There’s an old adage: “If you don’t hear a baby crying, the church is dying.”
The periodic sound of fussing babies in the congregation signifies that there is growth in the midst. The same can be said for recruitment of young talent in professional and civic settings as there is new life for entities that recognize the value of growing and grooming blooming talent. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference knows it and is putting its own plan in motion to revive the 60-year-old civil rights organization. Next summer, SCLC will launch The Justice HipHop Music Project – a hip-hop record label with artists who are committed to producing music with messages that will uplift and inspire and encourage young people to become engaged in social justice causes.
The record label is set to be introduced before the organization’s 60th Annual Conference in Washington and shortly after it commemorates the 50th anniversary of the assassination of SCLC’s first president, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King, who took the helm of the organization while in his 20s, became the youngest person ever to win a Global Peace Prize in 1964 at the age of 35. Nearly four years later, he was killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. Officials say the new label is a strategy for the SCLC to expand its youth and young adults’ division, banking on hip-hop music and entertainment to attract more Gen Xers and millennials to the movement.
“In our society, music is used 80 percent of the time to influence people, and not many people know that,” said Charles Steele, president and CEO of the Atlanta-based SCLC, explaining why he was sold on the hip-hop label.
And it might surprise some people, he said, that many individuals in his generation like some hip-hop. They listen to it, he said, because it has many similarities to blues music, which at one time was viewed negatively by society.
“I like that beat,” said Steele, who is 70. “I just don’t like some of the lyrics. There is no difference in hip-hop than the blues. The blues is where the hip-hop artists get a lot of their lyrics and substance. We need to stop being divisive.”
During the its annual convention, which concluded last week in Memphis, Steele introduced Zaria Hall, a student at Alabama State University, who is one of the artists to be featured on the label. In June, a GoFundMe campaign was set up to support the initiative.
“As you know the SCLC has been pivotal in the Civil Rights achievements that so many of us take for granted today,” said Michelle Simpson, an entertainment and business attorney, who will co-head the youth and young adult division. “Remarkably, many of the leaders from the movement were in their late teens and early 20s; the youth of their time. The tactics utilized to achieve civil rights successes were thoroughly planned, practiced, organized, collaborative and local. Those same tactics are ready to be used today by the youth of our time with the millennials and the next generation. We are here to announce our journey to reinvigorate the SCLC and introduce its successful tactics to a new generation of leaders and activists. On the journey, we will use the power of music, specifically hip-hop to reach, encourage and educate our youth. The SCLC Youth Division will be a vehicle for youth of all backgrounds and ethnicities and cultures to stand up against civil injustices nationwide and locally.”
The Justice HipHop Music Project will be the first initiative of the youth division, said Sarah Reynolds, an artist management and development consultant, who will also co-lead the project.
Under the SCLC umbrella, the project will develop, produce and promote artists with elements of jazz, blues, soul, neo-soul, gospel, rhythm-and-blues and rap. Rapper and social activist, David Banner, who was a special guest speaker at the conference, is also scheduled to be one of the label’s featured artists.
Regarding the youth division, Reynolds said the SCLC wants to “give talented artists different means to channel their talents and desires to civil justice activism while promoting and funding the SCLC’s methods of nonviolent action to obtain social, economic and political justice.”
When asked if the SCLC label will change the perception of hip-hop, Steele said that is not the organization’s aim.
“We are trying to be beneficial whereby people understand a message, because most folks in my generation are not going to take the time to understand it,” Steele said. “They will say ‘I don’t want to hear that. Put on some Nancy Wilson or Stevie Wonder’, but you have to be flexible and diverse in today’s society and that is what we are telling folks. No, it is nothing different. We are not trying to be different. We are just going to make it relative. We are not going to intimidate folks, bring down women or use profanity. We are just going to clean it up. We are going to show them how to do it. The hour is now to believe in power, and we are going to act and everybody is going to see what we are doing.”