Just six blocks from Denver’s glassy skyscrapers, the intersection is surprisingly calm. Most traffic turns away from this area and the electronic whistle of a light-rail train at the 26th and Welton stop in Five Points is often as close to a car horn as can be heard.
Neighbors stand in small clusters on corners and in doorways, their conversations occasionally being broken up by the distorted music flowing out of passing car windows.
Inside one red-brick building at this intersection, on the second floor, atop a dusty staircase, is the office of Jeff Campbell. And, standing apart from the piles of paper and posters, the tan office chairs and a matte black file cabinet that looks almost charred, is the bright white banner symbolizing the jewel that Campbell has created.
From his small office, Campbell, the executive director and co-founder of the Colorado Hip Hop Coalition, is bridging an increasingly important gap between urban communities and the culture that is so closely related, but not always connected, to them.
There is a gap
Outside of Campbell’s office, a woman can be heard accompanying the music of a passing car’s stereo. Her singing is out of tune and her words are slurred.
“That woman is always cracked out, she can’t stand still anymore,” said Campbell as he turns from the window back to his filing cabinet. “Do you see why I do this?”
The woman, Campbell said, exemplifies the need and purposes for his organization.
The Colorado Hip Hop Coalition finds its most active involvement — and its headquarters — in the urban portions of Denver where hip-hop is not just rappers and music, it is a living culture and major influence in the area. However, there is a misconception about hip-hop within these communities.
Campbell said, the vast majority of people in these areas see hip-hop as simply a get-rich-quick scheme like that, which is so evident in the mainstream portrayals of the genre. To Campbell, so often this misconception leads to people looking for success in the wrong ways.
“There is a gap between the hip-hop communities in Colorado and the greater community,” said Campbell. “I believe that the key to closing that gap is through the youth.”
Campbell is working to bridge a gap within people’s understanding of hip-hop. Looking beyond the fame and riches of music videos or MTV’s “Cribs,” he is exposing the community to the lessons that can be taken from hip-hop at its grass-roots level.
“Hip-hop is a catalyst for character development among youth,” said Campbell, who works closely with high-school-aged kids in and around Denver.
The Colorado Hip Hop Coalition’s work is guided by a three-tiered system focusing on creative self-expression, media literacy, and entrepreneurship. All of these principles, Campbell said, can come through an understanding of hip-hop and the music industry and, in turn, equate to those needed to be successful in the business world.
“I want kids to realize that, sure, I can rap, but I can start a business too,” said Campbell.
I am …
In his after-school programs, Campbell emphasizes the empowerment that can come through hip-hop and the personal confidence that can result and lead to bigger things. A routine practice for his students is to stand in front of peers and finish the sentence “I am …”
“I am is a powerful set of words, you have to have that confidence to be proud of who you are and where you are from, what you represent,” Campbell said.
The realization of his own sense of empowerment through hip-hop, in fact, led to the genesis of Campbell’s coalition.
In April 1997, the front windows of a locally owned record shop called Spin’s CDs and Tapes on 28th and Downing Street in Denver were shot out by a neighborhood gang. One of the bullets hit the store owner, whose children had been playing outside the store at the time. Tired of working in the troublesome neighborhood, the shop owner thought of quitting and closing his business. Hearing of the incident, Campbell and a fellow local rapper organized a block party to raise money for the repair of the store.
“We sent out press releases and got the neighborhood together and we put on a performance,” Campbell said. “When people from the news started to ask us what we called ourselves, I just started to say, ‘the Hip Hop coalition’ and it grew from there. After that block party, I realized that we can use hip-hop to empower the community.”
The Hip Hop Coalition did not really gain focus until a few years later. Campbell said he did not know how to go about his goal at first and was actually more interested in how such an organization could extend his own exposure in the industry and help him to reach success.
Three years after its block party start, Campbell would realize his organization’s focus through work at a poetry workshop and, in 2000, with the help of educators, Campbell wrote and received his first grant.
Campbell now works with high schools in the Denver area, no longer teaching poetry, but rather what he calls, “the literature of the 21st century,” which, he explains, is becoming increasingly important in inner-city education.
Campbell said, kids don’t associate themselves with Shakespeare, we can get their attention with hip-hop and show them that, while it may not be associated with poetry terms normally, when you put it on paper it often has the same structure.
“Hip-hop is literacy and it is public speaking at its finest,” said Campbell whose program emphasizes the educational and self-improving applications of hip-hop.
Campbell’s hip-hop program has taken the place of his own drive to sell CDs, but he has not had to leave hip-hop behind. Instead, Campbell is beginning to show his community that there is much more to hip-hop that just money and women. From its grass-roots level, hip-hop can teach someone to be confident, proud, comfortable speaking in front of people, and how to participate effectively in the business world.
“Commercial hip-hop, as people see it on TV, can be dangerous,” Campbell said. “Educators need to take hip-hop seriously because kids are media-sensitive.”
If kids can learn to be successful from a grass-roots level, said Campbell, then it doesn’t matter who is on MTV making money for corporations and not for themselves.
Campbell said he could understand that many people have their goals to be a star like those on TV, but without understanding how they got there or the consequences for getting there, they will remain unsuccessful.
A high school student named Raymond is Campbell’s number one success story and in many senses embodies how an understanding of the hip-hop world can motivate someone toward success.
During work at his program at George Washington High School, Campbell came across Raymond, a troublemaker. His father was estranged, his mother was in prison and Raymond, himself, was in juvenile diversion. Raymond was quiet, but managed to find his way into trouble quite often.
Upon meeting Raymond, Campbell sought out the troubled youth’s goals and discovered that Raymond wished to be the next Hype Williams — a prominent music video director and producer. Campbell became closely involved in mentoring Raymond and got him a job at Denver Community Television.
As Raymond learned at DCTV, his ambition grew and, most recently, Raymond found work in the Denver Mayor’s Office of Art, Culture, and Film. Campbell said, Raymond is now completely focused on attending film school — almost a complete turnaround from when the two first met.
“The only thing that separates kids from their dreams is information,” said Campbell, explaining his own personal success and the roots for the success for those around him. “Why I do what I do now, is that I have seen this work.”
Campbell’s organization is now providing a guiding light for many community members, youth and adult alike, and the Hip Hop Coalition is even providing a place for the incubation of new organizations that may work in conjunction with the Coalition.
CL Productions is one such organization, which provides outreach to youth as well as an outlet for youth to learn more about the arts. A father of two, Mandell, better known as Oakland-born rapper Cubby So Luvily, is the mind behind CL Productions and, for now, is under the wing of Campbell and his Coalition.
“I am trying to give kids who are going out in the middle of the night somewhere to go to; when they get on a light rail, I want them to be going to a productive destination,” said Cubby, who met Campbell at a Denver community center, The Spot.
For Campbell, Cubby and CL Productions represents a success on a different level, a level that may show that Campbell’s efforts to bridge the gap between hip-hop and community are becoming successful. It seems that the connecting point in the microcosm between Campbell and Cubby mirrors Campbell’s intentions of connecting the world of the real hip-hop with the real world.
For Cubby, like younger Raymond, Campbell’s goals — and the hip-hop culture that he is seeking to spread — have reintroduced him to the notion and possibility of success.
“I see myself as going from facing a judge and possibly a sentence at Quentin to sitting here talking to you all,” Cubby said in summation.
For Campbell, the bottom line is that hip-hop can help people realize their own power to make an impact.
“This is my success story,” Campbell said.
Possible Info Box:
Colorado Hip Hop Coalition Presents:
Rappers Stopping Violence and Prejudice
An evening of hip hop, multimedia and performance art for peace
April 5, 2003
119 Park Ave. West
Denver, CO 80205
Info Line: 303-296-0966