The Hip Hop Activist

“Hip-hop isn’t just rap. It’s a subculture, but it taps into history. It taps into social justice. Hip-hop is life.”

Solomon Comissiong ’97, M.S. ’00, was born to teach at the college level. In 1973, his mother, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Massachusetts, went into labor with him on her way to lecture a class. He spent his early months snuggled in a baby seat in his mother’s office or in the lecture hall where she taught.

Thirty-six years later, Comissiong has carved out a career as an author, educator, consultant, activist, and mentor inspiring black students to embrace academics, think critically, and graduate from college. He co-founded a program that nearly doubled the retention rate of black males at the University of Maryland, where white students often outperform blacks academically.

As a kid living in predominantly white Sunderland, Mass., Comissiong, 36, grew more confident as he embraced hip-hop’s lyrics of empowerment. Decades later, he would use the same medium as a teaching tool to accomplish what many hip-hop pioneers intended—that the music and culture be uplifting while telling the stories and history of people of the African Diaspora.

Comissiong—who holds a B.A. in Communications and M.S. in College Student Personnel from URI—said hip-hop is “one of the most misunderstood mediums.” He said record labels market artists whose songs are filled with violence and misogynistic themes. But artists who inspired him as a child—like Public Enemy and KRS One—talked about social justice, black history, and black pride.

And hip-hop isn’t just rap, he said: “It’s a subculture, but it taps into history. It taps into social justice. Hip-hop is life. When you look inside hip-hop, you find struggle. You find motivation. Hip-hop instilled the confidence in me being a young black male. You had young men and women, young rappers, who were telling you, ‘young brother, young sister, you were born to kings and queens, out of resistance, so it’s OK to be young, black and proud.’”

Although he was born in Massachusetts, his family moved to Trinidad, his father’s native country, when Comissiong was a toddler. The family later settled in Sunderland, Mass., but the 10-year-old Comissiong missed the reggae and Soca music of Trinidad. Rap filled that void. Comissiong would rewind his cassette player memorizing rap songs like Kool Moe Dee’ s verse “The Dollar is Mute. Knowledge is King.”

In Intelligent Hoodlum’s song “Black and Proud,” he learned about Marcus Garvey. Garvey was a prominent activist who encouraged blacks to be proud of their race, unite, and return to Africa. “That became my love affair with him,” Comissiong said. His fascination with rap blossomed into a yearning to learn more about the African Diaspora. He once asked a barber to shave a map of Africa on his head and wore the new hairstyle to school.

Comissiong grew confident and became a standout athlete, but his grades lagged. He said a number of his high school teachers put smiley faces on assignments when he got C’s while encouraging white students to do better academically: “The expectation levels were routinely set at a low standard. I bought into that. The only constant in my life that pushed me harder was my mom and dad.”

Edward Comissiong, who holds a Ph.D in Food Science and Technology from the University of Massachusetts, encouraged his son through letters and calls from Trinidad. Wilesse Freeman Comissiong, former dean of the Balfour Center for Multicultural Affairs at Providence College, is a scholar who told her son of his potential. It took discipline to shoot the 300 jump shots a day and mental prowess to remember rap lyrics and basketball plays, she said. “He’s evolved into a scholar, and that is what we should do as life progresses—evolve,” his mother said.

At URI, Comissiong took his first African-American studies class with Cynthia Hamilton, who encouraged students to read. “He has begun to map out a course for himself. That’s so impressive,” Hamilton said. “There are things we do because we’ve been taught, but as soon as we begin to discover things on our own, we begin to map out a new course.”

Comissiong returned to campus last October 16 to speak with students at a Meet & Greet that was hosted by the Alumni of Color Network (ACN) and the Life Skills Program in Athletics.

At Maryland, Comissiong has taught African American studies classes, including one contrasting and comparing the history of blues and hip-hop. He now teaches an African American studies class that uses hip-hop to explore social issues affecting primarily people of the African Diaspora.

In 2005, Comissiong, two Maryland students, and Ronald Zeigler, director of Nyumburu Cultural Center for black students, started a program called the Black Male Initiative that has increased the retention rate of black males from 28 percent to 59 percent, Comissiong said. BMI stresses brotherhood, fellowship, and academics. Meetings are held at the Nyumburu Center, where Comissiong is assistant director for student involvement and public relations.

In 2008, BMI started a mentoring program at Greenbelt Elementary School that reduced disciplinary referrals there, the principal told The Washington Post. Comissiong, Maryland faculty, and students teamed with Justice for D.C. Youth to start an educational program at a correctional facility in the Washington, D.C., area for juveniles.

“He’s made tremendous contributions to the Nyumburu Center,” Zeigler said. “He’s an activist. He brings a unique perspective to the campus—somebody who’s going to make social change within students, within organizations. He gets people to question themselves.”

Comissiong also spearhead an outreach that raised $13,000 to buy 35,000 textbooks and laptops for schools in civil- war-torn northern Uganda.

Through SCMB Consulting, LLC, his seven-year old education consulting business, Comissiong has lectured at colleges and schools. At a pro-bono session, he gave middle-school students vocabulary words to learn and told them to write a rap. One word was ubiquitous [existing or being everywhere]. A student rapped: “My rap style is here. It’s there. It’s everywhere. You could say it’s ubiquitous.”

Comissiong knew educators could be effective if they tapped students’ interests: “I knew it was going to work because it worked with me. It was validating.”

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By Darran Simon ’98

Darran Simon is a staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer.