From hip-hop writer to teacher, learn the many roles of Robert “Biko” Baker

If you ask Robert “Biko” Baker about himself, he’ll tell you straight up that he’s a jock. And a nerd. And a hip-hop journalist, a historian, a teacher, a voting rights advocate, a CEO, and a proud Milwaukeean. Just to name a few.

Right now, he’s an associate lecturer in UWM’s African and African Diaspora Studies Department, where he teaches African American history. It’s a fullcircle moment for Baker; he graduated from UWM in 2000 with majors in political science and Africology. He sat down to talk about his various roles.

“A UWM alum”

Do you have any standout memories from your time at UWM?

I can hear the ghosts of my professors as I walk through the halls today. One of my professors, Winston Van Horn, just really pushed for excellence. I remember him challenging me and that was great for me, being 20 years old.

I was a jock before UWM. I came to UWM transferring from another school to play sports. My professors pushed me to put it beside (my education). So, I love UWM.

Is it odd to be a teacher in the same place that you were a student?

I wouldn’t say ‘odd.’ It’s pretty fresh, to use a hip-hop term. Pretty fresh, you know?

“An activist and advocate”

You’ve spent a lot of time working as an activist after graduating UWM. How did you come to that role?

In 2002, I was at UCLA and transferred to the PhD program. I got caught in this weird moment of the pre-Barack Obama (presidency) youth civic engagement space, and I became a leader in that. Then Barack Obama became president and the world changed. I was still a leader in that space, and then by the beginning of the second term, I decided I needed to finish so I could focus on my own life, as opposed to being a double-student/ community activist, which was stupid.

What inspired you to become a voting and social justice advocate?

To say that I was anything but a jock before age 21, that would be a lie. But I was also into hip-hop. When I got to UCLA, I was writing for a hip-hop magazine, so hip-hop and activism sort of met for me. I was writing about and participating in (social) movements.

But what really turned me onto it was I was an archivist for Rev. James Lawson, who was a leader in the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike – a really Gandhian non-violence leader who continues to have a big role and influence. Instead of being an archivist, I thought, maybe I could make history instead of document history. Realize, I was young still! I got turned onto the history of the movements by a real giant of a leader.

“A hip-hop journalist”

How do hip-hop and activism relate? I don’t think too many people hear one and think of the other.

Hip-hop has changed a lot over the past 20 years. The economic strength of hip-hop is better than ever. It’s a $4 billion industry annually. But I think many of us in the early ‘80s and ‘90s turned to hip-hop because it was a way to express yourself. Through your art, you could talk about what was going on in your community. When I moved to L.A., a big crazy world opened up for me.

And you got to work with some legends! Drop some names…

I’ve been in the studio with Snoop Dogg and some of the people who make music for Dr. Dre. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Ludacris and Shawnna and 2 Chainz and Rick Ross. I kept hustling up stories and creating hip-hop blogs to keep my name out there. I was a well-respected hip-hop journalist, I think. When rappers know you can get them in a magazine, it can open doors for you.

You had a great gig going in LA. What changed? Why did you leave journalism?

I wouldn’t say I’ve left. I still work on projects. For example, there’s a film called “Judas and the Black Messiah” that was executive produced by Ryan Coogler. I did the cultural intelligence report on that. I still have friends that ask me to step up sometimes.

But, I love Milwaukee. You can’t be an activist and not have a place that’s your community. I love Milwaukee. It’s a beautiful struggle, and I’d rather use my talents here than at a nightclub in L.A. I’m a historian but I spend a lot of time in the future. If you’re preparing a place in the future, knowing that Milwaukee will be a water capital, and the future of business will be here, how do you think 20 to 30 years in the front? A lot of people look at the problems and say, hey man, it’s over. Let’s get out of here. There might be days I say that and feel like that, but I do feel like there’s enough beautiful talent here. Maybe if we can coordinate and organize a little bit better, we can fix things.

“A former executive director of the League of Young Voters”

How did you start with the League of Young Voters?

In 2004, there was this big event called the National Political Hip-Hop Convention. To go to the convention, you had to have registered voters. When I was in L.A., I turned my hip-hop events with my colleagues into voter registration events. I went to this event and was fascinated by the people all across the country who were trying to change their communities through hip-hop. One of the sister organizations was the League of Young Voters.

I thought I was going to be there two or three years as I finished my dissertation. Then Barack Obama started getting on the scene, and all of the smart people on our team said, ‘Let’s go work for Barack Obama!’ And I was like, what about what we’ve built? I was one of the main people still standing.”

We were part of the founding of a lot of important organizations that came be to be known as the Black Lives Matter movement. We passed the torch to younger women of color. At that point, I was 35.

What work were you doing with the League of Young Voters?

It was grassroots to grass-tops. Each community was different. … We believed that young kids could change the world through civic engagement. My focus was youth of color. Once you start voting, you start seeing yourself as a player in society as opposed to a component.

It seems as though there are more barriers being erected to voting. What do you see as driving these barriers, and is there a way to overcome them?

The Voting Acts expired (in 2013). The precedent to be tough on bad actors went away. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have been punting on this issue. So, there have been opportunities for people at the local level to exploit that. I think there are opportunities to build more bridges to civic engagement by getting around some of the barriers like Voter ID. But every campaign season, our great elected officials turn into different people, and so sometimes, it’s not always fair.

“A business founder and CEO”

Tell me about your business Render.

Right after the Ferguson movement, I got burnburned out. I was working with a tech company called ThoughtWorks. … A lot of the projects people were asking them for were social media stuff, websites, and lower-scale tech stuff. They said, why don’t we give you a fellowship to figure out what you want to do? I launched Render.

Since we’ve launched, it’s been cool to see how we can use stories and tech to build things. We’ve worked with everybody from Ava DuVernay to Harry Belafonte. We’re in Milwaukee. We do videos, digital stories, and tech. It’s cool. We help brands or campaigns develop personas and voices online. Ben & Jerry’s launched a new flavor years ago called “Democracy Remix” and we helped them figure out how to position it in the marketplace.

“A UWM instructor”

How did you find your way back to UWM?

It was 2019. I got the call from Anika (Wilson, then-Chair of the African and African Diaspora Studies Department) – did I want to teach a class? African American history from 1865 to present. If you give me a timeline and some historic dates, my ears start to perk up. I love teaching. I love seeing the lightbulb go on in young people’s heads. It’s been a cool way for me to keep sharp and grow as a scholar.

What are you working on these days?

I’m focused on tech and soccer. On the tech side, I’m on the Governor’s Taskforce for Broadband. I think tech is culture. We saw during the pandemic that a lot of people of color around the state and people in rural areas didn’t have what they needed because the didn’t have access to internet. And with soccer, we need more fields in Milwaukee.