Eliminating the Elements

Khafre Jay of Hip-Hop for Change faces an uphill battle but keeps rapping anyway.


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Khafre Jay started Hip-Hop for Change to make rap more positive.

Photo by Stephen Loewinsohn

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Khafre Jay credits rap music with helping guide him through tough times during his youth, which is one of the reasons he makes time to hold hip-hop workshops in Oakland schools, where he teaches kids to make beats, draw their own graffiti letters, and write raps. It’s an interesting way to gauge the social climate; often, he says middle and high schoolers will talk about their parents being on drugs, or witnessing gang violence, or other things he wishes children didn’t have to experience.

“One girl wrote this rap. She was like, ‘Yo, yo, I’m a bad bitch,’ and she asked me if that was OK to say,” Jay says. “I told her, ‘Words are always OK to use, as long as you mean what you want to mean, and what does that word mean to you? What does that word mean to society? What are you conveying when you say that? And we talked about the meaning of that word, and she changed it to ‘queen’ afterwards.”

Ironically, Jay places much of the blame for this tendency on rap music for helping perpetuate negative stereotypes throughout the urban community.

“Kids make great decisions when they have the right information, and that’s the problem with the co-optation of hip-hop,” Jay says. “The information these kids are getting is such a small portion of what they could be in the world that they don’t have enough information to make a good decision on who they’d like to be.”

In fact, one of Jay’s goals is to help do away with that kind of negative self-image—not just for people of color, but for members of hip-hop culture as well. Jay is a founder of a nonprofit called Hip-Hop for Change, which is dedicated to using the artistic elements of hip-hop to empower underprivileged youth, as well as raising money for everything from local school art programs to platforms for “conscious” hip-hop “to talk about issues that afflict the ’hood.” Their group is explicitly against music that promotes sexism, homophobia, violence, racism, gang culture, and drug use, which Jay says have unfortunately become the face of rap music due to the mass commercialization of the genre in recent years.

“The problem is, we don’t have our entirety represented [in hip-hop]; we only have a small sliver of it,” Jay says. “When people who have had their only socialization from urban or brown people coming from BET or MTV, when they see me on the street, they’re like, ‘Oh, gangster … Lil’ Wayne … with no diamonds.’ And that’s ridiculous.”

The problem with Hip-Hop for Change’s message, in the Bay Area at least, is that it runs contrary to the beliefs of many of the very people Jay is trying to help. Additionally, for more than three decades, hip-hop in the Bay Area has largely been defined by the precisely the same elements Jay is trying to eliminate. This peaked in recent years, with the rise of the Hyphy Movement, which was centered on party songs, promoting the use of ecstasy and other hard drugs, and a nonchalant attitude toward inner city violence. Not to mention the most popular Oakland rapper in history, Too $hort, is well-known for his one word catchphrase, which is basically an Oakland-ish pronunciation of the word bitch.

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