Culture, Resistance And Action: Hip Hop’s Relationship To Revolution (@ApexZero00)

 From the moment it arrived here from the US, hav­ing surge out of the Bronx and trans­mit­ting itself across the globe, Hip Hop cul­ture in the UK began to cre­ate a unique iden­tity for itself. This iden­tity, our style, our look or sound, is a product of the diverse inter­na­tion­al music­al, artist­ic and cul­tur­al influ­ences exist­ing in Bri­tain, them­selves products of the many dia­spora and work­ing class com­munit­ies cre­ated by Bri­tains bar­bar­ic and inhu­mane colo­ni­al his­tory. Res­ist­ance, which was a con­stant occur­rence through­out imper­i­al his­tory, has always been a defin­ing prin­ciple of Hip Hop and is a com­mon thread that runs through­out a lot of Hip Hop born in the UK. Like many people of my gen­er­a­tion, Hip Hop was the medi­um through which I became con­sciously aware of numer­ous glob­al soci­olo­gic­al issues that were already affect­ing my life. Hip Hop intro­duced me to some of my greatest inspir­a­tions, like Mal­colm X and Mar­cus Gar­vey, and helped to mould a sense of pride and of iden­tity. As a 15-year-old try­ing to deal with being ‘mixed race’ and of Afric­an des­cent with­in the whirl­pool of con­cealed racism and con­stant dis­crim­in­a­tion that is grow­ing up in Lon­don, my con­scious­ness was greatly enhanced by listen­ing to groups like dead prez and Wu-Tang. Since 911, a large num­ber of my gen­er­a­tion became engaged in learn­ing and research­ing Marx­ist or revolu­tion­ary the­or­ies, and began to ques­tion polit­ics and politi­cians dir­ectly because of the music of artists like Immor­tal Tech­nique, Klash­nekkoff and Skinny­man. As a res­ult, there has been a huge sprout­ing of not only polit­ic­ally and socially aware, but polit­ic­ally and socially engaged Hip Hop grow­ing out of the UK. Groups and emcees like Iron Bray­dz, Triple Dark­ness, Cax­ton Press, Lowkey and Logic (People’s Army) and my own teams, First and Last and The Pan­theonz of Zenn-la, are just a few. Artists like these deal with a wide range of issues — social depriva­tion; expos­ing the exploit­at­ive nature of our social sys­tem; encour­aging unity and organ­isa­tion of poorer and oppressed people with the goal of an engaged battle against the estab­lish­ment; com­bat­ing the self-destruct­ive viol­ence that Afric­an des­cend­ants are coerced into by our envir­on­ments; the treat­ment of Muslims and Islam in con­tem­por­ary Bri­tain; retell­ing and unearth­ing hid­den his­tor­ies; high­light­ing oppres­sion around the globe such as the plight and battle of the Palestini­an and Tamil people and nations. These are just a few examples.

    This aware­ness and engage­ment depicts what many revolu­tion­ary the­or­ist and prac­ti­tion­ers, includ­ing Huey P. New­ton and V.I. Len­in, described as one of the most fun­da­ment­al and neces­sary dimen­sions in cre­at­ing the shift from people being oppressed and exploited by a cap­it­al­ist soci­ety to genu­inely fight­ing against the estab­lish­ment respons­ible for this exploit­a­tion; the rais­ing of the con­scious­ness of our people to the real­ity of and reas­ons for our present con­di­tion. This is some­thing that I can proudly say that Hip Hop in the UK, as a cul­ture, is and has been a part of for dec­ades.

huey p

One of the best depic­tions of Hip Hop becom­ing engaged in com­munity rela­tions, and giv­ing a plat­form for this polit­ic­ally express­ive Hip Hop is the Speak­ers Corner move­ment. Foun­ded by DJ Snuff, DJ and Graf­fiti Artist Steaz and the emcee Man­age among oth­ers, and named after the plat­form for free speech in Hyde Park, Speak­ers Corner began as a Hip Hop event in Brix­ton that provided a sim­il­ar plat­form for emcees and musi­cians to express them­selves openly. It quickly became the spot to reach to get your art out, to meet like-minded people and to dis­cuss cur­rent issues. Speak­ers Corner has now tran­scen­ded its roots as a music­al plat­form to become an organ­isa­tion­al and pro­mo­tion­al tool for com­munity move­ments. Recent examples of this are the role that act­iv­ists from Speak­ers Corner and it’s closely related affil­i­ate The People’s Army (foun­ded by Logic, Lowkey and Big cakes, among oth­ers) played in the protests against the murder of Smi­ley Cul­ture by the police in 2011. The act­iv­ists, many of them artists, helped Smiley’s fam­ily to organ­ise and pro­mote meet­ings and protests demand­ing justice. Through the same pro­cess they cre­ated plat­forms for debate with­in the Lam­beth Com­munity to try and find answers on how to deal with the prob­lem of con­stant police bru­tal­ity with­in the bor­ough, the city and the coun­try.


These events depict the power of Hip Hop to give a voice to the strug­gling, to give a weapon to those who are being attacked. This is the reas­on why many of the people who gave the best ana­lys­is of the insur­rec­tion sparked by the murder of Mark Dug­gen by police in 2011 — at least in the main­stream media — where UK Hip Hop artists. Amidst con­stant talk of ‘wonton destruc­tion’, wide­spread con­dem­na­tion and out­right racism, with the likes of Dav­id Starky claim­ing the ‘riots’ began because “whites have become like blacks”, it was Reveal, UK Hip Hop emcee, who was on News­night expos­ing the real­ity of inter-racial, inter-class, intergen­er­a­tion­al anger and ali­en­a­tion as the biggest factors for the viol­ence. The most insight­ful ana­lys­is came from a man close to the events, Stafford Scott, whose com­munity work in Tot­ten­ham stretches back to the upris­ings of the 1980’s.  I’m sure that Hip Hop has had at least some influ­ence on his men­tal­ity and out­look on social justice, espe­cially as he has since been involved in many pub­lic dis­cus­sions on the events with Hip Hop artists like Akala and Wancee, the lat­ter often per­forms tracks ded­ic­ated to his friend Mark Dug­gan at pub­lic meet­ings and demon­stra­tions. Stafford Scott was one of the few people giv­en air­time who deman­ded that people recog­nised and remembered that the issue that sparked the viol­ence was yet anoth­er murder of a per­son at the hands of the Brit­ish police, and that they were again of lower/working class and of Afric­an des­cent. He rightly emphas­ised the con­nec­tion between the events in Bri­tain and the great chain of anger, dis­con­tent and viol­ent upris­ing that is being felt all over the world. He also exposed the hypo­crisy of MP’s to label their own country’s viol­ence as ‘need­less thug­gery’ while aid­ing viol­ent upris­ings abroad with mil­it­ary sup­port. These sen­ti­ments were echoed through­out the under­ground UK Hip Hop scene, with numer­ous artists post­ing tracks, dis­cus­sions and videos online in the hours, days, weeks and now years after the events took place.

It is this, the loc­al being equated to and defined with­in the glob­al con­text which, more than any­thing, depicts the nature of Hip Hop to me. Hip Hop holds up a mir­ror to the soci­et­ies it emerges from. It shows everything — the beauty, the com­munity, the love and cre­ativ­ity, but also the depriva­tion, the poverty, the crime and the death. Hip Hop depicts the need for an addic­tion to money with­in a cap­it­al­ist soci­ety and the immense mater­i­al­ism which that cre­ates, but also amp­li­fies the voice of the power­less, the res­ist­ance of the oppressed and the emer­gence, like Mal­colm from his pris­on cell, of a force that will no longer accept its con­di­tion now that its eyes are open to its real­ity. Just as the UK has its own style of Hip Hop cul­ture, made up of people from all races and back­grounds, it has its place with­in the glob­al move­ment of Hip Hop, as does France, Japan, Palestine – any­where that embraces Hip Hop cul­ture. In just the same way, the struggle of the exploited people of the UK, of all races and back­grounds, which has its own issues and obstacles to over­come, is part of the glob­al struggle for a revolu­tion that con­sists of mul­tiple battles against injustice, oppres­sion and exploit­a­tion; a revolu­tion which if com­pleted suc­cess­fully will raise the stand­ard of liv­ing for human­ity as a whole.

Along­side these many pos­it­ives, and per­haps because of the power that it can invoke, there are also reas­ons why I am crit­ic­al of Hip Hop’s role with­in this revolu­tion. Firstly, since Hip Hop cul­ture came into con­tact with the music industry, that same mir­ror­ing effect inher­ent in Hip Hop has often been manip­u­lated into a self-destruct­ive force. As any­one with a his­tory in Hip Hop will know, Hip Hop has (at least on the sur­face) become gradu­ally split between pur­pos­ive and pro­duct­ive music and art, and (mostly) music that does little but gen­er­ate large amounts of money for cor­por­a­tions and a few indi­vidu­als while con­trib­ut­ing to the self-destruct­ive and divis­ive influ­ences at work on our com­munit­ies and our people. This split has nev­er been big­ger or more obvi­ous. There was a time, at least for me, when many artists would encap­su­late both sides of this void, mak­ing money from music with a par­tially self-destruct­ive or mater­i­al­ist­ic mes­sage, but would often com­bine this with mes­sages of the need for com­munity and for rebel­lion, if not out­right revolu­tion or res­ist­ance. Today, there are few who can claim to do this, with the vast major­ity of power­fully lyr­ic­al emcees strug­gling to make a liv­ing or to get their music out to lar­ger audi­ences, while far less tal­en­ted but bet­ter con­nec­ted rappers/pop sing­ers, who are per­haps more will­ing or are coerced into ‘doing what sells’ clean up yet give noth­ing. From a UK per­spect­ive, with music, as with most art, any­thing clearly and out­right anti-estab­lish­ment is cen­sored and out­caste — des­pite the media and government’s insist­ence that free­dom of speech is com­mon prac­tice. A massive example of this is the cen­sor­ship of Mic Right­eous on the BBC, who while free­styl­ing had the line ‘Free Palestine’ dubbed over — by a sta­tion that con­stantly allows emcees to talk about mur­der­ing their own people, and a cor­por­a­tion who will hap­pily expose little girls to Rihanna and Miley Cyr­us’ glor­i­fic­a­tion of fet­ish sex at 8.30 in the morn­ing on their way to primary school. This is just one example. The polit­ic­al, or rather anti-polit­cal thread that runs through much of the UK’s under­ground Hip Hop has either hindered or saved UK Hip Hop from main­stream media — per­haps both. Hindered from cre­at­ing a US style suc­cess­ful industry, and saved from becom­ing overly exploited by the mass media machine. To me, this echoes the the­ory Theodore Adorno who, para­phras­ing, said that art is one of the only out­lets in con­tem­por­ary West­ern soci­ety for genu­ine polit­ic­al expres­sion, and that art forms that truly con­vey a strong polit­ic­al mes­sage oppos­ing the nature of cap­it­al­ism are those which are the most dif­fi­cult to com­modi­fy and sell.

mic righteous

Secondly, des­pite Hip Hop’s pos­i­tion as a chan­nel through which people can ignite social change, the shift from self-expres­sion to genu­ine action is not hap­pen­ing enough, and not just in Hip Hop. Too often in recent times, when people have real­ised the reas­ons why there must be a change to the social order, they feel con­tent to only express this real­isa­tion through music or art. Art can help, and as I have said, is neces­sary and import­ant, but noth­ing will actu­ally change if artist­ic expres­sion is all we are doing as artists or as people to change our col­lect­ive situ­ation. In the words of Mao Tse Tung “if you know the the­ory and meth­ods of revolu­tion, you must take part in revolu­tion”. Many people are using Hip Hop as a plat­form to label them­selves as revolu­tion­ar­ies or free­dom fight­ers while doing noth­ing else but make tracks or listen to them. They know there’s a prob­lem, they know revolu­tion is the answer, but they don’t then pro­gress to learn­ing or cre­at­ing the­or­ies and meth­ods of cre­at­ing this solu­tion, nev­er mind actu­ally tak­ing part in the phys­ic­al pro­cess of a social revolu­tion.

I count myself with­in this cri­ti­cism; no mat­ter what you are doing, you can always do more. In the UK, like many West­ern and West­ern­ised coun­tries, we may not be in a pos­i­tion right now to have the neces­sary full scale revolu­tion that is the only true answer to chan­ging the soci­ety we live in. How­ever, para­phras­ing Che Guevara (and I am aware of exist­ing issues with­in ‘van­guard­ist’ argu­ment) we can act as a cata­lyst to make the neces­sary con­di­tions mani­fest. Music and art can help push towards this goal, but it will not be enough on its own. Being out in the real world, mak­ing a change in your com­munity, sup­port­ing protests, dam­aging the estab­lish­ment – all of these will help. How­ever, one of the most import­ant things we need and are lack­ing is a new, con­crete revolu­tion­ary the­ory of prac­tice; a mater­i­al out­line of the soci­ety we wish to cre­ate that can replace the decay­ing cor­rupt one that is in place right now. Although, as Frantz Fan­on writes, the soci­ety we wish to make must be cre­ated through the act of fight­ing the struggle, we must strive to cre­ate a the­or­et­ic­al basis to work towards, even if it is moul­ded, edited and shaped as the struggle unfolds. This will give us both a genu­ine uni­fy­ing factor for all the squab­bling fac­tions with­in this battle, and will offer a real altern­at­ive to life as we live it. And it must be new.

“The con­crete prob­lem we find ourselves up against is not that of a choice, cost what it may, between social­ism and capitalism…as they have been defined by men of oth­er con­tin­ents and of oth­er ages”.

Fan­on wrote this in the age of decol­on­isa­tion dir­ectly for people of the so-called “third world”. How­ever, it is as true now as it was then, even for the oppressed people with­in the bor­ders of neo-colo­ni­al and/or imper­i­al nations. Although it may look dif­fer­ent from place to place, the oppres­sion we face today is glob­al. There­fore, just as the Hip Hop we cre­ate to res­ist and defy it is expressed in dif­fer­ent ways depend­ing on loc­a­tion and cul­ture, so too must the drive and meth­ods used to genu­inely des­troy it. Until we have this mater­i­al out­line, cre­ated as we cre­ate our art, inspired from the struggle that we exper­i­ence daily, we must strive to per­son­i­fy the ideals that we want to see in the world, and then strive to cre­ate them with­in the world around us. Hip Hop music and art, like any art form, can be a part of this, but can nev­er replace genu­ine revolu­tion­ary action.

* This art­icle is an edited and updated ver­sion of the lec­ture I (Apex) gave at LSE for the event ‘The Spir­ituals of Hip Hop’ with Has­an Salaam and Lupa Mor­etti.

Apex Zero



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Apex Zero

Apex Zero

An emcee, beat­maker, film­maker and writer from Lon­don with Gren­adian roots, Apex Zero has spent his life learn­ing and liv­ing Hip Hop cul­ture, using it to inspire and affect change. Based in Beijing for a few years and reg­u­larly tour­ing the globe, Apex is well trav­elled, and uses the les­sons this provides to inform his art and out­look. He is a mem­ber of the Glob­al­Fac­tion digit­al pro­duc­tion house and the inter­na­tion­al Hip Hop col­lect­ive End of the Weak.

About Apex Zero

Apex Zero
An emcee, beatmaker, filmmaker and writer from London with Grenadian roots, Apex Zero has spent his life learning and living Hip Hop culture, using it to inspire and affect change. Based in Beijing for a few years and regularly touring the globe, Apex is well travelled, and uses the lessons this provides to inform his art and outlook. He is a member of the GlobalFaction digital production house and the international Hip Hop collective End of the Weak.

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