Hip Hop's Historic Summit
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It was, in some respects, just what you would expect from hip-hop.
Nothing started on time. The rappers weren't where they were supposed to be. Neither were their managers or the industry execs, off in some corner backslapping and exchanging cards. Volumes and volumes of words were spilled. And NYPD sweated everyone in sight.
In other respects, it was just what you wouldn't expect from hip-hop.
A high-level gathering, put together by Russell Simmons from Tuesday through Thursday last week, to discuss improving hip-hop and the world -- which drew massive media interest despite the fact that the media was barred from most of the important meetings.
A hip-hop conference in which not a single fight broke out, and some beefs even ended up on the mend. A lineup of speakers that more often had rappers silently rapt, rather than shooting the gift or heading for the bar. Sessions that actually resulted in tangible outcomes and real programs.
In short, the hip-hop summit lived up to its billing as an historic event.
"We've accomplished everything we wanted to accomplish," said a beaming Russell, "and more."
It was, in fact, the third hip-hop summit in eight months, a sure sign that hip-hop's elite are keen on pushing some of their wealth toward establishing political clout.
The first, convened by The Source last year at the Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network headquarters in Harlem, gathered community leaders, rappers and executives. By many accounts, the affair was better intentioned than organized, with many complaining that there were lots of answers proferred but little agreement about the problems.
Shortly afterward, Minister Conrad Muhammad, leader of A Movement for CHHANGE (Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment), called for another summit to discuss providing better images for young people, and supporting hip-hop leaders for political office. It was held in May as an ugly public beef developed between Minister Conrad and Russell. Russell called Minister Conrad a critic in the mold of a C. Delores Tucker or Bob Dole who did not have hip-hop's best interests at heart. Muhammad accused Russell of "contributing mightily to the degradation" his summit was trying to address.
Russell promised that his own summit would bring together hip-hop leaders with black politicians, civil rights activists, and intelligentsia to work out a specific agenda of action.
A long list of hip-hop celebrities showed up, whether officially invited or not, including pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and DJ Hollywood; "golden age" heroes like Chuck D, Will Smith, Eric B, Queen Latifah, Naughty by Nature, Luther Campbell, and LL Cool J; and the nineties crowd, including Wyclef Jean, Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie, Keith Murray, Redman, Krayzie Bone (with daughter on arm), Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, Fat Joe, and Black Ice. They joined executives like Bad Boy's Sean "P-Diddy" Combs, So So Def's Jermaine Dupri, Def Jam's Kevin Liles, and University/Motown's Haqq Islam.
The summit also attracted Nation of Islam head, the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, and a host of black congressional leaders, civil rights activists, and public intellectuals, including the NAACP's Kweisi Mfume, Rap The Vote's Mario Velasquez, and the SCLC's Martin Luther King III; Professors Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Manning Marable; Congressman Earl Hilliard and Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. The summit was presided over by Minister Benjamin Muhammad.
(While many of the pioneers were not given invitations, they were escorted in by conference staff when they arrived on Wednesday. In one closed session, however, Zulu King and Rock Steady Crew member Fabel made the point from the floor: "If you're gonna call it a hip-hop summit, you need to be inclusive of graffiti writers and b-boys." Minister Ben Muhammad respectfully noted, "We would not be here if it were not for the Zulu Nation.")
Perhaps the lasting impact of the summit will be that it brought together generations and sectors of the black community -- some of which have, until recently, sparred viciously and in public -- to reason and build behind closed doors.
As the sessions commenced, twentysomething rappers and hip-hop activists often had unkind words for their elders. But the elders took the criticisms to heart, said they were there to listen. West admitted that his generation had somehow dropped the ball. Dyson demonstrated he was paying attention by quoting verses from Nas, Lauryn Hill, and Talib Kweli.
Kweli was impressed, "I see the dialogue happening and it's a beautiful thing."
A two-and-a-half hour speech on Wednesday by the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, focusing on responsibility and reconciliation, set the tone for the conference.
During the speech, Farrakhan refused to rebuke the rappers, saying, "Society wants you to clean up the lyrics but the society doesn't want to clean itself up." He went on to point the finger at "gangsta government" as the real problem. "I'm not here to condemn you," he said.
Instead he gently nudged the artists toward their better selves, saying the speech he was giving that afternoon was perhaps the most important he had ever given. "One rap song," he said, "is worth a thousand of my speeches."
"The hip-hop generation is our best generation, not our worst," he thundered. "You are the most courageous generation, the strongest, the most fearless."
"The old guys didn't do so good. They didn't feed the flock," he said. "I believe that you can change the reality of American life and racism -- that you have the power to stop it."
"The people are feeding you now," he said. "What are you gonna do now to show your appreciation?"
So the dialogues happened, aided by a decision to close much of the convention to the media, a gag order that left some journalists fuming but gave a certain gravitas to the proceedings. On the first day, unscheduled speaker Tricia Rose, the NYU professor, justified the decision, "Before hip-hop became such a cultural force, we had much more cultural space to raise questions and critiques and to be in conversation, without every moment being magnified and picked up worldwide."
"Black culture is no longer separate from mainstream culture," says Rose. "That's why the dialogue has to happen in institutions that are not driven by profit."
And yet, the most newsworthy item was all about the bottom line. Almost to a person, from Simmons to Kweli, participants voiced grave concerns with the FCC's June 6 decision to fine a radio station for playing Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady." Senator Joe Lieberman's and Hillary Rodham Clinton's "Media and Marketing Accountability Act" also loomed large over the proceedings, although summit organizers denied it.
Mainstream media picked up on these lyrical content issues, as hip-hop leaders repeated the mantra, "We're keeping it real." But even as hip-hop seemed to be repeating its past, it was eliciting bizarre speculation about its future. Take this spacey discussion on CNN's "Take Five" talk-show:
MICHELLE COTTLE, CO-HOST: Jake, you're a big hip-hop fan. Are the sexist and violent lyrics just poetry aimed at the establishment?
JAKE TAPPER, CO-HOST: That's Mack 10, by the way, in case you're wondering what that video was. You know... I had a bunch of these people from the hip-hop summit, Russell Simmons from Def Jam Records and Chuck D and a few others.
And what amazed me -- yes, I like hip-hop. I am an adult, of course, purportedly, and a lot of this music is listened to by children and it is affecting these kids. I was amazed, none of these guys would accept any responsibility for the lyrics and for the message they were sending. It was really phenomenal.
JOHN DICKERSON, TIME MAGAZINE: Russell Simmons, in particular, since he makes money directly from all of this, and the others as well. One thing that's interesting, though, is you know a genre has made it when it starts navel-gazing. I mean, hip-hop is here to stay, and you know, there are a lot of other types of music that haven't done it. This is now a fundamental part of American culture.
CHRIS CALDWELL, WEEKLY STANDARD: Well, it might be a sign of demise, actually. What might be happening is what happened to the folk music movement in the '60s, where these things hang around until they get more and more pretentious and have these huge claims to want to reorder society, which is...
DICKERSON: Well, I disagree. There seems to be a whole raft of new hip-hop artists who are going to see this summit and want to do everything...against whatever they are talking about in these closed rooms.
FELIX SANCHEZ, "P.R. CONSULTANT": But the idea of the summit, which was to organize the hip-hop constituency to have a political action committee, et cetera -- I mean, when Cornel West from Harvard has his own hip-hop album about to come out to preach, basically, to young kids, I think that we're missing the boat about this genre of music. But at the same time...
CALDWELL: ... it's like taking the booze out of Irish ballads, or something like that.
On Tuesday, behind closed doors, RIAA head Hilary Rosen led hip-hop executives to, if not take the booze out of their ballads, at least blunt some Congressional criticism -- in particular Senator Lieberman and Senator Clinton's Media and Marketing Accountability Act in late April, a grandstanding piece of legislation that gives the Federal Trade Commission the ability to fine entertainment companies that deceptively market violent or sexual materials to children up to $11,000 per day.
Since the introduction of the bill in April, the Beltway seemed girding for a fight with the hip-hop industry. The FTC began serving notice it was ready to begin pressuring record companies, criticizing it publicly for advertising which failed to disclose potentially obscene or violent content. Passions peaked the week before the conference with the FCC's Eminem fine. Even Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss) warned the summit participants, "Washington can regulate you out of business if you do not have your act together."
The point was made: move now or face growing opposition. Some execs nervously whispered that radio promotion budgets (read: payola) and marketing budgets might be next. One rumor circulated that Russell would get Hillary Clinton to promise to sink the bill if the guidelines were adopted.
So the execs emerged with new voluntary guidelines -- which include expanding "Parental Advisory" and "Explicit Lyrics" stickering to all print, television and radio ads, internet sites and posters -- and a new party line. On Thursday, Suzan Jenkins, senior vice president of marketing at RIAA, said, "The labels very much want to be able to provide a vehicle for parents to know what they are listening to."
But was it done under duress?
Def Jam's Kevin Liles said, "No, we were not forced to do anything. We want to make pro-active change before the government comes in and says, 'Hey, you have to do this.'" He added, "I want the consumer and the parent and the government to take some responsibility also, to know [that] when you go buy a tape, know what you're buying. You do your research. You don't just go buy a car."
Rosen said, "I do not expect Senator Lieberman to give up in his quest to silence this community. I think they try and make this be about marketing when we know it's about the lyrics, and I don't expect him to give up that."
Haqq Islam was even more direct, "I think Lieberman is crossing a line that he doesn't want to cross. He should wise up. I mean, it starts here but where does it end? At a Schwarzenegger movie?"
By Thursday, a new concern had emerged: rap profiling.
While Jay-Z was a no-show and Sean "P-Diddy" Combs' presence prompted heavy Fruit of Islam presence, James Prince, the CEO of Rap-A-Lot Records, walked quietly through the crowd, embodying one of the stranger incidents of profiling in recent years.
In December 2000, the Republican-dominated House Committee on Government Reform looked into reports that Congresswoman Maxine Waters urged Attorney General Janet Reno to drop a drug trafficking investigation against Prince. Waters wrote that Prince had been a target of "racial profiling" by rogue DEA officers, including illegal searches, surveillance, and racist harassment.
The DEA subsequently dropped the case and one of the officers was reprimanded. But Republicans pushed for the hearing, and continued to press for a reopening of the discredited investigation, even introducing lyrics from Rap-A-Lot artist Scarface into the record. Prince said, "They were trying to do their best to cover their ass as far as racial profiling is concerned."
He added, "I feel it's a conspiracy to destroy people like myself that try and uplift my community and help my people to dream again. It's a sad thing but it's real, man."
During the week at the summit, NYPD presence noticeably increased, with crews of officers filling the New York Hilton's driveway, and clogging the corners on 6th Avenue. They issued public nuisance tickets to bass-bumping promotional vans parked by the hotel and stared down summit participants entering the hotel.
The profiling peaked on Wednesday, the day that more than a thousand gathered to hear Minister Farrakhan speak. Says Liles, "Everyone was stopped, they were taking license plates and everything. They made my driver move 20 times. When we came out you saw the cameras flicking, you know what I mean? You never know what's going on."
But they couldn't overpower the vibes upstairs.
At the end of Tuesday, Chuck D had been convinced that, despite all the starpower in attendance, the summit would end up like any other, a lot of talk and not a lot of action. He was dismayed about having to help mediate the feud between Russell and Minister Conrad Muhammad. But as the Wednesday sessions began, he watched as the artists began to fire each other up.
In a closed door session, Fat Joe told the crowd, "I think us as artists need to interact more with the community. A lot of rappers seem to shy away from talking about political things. I think they're scared to really say what's going on."
Sister Souljah exhorted the attendees to fill their appropriate roles, and help get it all together. "If our shit was tight, Al Sharpton wouldn't be in jail," she said. "Nobody is playing their position."
After Minister Farrakhan's speech, Chuck D was as close to giddy as he could get. "I'm satisfied," he said. "All my questions are answered."
On Thursday, the fruits of the summit were on display. The public intellectuals announced the creation of university-based hip-hop think-tanks, with the first to be launched at Columbia. In response to one of Chuck D's recommendations, Def Jam offered an artist mentoring program, "The Hip-Hop House" -- part Motown, part "Fame" finishing school, the other part 21st century media and image training boot camp -- to be built in Harlem. A "strategic alliance" of the NAACP, SCLC, Nation of Islam, and Rap The Vote vowed to set up a hip-hop political action committee and a voter registration drive directed at the 2002 and 2004 elections.
Jeff Johnson, the 28-year-old national director of the NAACP's youth, college and young adult division, had opened the conference critical of his own organization for failing to engage hip-hop generation. He left feeling very optimistic: "A lot of people have been doing work in a vacuum, now they can do it collectively."
Sean Combs said, "The things I've seen in the last three days have touched me in such a positive way, and I think it gave a true representation to what hip-hop is and what hip-hop is about."
"What you're witnessing right now is history," he said.
One sideshow to the summit ended happily in a moment of Farrakhan-brokered reconciliation. Russell Simmons and Minister Conrad Muhammad's rift -- a war which blew up in the press that week -- seemed to be in the process of being quashed.
On Tuesday, Muhammad was barred from the summit. He had appeared on CNN to bitterly tell viewers that Russell had urged a boycott of his own summit in April. But by the next morning, Chuck D had got him in to see the proceedings.
At the podium, Minister Farrakhan began speaking about Russell and Minister Conrad's beef. "No leader should fight another," he warned. "Because when the leaders fight, the followers also fight." Farrakhan urged the two to quash their beef behind closed doors. "When you all agree, come on out and let the press see you," he said.
As he spoke a clamor erupted at the back of the room. "He's here!" said someone from within a crowd of journalists near the back door. Minister Conrad waved to his mentor. Russell, sitting onstage next to Minister Farrakhan, applauded and smiled. With shouts of "That's right!," the crowd applauded loudly.
After Farrakhan's speech, Minister Conrad and Russell embraced, and with cameras flashing, they smiled.