Gathered in a circle, with our backs to each other, a woman walked the circumference of bodies, tagging each of us with a celebrity’s name .
Without saying a word, and without knowing our assigned characters, 14 labeled staff and Board members wandered around a board room, reading one another’s back to match up with their pair.
On this Saturday afternoon, it wasn’t unusual to see Ossie Davis looking for Ruby Dee or to see DJ Premier greet GURU with a pound and a hug.
This activity was part of a team building exercise at the Words Beats & Life (WBL) staff retreat. Talk about a way to engage employees and board members — all of whom grew up during hip hop’s “golden age” and who ranged in age from early 30s to late 40s.
WBL, a DC-based hip hop nonprofit, started as a conference at the University of Maryland, College Park in the fall of 2000.
Since its incorporation in 2003, the organization has set out to transform individual lives and communities through hip hop with its programs. In addition to its multi-media hip hop arts Academy, a global journal and a hip hop business incubator is WBL’s annual festival that started in 2008.
The nonprofit recently hired me as their Arts & Culture editor.
At today’s retreat, my partner, a talented emcee and teaching artist, and I were among the pairs that developed an impromptu commercial for WBL, which was part of the day’s second exercise.
During the event, the staff and Board reminisced on 90s LPs (“Yo, Raekwon’s ONLY BUILT 4 CUBAN LINX! That’s my joint”) and discussed the organization’s future in addition to hip hop’s potential for youth development.
In a 2012 Teach-in video, Tim Jones, director of Education in the Elementary to Career initiative at Martha’s Table, rhapsodized on hip hop as a form of gang resistance, helping rival crews take the battle from the streets to the dance floor.
A WBL Board member noted how hip hop’s also used as a coping mechanism. “There’s always a song that helps you cope or deal with a situation,” she said.
Hip hop helped a popular local DJ with public speaking. “DJing helped me build confidence to be in front of people,” he said.
The self-affirmation from mastering the turntable, according to another DJ, helped him question, then reject the negative perceptions some people had of him.
That self-confidence helped him build a record of both professional and personal successes.
As for me, hip hop helped make me a better writer. I’m always amazed when I hear emcees like Pharoahe Monch, Jean Grae, Invincible and John Robinson, among others.
They always challenge themselves to switch up their wordplay and cadence so their LPs are more a showcase of their various styles — each song a surprise exciting my spirit.
As a writer, the lesson I take from hip hop is to push myself to always go with a fresh approach or new way of tackling topics in a poem or article.
With WBL’s wonderful work, hip hop is helping a younger generation realize, and fulfill, their potential.