BY WARREN COHEN
July 25, 2002 (337 words)
Face flat on the pavement with his hands behind his back, Wyclef Jean lay like a stone. “I’m not leaving until I speak to the kids,” he shouted to the throng of cops. Jean was in New York to join other hip-hop artists like Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Jay-Z and Chuck D on stage at a June 4th rally to protest proposed budget cuts at public schools and urge a new contract for teachers. When a policeman refused to let him break through the crowd, Jean dropped dropped to the ground until he was handcuffed and taken to jail for disorderly conduct. Says Jean, “I felt completely violated.”
It was a noteworthy day for New York schoolteachers and the fledgling hip-hop activist movement. Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, the man with the most powerful two-way in rap, attracted so many artists it seemed like The Source Awards. Alicia Keys, Erykah Badu, LL Cool J, Raekwon, and RZA were among those joining the United Federation of Teachers and the Alliance for Quality Education in front of an estimated crowd of 50,000. A week later, the teachers got a new contract, ending a nineteen-month stalemate.
New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg pooh-poohed the rappers’ influence. “I do not believe that Wyclef Jean really negotiated this contract,” he said. But UFT president Randi Weingarten disagreed. “I believe it had an impact,” she said. “It was a seminal event in New York City history.”
That’s in part because it was a major public triumph for Simmons’ one-year-old Hip Hop Summit Action Network, which aims to move hip-hop’s message beyond the bling-bling. “When I asked who would use their celebrity to benefit their community, they all came,” says Simmons.
Jean, who attended Brooklyn’s P.S. 199, was held in a cell for about three hours and released with a summons. His mother was most alarmed. “She was watching TV and she saw the cuffs put on me and she freaked out,” he said. “My mother didn’t raise me to be in no handcuffs.”