“Revolution starts with a plan,” announced Lah Tere of Rebel Diaz, host of the 13th Annual Black August Hip Hop Project in New York last Friday. “You are either fighting for freedom, or you are fighting for the elite.”
The house of the Highline Ballroom was completely filled that night with a crowd who’d gathered to be both entertained and enlightened by a new wave of societal betterment. Though the Black Panther movement isn’t nearly the point of contention it once was, the idealism and legacy it boldly erected continues to infiltrate a faction of social innovators in the consciousness of the American psyche.
This year’s Black August show, presented by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, was an assembly meant for empowerment, featuring an array of political speakers and performers, including underground rap artists Dead Prez, Pharaohe Monch and Sadat X, among others. In the past, musicians such as Erykah Badu, David Banner, Common, and The Roots have also lent their support. The stage was draped with a banner covered by the words “Self-Defense,” “Self-Respect” and “Self Determination” in bold and black. The night, intended to bring culture and politics together, was an extension of the original liberation drive set in motion in the ‘70s.
“The one thing Black August always celebrates is victory,” noted Lah Tere. “This is about teaching what we know to those who don’t…Do you want Assata to be free?”
‘Yes’, the crowd chanted and clapped: Free Assata.
The Assata in reference is freedom fighter, Assata Shakur, a member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, who was imprisoned for nearly five years before escaping jail in 1979 and finding exile in Cuba. The reward for her capture currently stands at $1 million—a sum greater than two thirds of those on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Notably, most of the crimes she’s been charged with have been dismissed, and for those who hear her cry, she’s a hero. Of the handful who aided in her exit, one figure, Marilyn Buck, passed away earlier this month from cancer and was honored at the show.
“Marilyn Buck gave her life so Assata could be free,” exclaimed Lah Tere. “And the New York Times didn’t see fit to publish her obituary.”
The goal of the event was not only to remember those like Buck, who fought for freedom at any cost, but to create awareness surrounding injustice within the prison system and encourage social reform. Several freed prisoners were brought on stage to speak, and information was made available regarding those behind bars. Prison IDs of the incarcerated were handed out in pamphlets so that attendees could send letters of support and council.
“Lolita Brown pulled out a gun and shot for the liberation of Puerto Rico, and it was the people’s power that forced Jimmy Carter to grant her clemency,” another speaker reminded the crowd.
The concert came at ample timing given the prior week’s release of Michael Anthony Green, an African American man wrongly convicted of rape, who served 27 years in prison before his exoneration. This month also marked the first formal federal recognition of the discriminatory crack cocaine law, whereby a person convicted of possessing one gram of crack cocaine would receive the equivalent prison sentence as one holding 100 grams of powder. The law unfairly targeted minority communities—the main users of crack—and was amended by the Obama administration at the beginning of August.
Subsequently, police brutality was brought into the spotlight in July when a white Oakland cop got away on charges of involuntary manslaughter for the videotaped shooting of an unarmed black man in the subway. As a result, he received less time in jail than pro-football player Michael Vick did for killing a dog.
“We are here to resist oppression,” the stage leaders shouted at Black August, honoring the month when revolutionaries like Marcus Garvey and Harriet Tubman made an imprint on the world. “We cannot be stopped. We will continue to organize; we will keep moving.”
The show took an arguably radical stance on the quest for civil rights by celebrating both nonviolent and violent “soldiers” like Buck, Brown and Sundiata Acoli, a member of the BLA, now serving life in prison for murdering a New Jersey police officer. It was a fervent testament to the ongoing Civil Rights Movement, still present, vocal, and determined to make a mark in today’s society.
“You’re only tame and humane if you stay within the lines,” Lah Tere quoted Acoli to the crowd. “You’re only free if you stand on your knees.”
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– Courtney Garcia