Hi! I'm Milan, an LA based founder and writer, architecting impact-first businesses.
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In today’s article, I want to examine the relationship between community outreach and hip hop. Most hip hop artists who have “made it” try to give back in one way or another, be it through community outreach programs, charitable donations, or other means. However, community outreach and charitable endeavors often hold a more personal meaning for many hip hop artists. Read on to find out why hip hop artists feel more connected to the people and communities they help.
A Brief History of Hip Hop Music
The history of hip hop is, to one degree or another, the history of the African-American experience over the last half-century. Most music historians credit the birth of hip hop to DJ Kool Herc, who showcased the style at his sister’s birthday in 1973. Nonetheless, it would take another six years before “hip hop” entered the public vernacular. Artists like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa developed the style further and helped build it from a street and party-based style to a commercially-viable genre of music.
In any case, hip hop began as a form of self-expression among urban youth in New York City. In the 1970s, NYC was facing economic collapse and rising crime rates. On a national scale, the civil rights movement had helped advance the rights of African-Americans, but institutional racism festered underneath the surface. As a way to cope with these issues, many African-Americans took to the streets to make music, dance, and set aside the realities of being black in America. Thus, one can see that hip hop began out of the social and economic hardships of African-Americans.
Many Hip Hop Legends Grew Up With Nothing
To this day, hip hop is a genre dominated by black artists, especially artists who came from poor backgrounds or had to overcome extreme adversity to find success.
Before relocating to California, legendary rapper Tupac Shakur had a modest upbringing in Harlem. His family was frequently hounded by authorities for their association with the Black Panthers’ Black Liberation Army. Later, his success ultimately led to his assassination in 1993.
Jay-Z (whose birth name is Shawn Carter) grew up in the projects of Brooklyn. After his father abandoned the family, Carter’s mother struggled to raise him and his three siblings. Carter never finished high school and, before finding success as one of the most celebrated hip hop artists of all time, Jay-Z admitted to selling crack cocaine just to survive.
Similarly, rapper Lil Wayne was raised by a single mother in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans. At age 12, Lil Wayne nearly died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Despite excelling at school, he dropped out at age 14 to pursue his musical career.
These are not outliers, either. Hundreds of successful hip hop artists grew up in poverty or unstable environments, including Dr. Dre, Future, Kendrick Lamar, 50 Cent, and Nas, among many others. The list goes on and on.
You might be thinking: so what? There’s a connection between difficult upbringings and talented hip hop artists, but what does it mean? When it comes to community outreach and charity, it actually means quite a bit.
Hip Hop Artists Know Exactly How Community Outreach Programs Can Make a Difference
Artists like Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, and Ariana Grande are often praised for their sizeable donations to charities and respective organizations dedicated to community outreach. The exact purpose of outreach programs from these artists vary, but they often focus on issues that are close to home for their respective artists. That said, each of these artists grew up in relative affluence and comfort. This is not to say that they have not faced their own difficulties in life, but it would be hard to argue that they grew up with the deck stacked against them.
It’s also important to note that, in our modern system of shallow, premeditated business moves, community outreach is just another form of branding. Artists who grew up in upper-middle-class households and faced little to no violence, racism, or adversity do not really know where most of their charitable donations go. Community outreach just serves as another way to look good to the public and get a tax write-off at the same time. However, for many hip hop artists who came from nothing, community outreach programs are a lot more personal.
Learning about adversity and experiencing adversity are two very different things. Katy Perry doesn’t know what it’s like to be shot by rival gang members, nor does Harry Styles know what it feels like to watch his single mother struggle to put food on the table. Alternatively, many hip hop artists still have friends and communities that struggle to recover from economic downturns, gang violence, widespread poverty, drug addiction, and police brutality.
10 Hip Hop Artists Who Know the Value of Community Outreach
While it may feel like I’m being dismissive of all community outreach done by non-hip hop artists, that’s not the case. However, even an artist with a heart of gold may not truly understand what their time and effort can do for real people.
Alternatively, many hip hop artists who had difficult upbringings know exactly how valuable community outreach and charity can be. So, I’d like to take a moment to appreciate some of hip hop’s most giving artists and demonstrate their understanding for the people and communities they give back to:
As one of the pioneers of modern rap, Dr. Dre is a music legend. However, he’s also one of the most giving hip hop artists in the business. The musician donated $10 million to the Compton High School Arts Center and helped provide free meals to Compton families struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sean “P Diddy” Combs
With a net worth closing in on $1 billion, Sean Combs is one of the richest and most successful figures in the world of hip hop. Fortunately, he hasn’t forgotten his humble roots. In addition to supporting dozens of charities over the course of his career and donating millions to schools in his NYC (his birthplace and old stomping grounds), Sean Combs donated $1 million to create the Sean Combs Scholarship Fund at Howard University.
New Orleans has suffered a lot over the years. Between economic downturns and damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, Lil Wayne’s birthplace has seen better days. Thankfully, Lil Wayne continually gives back to his local community, helping to rebuild parks, donating to the BLM movement, and even holding a yearly Thanksgiving event to give out free turkeys.
Chance the Rapper
Chance the Rapper didn’t come to prominence until the mid-2010s, but that hasn’t stopped him from finding new and interesting community outreach strategies. While Chance donated large sums to Chicago’s public school system, he also founded SocialWorks, an organization dedicated to empowering youth. His charity puts particular focus on “education, mental health, homelessness, and performing and literary arts.”
If you’re short on community outreach ideas, look to 2 Chainz for inspiration. The rapper turned his Atlanta “Trap House” into an HIV testing center. In a city with one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the country, this center has already saved countless lives. If that weren’t enough, the artist also paid one year of rent for an underprivileged family of eleven in 2016.
While Snoop Dogg may be largely retired from the rap game, he hasn’t retired his philanthropic efforts. In fact, Snoop recently came up with a very unique community outreach action plan this year. Teaming up with Beyond Meat, Snoop Dogg helped donate 1 million vegan burgers to medical workers fighting COVID-19.
As outlined above, Jay-Z did not have the easiest upbringing in the Big Apple. All the way back in 2003, Jay-Z started the Shawn Carter Foundation, an organization dedicated to community outreach for at-risk youth. More recently, the rapper worked with multiple charities to donate more than $6 million toward the fight against Coronavirus.
Kanye West may not be everyone’s favorite public figure due to his controversial outbursts and often erratic behavior. However, no one can say that the brash hip hop artist hasn’t done his part to give back. West set up the Dr. Donda West Foundation (later renamed Donda’s House and eventually Art of Culture, Incorporated) to help children stay in school in 2005, though the charity has since parted ways with West over a social media spat. More recently, the rapper donated $2 million to pay the college tuition for the daughter of George Floyd. Floyd’s murder at the hands of police set off nationwide protests earlier this year.
While this list is almost exclusively dedicated to African-American artists, Marshall Mathers (better known as Eminem) is no stranger to difficult upbringings. Raised by a single mother, Eminem dealt with bullying, housing instability, and abandonment issues due to his father’s absence. In any case, Eminem channeled his frustration into his music and used his subsequent fortune to give back. The rapper has frequently donated to his hometown of Detroit. In 2020, Eminem also provided tubs of “Mom’s Spaghetti” to frontline healthcare workers.
Kendrick Lamar grew up in Compton, a city with one of the highest crime rates in the country. Since finding mainstream success, Lamar has quietly spent time in his hometown to help local youth. In addition to spending time working directly with young people in Compton, the rapper has invested thousands of dollars in community outreach, including $50,000 for his high school’s music program. In short, Kendrick Lamar practically wrote the book on how to do outreach the right way.
Hip hop was born out of adversity and some of the latest and most popular artists come from troubled backgrounds. While adversity may drive innovation in hip hop music, it also provides many hip hop artists with a more valuable perspective on community outreach and giving than other contemporary artists. As COVID-19 drives many of the most vulnerable communities into poverty and police continue to clash with African-American communities, philanthropic artists who truly understand the struggle are more important than ever.
Originally published on Medium.