Whether or not the hip-hop community becomes a collective political force, many individual artists have already turned their attention to the issues they see around them.
An association established in Shakur's memory raises money for youth art programs, and runs a "PACamp," a performing arts camp that teaches students everything from poetry to set design and art business management.
Nelly has become involved with several community service organizations. After the rapper's sister, Jackie Donahue, was diagnosed leukemia in 2001, they established Jes Us 4 Jackie. The organization helps connect African American bone marrow donors with donation organizations, aiming to "cure our community two drops at a time," according to the group's motto.
Another Nelly nonprofit is 4sho4kids, a St. Louis-based group devoted to improving the quality of life for children born with developmental disabilities by offering education and health care resources. Nelly also sponsors a yearly scholarship contest associated with his energy drink, "P.I.M.P Juice." The contest looks for the next "Positive Intellectual Motivated Person" in high school students.
Jay-Z's Roc-a-fella Records sponsors a youth after-school basketball program called "Team Roc," which helps kids from Harlem with school subjects and learning about their culture, in addition to honing their basketball skills. David Banner sponsors a yearly scholarship competition. Ludacris has an entire foundation named after him that donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to grassroots youth organizations around the country.
Yet, even with the beginnings of a philanthropic tradition hip-hop is still plagued by recurring calls for gender equality. In the late 80's, MC Lyte shot to stardom as one of the first female hip hop artists to address sexism in her music. Now, there are several leading ladies of hip hop widely recognized for their talent and important place in the industry - Missy Elliott, Queen Latifah, Lil' Kim and others - but they are few and far between.
"It's rare," said Watkins. "[Hip hop is] a male dominated industry."
Ross agreed: "If you want to play the game," he said, "then you have to know how to play the way the guys do."
The lack of popular female hip hop artists is just one aspect of what some say is sexism in the art form. A number of industry supporters and experts are disturbed by the negative portrayal of women in rap videos, and angry at song lyrics that denigrate women.
Last year at the University of Chicago, sexism in hip hop was the subject of a symposium featuring young women, professors and female hip hop artists and other organizations are taking the issue on in a less academic fashion. Essence Magazine recently developed a campaign they call "Take Back the Music," aimed at getting the hip hop culture to present women in a more favorable light.
Passing on the Ideals
In Washington, D.C., the Midnight Forum after-school program integrates hip hop with life skills.
Steven Jones, director of the program, said students are able learn about the original goals of hip hop culture.
"Hip hop as a culture is based in conflict resolution," he said. "We feel that to give the students a voice in a constructive manner makes us as artists feel responsible to the youth and responsible to the culture."
The class, offered free three times a year after school, allows students to learn about hip hop and integrates practical skills such as community-based organizing, negotiating and mediation.
"They will pick a skill that they want to learn and we'll have people from the business sector who are involved in hip hop come in," he said.
Jones said one goal of the program is to show young people how they can make it in the hip-hop world without being forced to adhere to industry rules about what makes an artist successful.
"Make sure that whatever you say is true to yourself."
- By Kate Cooper (Medill News Service)