(Photo by Flickr user Robert Bejil, used under a Creative Commons license)
This is part of "Leaders of Color" month of the Generocity Editorial Calendar. Find the series here.
The concept of rap as a breaker of generational poverty has remained a relevant theme in hip hop for decades.
It’s a theme that has prevailed through hip hop history, from Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” to Biggie’s “Juicy” to Kendrick Lamar’s “Institutionalized” and beyond. That’s because the idea of hip hop as a viable escape from socioeconomic inequality is a compelling one — especially when it becomes reality.
But what happens when the money comes in? What do successful hip hop artists typically do with their cash — you know, besides buy behemoth champagne bottles or “experience showers” or even just to use as a pretend cell phone?
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Philadelphia is home to a handful of those local impact-leaning rappers — artists who have found a degree of success and make a point of using it to improve the neighborhoods and schools they grew up in.
Here’s how Philly’s most successful rappers are giving back.
Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and his Roots bandmate Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson sit on the board of the GrassROOTS Community Foundation (GCF), a health advocacy organization Trotter helped launch in 1999. GrassROOTS operates primarily in Philadelphia and New Jersey and runs community-driven programs such as SuperCamp that work to tackle health challenges among Black women and girls.
Aside from co-launching a community nonprofit, the South Philly lyricist frequents benefit concerts (such as this one he did in collaboration with a sunglasses company) and charity events (such as this one he did with fellow Philly hip hop artist DJ Jazzy Jeff).
North Philly’s prodigal son Robert Rihmeek Williams has been somewhat limited the past year or so by his house arrest, though he has a history of giving back to his neighborhood.
He donated basketball gear to Strawberry Mansion High after the school experienced steep budget cuts in 2011. In 2013, Williams donated 600 Thanksgiving meals to hungry families in North Philly. And when a fire in Southwest Philadelphia took the lives of four local children in 2014, the rapper was quick to make an undisclosed donation and fuel an effort to raise money for the victims’ families.
Veteran North Philly rapper Leslie Edward Pridgen has long been involved in community events in the city, such as this 2013 Little Giant Creative event he attended with Questlove in support of KEYSPOT, the city’s digital literacy initiative. However, the State Property emcee has been a particularly active social change champion since the beginning of his battle with kidney failure last year.
Whether it be performing free motivational concerts for high school students, running sneaker and boot drives or providing pro bono mentorship to young artists, Freeway has made time between treatment, recording and performing to give back to Philadelphia.
The rapper is also an avid advocate for citizenship and notably paid Kensington nonprofit Urban Creators a visit this summer during their Democratic National Convention concert Hoodstock.
Despite being named “most generous celebrity” in 2012, West Philly rapper-turned-actor Will Smith has focused his philanthropy on tackling global and national issues rather than local — though, he did replace stolen computers at a local high school in 2011, and he has attended a free benefit concert or two. (His musical other half Jazzy Jeff, however, has hosted benefit concerts for local organizations like Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia).
Some local rappers who are yet to achieve pop culture stardom are still doing their part. For instance, local rappers Ar-Ab, PnB Rock, Quilly and more just recently performed at the first annual Stop the Violence concert at the Theatre of the Living Arts.
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