Backstage at Berkeley’s Ashkenaz nightclub one evening in February, a circle of rapt hip-hop artists stood crowded around a man speaking his mind. The scene resembled an MC battle, except that the man in the center was a middle-aged white guy in a suit, who looked more like TV comedian Ray Romano than underground battle-rapper C-Rayz Walz. He didn’t possess any discernible freestyle rhyming skills, though his mere presence in “the cipher” impressed many of the onlookers. After all, what other 2004 presidential candidate had bothered to show any interest in hip-hop political activism, much less put himself in the thick of an MC circle?
The man in the suit was Dennis Kucinich, and the setting was a local stump speech/performance entitled “Bands Against Bush,” in which the Ohio congressman and progressive Democratic presidential hopeful shared a bill with some of the Bay’s most talented underground DJs and MCs — including turntablist crew DJs of Mass Destruction, which provided equal time for the opposition with an “Emcee Dubya” collage of George Bush quotes, laced with big beats and DJ cuts.
Despite looking awkwardly out of place, the candidate tried to relate. Hip-hop, he told the MCs, “is about the heart and spirit. It’s the truth. That I get.” But if anyone was expecting him to drop any hip-hop knowledge, they were sadly misled. “I can’t tell you that I listen to hip-hop all the time,” the politician conceded. “I don’t.”
When someone asked Kucinich for his favorite hip-hop song, the candidate hesitated a moment. “Anything by Tupac,” he replied. The vague response still earned him an appreciative “Ooohhh!” from every non-journalist in the room, the same reaction a freestyle MC gets for a particularly devastating couplet. Pressed for specifics, Kucinich couldn’t actually name one of Tupac’s songs, but he did explain why he’s feeling ‘Pac’s vibe: “He has an elegant dissatisfaction with the situation.”
Again, that evasive-politician thing, but it was enough to impress one dreadlocked rapper: “We appreciate that you understand that,” he said.
“Why are you still in the race?” a more cynical voice demanded. “Well, I gotta stay in it to win it,” Kucinich responded, earning another “Ooohh!” despite his blatant jacking of the Lotto slogan. He then quoted Khalil Gibran, whose concept of “spirit rebellious,” the candidate explained, “is what hip-hop’s about.”
And just how did he plan to bring the more apolitical members of the hip-hop generation into the fold? “What I’m doing is reaching out,” Kucinich said. “You gotta keep reaching out.”
Kucinich might just go down in history as the first big-time politician to actively reach out to the “hip-hop generation,” a term that can refer to African Americans born between 1965 and 1984, or to a far broader cross section of hip-hop consumers of all races, depending on whom you ask. But that a mainstream candidate even made the effort demonstrates just how far hip-hop culture has progressed since rappers first began laying their tales of harsh ghetto realities on wax.
While major labels, under political pressure from DC heavyweights, have steered clear of controversial rappers since the early 1990s — Paris, for instance, was dropped by Time-Warner subsidiary Tommy Boy before his song “Bush Killa” could be released — the hip-hop underground has always maintained some level of political awareness.
Now, however, something unprecedented is happening. In recent years a fresh surge of indignation among underground hip-hoppers here and elsewhere — spurred by what some call the War on Youth, as well as an erosion of civil liberties related to the War on Terror, and the ever-deteriorating situation in Iraq — has manifested itself in an unforeseen level of political activity. Up-and-coming artists have increasingly turned toward lyrical activism, lent their skills to political rallies and benefits, and become personally involved in social issues. Indie rap labels are pumping out themed compilations attacking the criminal justice system and the government’s warmongering. And grassroots activists are amping up outreach efforts at the street level, in an attempt to channel the hip-hop generation’s angst into something more meaningful.
Some in the rap community, from grassroots proletarians to millionaire moguls, are even starting to fathom the unfathomable: They’re betting that the elusive hip-hop generation can be harnessed as a true political force — and a potential voting bloc. In recent months, national and local promoters and organizers have registered hip-hop voters in record numbers. Meanwhile, a National Hip-Hop Political Convention scheduled for June 16 in Newark, New Jersey, will bring together community organizers from cities around the country to network and pound out the first draft of what could become a national political agenda for the hip-hop generation.
There’s a sense of urgency behind all these efforts that was nonexistent prior to 9/11. As Paris, one of the first West Coast rappers to specialize in political hip-hop, says, “We already know what the worst-case scenario is.”
However you define it, it’s not hard to see why the concept of a hip-hop generation might appeal to mainstream politicians. The raw numbers are a tale of potential: Only 40 percent, or 18 million, of the roughly 45 million Americans aged 18 to 35 voted in the last presidential election, according to Census tallies. Among young people of color, that percentage can reasonably be assumed to be significantly higher. Furthermore, the largest single group of nonvoters is the 18-to-24 contingent. Given that six states in the 2000 presidential race were won by fewer than 2,000 votes, and that the margin of victory in Florida was only 537 votes, it’s clear the youth vote could be decisive in some regions — and could even swing the outcome of congressional races and determine who takes the White House.
In April, citing a recent Harvard survey in which more than 60 percent of college students said they “definitely” plan to vote in November, The Christian Science Monitor noted that “young people have emerged as one of the few large demographics still up for grabs.”
“Everybody’s got their heels dug in on both sides of the partisan spectrum. So, the younger you are, the more undecided and less focused you are,” explains pollster John Fairbank of Santa Monica-based firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates.
Harder to pin down, too. “In most all of our samples,” Fairbank says, the 18-24 “sometimes isn’t a large enough sample. We combine ’em with the 18-30s sometimes. When you screen them on, ‘Are you going to vote in the next election?’ it’s always the softest — ‘well, maybe, I’m still considering,’ as opposed to, the older you get: ‘I’m definitely voting.'”
Fairbank speculates that the flaccid economy and the war on Iraq are issues that hit home particularly hard for the 18-24s. “It could affect them very personally, whether it’s the draft, or the job market,” he says. The Democratic pollster believes Kerry’s proposals to expand federal student-aid programs will play well with college students, leaving the noncollegiate, voting-age members of the hip-hop generation as one of the largest potential X-factors in a race that could be decided by first-time and nontraditional voters.
But it’ll be a formidable challenge, to say the least, for political organizers to reach the millions of hip-hop generationers who have never voted — and get them to the polls. In the Bay Area, at least, a precedent exists for the sort of organizing required to make that happen. Here, perhaps more than in other regions, hip-hop artists have been willing to put themselves on the frontlines of activist movements. In 1996, for example, a group calling itself the Young Comrades, led by Coup frontman Boots Riley, declared a “Fuck the Police Day” to protest alleged misconduct by Oakland cops, and a “Take Back the Lake” rally to attack the city’s anti-cruising ordinance around Lake Merritt, which they claimed was akin to racial profiling. Not long after the Comrades made a dramatic showing at a City Council meeting, the ordinance was repealed.
In 2000, the local hip-hop contingent mobilized in force against state Proposition 21, aka the Juvenile Crime and Gang Violence Prevention Act. The ballot measure was California’s version of the federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which was defeated in Congress in 1994 but since been adopted, with minor alterations, by 45 states.
Hip-hop kids saw Prop. 21 as part of a taxpayer-funded war on youth. Its provisions made life considerably tougher for juvenile offenders. It lowered the age at which a person can be tried as an adult and transferred discretion in enforcing sentencing guidelines from judges to prosecutors. The No-on-21 campaign’s community outreach efforts resulted in rallies and concerts around the Bay Area sponsored by groups such as Oakland’s Third Eye Movement (now called Let’s Get Free), Books Not Bars, and Underground Railroad, events that prominently featured local artists such as Goapele, Zion-I, the Coup, Deuce Eclipse, Local 1200, and Company of Prophets.
Though state voters ultimately approved Prop. 21, that campaign — and a similar, successful effort against a proposed “super-sized” juvenile hall facility in Alameda County — gave many young hip-hoppers their first real taste of grassroots activism: They may have shown up for the music, but the message resonated. “It really put that whole scene on the map — not just in the Bay but around the country,” says hip-hop radio personality and journalist Davey D, who covered the No-on-21 campaign for KPFA radio and his short-lived KMEL public affairs program “Street Knowledge.” The youth organizers weren’t just “spitting in the wind, making noise,” he says. “They realized they had a vested interest.”
From there, the doors to power began to swing open for the organizers. County Supervisor Keith Carson, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and other elected officials took note, Davey D says, because the activists had begun to develop specific strategies for community outreach. It was a “coming of age,” he says, for the hip-hop generation.
Also significant, the DJ says, was that activists began reaching out to the broader hip-hop community around that time. East Oakland turf-oriented rappers the Delinquents, for instance, let organizers use their tricked-out van to pass out political flyers and posters in the ‘hood — the same way a street team would promote a new album. “This was the first time you saw these strategies,” Davey D notes.
Since then, local raptivism has flourished. Over the past three years, solid albums by rappers Pitch Black, Jahi, Azeem, Zion-I, and the progressive jazz/hip-hop outfit Variable Unit have contributed to a resurgence of sociopolitically themed hip-hop. Recent activist-oriented compilations including Shame the Devil, 3rd Eye Movement, Hard Knock Records’ What About Us?, and the DJs of Mass Destruction’s War (If It Feels Good, Do It) have further fanned the flames with their pointed social commentaries. Taken together with higher-profile, critically acclaimed efforts such as Paris’ Sonic Jihad, the Coup’s Party Music, and Michael Franti’s Everyone Deserves Music, they bespeak a larger social and cultural context that could ease the way for further grassroots campaigns based around hip-hop generation issues.
Those issues are clear enough: Davey D recalls that around the same time as Shame the Devil came out, NYC’s Raptivism Records released its first No More Prisons compilation, and Brooklyn MC Talib Kweli helmed the Hip Hop for Respect project, dedicated to the memory of Amadou Diallo — the unarmed Guinean immigrant slain in a hail of 41 gunshots from NYPD officers back in 1999, sparking widespread outrage in the black community. This suggests the prison-industrial complex and police brutality are important enough to the hip-hop generation that they aren’t viewed as merely West Coast or East Coast concerns, but universal ones. Since 9/11, Davey D reports, there have been more than seventy songs by hip-hop artists directly addressing these two topics — and few, if any, have seen commercial radio rotation.
That lack of mainstream airplay, says Davey D — who was fired by KMEL in October 2001 after airing an interview with Barbara Lee following her historic “no” vote on the war — is a big reason why more people haven’t heard these songs. It has resulted, he says, in two camps among hip-hop fans: commercial radio listeners and a much smaller, community-minded activist crowd. The task facing political organizers is to bring the two together, by any means necessary.
Raptivism, of course, is just part of this effort. While the artists are the most visible icons of the culture, the less glamorous work happens offstage, at nonprofit youth organizations where staffers are as committed to effecting social change as they are to gaining political representation.
Oakland’s Leadership Excellence is one such nonprofit. Located within view of the incandescent Fox Theatre marquee, its fifth floor offices aren’t nearly as flashy or opulent — but they are comfortable, even funky. Walking into the conference room is like being transported inside a Last Poets album cover: Three walls and part of the ceiling are covered by a vibrant mural whose central image depicts a female sun with an eye rising out of her head, shining rays of light onto various ebony characters and silhouettes. It includes positive affirmations such as “music is power” and “peace comes from the heart,” and keys bearing messages (“knowledge”) cracking corresponding locks (“oppression”).
Dereca Blackmon, the organization’s baby-faced 34-year-old executive director, not only manages the nonprofit’s literacy and global exchange programs; she’s also California co-chair of the upcoming National Hip Hop Political Convention.
Political organizing is a natural extension of her other community outreach efforts, and she approaches it differently than someone from a strictly political background. She’s resigned, for instance, to the fact that some of the young people she works with will never vote, while others are too caught up in their own personal dramas to care about who gets elected to what. Blackmon is a proponent of voter registration, but only as it applies to base building. “For us, base building involves listening,” she explains. When you’re dealing directly with the youth, she says, it’s important to “find out what their issues are, rather than tell them.”
Blackmon’s goal is to help develop a long-term political strategy for the hip-hop generation. She’s working with various groups including the League of Pissed Off Voters, a national get-out-the-vote organization, to increase awareness around issues such as “better schools” and “less racial profiling” that speak directly to the concerns of people of color. One immediate goal for the hip-hop generation, Blackmon relates, is to take its commercial clout and wield it strategically. “Power respects power,” she explains. “Right now the only power we have is as consumers.”
Oakland promoter Jessica Tully represents another face of hip-hop activism. For the past five years, she and two partners, Dovanna Dean and Loushanna Rose, have combined entertainment, education, artistry, and sociopolitical awareness under the banner of UMA Productions. They’ve produced numerous star-studded events with activist themes. Their annual “We the Planet” festival in San Francisco has featured Alanis Morissette and Michael Franti. They helped put together Rolling Thunder’s 2002 “Down Home Democracy Tour,” a series of concerts and workshops held in various cities, with featured guests such as Erkyah Badu, Zap Mama, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, Michael Moore, and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. Last year, UMA organized a fund-raiser for Conservation International, hosted by Bill Clinton and Harrison Ford, with musical entertainment by Ledisi. Tully’s company also has organized local voter registration drives, including a 2002 Rap the Vote event at what is now California College of the Arts. “It’s important that we vote as a bloc,” notes the 33-year-old, who refers to herself and her crew as “cultural workers.”
As a former national field director for Rock the Vote, Tully is well acquainted with the game. Yet she isn’t interested in simply furthering politics as usual. “There’s a one-party line in mainstream media,” she says. “We’ve gotta make this a party on the dance floor.” Tully believes hip-hop and music in general are effective mediums to reach young voters, because that’s what the youth responds to: “A lot of our constituency doesn’t subscribe to the Oakland Tribune or The New York Times — but they listen to lyrics.”
Tully and Blackmon haven’t received much mainstream media attention, but they — and a host of other local organizers — have found a consistent ally in KPFA’s “Hard Knock Radio,” which debuted in 1999. Hosted by Davey D and Anita Johnson, it’s the only drive-time show in the Bay Area — and possibly the nation — dedicated to the social, cultural, political, and economic issues of the hip-hop generation. Recent guests have included Harry Belafonte, former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, authors Michael Eric Dyson and Farai Chideya, and artists such as Carlos Mena, Jahi, Ozomatli, Kofy Brown, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Van Hunt. “We give ample coverage to issues impacting our youth and communities of color, especially the prison-industrial complex, gentrification, education, and police brutality,” producer Weyland Southon explains in an e-mail. Activism, he jokingly notes, is “not just for hippies anymore.”
The recent surge in local grassroots efforts parallels a broader national campaign to engage the hip-hop generation. Russell Simmons, multimillionaire founder of Def Jam records and Phat Farm footwear, has emerged as the most visible face in this movement. In 2001, Simmons contributed his celebrity clout and some of his considerable fortune to establish the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, or HSAN, which last year announced an ambitious goal: Through an effort called “Hip-Hop Team Vote,” the group vowed to sign up four million new voters every year through 2008.
The nonprofit, which has offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, also hopes to energize the hip-hop generation on issues including literacy, access to good schools, economic advancement, and youth leadership. Its board members include Roc-a-Fella Records exec Damon Dash, socialist professor Dr. Manning Marable, Broadway star and recording artist Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and NAACP top dog Kwesi Mfume.
Despite this seemingly odd mix of personalities, HSAN has produced some solid results: As of May, it claims to have passed the halfway point in its November voter-registration goal. The organization has sponsored more than a dozen “Hip-Hop Summits” in cities around the nation to bring attention to its issues, including a Philly event where organizers signed up more than 11,000 new voters by making registration a prerequisite for attendance. HSAN also has recruited an army of youth organizers and social activists in large cities who are well positioned to reach its target audience.
As president and CEO of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, Benjamin Chavis-Muhammed brings considerable credibility to the table. A former NAACP director and longtime activist in black political circles, his background adds a certain measure of gravitas to Simmons’ fledgling organization. Over the phone, he jokes that although he came up in the civil rights era, he’s immersed himself in hip-hop culture of late.
“Voting is not a panacea, but a necessary step in the process,” he insists. Basic quality-of-life issues, he adds, are equally important, which is why HSAN is also involved with a literacy program (HipHop-Reader.com), an HIV/AIDS awareness program, and public school funding advocacy. Chavis-Muhammed boasts that his group’s efforts recently convinced New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to restore $300,000 allocated for public education to the city’s budget. That’s real talk, as they say in the ‘hood.
HSAN’s president emphasizes that his organization is dedicated to base-building efforts in all fifty states. And as it grows, he says, so too does the hip-hop generation’s political involvement. Conversely, the current political climate in the underground rap world has contributed greatly to HSAN’s mission. “Because of the way hip-hop is evolving, there’s a much more unifying consciousness,” Chavis-Muhammed says. “Hip-hop culture is not just penetrating the American mainstream, it is becoming the new mainstream.”
For example, he continues, “there’s hip-hop penetration into economics, into politics, into religion, into philosophy, into literature. Hip-hop has an increasing impact on the major sectors not only of American society, but around the world. … Hip-hop is not only urban, it’s also suburban. It involves black youth, Latino youth, Asian youth, and white youth. And the expansion of the culture, in terms of the number of young people who consider themselves part of the hip-hop community, grows bigger every year.”
There are at least some indications the political mainstream is taking notice. Chavis-Muhammed recalls that before John Kerry became the Democratic front-runner, he “used to call me up all the time.” Early in the primary season, Wesley Clark quoted Outkast’s “Hey Ya” at a campaign rally, imploring the crowd to “shake it like a Polaroid picture.” The media have made much ado of the unusually high rates of young voters in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, not to mention Howard Dean’s success with Internet campaigning. And let’s not forget Kucinich, who actually hired a “hip-hop consultant” — one Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou — to help him stay on point with his youth outreach.
Though he wasn’t intimately familiar with the culture, Kucinich took the notion of “hip-hop candidate” further than anyone. Less than a month before the Ashkenaz rally, he helped deliver a “Hip Hop State of the Union” address in San Francisco. Attendees and volunteers were treated to a live Kucinich video link and a discussion panel moderated by Davey D. Radio personality Adisa “the Bishop” Banjoko, rapper Zion of Zion-I, and Billy “Upski” Wimsatt, a former graffiti writer turned activist author, were on hand to address the unlikely marriage of hip-hop and electoral politics.
The discussion centered on how the panel members got involved with activist politics. But a disconnect was apparent — not one of the panelists tied their personal account to Kucinich’s core agenda: cutting the defense budget to pay for free universal health care and education programs. Conversely, Kucinich never once mentioned hip-hop — hardly a good sign for someone who hoped to speak for its constituents.
Nina Fallenbaum, director of national urban outreach for the Kucinich campaign, attempted afterward to explain why Kucinich was the best candidate for the hip-hop generation: “Everyone I talk to about this stuff is hyped,” she said. “From hip-hop stars making millions all the way down to the dude on the corner trying to sell me the five-dollar mix tape. Because everybody feels the injustices going on.”
Whether that outrage can be turned into a consistent voting bloc, worthwhile legislation, or meaningful social change is a big unknown. As urban youth culture delves deeper into politics, however, it’s becoming apparent that the movement can’t just rely on enlightened rappers. For the hip-hop generation to find its political voice, it’s going to need more people like Cleveland’s Bakari Kitwana. Eloquent, college-educated, and fluid in the confusing syntax of policy-speak, Kitwana is both a champion and a critic of black youth culture. He has worked behind the scenes as editorial director of Third World Press, and on the cultural frontlines of print media, serving as both as politics editor and executive editor of the Source in the mid- to late ’90s. [Full disclosure: This article’s author has contributed to the Source in years past.]
During his stint at the magazine, Kitwana helped popularize the term “hip-hop generation,” using it in place of “Generation X,” which he thought did not adequately address the values and issues of the Source’s three million monthly readers. In 2002, Kitwana published his second book, The Hip-Hop Generation, which firmly established him as one of the leading hip-hop intellectuals of the post-Tupac & Biggie era.
In a phone interview, Kitwana defines the hip-hop generation as African Americans born between 1965 and 1984, which in his view roughly represents the tail end of the civil-rights movement and start of hip-hop’s saturation of mainstream consciousness. Whether nonblacks also can be considered part of the hip-hop generation is “a question of semantics,” he says, yet Kitwana is well aware of the genre’s broader appeal; his upcoming book, he notes, will be titled, Why White Kids Love Rap.
In his eyes, this wider audience — which makes up the difference between the 9.5 million African Americans that fit his definition and the estimated 40 to 45 million consumers of hip-hop music and related products — represents a potential political force that needn’t be limited to young folks. “There are people who are well into their forties who are influenced by hip-hop,” Kitwana says.
Behind the urgency of this recent drive for political empowerment, Kitwana says, are worsening conditions for young African Americans in education, employment, incarceration, and criminal justice. All are familiar themes in rap music, he notes, from East Coast to West, indie to major-label artists. Take crime: “Most hip-hop generationers,” the author remarks, “know someone — a friend, family, relative, an associate — who’s caught up in the criminal justice system.”
He cites comparative stats to back up his point: The total prison population in the country was around 200,000 circa 1970 compared with roughly 2 million — almost half of them black — in 2000, Kitwana says. Additionally, the Department of Justice has reported that the number of incarcerated Americans grew more than 300 percent between 1980 and 2000. As of 2003, according to the DOJ, almost 5 percent of all black men in this country were in prison, compared to less than 1 percent of white men. And while African Americans make up just 12 percent of the United States population, 47 percent of all people in jail are black, according to a 2002 report authored by Illinois Congressman Danny Davis. These numbers reflect an alarming racial disparity in the criminal justice system, which incidentally presents yet another barrier to hip-hop political empowerment, since former felons are barred from voting in some states.
The cycle of incarceration and the perception of black neighborhoods as high-crime areas, Kitwana says, raise other major issues, including racial profiling and what he calls “paramilitary policing in the communities of people of color.”
But just as important in his view are access to education and living-wage jobs. “For our parents’ generation, if you were working-class and you had a job, that job afforded you the ability to buy a home, to take your family on vacation, to have a car or two,” the author says. “For our generation, if you’re working-class and you have a job, that job doesn’t afford you the ability to do any of that. You don’t have a job with benefits.”
The living-wage issue is so key that were any politician willing to tackle it, “they could get the hip-hop vote,” Kitwana notes. Of course, if the hip-hop voting bloc he envisions were to mobilize in significant numbers, it could force politicians to heed its agenda — provided it had one. Hip-hop artists have articulated a political agenda in their lyrics, but nothing has been laid out in concrete terms, the author points out. “You do have to connect the dots,” he says.
That’s why hip-hop luminaries have gotten involved with voter registration, and also why Kitwana helped organize next week’s National Hip Hop Political Convention. “If people around the country who are of the hip-hop generation feel we need a national organization, then we should collectively build one,” he says. “At the very least, we need to be networking nationally.”
Historically, one of the biggest barriers to hip-hop politicking has been the community’s own do-it-yourself ethic. The young organizers started from scratch, with little help from their predecessors in the civil rights movement. Kitwana speaks of a “huge” generation gap — an ideological conflict, if you will, between the followers of Dr. King and the disciples of Tupac. “Some of the older people are so disconnected from the young people, they have no idea what hip-hop is,” Kitwana remarks, a couple of weeks before Bill Cosby made his recent statements attacking black parents for spending too much on their kids’ sneakers and calling the kids “knuckleheads” who don’t speak proper English.
But Kitwana thinks the hip-hop generation is at least partially responsible for the generation gap. “To some degree, it’s been our own fault.” There was an expectation, he relates, that the civil rights generation would “bring us into their organizations, bring us into the leadership. Then, when that didn’t happen, we got really frustrated by their inability to articulate our issues.”
If closing the generation gap is a challenge, getting the hip-hop rank and file to participate in the system may prove an even bigger one. Consider that it’s nearly impossible for a typical resident of Richmond, East Oakland, or Bayview-Hunters Point to relate on a personal level with an Ivy League scion like John Kerry, and vice versa.
Just talk to Lil’ Larry, who was standing outside the Kucinich rally at the Ashkenaz. Dressed in a Raiders jersey and baggy jeans, the self-described “underground rapper from East Oakland” didn’t look much like a guy with political leanings, but looks can be deceiving. “I think hip-hop and politics go hand in hand,” he opined. Reason being, “rappers are talking about what’s going on.”
Lil’ Larry said his most immediate concern is racial profiling; he’s had several run-ins with Oakland police who he claimed have harassed him and planted illegal drugs on him. “Illegal search and seizure,” he said. “The reason they searched me was because of how I looked, they said I looked drunk walking down the street.”
In an age where racism has become more insidious and covert, electoral politics do matter, according to Lil’ Larry. “The president does have the power to change the world, based on what George Bush has done: Whatever the president says, that’s what everybody does, right?” Still, the young man wasn’t optimistic for November. “No candidates are addressing the real social issues that are going on. They’re mostly focused on the big money issues,” he said. “We need a guy like the guy that was here. What’s his name? Kucinich? Kucinich was here with me, you know what I’m saying? With me, doing my thing, representing. So a guy like that I got respect for, because ain’t no other guy here. I don’t see nobody else. I don’t see Al Sharpton at the rap event.”
When Jay-Z introduced the term “politics as usual” to the rap vernacular with his 1996 album Reasonable Doubt, he was in all likelihood referring to street politics. But the fact remains that the political status quo has largely ignored the interests of the hip-hop generation. Kucinich may have earned Lil’ Larry’s props simply for showing up, but liberal as he is, the politician never once mentioned racial profiling, or police brutality — which Leadership Excellence’s Blackmon identifies as the single issue the youths she comes into contact with relate to the most.
The bottom line, author Kitwana says, is that “the issues that are gonna stick and work for the hip-hop generation are the core issues that are affecting all young people. Not just issues that are affecting young black kids.”
That, however, may not be enough to inspire first-time hip-hop voters, especially when many of the community’s most politically aware, socially conscious underground artists — those idolized by young hip-hop fans — have their own ideas for the future, which don’t necessarily involve ballots. For example, neither Oakland’s Boots Riley nor Peruvian-born, Bronx-based underground darling Immortal Technique advocate voting. Ironically, it took an event called “Hip-Hop the Vote” to bring them together.
On its surface, the event — hosted at SF’s DNA Lounge early this year by Mario Africa, publisher of agitprop hip-hop ‘zine AWOL, and co-sponsored by several voter-registration organizations — seemed a textbook example of the cross-pollination of hip-hop and politics. Upstairs in the green room, though, Boots revealed that the night was originally booked as a simple Coup performance — groups including MoveOn.org had jumped on the bandwagon, much to his displeasure. “As far as politicians and electing people into those offices, I don’t endorse anybody,” the performer said. “Sometimes electoral campaigns can, instead of getting people out of their seats to do something, take the energy from people that are trying to do something.”
Boots thinks community interests are best served by direct-action campaigns, which he considers the most effective path to meaningful social change. “For example,” he said, “even affirmative action — we didn’t get that by voting for the right people or any civil rights legislation. That happened because people were doing direct action. And politicians enacted legislation because they saw that people were doing things. So that’s what I’ve done.”
Rather than hip-hopping the vote, the Coup’s leader would prefer to get his message out through live performances of songs such as “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish.” The well-worn favorite from 1994’s Genocide and Juice album, delivered in triple-time tempo at the DNA by Boots and the band, remains one of the most poignant analyses of ghetto economics ever recorded on wax: “The street light reflects off the piss on the ground/Which reflects off the hamburger sign as it turns ’round/Which reflects off the chrome of the BMW/Which reflects off the fact that I’m broke/Now what the fuck is new?”
Immortal Technique, meanwhile, came off like an East Coast version of Paris. His combination of conscious ideology, hardcore street attitude, and battle-rap skills have created a loud buzz around his first full-length album, Revolutionary Vol. 2, which dissed not only music industry A&Rs, but administration officials such as Paul Wolfowitz. Dressed in a red Che Guevara muscle-T, Technique played the “Rebel with a Cause” role to perfection. And during his spoken word-like renditions of songs such as “Industrial Revolution” and “Leaving the Past,” audience members could be seen mouthing the lyrics: You better off askin’ Ariel Sharon for compassion.
But the rapper isn’t about to lend his hard-earned street cred to any White House wannabe. Moments after his set, he echoed many of Boots’ key points. Technique thinks electoral politics is flawed, although he hastens to add that direct action also can be manipulated: “If you get a room full of ten-year-olds,” he said, “and you ask ’em if they want universal health care, or you want ice cream, motherfuckers gon’ tell you, ‘No, we going to Häagen-Dazs.’ Shit like that.
“To elect a new president, it’s not like shit gon’ change, because we’re not electing a new way of life,” he continued. “We’re just electing a new head to the serpent, na’meen? That’s all we’re really doing. We’re not giving the people a new choice, a new way, another vision of what politics and the economy could really be.”
Author Kitwana realizes it’s fashionable for hip-hop generationers to scoff at electoral politics, but he insists the generation now must use everything at its disposal. “The political system is something that we pay into in our taxes, and has a significant influence on our lives. We have to be able to use that as tool as well,” he says.
It doesn’t take Nostradamus or even Nas to see that hip-hop culture is at a crossroads, in search of its next evolutionary step, yet not quite certain how to proceed. The result has been a flurry of ideological soul searching at forums such as UMA Productions’ “The Intersection of Hip-Hop and Politics,” which took place in late February at Oakland’s “We the People” auditorium, Mayor Jerry Brown’s former digs. The panel discussion featured an impressive list of credentialed commentators, perhaps none better known than KRS-One, the highly respected activist MC responsible for such conscious rap classics as “You Must Learn,” “Free Mumia,” and “Black Cop.” (His stage name is an acronym for “Knowledge reigns supreme over nearly everyone.”)
The event (which was followed by a KRS/Jahi show at Sweets Ballroom) drew a young, multicolored, standing-room-only crowd, plus a handful of local politicians. Following an opening poem by a Filipino spoken word artist from Youth Speaks, host Davey D stepped to the microphone.
Hip-hop, he noted, is now thirty years old, and perfectly capable of making its own political decisions. The time had come to decide whether the hip-hop generation can play a role in the 2004 elections — or “is it just something we dance to?” If the community indeed chooses to join the fold of electoral politics, he asked the crowd, “Do we become the by-product of some politician who uses our imagery, uses our slogans, uses our marketing techniques to get themselves into office? Or does hip-hop control itself?”
Before the panel addressed these questions, Barbara Lee, probably the closest thing America has to a hip-hop politician, took the podium to thunderous applause. “The hip-hop community has a real role in politics,” she asserted. “Elected officials need to embrace your agenda if they want a future.” Then, doing Kucinich one better, she quoted a well-known Tupac line: “They got money for wars but can’t feed the poor.”
Although KRS-One’s seat was conspicuously empty, the panel proceeded to get under way. Author Jeff Chang noted the hip-hop generation’s skepticism toward the political process, as well as the perceived hypocrisy of artists who criticize the system but don’t vote themselves. The youth of today “came up out of the ashes of the ’60s,” Chang said, but they grew up in a political climate defined by Propositions 209, 227, 187, and 21, not to mention the 2000 elections, all of which contributed to their distrust of the system.
Panelist Blackmon pointed to Barbara Lee as an example of why the hip-hop generation should vote. Then, in very the next sentence, as KRS-One casually eased into his seat, she noted that “voting doesn’t equal revolution.”
Ricardo Chavez, a youthful Latino involved with the Los Angeles-based voter registration group La Paz, spoke of reaching out “to the kid who loves Too $hort, who loves Outkast” in regions like Bakersfield, Fresno, and Stockton — areas with large Latino populations that don’t necessarily vote Democratic. Next came spoken word performer and proud Berkeley progressive Aya De León, who admitted to being skeptical about voting in general. Still, she reasoned, “for some folks, voting is a first step.”
More speakers followed, including Josh Koenig from Music for America, a Rock the Vote-type organization, who noted that “every other culture is influenced by hip-hop,” and that “there are more hip-hop fans than members of the Christian Coalition.”
The Coup’s T-Kash cited the recent combat death in Iraq of his friend Adam Kisslinger as a reason to vote. Casualties of war, he said, represent just one example of why “there’s so much at stake.” He went on to suggest that politics is now more important to hip-hop because the culture has reached a new level of maturity: “Right now, we’re proving that we’re older, we’re wiser, and we have more to say than just rap to a beat.”
KRS-One was handed the mic next. A palpable current ran through the crowd in anticipation of what he might say. But if anyone expected the Blastmaster from the Boogie-Down Bronx to rubber-stamp his approval of the electoral system, they had another thing coming.
Each speaker up to that point had generally spoken in favor of voting, but KRS-One completely flipped the script. After briefly considering various philosophical angles, he proclaimed: “I rest more with the idea that the voting process is bullshit.”
Nevertheless, citing the $2 billion industry the culture has generated, he added that “hip-hop has power in the political process.” As KRS sees it, politics has already failed hip-hop. What good is it to vote, he reasoned, when your vote won’t reform the inequalities of society, nor correct the errors in the political process?
“If you want anything to change, stop participating in the system,” he roared. “What we need to be doing is thinking of ourselves as a nation unto itself!”
Though respectful, the audience reacted with stunned silence. After the panel concluded, the crowd walked out into the night looking more confused than energized. Outside, Kucinich staffer Nina Fallenbaum was trying to stay upbeat, despite her realization that KRS-One’s defiance had severely undercut her “hip-hop candidate” dreams.
Davey D merely shrugged — KRS was being KRS, he said, and KRS couldn’t be expected to endorse anyone else’s point of view. Besides, his star power contributed greatly to the attendance.
Watching it all with keen interest was Jerry Brown, who’d slipped in just as KRS was summing up. Granting a quick interview, the mayor offered that hip-hop’s success in electoral politics depends on whether hip-hop can get motivated. “Artists have the credibility, and if they have the commitment, they might activate a lot of people,” he said.
The mayor added a caveat, however: “As people get older, and get more property, and get a family, they tend to want to vote,” he said. “But in their early years, people tend not to vote. That’s the trend whether you’re black, you’re Chinese, you’re Mexican, you’re white, rich, or poor. Younger people tend not to be that activated ’cause life is too real without going through the political game. As a politician, I hate to say that, but it is true.”
Without explicitly saying so, Brown implied that established politicians don’t need to take young people seriously because they don’t vote consistently. And so far, hip-hop has done little to change that.
Political hip-hop events might make for good entertainment, but whether they can accomplish anything significant has yet to be proved. As this article went to press, word was spreading of a rift between Simmons’ camp and organizers of the National Hip Hop Political Convention over the event’s focus; rumor has it that the HSAN won’t be involved due to “creative differences.” Simmons’ focus on the celebrity aspect, it is said, is creating friction with organizers who are trying to keep a spotlight on the issues.
In her recent book Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership, and Hip-Hop Culture, Washington, DC-based attorney and hip-hop activist Yvonne Bynoe relates one problem with trying to organize around cults of personality: “If the crowd only came to see the celebrity, then once the show is over, the crowd quickly disperses without the majority of participants making a concrete commitment to further support the cause or initiative,” Bynoe says. “The success of the effort should not hinge on his or her participation.”
Rapper Paris bristles at the idea that artists should take a backseat when it comes to assuming leadership roles. In addition to his long history of service in the political hip-hop trenches, he points out that he has a degree in managerial economics from UC Davis. In his mind, he’s as qualified to lead this revolution as anyone. If there’s a leadership crisis in hip-hop, he argues, it’s in hip-hop “as defined by the majors,” i.e. the big record labels.
As outspoken a critic of the system as they come, Paris nevertheless supports voter registration for several reasons: “A) It doesn’t cost anything. B) I don’t think we should let someone else make the decision for us; even if you don’t feel candidates, you gotta feel propositions, education funding, and bond measures, shit that directly affects you and your local environment … and C) people who came before us died so that we could.”
Heading into the final months of this election cycle, there’s a genuine optimism among veteran organizers, a sense within the hip-hop activist community that next week’s convention could be just what the movement needs to establish itself as a political entity. “The convention’s gonna be great. But the incredible thing is gonna be what happens after the convention,” Blackmon says. She’s looking forward to meeting her counterparts from around the country, exchanging ideas, and drafting what could almost be construed as a “Hip-Hop Constitution” — although she shudders at the imperialist implications.
Chavis-Muhammed is less inclined to get excited. “We have to be careful not to look at one single event and say that represents all the people,” he cautions. “All of those events are important steps forward.” The National Hip-Hop Political Convention, he says, will “make an important contribution, but no one single event is going to produce the manifesto.”
It’s a good sign, perhaps, that even without a hip-hop presidential candidate, organizing continues around the culture’s core issues. Blackmon is already talking about how the generation might influence Oakland’s 2005 mayoral race; and with a “hip-hop mayor” in Detroit, and a seated “hip-hop congresswoman” in Barbara Lee, there’s a precedent for seeking elected offices, even if it’s at the city council or school board level. Davey D, who recently coauthored a handbook for activists titled “How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office,” explains that the plan should be to replace ignorant politicians of whatever race with “people who have sensibility with our issues.” And that, presumably, would require more than a shout-out to Tupac or Outkast.
If nothing else, the current momentum may ensure that if and when a presidential candidate for the hip-hop generation ever emerges, he or she will be dealing with a better-organized and informed constituency, one that won’t stand for the same old line, and is willing to utilize unconventional tactics to make sure its issues get heard. The odds for success may be long, but one thing’s for certain: It won’t be politics as usual.