There’s a new video making the rounds on YouTube. It opens with wide shots of the US Capitol building and Lincoln Memorial, then zooms in on a young man with a dour expression, trudging through the National Mall. The man is actually a rapper, and as rappers go, he’s fairly clean-cut: baseball cap, Timberland boots, close-cropped goatee. He goes by the name Hi-Caliber, and most — perhaps all — of his raps hew to a single theme. Hi-Caliber is a stalwart for the Tea Party movement. He disparages Nancy Pelosi, Charlie Sheen, and 9-11 Truthers. He’s just one in a bevy of conservatives who chose hip-hop as a means to preach patriotism.
Tea Party rappers find strength in numbers. Hi-Caliber may be the most visible, but he’s not running a one-man campaign. There’s also Griffenz, whose “Money Bombs” became the unofficial anthem for Ron Paul’s 2007 campaign. There’s Polatik, who enjoys rapping in a suit and tie. There’s Molotov Mitchell, frontman for the group Wolverines, who garnered fame by calling President Obama an “OTP” (“one term president”). There’s a parody rap called “Tea Partay” by P-Unit (Yo, where my WASPS at?!). And there’s even a local rapper named Brian Bergondy — aka “the Conservative Kid” — who is steadily building his own cult of personality.
The son of an outspoken Teamster-turned-Republican politician, Bergondy grew up with a litany of conservative stances ringing in his ear. His father, Bruce W. Bergondy, ran for California’s 14th Assembly District office in ’82, ’84, and ’86, using the slogan “Don’t judge me by what I do, judge me by what I undo.”
The younger Bergondy launched his hip-hop career in church. He was raised Catholic, attended All Saints Catholic School in Hayward, went to mass every Sunday, and felt guilty for liking the music of Tupac, Kid Rock, and Eminem. “My influences in rap are a lot of people who I wouldn’t want to associate with,” he said. His first raps promoted two-parent households and discouraged women from having abortions. He eventually started doing weddings and corporate parties. His mother coaxed him into rapping for a friend’s sixtieth birthday. He once rapped a eulogy. He says he has even performed Christmas parties for AT&T, Costco, and Comcast, charging up to $600 a pop. His big break will happen April 15, at a Tea Party rally in Pleasanton.
Bergondy has fashioned himself a business model that seems more suited to a cover band than a rapper. A marketing and promotions guy in real life, Bergondy applies a bullet-point methodology to hip-hop. “If it’s a wedding,” he said, “send me an e-mail that’s at least four or five paragraphs. … Send me info on you, your fiancé, your family, where you grew up, favorite color, pets, what color is your car, do you want to have kids — everything. I’ll pick and choose.” He continued: “It seems to touch people in a very personal way. It’s like telling your story that you already know, and people who know you know most of it, but there’s certain things they don’t know.”
The 31-year-old has a homespun, folksy demeanor that belies his well-honed business acumen. He’s freckled, charismatic, and self-effacing. He grew up as an altar boy and worked as a bartender in his early twenties. He describes himself as “reasonably articulate.” He refers to waitresses as “sweetheart.” Bergondy sometimes performs over CD instrumentals, but prefers rapping a cappella. He demonstrated his freestyling skills at Buffalo Bill’s Brewery, in downtown Hayward: “I’m the Conservative Kid; I’m modest as can be/I just met Rachel Swan; she’s drinkin’ an iced tea/Honestly, I hope with this interview I passed the test/You know, with the best magazine in the Bay is East Bay Express.”
He got to flex his freestyle muscle during a recent interview on Hot Tea Radio, an Internet station run by Tea Party crusaders under the auspice of Blog Talk Radio. A host put Bergondy in the hot seat, instructing him to bust a few lines about the new Super Bowl champs. He thought fast, and came up with four lines about the Saints. The verse was good enough to pass muster.
Bergondy owes some of his momentum to his partnership with Shawn Hickman, a fellow Christian rap enthusiast and aspiring mogul. They met in 2001, while attending services at East Bay Fellowship Church in Danville. Hickman caught a few of Bergondy’s performances and thought the kid was onto something — he had smarts, charisma, and a natural stage presence. They worked well as a team: Bergondy had a good salesman’s pitch and a business degree from Fresno State; Hickman knew how to build a web site and do search engine optimization. Moreover, he shared Bergondy’s reverence for family values, and originalist interpretations of the US constitution. Their friendship recently advanced to an artist-manager relationship, and since then Bergondy has gone from rapping at weddings to landing radio spots. The most noteworthy thus far were Brian Sussman’s show on Talk Radio KSFO, and the nationally syndicated Jesse Lee Peterson Show (oft-cited as the voice of conservative African Americans). Hot Tea Radio used portions of a Conservative Kid track as bumper music.
“We’re the West Coast presence of conservative rapping,” said Hickman, who also manages a couple Christian rock groups.
“Except there’s no East Coast-West Coast beef,” Bergondy added, obviously aware of at least one more difference between himself and Tupac.
Perhaps, in this age of “culture jamming,” it’s not that odd for two staunchly traditionalist church-goers to appropriate hip-hop as a medium. Bergondy might be an interloper or an outlier, but he’s also got a few things in common with his backpacker counterparts. For one thing, he and Hickman see themselves as part of an outlaw culture. It’s easy to be conservative in a Red State, but not so much in the Bay Area, where both guys remain reticent when the talk veers to politics. Well, sorta. Bergondy doesn’t tow a straight-ahead GOP line, and sometimes his politics get pretty diffuse. His best-known track, “What Needs to Be Said,” is angry at a lot of things (dictators, UN sanctions, the massacres at Fort Hood), none of them innately liberal. He does, however, chide liberals for having “a skewed point of view.” In more directly partisan tracks, Bergondy carps about taxes and calls President Obama a socialist.
Bergondy stoutly defends the arguments in “What Needs to Be Said.” “It does rip Obama. It also rips the UN quite harshly. You a UN fan? Oh, sorry. No love for the UN.”
For most of his adult life, Bergondy treated hip-hop as a fun side project. Now, with the Tea Party movement well under way, the laws of supply-and-demand have shifted in his favor. “The talent is there — now there’s a market for it,” said Hickman. “That’s kind of unbelievable.”
Bergondy scoffed. “Who would have thought? Conservative rap.”