Play Your Own Tune

With newspapers, television, radio, record labels, and Internet providers owned by a few giant corporations, only a narrow spectrum of voices get heard. Here's what Americans are doing to reclaim the power to speak out

Music is like a force of nature. It's as basic to the human condition as anything else in the natural world. But like nature, it can be productive or destructive. Fire can keep you warm, but it can also burn down the house.

I've been a hip-hop/rap artist since I was 15 years old, and my music has always reflected the issues around me. I was raised in the United Farm Workers Union because my parents were cofounders. I grew up pretty poor, pretty aware. Everything from sexism to environmental racism occupies my mind space. That's who I am, that's what I sing about. But record companies wanted me to compromise my lyrics. Their attitude was this: “If you want to get played, you should rap about sex, drugs, and violence. You should be more mainstream.”

In the ‘80s, when there were more than three record labels and the industry was less corporate, hip hop artists had more control over the content of their music. Back then, you had groups like Public Enemy, Digable Planets, X-clan. What is all that other stuff the media plays? It is selfishness. It's spoon-fed. It's insulting to your intelligence to listen to 20 minutes of “I want to take off all my clothes.” It's hip-hop, but it's what the corporations are pushing, and it's just one side of the spectrum.

La Paz, the group that I'm a part of, is on the other side of that spectrum. We want people to feel respected—and challenged. We didn't sign with a major record label and discovered that to be a blessing because we realized we could do it ourselves. We sing and rap about our experiences—and we don't hold anything back. At one point in my life, no doubt, I had teenage dreams of being a superstar. But now I think I'm much happier being what I am, because I'm free.

We're not on the charts, but we're having a great time. We started off performing for community events, benefits, and fundraisers all over our hometown in L.A. We sing about how women are the backbone of any society; how women are our mothers, grandmothers, and sisters. We rap about how we don't have a car with rims and a booming system, but can say, “Hey, I'm cool, I got skills, I can get on this mic and make any clown clap.” Some kid might rethink selling drugs for money just to impress somebody else with material wealth. Maybe he'll know he could just be cool and be creative. You can be yourself. You don't have to play to anybody else's tune. You can march to your own drum.

Even though we talked about issues related to L.A., we started taking our message across the country, even to communities that aren't exposed to the same inner-city issues every day. People tell us all the time that they feel validated and represented, and even “awakened.” If the American public were to wake up and see their interdependence and coexistence with the rest of the world, I think this corporate regime would topple. Something like the 1960s might happen—but for real, without drugs messing it all up.

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