Photo by David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
Now is the Time for Hip-Hop to Talk About Afrika Bambaataa
Now 50, it’s time for hip-hop to grow up and honor survivors of abuse who were brave enough to tell their stories. Even if its godfather, Afrika Bambaataa, is the perpetrator.
People may need to remember how hip-hop pioneers and second-generation legends moved as a community back in the day. They attended hip-hop summits and discussed the denigration of women and girls in songs, the evils of the music industry, and how damaging negative portrayals of Black people in rap music would cause irreparable harm. The music, attendees felt, set Black people back in honor and respect after years of sacrifice by fighters in the liberation struggle. Afrika Bambaataa took the messages back to his Bronx soapbox and preached the same to his following in the Universal Zulu Nation (UZN).
Some hip-hop sophomore lineage, like Daddy O of Stetsasonic, still think this way — that hip-hop is a community. I remember interviewing Daddy O in Houston about the allegations against Bambaataa and asked him about the effect they would have on hip-hop. Even though Bambaataa is his elder, Daddy O wanted to see hip-hop take the issue on.
“I don’t know if it will have the kind of effect people might think it may have. Where it could really be negative is if we don’t deal with this,” he said. “Let’s say Bambaataa goes off the grid and we never see him again. We still need to deal with this issue and I would love to deal with this issue in hip-hop. I just think that we need to. I think it can start us to deal with whatever we need to deal with in the hip-hop community.”
Was such an ideal too lofty?
American DJ and producer Afrika Bambaataa performs live on stage at the Drum Rhythm Festival in Amsterdam, Netherlands on 9th May 1997.Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns.
Afrika Bambaataa has become a hip-hop boogeyman
In August 2021, a lawsuit was filed against Bambaataa accusing him of child sex trafficking, with the unnamed victim alleging that the DJ assaulted, groomed, and sold him to other men over a four-year period in the early ‘90s. Two years laters and the case remains open in Bronx Supreme Court, with men ready to testify if a trial takes place. Bambaataa nor the Zulu Nation has responded to the case. Instead, he’s traveling across the world, performing to crowds in countries like Morocco and Spain. But back here in the United States, specifically New York City, he’s a specter. He's someone people are hesitant to acknowledge in public spaces, as was evident when Grandmaster Flash name-dropped him alongside other hip-hop founders like Kool Herc during a press conference for Mayor Eric Adams’ partnership with the Universal Hip-Hop Museum in November last year, saying: "I want to say to Kool Herc, thank you for that first party. This other name I might not be allowed to say, but I must say to Afrika Bambaataa." As hip-hop celebrates its 50th birthday, the allegations against Bambaataa are a shadow that looms over the festivities, the once beloved hip-hop pioneer now a hip-hop boogeyman.
I’ve reported extensively on what’s become of Bambaataa since the allegations first surfaced in March 2016, primarily through a YouTube series called Trapped in a Culture, Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation. Across the 100-plus hours of interview footage I’ve compiled for Trapped in a Culture, I’ve spoken with notable figures like Chuck D and Lord Jamar, who spoke out against Bambaataa. I’ve also spoken with victims, too: Hassan Campbell, Ronald Savage, and E-Jay, as well as those who wanted to stay anonymous out of fear for their safety, taking on the names “Number 4” and “Number 5.”
Campbell is the most well-known of the victims who’ve come forward, having amassed almost 500,000 subscribers to his social media accounts. In October 2015, he posted a video disclosing the alleged abuse he endured by Bambaataa that began in 1989 when he was 12, and continued on for several years. Six months later, Troi “Star” Torain interviewed him and the story went viral.
Five or six months after Campbell’s initial video, Savage tweeted about Bambaataa allegedly abusing him in 1979 or 1980 when he was 15 (the tweet has since been deleted). He was the first to be interviewed by Star, and he also called the NY Daily News, Lisa Evers, and other news outlets to get his story out, sharing with the latter: “Growing up, I didn’t even look at none of his pictures or photos or stuff like that. I feel yuck.”
In 1980, E-Jay was nine when he alleged Bambaataa started grooming him. He also shared that Bambaataa allegedly kept another Bronx apartment in River Park Towers that he used to assault young boys.
“Number 4” was 13 in 1978 when he was a kid temporarily living with family in Bronx River Houses, where Bambaataa lived and threw parties. Bambaataa moved with his mother to Mark Terrace, where Number 4 said he sexually assaulted him.
In 1985, Number 5 was 16 when Bambaataa approached him at the Roxy. He took him on the road and allegedly abused him in a hotel during a trip to Boston.
All while these incidents were occurring, Bambaataa was growing into a respected hip-hop figure beloved by his peers and successors, and presenting himself as a man of peace, unity, love, and having fun. His reverence only grew as he transitioned into being a hip-hop pioneer, elder statesman, and ambassador. He broke down hip-hop’s Bronx origins on an episode of the late Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown series in 2014, took on the role of a visiting professor at Cornell University in the early-mid 2010s, and met with United Nations delegates (alongside KRS-One and other hip-hop figures) to present them with a Hip Hop Declaration of Peace in 2001. This last one is particularly notable, considering that part of the declaration states: “As a conscious way of life, we acknowledge our influence on society, especially on children; and we shall forever keep the rights and welfare of both in mind.”
With all of these accomplishments, Bambaataa was well on his way to cementing his legacy even further, by helping to create what has now become the Universal Hip Hop Museum in the Bronx.
Universal Hip Hop Museum executive director Rocky Bucano speaks during the Universal Hip Hop Museum Groundbreaking Ceremony at Bronx Point on May 20, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York City.Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images.
Afrika Bambaataa and the Universal Hip-Hop Museum
Back in August 2012, Bambaataa and fellow Zulu Nation members Mickey Bentson, Cutman LG, and Brother Shakim met with developer Young Woo, along with Rocky Bucano, Grandwizard Theodore, and Melle Mel. Woo was competing for a space in the Bronx to build a mall; Bambaataa and Mel signed letters of intent with the developer to “help create an international museum of hip-hop,” and hit the campaign trail.
Four years later when the allegations surfaced, Bambaataa was supposedly removed from any involvement with the museum, according to Bucano. (It’s worth noting that the Museum promoted UZN on several different occasions after the allegations surfaced, with one example as recent as last year being a 49th-anniversary celebration of the UZN at the Museum).
“The Universal Hip Hop Museum and Mr. Bucano condemn all acts of violence and abuse. I would like to make it clear that Afrika Bambaataa has not had a role at the Universal Hip Hop Museum since 2016. I and the Universal Hip Hop Museum are not party to any activities affiliated with the Universal Zulu Nation. I affirm that the Universal Hip Hop Museum is committed to its mission to empower, educate, and uplift communities,” the statement, which was shared in a Rolling Stone report earlier this year on Bucano’s alleged ties with Universal Zulu Nation, read. “While it is true that Afrika Bambaataa was a founding member of the museum, he was removed from any involvement with the museum as soon as the allegations surfaced. He has never been a board member, advisory board member or volunteer.”
What’s interesting about this is, at the time, Bambaataa’s complicated duality came to light. He questioned why the allegations were coming up now while relying on his image as hip-hop advocate and unifier, saying on The Ed Lover Show With Monie Love: “You need to ask the question, ‘Why now, and what is the hidden agenda behind this?’ Is it because I’m still being relevant today, trying to do things that help people all across the world, trying to start a hip-hop museum?”
Then, in a leaked UZN conference call, he compared himself to other notable figures with abuse allegations, brashly stating: “If y’all worried about if Bambataa still here, get the fuck out…you could look at all the other different situations from the Pope down, ain’t nobody left shit…Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, or Honorable Elijah Muhammad… none of they brothers left them ‘cause of BS…I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
Hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa speaks during a press conference to announce the launch of The Smithsonian's "Hip-Hop Won't Stop: The Beat, The Rhymes, The Life" at the Hilton Hotel February 28, 2006 in New York City.Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images.
Afrika Bambaataa’s questionable duality
In many people’s minds, they can’t fathom this latter Bambaataa. Even though he tried to clean it up after getting blasted by MC Shan and the public, KRS-One spoke honestly — and for more than just himself — when he said “I don’t give a fuck” about the allegations. Then, there’s those who apparently knew of Bambaataa’s questionable duality but feigned indifference, as was the case when Melle Mel shamelessly told Vlad that “everybody knew” what the DJ was doing to underage boys.
The only pioneer I can recall making a definitive condemnation of Bambaataa was Mel’s fellow Furious Five member Rahiem. The allegations audibly angered Rahiem, with the rapper saying during an interview with Murder Master Music Show: “That’s a vile and disgusting act to sodomize a young man or anyone who’s not at the age of consent. When you use trickery or when you use manipulation of any kind, that’s not cool. And these people looked at this person with great respect. And they wanted him to be their usher into hip-hop culture.” In another interview, Rahiem doubled down on these comments, saying: “The sexual allegations against Afrika Bambaataa, I think, are very damaging to hip-hop culture.”
I love when people say, “You can’t erase what Bambaataa did for hip-hop.” They’re right — no, you can’t erase what he did for hip-hop. But we also need to talk about what he did to hip-hop. How the kids who found themselves a part of this culture — whether as graffiti artist, dancer, emcee or DJ — fell out of love with it because of Bambaataa’s abuse of his influence and power. Now 50, it’s time for hip-hop to grow up and honor survivors of abuse who were brave enough to tell their stories. Even if its godfather is the perpetrator.
Chicago-based journalist Leila Wills is the Executive Director of the Historical Preservation Society of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, publisher of the Metropolis newspaper, co-publisher of Chuck D’s RapCentralStation magpaper, programs manager for Landmarks Illinois, and is working to preserve the home of pioneering scientist Percy L. Julian. She has worked for HBO and was a contractor for BMG, Source magazine, Universal Music, and other entertainment companies. She is a co-founder and spokesperson for Hip Hop Stands With Survivors, a collective of activists against sexual abuse. She has been covering the Afrika Bambaataa allegations for seven years.
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