Election 2004  
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Hip-Hop Activism: Will They Come to Vote?

A new crop of hip-hop activists -- and some old, familiar faces -- are taking their message to the kids. From malls to hair salons to hip-hop clubs to a national convention in Newark, NJ -- the electoral energy is mounting.
 
 
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The political doomsday possibility of a second Bush term has awakened many who may have been asleep at the wheel, or just disconnected from politics. This is especially true of hundreds of thousands of alienated or apolitical young people who are now open to being organized. Major efforts are underway to reach out to these young voters -- both at the grand scale of huge arena Hip Hop concerts and at the grassroots where the method is more hands on.

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Photo by 1000 Flowers.

Yet, the big question remains: will these efforts be enough to get youth to the polls on November 2?

Dire political circumstances have inspired many groups who have been traditionally content to remain outside the political arena. These groups are taking any number of non-traditional approaches to engaging potential new voters. Voting information tables and registration efforts are showing up in the most unlikely places -- from malls to beauty salons, where, for example, one organization is attempting to reach unmarried women by distributing " Beauty Kits" that include voter registration material to nail and beauty salons.

Nowhere is this new and innovative electoral energy more apparent than in the hip hop community. Here the emergence of an election-oriented, politically sophisticated effort to register and mobilize thousands of younger voters and build a political power base is one of the most promising developments of the election season.

An early centerpiece of this grassroots organizing is the ambitious National Hip-Hop Political Convention in Newark, New Jersey slated for June 16-19. The convention, which is likely to attract thousands of activists as well as top-draw musical talent, might also be an early indication of how successful the hip hop effort will be at the local level.

James Bernard, one of the convention's organizers, a founder of the hip hop magazine The Source and founding editor of XXL, says, "Newark is a coming-out party for a whole new generation of activists. We're about organizing a progressive movement for our generation of black, Latino, Asian and white hip hoppers. We need muscle at the polling booth and a presence in the street." He calls the convention "the kickoff of an intense campaign to register and mobilize tens of thousands of young people between now and election day."

Reaching for the Youth Vote

In addition to the Hip-Hop Convention and its registration campaign, there are dozens of other efforts aimed at young people, designed to reverse a trend of increasingly high drop-out numbers among young voters in the 25 years since 18-year-olds won the right to vote. The League of Pissed off Voters have been barnstorming the country promoting their book How to Vote Stupid White Men Out of Office , and a new organization called the Young Voter Alliance promises to seek out young people where they actually are most reachable -- in the summer basketball leagues, in barbershops and hair salons and hip-hop clubs where advocates hope that partying will mix with politics.

In addition, this year is seeing several huge national non-partisan voter registration efforts. America Coming Together (ACT) has a strong youth component, while the US PIRGS have launched the New Voters Project, thanks to a multi-million-dollar grant from the Pew Foundation. These groups are also using what have been found to be the most effective tactics, making face-to-face contact with youth in a number of states.

Meanwhile much of the grassroots work has been overshadowed by the glitzy, mainstream Hip Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), a high-powered effort led by music and clothing impresario Russell Simmons and a gaggle of record industry heavies like Damon Dash and the "king of excess" P. Diddy Combs. The project is being run by the controversial Ben Chavis, a member of the Nation of Islam and organizer of the so-called "Million Man March." HSAN, which doesn't appear to have many actual members of the hip-hop generation in their leadership mix, has used huge concerts with A-list talent for high-volume registration of young people. With large events in Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston under their belt, HSAN has turned for support to corporate sponsors such as Anheuser Busch, PlayStation2 and the corporate media behemoth Clear Channel.

HSAN and Simmons have a long-term goal of registering millions of new voters over the next five years. They showed their enormous clout recently by hosting white hip-hop superstar Eminem at their May 23 Detroit Summit, an event where they claim to have registered as many as 17,000 young people. Major events are also scheduled for Ohio State University on June 3 and New Orleans later in the summer.

Music+Politics=Controversy

Hip-hop activism joins a musical genre with political action, and generates controversy along the way. According to Yvonne Bynoe, author of the recent book Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip Hop Culture , "during the 1980s and early '90s...it was rap artists rather than Black churches or traditional civil rights organizations who, through their music and personas, connected with disenfranchised urban youth." But according to Bynoe, there was a big problem. With the collusion of the media, "the post civil right generation had failed to recognize and put forth real political leaders, satisfying itself with the pseudo-political rhetoric of rap artists instead." The results, she says, were the "lack of a national movement or organization and hip hop generation political impotence."

There is inevitable tension between serious social-change activists attempting to organize for political power and influence policies and those who are backed with the star power to draw the crowds. Many of the latter are seen as giving lip service to hip-hop activism while posturing for self-promotion. The ideal effort, then, must recognize the unique draw of music and youth culture while building a concrete plan for change. As Bynoe reminds us: "The cult of celebrity that permeates American society has helped the post-Civil Rights Generation lose sight of its priorities." The necessary leadership, she says, "must be able to do more than rhyme about the problem; they have got to build organizations and harness the necessary resources and power to do something about them."

The organizers of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention are trying to empower the next generation to do just that.

In an effort to transcend the mistakes of the past, the convention is designed to emphasize the nuts and bolts of politics and underscore the commitment of its participants. The event will also feature speakers such as Cornell West, M-1 of dead prez, and Boots Riley of the Coup. Two of the three days will feature extensive line-ups of musical entertainers as well, ranging from Wyclef Jean to Chuck D., Slick Rick and Floetry.

Malia Lazu , a field consultant to the Convention and the former head of Boston Vote, one of the country's most successful efforts to expand the urban base of voters, explains that the organizers are committed to educating the next generation about how the system works. "There are delegates to the convention, there will be a platform," she says. "And the attendees are required to have registered 50 of their peers."

Leaders of this movement, like Baye Wilson, Ras Baraka, and Billy Wimsatt, are attempting to heed Bynoe's wisdom by focusing beyond November and aiming to establish a long-term political presence in the hopes of translating some of the commercial and cultural influence of hip hop into political power. This is no easy task, to be sure, as these efforts go up against many young people's ingrained thinking about elections as irrelevant at best and fundamentally corrupt at worst.

In addition, the two-party system often leaves many youths in the dust. As Malia Lazu says, many progressive youths still feel that the "Democrats have a long way to go."

"It is pretty appalling for John Kerry to have no visible African Americans in leadership positions in his campaign," she continues. "And when he was interviewed on MTV he couldn't name a single hip-hop group -- even my mother knew to say OutKast."

As writer Jeff Chang points out, today's generation needs to first be convinced that political action of any kind is even remotely important. "Can you prove that anything can change according to the rules that exist?" he asks. "Can you get young people excited in a world where 4000 advertising images are pushed in their faces every day? Selling easy answers, which is what most politicians do, is a tough sell in this environment. And young people have highly evolved crap-detectors."

In an interview with WireTap earlier this year, Adrienne Brown, co-organizer of the The League of Pissed of Voters, spoke about activism and voting, saying, "they are both naughty words really: Activism gets a bad rap as something for the crazies. And voting gets a bad rap as being too dorky and systematic, playing the game of the oppressor. But I'm a cool dork. Let's all be cool dorks -- voting activists launching an electoral revolution.

"If you care about something you can't expect someone else to do all the work for you," she continues. "You want us to not be at war? You have to elect someone who sees the military as a defense system, not a police force."

Hip-Hop Activism, Jersey-Style

Why is the Hip-Hop Convention in Newark? Two of the leaders of the Convention, Wilson and Baraka, are Newark-based and part of reform efforts there. So far, the City of Newark has been exemplary in supporting the efforts of the Convention -- helping with venues and logistical support. Yet "hip hop" has an image long distorted in the mainstream media -- often associated with trouble of one sort of another and sometimes with violence; so even in Newark, there have been some grumblings of apprehension.

This apprehension isn't surprising. The hip-hop generation is still being scapegoated for all kinds of social ills. In addition, this generation's most pressing political challenges -- the enormous prison industrial complex, the racist drug war, and the AIDS epidemic -- are not expected to be addressed by either party this year.

Malia Lazu believes that the Hip-Hop Political Convention is not only about voter registration and the nuts and bolts of elections, but also a call to her generation to organize for itself. "We all recognize that this is an independent political movement. It's not about a candidate or a party because then we're doomed to be disappointed," she says. But, she adds, increasingly our generation is "hip to the fact that political power comes from organizing and exercising influence, not from complaining."

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet.