Though Florida has seen a decline in homelessness over the past few years, Pinellas and Pasco Counties still account for the state’s highest homeless populations right after Miami-Dade. This doesn’t even include the upwards of 450,000 Extremely Low Income (ELI) households that may have roofs over their heads but make less than 30 percent of their area’s median income ($16,850 or less per year for four-member families), and spend more than 60 percent of their own income on housing, a cost burden that eats into already limited resources for essentials like food, medication and clothing.
Tampa emcee Elgin Cintron, aka ?nowledge, is particularly attuned to the issue. “I’ve been fortunate — my mom always made sure we had food on the table — but I still grew up in near-poverty most of my life. I saw it at the schools I went to, in my neighborhood, growing up in Florida in general.” In fact, his mother moved Cintron and his three brothers and sister from Miami back to her native Tampa Bay in 1997 to get away from a rapidly deteriorating neighborhood. Cintron says he loves Miami, but admits, “I think I had the upper hand getting raised here, ’cause down there, I would’ve gotten into trouble, it was the nature of it all.”
Being exposed to areas affected by poverty, firmly in touch with societal concerns, and always having his ear to the ground eventually prompted him to take action with Hip Hop Against Hunger, especially when he saw a need for charitable events in the local hip-hop scene. “On top of that, there’s a lot of negative connotations associated with hip-hop, so I really wanted to do something that was both good for the community and also cast a positive light on hip-hop at the same time.”
Cintron — who started writing spoken-word poetry at 9 years old and was recording as ?nowledge by 18 — has been performing on the scene for the past several years, both as a member of now-defunct group Indigenous Ways (a name Cintron still uses to promote shows and put out music) and as a solo emcee.
His socially conscious thought-provoking lyrical style reflects the way he lives, the struggles that shaped who he is, and the wisdom he’s gained along the way and strives to spread around with his music. His desire to inspire and illuminate is paired with a certain level of pragmatism. “Not to take away from spirituality or religion, but I feel like people need to be more self-empowering, more proactive in their lives, and not just be looking for someone else to solve their problems. It doesn’t mean you can’t have your religion but don’t sit around waiting for something to happen.” At the end of the day, he says, “I just want to leave something for people to use as a guide to empower themselves and get out of the situations they are in. And that’s the same direction I’m going in with Hip Hop Against Hunger, trying to make it a force of change.”
Since its inception in 2010, Hip Hop Against Hunger has collected more than 2,200 pounds of food. Cintron hopes to boost that number substantially for 2014 recipient Homeless Emergency Project, a nonprofit that provides housing, food and support services to the area’s homeless. HEP was named as one of the top three charities in Tampa Bay by Charity Navigator and earned the site’s coveted 4-star rating for the fourth consecutive year in 2014.
It’s not just about collecting food donations, however. “A big part of why I’m doing this, is to get people more involved.” He prefers food drives to fundraising. Aside from the lack of transparency about where the money is going and ambiguousness about whether the money is truly helping the people who need it, Cintron believes philanthropy is the easy way out. “I’d rather see things happening and make sure they happen, hands on.” The idea is that philanthropists aren’t active participants; they are detached from the problem and thus unable to truly understand it or bring about meaningful change. “That’s how I feel like I should be. It’s one thing to throw money at it, it’s another thing to be there and get the experience and see people who need the help and get more in touch with what’s actually happening. That’s the gist of Hip Hop Against Hunger.”
Cintron organizes it all himself, from planning the event to booking bands and securing a venue, to performing the necessary research and legwork to find a suitable charity. This year, the event moves out of Ybor to Green Gators in Tampa, and admission is free (although attendees are asked to bring donations). An earlier time slot is geared at drawing more families, as are diversions beyond the lineup of outstanding local hip-hop talent, such as live graffiti artists and break dancers, face painting for kids, and henna tattoos. “Homelessness, hunger, and poverty in general — the disparity is getting larger,” says Cintron. “We need the whole family to get involved if we’re actually going to change anything in our communities.”
Fifth Annual Hip Hop Against Hunger
with The Villanz, Queen of Ex, Mike Mass, Groovefist, Rahim Samad, Logic ForBeatz, ?nowledge, Sinister Six DJs, and Inspired Beyond Group, Sat., Dec. 6, 3-8 p.m., Green Gators Bar & Grill, 9202 Anderson Road, Tampa, free admission with the donation of non-perishable food, unused clothing or toiletries.