How Oakland’s Hip-Hop Artists Made Oscar Grant One of Their Own

Art and activism may have drifted apart elsewhere, but in the Bay they are inseparable.

By Eric Arnold Nov 09, 2010

"I am hip-hop!"–KRS-One

"I am Oscar Grant!"–anonymous graffiti

As the Oscar Grant saga has played out over the past 22 months, the Bay Area hip-hop community–a multiethnic, multigenerational coalition of musicians, visual artists, activists, students and ‘hood kids–has stood at the forefront of the movement to hold police accountable for his death. Within a day of the New Year’s morning 2009 shooting, Oakland rapper Mistah F.A.B. and singer Jennifer Johns recorded a tribute song, which addressed not only the shooting, but the larger issue of violent deaths of young black men at the hands of police.

Over the past months, F.A.B. and Johns’ initial response has grown in the hip-hop world to encompass rallies, benefit concerts, panel discussions and lectures, spoken word ciphers, blog and vlog posts, even bike rides in honor of Grant’s memory. When former transit cop Johannes Mehserle’s trial was moved from Alameda County to Los Angeles, youth activists and organizers in L.A. picketed daily in front of the courthouse. It’s not a stretch to say that Grant has become the Lil’ Bobby Hutton of his generation–a young black man, killed by a police bullet, who has become representative of a larger struggle for self-determination.

"People have kept Oscar Grant on the public’s mind," says Boots Riley of the Coup.

So, why? What has made Oscar Grant so resonate within the hip-hop community?

For one, as Riley says, "There’s no sidestepping the egregiousness of the act. It was a brutal murder." But Grant’s youthfulness also can’t be ignored. Just 22 when he was killed, Grant was part of the hip-hop demographic. When other youth looked at pictures of him, they saw themselves, their siblings and their friends reflected in his toothy grin, black hoodie and watch cap.

Police accountability has long been a theme in hip-hop. For decades, rappers have decried racial profiling, brutality and corruption by law enforcement officers. Yet those efforts have been undermined on a national level by rightwing coalitions whose targeting of gangsta rap has also caught activist emcees in their crosshairs. By focusing on violent, sexually explicit lyrical content, hip-hop’s critics have muddled rap’s accountability message–while major labels, commercial radio and cable TV have shied away from promoting political themes in rap. As Mistah F.A.B. says of his Grant tribute ("My Life"), "The major corporations who have the ability, they’re not gonna play a song like that. That’s the last thing they want to do, is rally the troops."

But while hip-hop’s engagement around police accountability may not have coalesced into a national movement, it has taken hold in the Bay Area’s activist-infused environment, where social justice and hip-hop have long overlapped.

The Bay’s unique combination of street-level organizing and numerous independent hip-hop groups that are unafraid to express themselves politically has come together around Oscar Grant. According to Riley, "The organizing hasn’t really stopped." He adds: "I don’t accept this idea that people are apathetic."

The legacy of Black Power is well-evident in Oakland, where ex-Black Panthers have become parents, in many cases, of hip-hop generationers. Add the Bay’s history of radical labor and student protest movements, and you have an explanation of why its hip-hop community has maintained a grassroots awareness and political consciousness not always present in major urban areas.

The Panther influence has clearly rubbed off on rappers like F.A.B., who says he recorded the Grant tribute out of respect and concern for the community. "Instead of going out and ignoring [the issue]," he says, "I felt I needed to bring awareness to it outside of Oakland, Calif., and outside of the Bay Area."

F.A.B. adds that while he’s known for his street anthems and party songs, "There are many people who don’t know that I do conscious songs, uplifting songs, community awareness songs." His tribute to Grant, he says, "got great reviews from family members and close friends of his." And he certainly helped bring national attention to the cause by wearing an Oscar Grant t-shirt during an appearance on BET.

But F.A.B. wasn’t just riding the Grant bandwagon to boost his own fame. He solidified his grassroots status by appearing at a rally held at the site of Grant’s death–the Fruitvale BART station–a week after the incident, when the community was still in uproar and before Mehserle had been charged with a crime.

Other local musicians, including Zion-I and Kev Choice, volunteered their services to perform at subsequent justice rallies held in downtown Oakland, where many of the crowd donned Oscar Grant masks. I am Oscar Grant.

When ranks of police assembled in the Oakland streets, a young, dreadlocked African-American man bravely confronted a phalanx of officers dressed in full riot gear. Laying down in front of the officers with his hands behind his back, symbolically recreating Grant’s last action before his death, the gesture made for a powerful image, one widely circulated by mainstream media outlets. It was a scene reminiscent of the student who faced the tanks at Tiananmen Square–with a hip-hop twist.

In the weeks and months that followed, F.A.B. was joined by many other Bay Area rappers who also referenced Grant in song, from socially-conscious artists like Choice, Ise Lyfe, Native Guns, D Labrie, and The Burnerz to turf-identified rappers not usually associated with cries for justice, like AP.9 and Beeda Weeda. Instead of telling us to dance, sell drugs, get stupid, or wear clothes we can’t possibly afford, the emcees who tackled the Grant topic were  reporters for GNN–Ghetto News Network–giving listeners a street-level perspective sorely lacking in much of the mainstream press coverage.

Their influence eventually extended across cyberspace–over 2,400 YouTube videos were tagged with "Oscar Grant" and everyone from Pittsburgh rapper Jasiri X to the Vancouver website GetGrounded to the Helsinki music blog Multitunes weighed in on the issue. As the legal process played out, constant hip-hop updates reacting to new developments in the case–from the shooting to the verdict to the sentencing–kept the community engaged.

Grant’s memory was also kept alive by the efforts of numerous graffiti artists; the motto "I Am Oscar Grant!" began appearing all over Oakland, along with aerosol renditions of Grant’s now-iconic face. One of the more notable visual representations of the Grant movement was a huge mural painted on plywood sheets–ironically erected to deter possible rioters–at the Youth Radio offices at the corner of 19th Street and Broadway. The mural’s creators, known collectively as Trust Your Struggle, are a multiethnic group of artists, activists and graphic designers who had painted another mural in New York after they heard the news of the shooting.

Another example of hip-hop activism around Oscar Grant has been the numerous community-engaging events thrown by West Oakland non-profit Bikes 4 Life. In July, B4L’s annual "Peace Ride" led a 300-strong contingent of cyclists to the Fruitvale BART station for a candlelight vigil.

"We see ourselves as agents for change," explains B4L founder Tony Coleman. "Everything that we do, since we hip-hop, it just has that flava. And we use that to our benefit, because we’re able to reach those other folks that are also a part of that hip-hop culture."

What differentiates Oscar Grant from Bobby Hutton, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Michael Stewart, Aiyana Stanley-Jones and the many others who have died at the hands of police is the fact that his death was captured on video and posted on the Internet for the world to see. This, too, speaks to Grant’s relevance to the hip-hop generation.

Since its inception, one of hip-hop culture’s underlying themes has been repurposing technology as a tool for community empowerment. In an age of cell-phone cameras, social media and viral Internet memes, technology in the hands of the people has the potential to impact both the legal system and mainstream media perspectives–as the Grant case has shown.

The emergence of eyewitness videos depicting the events leading up to the shooting, as well as the actual incident, not only fueled public outrage, but changed the tone of media reportage around the case. Had Karina Vargas and the other BART passengers who documented the events that fateful New Year’s Day acceded to police demands to hand over the footage, it’s not only possible, but probable that Mehserle never would have been brought to trial. 

During the trial, defense attorney Michael Rains’ tactics were fairly typical of such cases. Grant, he seemed to argue, was a petty thug whose disobedience caused his own death. But the most powerful testimony of all remains in the public mind. Over and over again, civilian videos have contradicted police testimony. Grant’s uncle Bobby Johnson has said the picture taken with Grant’s own cell phone, showing Mehserle with his Taser drawn minutes before he un-hosltered his handgun, is what ultimately brought some measure of justice for his nephew.

Mehserle’s conviction, even for the minimum charge of involuntary manslaughter, will be remembered as a win for the police accountability movement. But it’s also a win for the hip-hop community. The fact that hip-hop has continued to organize around Oscar Grant for almost two years restores faith in the culture’s ability to promote social change, if not systemic reform.