On April 13, American University Washington College of Law (WCL) sponsored Roots and Reality II: Hip Hop, Law, and Social Justice Organizing. RRII is the second installment of the Roots and Reality Social Justice Project—a collective of activists, lawyers, artists, and others committed to public interest law, and the “public” they serve—envisioned and co-organized by hiphoplaw.com contributor, Professor Pamela Bridgewater. I was humbled to serve as a student co-organizer for the event this year.
RRII turned out to be a dope event, featuring hiphoplaw.com co-founders, andré douglas pond cummings and Nick J. Sciullo, among other leading legal minds, activists, artists, and young people, who shared the space in community and conversation for two days. This post is first of two RRII afterthoughts prompted from the event.
Our first roundtable, Law(lessness), (In)Justice and Legacy of Hip Hop Music and Culture, centered on a “hot” question, “which degrees of free speech does the law guarantee for artists and activists resisting the powers that be?” You can watch the impassioned exchange between Rosa Clemente (activist, former Green Party VP candidate) and Mora Namdar (activist, WCL third-year student) where Mora explains her view that dissident speech is better protected in the US (than in Iran), and where Rosa fiercely challenges her. It was sort of like a freestyle battle, but rather with a spit-beat, it pulsed on a heart-beat.
I felt an unfolding of reactions as I watched it live, but in hindsight, I settled on some perspective: Mora is a law student, artist, and activist; she was threatened with arrest for her paintings in the US while in college; and who is engaged with artists/activists in Iran (the homeland of her parents who left after the Iranian Revolution). These Iranian activists’ messages are violently silenced by the state (from sudden disappearances to street murders) forcing them to use technology and the underground. Rosa is a PhD student, hip hop artist, and activist; a native New Yorker who is well-known for her radical organizing and writing; and who like many people faced military intimidation while bearing witness to Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. The resistance of radical activists’ with whom she engages has been targeted by the state through overt and covert police action (from warrantless wiretaps to the FBI’s COINTELPRO programs).
Both activists described self-proclaimed democracies which have a history of violent suppression of dissident speech, often squash meaningful legal interventions, and especially don’t want to hear criticism from strugglin’ folk through hip hop. So although Rosa and Mora disagreed on the degree of speech guarantees, as the audience member who commented at the end, neither approximates free speech—both regimes circumvent their own laws for “national” interests. All in all—whether it is the savage terrorist violence oppressing Iran’s Green Wave or brutal police assassination of young vocal leaders, such Fred Hampton in Chicago—it’s insidious, inhumane stuff.
Breaking it down, in my mind, the crucial point from the back-and-forth was the reality that our role as lawyers and activists, here or elsewhere, is as effective as our ability to work as creative resistors to hypocritical systems. Where a constitutional claim or protest might not reach, a hip hop track might move, even if the music is censored, or artist’s life destroyed. In that way, art forms like hip hop, is a freedom that no law can ever guarantee, but no law can ever fully contain.