Rapping Whiteness

The hip-hop group AntiRacist 15 uses community organizing as a model for music that inspires.

By Juba Kalamka Mar 31, 2009

Jeb Middlebrook (Jus Rhyme) and Trevor Wysling (Raw Potential) have performed together as the group AntiRacist15 since 2004. Their debut album, Stand in Solidarity, was released last year.

Your music’s been influenced by community-based organizations−specifically, the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) and the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop. What parallels do you see between your work as recording artists and these kinds of community organizations?

Jus Rhyme: When the group came together in 2004, we weren’t sure what the identity of white people who challenge racism would be called, but we knew such white people would be dedicated to anti-racist principles. One day, I was listening to Tupac, and he rapped, “In the back, my AR-15 [Armalite 15 assault rifle].” I thought, “That’s it! What if we were the AR-15 he was talking about?  What if we were riding in the car with Tupac doing community organizing?” We metaphorized it as an anti-violence, anti-racist metaphor. It became AR-15, as in “15 anti-racist principles.”

Most of our principles were lifted directly from CTWO’s platform with their blessing and permission.

We Google “racial justice” and “racial justice organizing” and the city name we’re going to gig in and reach out to local organizers, inviting them to do what they do: organize, build their membership, raise funds, politically educate.

Raw Potential: Sharon [Martinas of Challenging White Supremacy Workshop] very directly told us that as artists we are not organizers but mobilizers. We can get a lot of people in one room at one time. With that ability, she pointed out we could make volunteer and financial commitments to local racial justice and anti-racist organizing.

In early 2007, Jeb appeared on the MTV series The White Rapper Show. What was that experience like?
Jus Rhyme: We were familiar with the work of ego trip [magazine, whose staffers served as the show’s executive producers], and they were the main reason I applied to WRS in the first place. We felt we had something unique to say about whiteness in hip-hop and in America that we were hearing among white anti-racist organizers but not in popular culture.

I could control what came out my mouth but not how it was contextualized. At times, they would juxtapose my political moments with other white contestants dismissing what I had said. This was their means of presenting a “fair and balanced show” rather than “anti-racist propaganda.” That said, we successfully disseminated radical politics to three million people over three months through a major media outlet without compromising what we stood for. In Episode 7, the producers posted all 15 anti-racist principles on-screen.  

You’re both young, straight, white men. You might be considered safe for activists who might not be interested in addressing LGBTQ rights or women’s issues or seeing them as connected to anti-racist activism.
Raw Potential: We are often a “safe” entry for some people, but [we view this] as a means of building bridges with the communities we represent in order to move the political consciousness of people who may not be exposed to these ideas or practices on a regular basis, if ever. It’s a way of using our privileges to challenge oppressions.
How have you balanced the economic realities of the music business with your activist work?

Jus Rhyme: We run AR-15 Entertainment the way we’ve seen solid grassroots organizations run campaigns. It’s ironic, but we see lots of artists—and activists too—overlooking the importance of developing a base of people that believe in what you do, individually or organizationally. To us, that’s the basis of building social movements. We partner with local community organizations for our live shows around the country so we can connect our fan base to local justice work. We’re also purposefully a for-profit company, meaning we have no political constraints on telling people how to vote.  

To read more about the group, go to antiracist15.wordpress.com.

*Juba Kalamka is co-founder and producer of the "homohop" group Deep Dickollective(D/DC) and owner of the micro-label Sugartruck Recordings.*