The first time I traveled to Cincinnati, I thought it was the most effed up city I had ever seen.
In 2005, my friend, Gavin Leonard, invited me and my colleagues at the League to conduct a civic engagement training at a fledgling youth arts center that he co-founded in Cincinnati's Over the Rhine, one of the most economically deprived communities in the country. The premise of his project, Elementz Hip-Hop, was deceptively simple: if you provide urban youth with access to studio equipment, art teachers, and mentors, they can choose creative outlets over criminal ones, and ultimately live fuller, richer lives.
A simple premise, but as Gavin took us on a tour through his hood, I couldn't see how it would work. 2005-era Cincinnati's Over the Rhine neighborhood looked like the warped offspring of The Wire's Amsterdam and Gangs of New York's 5 Points. On every street corner we passed, I saw young African-American men in over-sized white T-shirts, pitching narcotics to drug addicts while posturing to protect their territory. The tension, the hopelessness was palpable.
But Elementz persevered, and for the last seven years, it has offered Cincinnati's inner-city youth a safe space for dreaming big and putting plans into motion. Every day, talented young women and men step into its recording booths, hoping the next rhyme they recite will get them out of their neighborhoods and into a million dollar recording contract.
They don't have to look far for inspiration. One Cincinnati resident who survived the streets to live out his dreams is the platinum-selling recording artist Hi-Tek. In a genre that is criticized for its shallowness and petty beefs, Hi-Tek has collaborated with everyone from Snoop Dogg and Common to 50 Cent, producing classics like Black Star's "Respiration" and Talib Kweli's "Beautiful Struggle."
Hi-Tek's music speaks of social awareness and the triumph of hope over despair. With a high-stakes election on November 8th, we feel that Ohio's urban youth could use all the hope that they can get. That's why the League of Young Voters Education Fund has teamed up with Hi-Tek and Elementz to host #HiTekTalk on YoungVoterLive.com, today, at 4 p.m. Eastern.
Hi-Tek made it out of Cincinnati's mean streets, but the young musicians at Elementz face an uphill battle. Ohio's elected officials have made drastic cuts to institutions like after-school programs and Boys and Girls Clubs. These community organizations perform the priceless function of Elementz: providing hope to the hungry, and possibility to those who, otherwise, could only dream.
The soul of hip-hop is born in the recording booths, but it lives in the streets. If we want to rewrite our futures, we must turn our dreams into actions and mobilize. As Ohio counts down to Election Day on November 8th, we hope that #HiTekTalk will provide a platform for young voters to think critically about their roles as advocates for their generation. Together, we can help our youth find their own voices, and use them to change all of our lives for the better.
RSVP for #HiTekTalk, Wednesday, 10/26 @ 4pm Eastern: on.fb.me/HiTekTalk