Beats, Rhymes, and Vegan: The Hip-Hop Activists Are out to Save Black Lives
G-Unit, Flipmode Squad, Dipset, Cash Money, OVO, Wu-Tang Clan—the names of hip-hop crews are often as legendary as the individual artists in them. But thanks to the efforts of Keith Tucker, a Seattle-based health activist and self-described “hip-hop senior citizen,” followers of the culture might soon find themselves part of another, albeit unofficial, collective: the vegan hip-hop crew.
“When I first started talking about a plant-based diet, people were looking at me like, ‘Hip-hop and veganism? What does hip-hop have to do with veganism?’ Now when I talk about it, it’s cool,” Tucker told TakePart.
This new receptivity toward a plant-based diet can be seen in last week’s official adoption in New York City of “health and wellness” as the 10th element of hip-hop—alongside long-standing tenets such as break dancing, deejaying, graffiti art, and rapping. The ceremony, held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, was attended by former NBA star John Salley, several hip-hop greats, including Easy AD of the pioneering Cold Crush Brothers, Styles P, and Jadakiss—as well as wellness and food-justice activist Ashel Eldridge.
The inclusion of health and wellness in the elements is the direct result of 50-year-old Tucker’s work through Hip Hop Is Green, an organization he started in 2009. Since its launch, Hip Hop Is Green has served free vegan meals to roughly 4,000 people, mostly low-income youths of color on the West Coast, in the hopes of reducing rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and stroke.
To celebrate the declaration of health and wellness as the 10th element, Hip Hop Is Green has taken its events on an eight-city tour. A dinner attended by about 250 people was held in New York City after the proclamation. The tour hit Baltimore on Monday, landed in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, and will visit Portland, Oregon; Seattle; St. Louis; Chicago; Detroit; and Oakland, California, over the next few months.
“We are stepping up to fill a void by officially making health and wellness a permanent part of hip-hop. Our goal is to inform and inspire a whole new generation to make health and wellness the most important in their lives,” said Tucker.
At the dinners, Tucker and his team make people feel welcome and show them that vegan eating is easy and delicious. “Most of the people that we serve have never had a vegan meal before, other than a salad. They don’t really know what’s going on. They’ve got the stereotypes in there of nasty tofu squares or nuts in a salad,” said Tucker.
Along with the food, the event’s program typically features short speeches and hip-hop performances. “The speakers talk about benefits of a plant-based diet, but we don’t try to be preachy,” Tucker said. “We’ll engage the crowd like an MC—we’ll ask, ‘Who do you know in your family who has died from cancer, heart attack, diabetes, or stroke?’ We see all the hands go up and all the heads nod. What we bring it back to is, hey, we need to change what we’re eating. These are chemicals you’re putting into your bodies that are disguised to look like food.”
Oakland-based Eldridge met Tucker when he brought the green dinners to the Bay Area in 2010. Eldridge, who has used hip-hop to teach kids about the dangers of fast-food consumption, got into food-justice work after the death of his grandmother from diabetes. The two clicked, and now Eldridge—who works under the moniker Ashel Seasunz—is touring with Tucker. Although the dinners emphasize a plant-based diet, they also introduce attendees to other aspects of wellness. “People who are into working out, who teach meditation or yoga, come to the dinners,” Eldridge told TakePart. “It’s food, but it’s also everything that makes us healthy and well.”
Their efforts come at a time when obesity rates have skyrocketed and 1.5 million people worldwide died from type 2 diabetes in 2012. In black and brown communities in the United States—the historic roots of hip-hop—rates of disease and obesity are at epidemic levels. Latino and black children in the U.S. are more likely than their white peers to be obese. As for adults, heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the black community, and black folks are 60 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
“I always wanted to do something to forward hip-hop culture if I could,” said Tucker. This year he came up with adding the health-focused element to the culture. “I sent an open letter to many pioneers in hip-hop saying, hey, I would like to add a new element to this culture, which is health and wellness. From all the pioneering legends I got a resounding yes,” he explained.
Tucker first got into health and wellness issues in 2008 thanks to a show he hosted on an AM radio station in Seattle. For The Keith Tucker Show, he produced two series—Hip Hop Beyond Rap and Hip Hop Activism and Black Mentorship—that featured prominent guests discussing the issues and ideas influencing hip-hop culture.
Stic.man and M-1 of the New York City–based hip-hop duo Dead Prez came to town, and Tucker had lunch with them at a vegan restaurant in nearby Tacoma, Washington. “I really enjoyed the food, and I remembered that I had talked to KRS-One about veganism when we were on the road together in 2005,” said Tucker. “I had also done work with Public Enemy, and I knew some of them were vegetarians. So I thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be interesting to investigate vegans in hip-hop for my radio show and find out why they switched to a plant-based diet?’ ”
Tucker said he soon realized that “I can’t be eating ribs, burgers, and chicken while doing the radio series, so I came up with the idea of me going vegan for it.” That inspired his 2011 documentary film, Pursuit of a Green Planet, which follows Tucker’s transition to becoming vegan. While he was doing research for the film, he went to a Vegfest event in Seattle. Attending the healthy-eating vegetarian festival allowed him to see a whole new world of food that he never knew existed.
“At that Vegfest, I had an epiphany moment that one, why don’t I see people from the urban community in here, and two, everybody is old, and three, I need to bring this to the hood,” he said. The Vegfest organizers told Tucker that the few times they’d gone to urban communities, people looked at them “like they were from Mars. But they couldn’t speak the language. They didn’t know hip-hop,” he said. That spurred Tucker to create Hip Hop Green Dinners, events that would introduce a healthy, plant-based lifestyle to underserved communities.
Tucker acknowledges that the average Iggy Azalea fan may not know what the pillars of hip-hop are—and may think the culture is about partying, smoking blunts, and popping bottles. But he has seen firsthand that it’s better to focus on the positive.
The late civil rights activist C. Delores Tucker, who came to fame in the 1990s for her battles against explicit lyrics in rap songs—particularly those by Tupac Shakur—is Tucker’s aunt. “Around the time that she was attacking Death Row and Tupac, I was her intern,” Tucker said. “I would be at her events. She would ask me things about hip-hop, Tupac, and Death Row—and I was actually a fan. I loved Death Row.”
Tucker’s bird’s-eye view of hip-hop culture’s rejection of his aunt’s activism made him “go in the total opposite direction” when he began his health and wellness work. “We’re going to make sure that our stuff is more powerful than that. This movement is just in its infancy right now, but pretty soon those guys on the street doing whatever, they’re going to be like ‘Man, I need to come over here—I need to get healthy,’ ” he said.