I first heard this question in the seventh grade, when I was watching the film “Brown Sugar.” A few months ago, this question came back to me when I attended a gala hosted by America’s Promise in honor of its 20th anniversary.
Among many other influential leaders, the rapper Common was honored for his Common Ground Foundation. While his foundation is no doubt having an impact on the lives of youth, I’ll never forget the impact his music has had on my life.
In high school, I used to play his album “Like Water for Chocolate” on repeat. Its themes of Afrocentricity and Black liberation educated me about systemic racism and how art can teach the masses about social consciousness. I even got a special shout-out at one of his concerts; after spotting me in my wheelchair, he stopped his concert, put the mic in my hand, and asked for my name. Then he performed a freestyle for me on the 12th anniversary of the date I received my organ transplants.
It was a moment I’ll never forget—and neither is the day that I fell in love with hip hop.
It was the summer of 2002, and I was skimming through music channels when I stumbled upon Talib Kweli’s “Get By.” As a pre-teen living in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area—once known as the crack capital of the nation, with kids of my generation orphaned by drug addiction and mass incarceration—I was instantly hooked.
Kweli’s lyrics gave young people a deeper understanding of the root causes of the conditions young black people are living in:
“Yo, I activism, attacking the system. The Blacks and Latins in prison. Numbers have risen, they're victims lacking the vision. Shit, and all they got is rapping to listen to. I let them know we missing you, the love is unconditional. Even when the condition is critical, when the livin' is miserable. Your position is pivotal…”
I fell in love with Kanye West’s breakthrough hit “Through the Wire” because it told the story of surviving a near fatal car accident, something I could relate to as a dual organ transplant recipient.
As a dark-skinned black woman, Biggie Smalls made me feel confident about having sun-kissed skin with lines like “dark, black, fat, and ugly as ever,” a lyric that acknowledged that the world may not consider those features beautiful, but you can still shine and have confidence regardless. Tupac’s music reverberated through my eardrums and taught me that cycles of police brutality stem from his mother’s days as a Black Panther.
Though rappers seemed like troublemakers and criminals to our parents, these musicians were caring adults in their own way, speaking our language, covering our common experiences, and schooling us on history and activism.
As influential as hip hop has been on my life, it was not a replacement for having a caring adult there for me day in and day out. My memories aren’t just of finding myself through music, but finding adults that cared enough to invest in me.
When I look back on my years growing up, I will always remember the teachers that spent a little extra time after class to tutor me and help me apply for college. I think back to the mentors I gained through afterschool programs and those who cared enough to take me under their wings. I hold a special place in my heart for the adults who called me out when I was doing wrong, then helped me get back on the right track.
Still, it was hip-hop that first helped me realize as youth exit adolescence, we must become the caring adults. We must not allow our light to dim or our passion to fade. The power is now in the hands of young people to not only listen to the soundtrack of the revolution, but to be the revolutionaries. And create our own sounds of change.
Ola Ojewumi is an activist, journalist, and a community organizer based in Washington, D.C. She founded two nonprofits, Sacred Hearts Children's Transplant Foundation and Project ASCEND. She is also a former America’s Promise Alliance youth trustee.
The 5 Promises represent conditions children need to achieve adult success. The collective work of the Alliance involves keeping these promises to America’s youth. This article relates to the promises highlighted below:
Ola Ojewumi is an activist, journalist, and a community organizer based in Washington, D.C. She founded two nonprofits, Sacred Hearts Children's Transplant Foundation and Project ASCEND. She has been published in CNN.com, the Huffington Post, Marie Claire Magazine's online publication, and the American Association of University Women.
To mark Women’s History Month, writer and activist Ola Ojewumi examines how African-American women have historically helped drive social change—and how they can help African-American girls overcome the challenges they face in America’s public educations system today.