William J. Zellerbach Award: Hip Hop for Change Inc.

Oakland-based Hip Hop for Change Inc. (HH4C) has been selected as the 2020 recipient of the William J. Zellerbach (WJZ) Award for Social Change. Established in 2013, HH4C uses Hip Hop as a vehicle for education, community empowerment, and cultural exchange. It builds community development through music, art, and education while using a culturally relevant approach to advance social justice.

Allison Magee, executive director of Zellerbach Family Foundation spoke with Hip Hop for Change Inc.’s executive director Khafre Jay and development director Gema Elena Cantu about their work; what the award means for the organization; and how their grassroots employment program, education department and social justice events combine creative opportunities with economic power to combat displacement of people of color in the Bay Area.

Allison Magee: Congratulations again on being selected as this year’s winner of the WJZ Award for Social Change. I am drawn to your mission because it’s disruptive and urgent but at the same time joyful. If there is one thing that is most important for anyone to understand about HH4C, what would it be?

Khafre Jay: We need people in our corner right now more than ever. While we are gaining recognition in our community and the Bay Area, there is still an ongoing national problem of racism and white supremacy and we need to grow to combat that. Media has not represented Black people, Black youth and youth of color accurately. In fact, it has done the opposite by justifying the rage that is brought upon Black and Brown people. These negative depictions are such a heavy burden and are literally killing us. They only amplify the fact that we are more segregated than ever as a nation. We want young people to move through society with confidence and, to do that, we need to tell our own story through platforms that represent us in a positive light, not leave it to white-led corporations that control the media.

Gema Elena Cantu: We are a group of people coming from the community who are trying to use Hip Hop culture as it was initially intended: to break down systems of oppression that have not worked for people of color and build frameworks to benefit our communities and the world. We are creating a culture of authenticity from a culture that has been co-opted and sold back to us and owning our own narrative. We want to provide spaces for our community members and especially for ourselves [as Black people and people of color] to make sure we are not losing our identity, not being forced to code switch and are leading with our commitment to activism, growth and transformation.

AM: How will the WJZ Award contribute to Hip Hop for Change Inc.’s work?

KJ: We’re using Hip Hop to bring people together – for fun, for social justice – and to grow our movement and our work. Unfortunately, it feels like we’ve had to legitimize our existence with every grant application we’ve written. Once people acknowledge our organization, then we can talk about what we’re trying to do. Through the WJZ Award, we can connect to communities that we currently don’t have access to so people can get on board with our work.

GEC: Nonprofits and communities of color have been conditioned to have a scarcity mindset and are always looking for means of survival. Because of that, we don’t have the breathing room to see what the money could achieve. Foundation support allows us to get our foot in a door that is so often closed to us and to have conversations with people who have resources and want to partner with organizations like ours to create impact. It’s encouraging to see organizations like ZFF actually asking how they can best support people of color-run nonprofits. ZFF listened to our story and really believed in our work and advocacy. Our hope is that other foundations can model ZFF’s framework and ask people of color and nonprofits what they need and trust them to do what’s best for them with the funding. Through recognition like the WJZ Award, we can start building relationships and trust with additional institutions that will then, ultimately, trickle down to community impact.

AM: Who else needs to know about HH4C and how can we work together to advance your vision for change?

KJ: Young people of color need to realize that their identity is beautiful and they have agency and advocacy through their culture – that they can get a job or run a business without changing who they are; that they are worthy. Hip Hop can give them opportunities and provide a healing space.

We also need white folks and people with power to pay attention. In the future we envision, there is no white supremacy. That means, we can’t reinforce the white supremacist ideas currently happening through Hip Hop depictions. People need to critically analyze what they think about us and acknowledge that what they see on MTV does not represent us and our dynamic culture.

GEC: Funders also need to know about us. It’s refreshing for ZFF to give us this award, but it’s not for us. This award is for the communities and for the people who look like us. It takes a village, and our communities and allies need funding. While money is a tool, not a means of survival, we need more folks to listen to our stories and see our communities.

AM: This has been such a painful year for so many people. How has the pandemic and this renewed focus on racial justice impacted your work?

KJ: Over the last seven years, we’ve employed 900 people through our education programs and grassroots street team. In the pandemic, we have lost education contracts, partnerships with museums, and cancelled events. But we’re moving ahead and innovating. When the murder of George Floyd happened, we saw an interest from people who were not in our network before. We’ve had to pivot to fundraising to launch Pipeline for Positivity, a free studio for at-risk youth from juvenile detention facilities and group homes to be able to express themselves freely, particularly in this challenging time. We opened up an art studio so kids can have a space to go to. We also are sending our grassroots street team members to other nonprofits for personal and professional development so they can continue to grow and have the skills to achieve financial stability in the future.

AM: What is the call to action you have for the media industry, Bay Area residents or other funders?

KF: Everyone is listening to Hip Hop – it’s in our communities, iPods, playlists and clubs – so our culture is not removed from anyone. It’s everywhere, and with it, there is a corporate narrative that is being controlled by industries that creates a divide and moves away from what Hip Hop is all about.

People need to act and take what we are doing seriously. We don’t pull punches. We don’t say “things are bad.” We say “we’re dying.” We call for an end to white supremacy. Our solution is self-determination and funding that is imperative to whether we live or die. Join the fight for our culture any way you can.

GEC: We want to call out the colonial dynamic: how it lives in the nonprofit industry and how, through white supremacy, we have adapted and been programmed to just “do our jobs.” We need to call that out. Decolonizing to us means that everyone has a role in this. It’s not our job to change people’s mind and stop racism from happening. The question is how can we come together to create programs that our kids can be part of and for folks to acknowledge that there is this whole other community that they should pay attention to.

KF: We want people to stick around: to come to our shows; know more about Hip Hop culture, become monthly donors and, most importantly, evaluate how they think about communities of color and communities they’re not a part of. [Black] people shouldn’t have to get choked for us to matter. We don’t need anyone to validate who we are.