hip-hop is something I’ve always gravitated toward, and I felt very passionate about, but I didn’t know my place.”
Inspiring words from Nasty Nes — a founding father of Seattle hip-hop, and according to Kogita, the first to play hip-hop on the radio with the Sugar Hill Gang hit “Rapper’s Delight” — led Kogita to play an instrumental role in local music history when he formed Mad Krew in 1995.
“We started doing it out of necessity to create spaces for our community to have platforms. Throwing events when there weren’t spaces for venues for all ages. We started doing documentaries, public access television shows and things like that,” Kogita said.
Beyond the beats, 206 Zulu works with organizations, schools and other artists to spread powerful ideas that cultivate positive social change. These are often educational programs that tackle media literacy and civic engagement with youth in Seattle. For example, while local artist Gabriel Teodros is not directly affiliated with 206 Zulu, as an “honorary member,” he has taught a variety of workshops on media literacy, creative writing and science fiction across youth programs in the city.
Hip-hop was something that he says saved his life in Seattle.
“Breakdancing was a neighborhood thing that everyone did, especially in Columbia City, in the early ’80s. Growing up, the music was just something that I felt understood me when my family didn’t, when I was struggling through a very racist public school system, when the neighborhood where I lived and the neighborhood where I went to school were at war with each other,” Teodros said. “[Hip-hop] was always there to let me know I wasn’t alone, and it helped me understand the world around me.”
The diversity and strength in Seattle’s hip-hop scene runs deep, perhaps attributed to the isolation of the Northwest — far from the trappings of the flashy music industry. “It’s changing a lot, and rapidly, with all these corporations,” Kogita said, “but it seems like the lack of industry has allowed more attention to be focused on the craft.”
206 Zulu is at an interesting point in its 11-year history. After the legendary Washington Hall was taken over by Historic Seattle, money was raised for restoration to create effective spaces for selected organizations beyond 206 Zulu: restaurant and cultural space Hidmo, and Voices Rising — an organization dedicated to creating safe artistic spaces for LGBTQ people of color. The completion date is unknown, but the space should be arriving soon. Kogita hopes it will include media resources for youth to accompany the existing outreach programs.
“We might use an element like dance or music or visual art as a conduit to get to the education--you can apply hip-hop to anything: history, language, life skills development, science, math,” he said.
Between a Zulu radio show on KBCS 91.3 FM and partnerships with organizations like El Centro De La Raza, Kogita looks forward to growing 206 Zulu within The Universal Zulu Nation.
Celebrate Hip-Hop History Month with Mad Krew and company as Seattle hip-hop legends take the stage Nov. 1 for their 20th anniversary show at The Crocodile.