Hip-Hop taught me about Yusef Hawkins. If the music didn’t, there’s a solid chance that I wouldn’t be speaking his name right now.
See, aside from JET magazine and whatever rap ‘zines were out at the time, Hawkins’ 1989 death wasn’t heavily publicized outside of the New York area. The case involved a 16-year-old Black kid being attacked and killed while walking in the wrong neighborhood (Bensonhurst) at the wrong time and being the wrong race for the area.
But artists brought the Yusef Hawkins story to me and so many other young teens through the speakers using music as the medium. Public Enemy (“Welcome To The Terrordome”), Chubb Rock (“Treat Em Right”) and Kool G. Rap and DJ Polo (“Erase Racism”) all generated songs that referenced Hawkins heavily, causing me to do my own digging to learn more of his story.
When Public Enemy released Fear Of A Black Planet in 1989, they were at their peak popularity. Coming out with “Welcome To The Terrordome” as a lead single seems improbable and ill-advised now but that was the climate then. Kool G. Rap and Polo brought along their Juice Crew cohorts Biz Markie and Big Daddy Kane for their song and video, which got heavy rotation on Rap City. Chubb Rock’s cut was a club and party staple, yet while we were dancing the MC was in our ears reminding us “In your hearts and minds never forget Yusef Hawkins.”
The way I learned about Yusef’s death follows the same pattern for how I came to learn about Emmett Till, Natasha Harlins, the ’89 “Greekfest” riots at Virginia Beach and a host of other racially-charged incidents. Most of these incidents didn’t make the national newspapers or only got a blurb in school history text. But in rap, they were widely referenced and noticed.
Fast-forward to rap music in the year 2013 and rappers double as characters, not teachers. The genre’s chart-toppers don’t engage in educating through their music. The closest we’ve come is the Wayne vs. Till estate battle that brought the murdered Mississippi teen’s name into new, unfamiliar circles. So far, Saturday’s verdict in the George Zimmerman trial has elicited a lot of tweets and Instagram blackouts, but not much more. To be honest, that fact that we haven’t received any direct messages from top artists is embarrassing. What’s 140-characters sent in a fleeting way compared to four minutes and some seconds spent on a record that could go so much further?
I guess all is not lost because we have a few artists trying as Young Jeezy, Wyclef, Pharoah Monche, Raheem DeVaughn and 3D Na’tee all released tracks centering around the Martin-Zimmerman tragedy. I’m not sure of the lasting effect any of the songs will have, especially after noticing one Soundcloud user asked “common jeezy this aint you, wherres dat trap shit at [sic]”. As much as we bemoan artists to take a stand and be vocal, the listening audience has to be open and receptive.
Still, I applaud each artist’s decision to say something versus the hundreds of others who spent time tweeting before going back to the business of rapping about their latest material and sexual conquests. I just wish these few weren’t standing here on center stage without their peers – particularly the marquee ones – surrounding them and a captive audience listening to every word.
Photo — Getty