Hip Hop For Change Staff poses in front of their mural at their HQ in Oakland
Hip Hop For Change staffers pose in front of a mural at their HQ in Oakland. Photo: Hip Hop For Change

Khafre Jay was raised in Hunters Point in San Francisco, “a spot that’s not on the tourist map at all,” as he puts it. He grew up surrounded by music and started freestyle singing in the shower after choir practice at a young age. His freestyles grew into songs and, by the time he was a high schooler, he was rapping on top of trucks in his neighborhood, albeit with a small audience.

“I was rapping about cars I didn’t have, I was rapping about girls that didn’t like me, I was rapping about money that I didn’t know if I’d ever see,” Jay said.

Jay says being beaten up by the police at an Iraq War protest awakened his activist spirit. He changed his outlook on what kind of music he wanted to create and starting rapping about his experience as an African American man growing up in an economically disadvantaged community.

“I saw them beat up bicyclists and toss bikes left and right and I was filming all this stuff,” he said. “The police would literally pull the person they were beating up off (their bikes) into the streets so they could surround them … and beat them more.”

For Jay, it was clear the systems of power in the U.S. were corrupt and not benefiting his community, and this realization led him not only on a personal transformation, but also to eventually found Hip Hop For Change, a grassroots organization that has done outreach in Berkeley and Oakland schools and is on a mission to use hip-hop culture to promote self-determination and activism in the Bay Area.

Jay started incorporating political and social consciousness into his music, addressing negative messages in some hip-hop. In his song, “The Hood is Fucked Up,” Jay raps, “So many actors is backwards on TV when Rick Ross is rapin’ and gets off easy/ and Weezy kissin’ baby can still get quoted after almost dyin’ on syrup and speakin’ homophobic.”

His music isn’t all socially charged, however, and on “I Pound” he displays his lyrical versatility, rapping, “I make believers out of old-timers/ I make thinkers out of close minders/ and some fans of the dope rhymers…/I’m a king in this jungle ain’t no beatin’ up the lions.”

After Jay finished a stint as a city coordinator for Greenpeace, he started selling CDs on Haight Street to support himself. In 2013, Jay created his own organization to promote the kind of music he was passionate about but with a positive message and a political purpose. Hip Hop For Change, based in Oakland, currently employs 67 people at a living wage and puts together programs in local schools to educate kids about the history of hip-hop.

The program is based on four principles from the Zulu nation: “peace, love, unity and having fun,” said Jay. Students learn about graffiti art, breakdancing, DJ’ing and, of course, lyricism. The workshops are very hands-on, but they always begin with the history and nuances of hip-hop culture, which have largely been left out of mainstream hip-hop, said Jay.

Kids learn to breakdance in a Hip Hop For Change Workshop
Students learn to breakdance in a Hip Hop For Change workshop. Photo: Hip Hop for Change

“We’re trying to give kids the respect of hip-hop culture, the respect of their own identity, and a space to learn the tools that can help them get stuff off their chest,” said Jay. Hip Hop For Change has worked in Berkeley with students at Longfellow, Willard, Berkeley High and at UC Berkeley, as well as at the Bay Area Book Festival and at the Berkeley Public Library.

Local businesses also sponsor events like the Environmental Equity Summit, co-sponsored with the Sierra Club, and Women’s Empowerment Summit, where artists such as The Pharcyde and Talib Kwali have performed. The organization also brings a panel of academics to the stage as part of the events to talk about social issues and take questions.

“You could tell the audience really cared, they weren’t just there for the music,” said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director of environmental nonprofit San Francisco’s Baykeeper, who was a panelist at the last Environmental Equity Summit. She appeared along with Davey D, a hip-hop journalist, as well as other professionals in the field of environmental science.

Panelists at the Environmental Equity Summit
Panelists at the Environmental Equity Summit at the Cornerstone in Berkeley. Photo: Hip Hop for Change

 “There was pin-drop silence in that room, and when it was Q&A time everyone had questions,” said Choksi-Chugh.

Choksi-Chugh was also impressed with Jay’s mission and believes the group is doing important work. “This kind of cause for more positive hip-hop and more change-oriented hip-hop is really refreshing,” she said. “I think people are excited about it, I think people are ready for it, and they’re inspired by it.” 

Jay believes that that record labels like Sony, Universal and Warner, which control a huge percentage of the music market, are part of the reason hip-hop can have negative associations. The executives at those companies, who are predominately white, know that the type of music that glorifies drugs, violence and the objectification of women, sells. But for Jay, those kinds of songs aren’t representative of true hip-hop culture.

“We want to make sure that we have control of our narratives and the depiction of hip-hop,” he said. “We’re trying to build our own platform of self-determination for hip-hop engagement and activism.”

Founder of Hip Hop For Change Khafre Jay
Khafre Jay, founder of Hip Hop For Change: “We want to make sure that we have control of our narratives and the depiction of hip-hop.” Photo: William Lundquist

The organization has met some resistance. According to Jay, one anonymous school dean said, “these kids need opera, not hip-hop.” Nonetheless, Jay said Hip Hop For Change competes with other programs at schools and their classes always among the most well-attended.

For Jay, it’s vital that people see hip-hop as a tool for self-expression, not just musically, but throughout the different disciplines of the culture, like dancing and visual art. He wishes hip-hop culture wasn’t ignored in many schools, especially those with a large population of African American students.

“We have adults telling our children not to be themselves and not valuing their identity within the education setting,” Jay said. “When does our culture get valued enough for us to be able to see ourselves reflected in the curriculum?”

Hip Hop For Change hits the streets to canvass
Hip Hop For Change hits the streets to canvass. Photo: Hip Hop for Change.

Hip Hop For Change receives local government and foundations — including the city of Oakland, the Zellerbach Family Foundation and the Akonadi Foundation — but it mostly relies on individual donors. It also raises funds by sending staff to canvass the streets of the East Bay and spread the message of hip-hop positivity. Many wear attention-grabbing “End White Supremacy” T-shirts. In 2018 the organization raised more than $500,000, according to Jay.

Jay says he has a supportive base of donors that allows Hip Hop for Change to continue its educational mission. The donation process, he said, is “kind of like a Netflix account but the babies in the hood get to chill.”

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William Lundquist is an intern at Berkeleyside for the summer of 2019. He is a Berkeley native and a third-year student pursuing a BA in English at UW-Madison. William writes for the arts section of Madison's...