September 18, 2007

Hip Hop Activist Discusses Cultural Identity

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Rosa Clemente M.A. ’98, grassroots political organizer and self-described Hip Hop activist, presented a lecture in Ujamaa on Sunday evening focusing on her unique experiences campaigning for a multitude of social causes. Clemente also spoke about the importance of understanding one’s own cultural identity.
A co-founder of the National Hip Hop Convention, Clemente defined hip-hop activism as a post-Civil Rights era context for promoting change among the generation of black Americans who grew up in the 1970s and early to mid ’80s, coinciding with the rise of hip-hop music and culture.
Clemente’s activism involves efforts to reform prisons and the criminal justice system in the U.S. She also aims to free “political prisoners,” put a halt to police brutality, erase sexism targeted against women from within the hip hop community and improve equality of opportunity conditions for the black community.
Clemente is especially concerned with young people who have been disenfranchised by racial discrimination or poverty. She has been featured in the award-winning documentary film The Art of Love and Struggle, which contains profiles of prominent women in hip-hop. On Sunday, Clemente spoke about her personal journey from a Cornell student to a successful journalist, entrepreneur and advocate for what she believes in.
“Every student of color who comes to Cornell is going to experience a racial incident within their first week here, even if it’s simply that look from a professor or kid at the desk next to you wondering if you’re really smart enough to go here,” Clemente said.
Clemente discussed how she was influenced by one of her mentors, Prof. James Turner, founder of the Africana studies and research center at Cornell.
“Dr. Turner helped show me how I could start to make a difference. Just because I am a Black Latina, doesn’t mean I understand anything about my people. I needed to go to Puerto Rico to find out.”
Clemente credited the 1969 takeover of The Straight by a group of African-American students for “setting the tone” on college campuses around the nation but stated that in recent years the level of activism has significantly decreased.
“The attention the Jena 6 case in Louisiana has been getting recently is fine, but this sort of thing still goes on everyday in the South. A black girl in West Virginia was kidnapped, tortured and raped by six white males and no one noticed,” said Clemente. She emphasized that African-American and Latino women face greater adversity in America today than many realize. Clemente cited as evidence the 145 percent increase in the number of black women entering prisons in New York State, 99 percent of whom are non-violent felons.
During a question-and-answer session, Clemente responded to many students concerns about how one should balance their interests in activism with their academic careers.
“Just because you have a piece of paper with the word Cornell on it doesn’t mean a cop is going to stop beating you at the end of the day” Clemente said.
Nicholas Caldar ’10, a Resident Advisor at Ujamaa, said Clemente’s talk made him think about the meaning of a Cornell degree to a person of color.
“She really conveys information in ways other professors never would, about how the police have the power and there are people who have become political prisoners as a result of this. She was very down-to-earth,” Caldar said.
Clemente also argued that despite the implementation of need-blind admission policies, universities are not as open anymore to black students who do not come from well-to-do backgrounds.
“Being a scholar and an activist are not separate spheres to me. They are inseparably linked,” said Clemente.
“I think Rosa is an excellent example of the academic experience being put to good use,” said Amanda Colon ’08. “I really admire how she deconstructs social conceptions we take for granted.”