This Ain't No Party
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On June 11th, more than two dozen young people hopped on a bus in Minneapolis, headed for the historic National Hip-Hop Political Convention set to begin five days later in Newark, New Jersey. Some were activists hoping to inspire political engagement among their peers, some were rappers looking for a break and some were just trying to get out of town. Other than a love of hip-hop culture, they thought they had little in common.
The convention was an unprecedented effort to mobilize a sleeping giant – a generation of tens of millions for whom "politics" is but a profanity – to leverage its cultural power toward political power. Delegates would qualify by registering 50 people to vote, and would fashion the hip-hop generation's first national political agenda.
The bus ride, organized by St. Paul-based Nimco Ahmed, a petite 22-year-old Somali American firebrand, was designed to take this motley crew of youngsters – 80 percent of whom were aspiring rappers, according to one rider – through the 'hoods of the upper Midwest and Northeast to register 4,000 people to vote, which would mean 80 delegate seats at the Convention.
But the trip didn't quite go as planned.
A 23-year-old rapper named Kenneth Earl Crump, Jr., better known as "Neo", got on the bus when it reached the southside of Chicago, hoping to get to New York to meet some industry players and further his budding career. "Honestly, I was using it as a free trip to get to the east coast," he says candidly. "But by the time I got to New York I forgot to take care of my personal business. I got so wrapped up in the whole atmosphere." While registering people to vote at the housing projects in the northside of Kalamazoo, Neo was stunned to find the same conditions he saw at home: "Gentrification, gang violence, no trust for the police departments, no order, no law, and no respect anymore."
In Cincinnati, the bus pulled into the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood that had erupted in rioting in April of 2001 after the police shooting of black resident Timothy Thomas. There, things took a strange turn. "The pastor who was supposed to walk us through the neighborhood got scared and left us," Neo recalls. "It was wild. One of my Somali brothers, they tried to rob him, take his watch and his chains. A white guy who was with us, they came at him like nine, ten deep, just talking about, 'This ain't the place for you to be.' One of the 14-year-old guys, somebody pulled a knife on him, just for asking him to register to vote."
But the experience didn't scare these political neophytes. Instead, says Nicholas Cortez Al'Aziz Muhammad, a 26-year-old rapper from St. Paul who became the Minnesota delegation's chair, "They had seen the extreme of what could happen if you don't use your political voice. They actually got to see what this political process could do to our people at its worst.
"That's the point at which people started forgetting their music and started thinking about how they could help people in that type of condition," he adds.
For Neo, the ride was a revelation. It made made him believe that political activism – and unity – might be a powerful thing. "The same problems they were talking about in Cincinnati, we heard the same problems in Kalamazoo, we heard the same problems in Pittsburgh, we heard the same problems in Chicago, same problems in Harlem, same problems in Newark,' he says. "So I'm just gonna take the leap."
THE SKEPTICAL GENERATION
For many, the National Hip-Hop Political Convention was certainly a leap.
Pundits point to declining voter registration and participation numbers, especially in the 18-35 age bracket. Since Bill Clinton's 1992 election turned out a record number of young people to vote, politicians have ignored the concerns of young voters. "During our lifetime, the political system hasn't often shown and proved it can be a viable force for change," says James Bernard, executive director of the Hip Hop Civic Engagement Project, an organization that has registered tens of thousands of voters in 13 states. "That's what we're working against and what we have to overcome with our people."
Unlike the civil rights generation, the hip-hop generation came of age during a time of reversal. Schools were closed, services reduced, safety nets shredded. Deindustrialization was followed by disinvestment. The federal government reduced its powers – and its budget – to restore and cure, and delegated budgets and powers back to the states and the cities. These were the politics of abandonment.
Also during the 80s, government began to actively turn against the young, barring them from public spaces through curfews, sweeps, and anti-loitering ordinances. They were profiled and transformed into fodder for gang databases. Juvenile justice turned from rehabilitation to retribution. Three-strikes and other tough-on-crime laws proliferated. Incarceration rates soared. These were the politics of containment.
Hip-hop culture was part of the response to the politics of abandonment and containment, as the new generation shifted much of its energy toward cultural production. It was partial, though, because it did not attempt a broad analysis of how society had changed. Hip-hop spoke to the 'hood-view, the gaze from the corner, the rhythm of the street.
When hip-hop activism emerged out of the generational strife of the mid-90s, it too remained locally focused. At the end of the century, as movements against the prison-industrial complex and police brutality emerged simultaneous to movements against corporate globalization, many young hip-hop activists begin to see the need for national organizing.
Two of the founders of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, Bakari Kitwana, author of the seminal 2000 book The Hip-Hop Generation, and Ras Baraka, the son of famed poet Amiri Baraka and deputy mayor of Newark, looked to the 1972 National Black Political Assembly in Gary, Indiana, as a model of empowerment. (Ras' father played a central role in that event.) That convention gathered an explosive mix of elected officials, Democratic Party activists, and black-power organizers and resulted in a doubling of the number of black elected officials. But a precipitous weakening of national African-American institutions followed. Hip-hop activism has been, in no small part, a reaction to the lack of leadership development by those institutions.
A look at the national co-chairs of the Hip-Hop convention is illustrative of this point: Baye Adofo-Wilson is a community organizer working on economic development issues in Newark, and one of the forces behind Black August, an effort to educate rappers about global politics through high-profile summer tours to Cuba and South Africa; Angela Woodson has spearheaded the grass-roots efforts to register more than 5,000 voters in the crucial swing state of Ohio. Both come out of sturdy local networks of hip-hop activists – including radio personalities, rap artists, nightclub owners, student activists, community organizers, gang trucemakers, journalists, zine publishers, voting rights advocates – and work on issues like education, the prison-industrial complex, juvenile justice, education, health, environmental justice, racism, and sexism. The Hip-Hop Convention meant to activate these networks on a national scale.
The Convention organizers set the opening date as June 16th, Tupac's birthday, and scheduled the vote on the national agenda for June 19th, Juneteenth. Some 6,000 attendees arrived from 25 states and 10 countries, including Holland, France, Colombia, Mexico and Australia. More than 600 delegates from 20 states were counted before the Convention opened (about 400 showed), representing 30,000 new "hip-hop voters.'
There has probably never been another Convention like this. In the hallways outside crowded workshops, radio personalities and rappers like the Diplomats' Jim Jones mingled with basketball jersey-sporting b-boys, headwrapped sisters with baby carriages, Discman-carrying high school students and iPod-wearing businessmen. All week in Newark, freestyle ciphers spilled out onto the sidewalks. Thousands attended the free all-night park jams under a huge concert canopy, featuring performers like dead prez, Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick, Wyclef Jean, Rah Digga, Busta Rhymes, Kurtis Blow, Floetry, and Black Moon.
Ras Baraka stated the obvious in a speech on Saturday: "This Convention is not a construct of the Republican or Democratic Party." Neither Party could ever party like this.
WE GOT ISSUES
A key spur for the hip-hop activism movement came in 1994, when C. Delores Tucker told a Senate panel that the hip-hop generation, "coaxed by gangster rap,' would "trigger a crime wave of epidemic proportions that we have never seen the likes of." She added, "Regardless of the number of jails built, it will not be enough."
Recognizing the centrality of generational conflict in hip-hop gen politics, a whole day of the Convention was devoted to "Intergenerational Dialogue.' Nisa Galeta, a 21-year old delegate from D.C., summed up the issue, "There are leaders who pass the baton, and then there are leaders who die in their grave holding on to the baton. The first thing that people are going to pick apart is what they think is division in your midst. So the hip-hop generation is trying to empower older people to learn from young people and young people to respect older people."
By turns the townhall meeting was rowdy, unfocused, and threatening to spiral out of control, but it still produced moments of clarity. Harlem-based Reverend Calvin Butts, once a Tucker ally known for bulldozing hip-hop CDs, came seeking a kind of concordance, and described the dialogue as "one of the most important things to happen to our community in 20 years." The audience cheered.
On Friday night, delegates from 14 states met in caucuses to set statewide agendas consisting of five issues. These caucuses became especially heated as many hip-hop activists struggled for the first time, across race, gender, class, and sexuality, to establish a common process and language. Larger delegations – New Jersey, Ohio, California – deliberated for hours in setting their issue agendas. State representatives then joined the National organizers in a marathon meeting to determine the Convention's agenda.
By Saturday afternoon, in the Essex County College gym, with dead prez's chant ringing in their ears – "It's bigger than hip-hop!" – the delegates gathered to consider the national agenda, covering five issues: education, economic justice, criminal justice, health, and human rights. Platform planks included demands for free education from kindergarten to post-graduate, rollbacks of the tax cuts for the wealthy, reparations for African-Americans and Native Americans, universal health care, protection of women's reproductive health, an end to the War on Youth, a repeal of Patriot Act I and II, and an end to U.S. militarization and imperialism.
With more than 40 proposed amendments to consider, there was an urgency to the meeting. At 8 p.m. after four hours of deliberation, they had gone through half of the amendments and were being told they had to leave the gym. The process was anything but tidy. In an unusual twist, a subgenerational conflict threatened to flare between hip-hop activists under 25 and those over 25. As voting meetings dragged on Friday and Saturday, some of the younger activists left in frustration. Galeta disagreed with their decision. "If you're walking out on this, it's like you're walking out on your generation," she told them.
Organizers later conceded that they had underestimated the amount of time it would take to pass an agenda. But they pointed to the historic nature of the event. "We brought a number of people from across the country. We had a process that was democratic and inclusive and a vote of this magnitude had never been done before in our generation," says Adofo-Wilson. "Developing a language and a process was time-consuming."
Reconvening in the gathering darkness in the plaza of the Essex County College, delegates voted to ratify the rest of the agenda, and determined a process to consider the remaining amendments. Although a final night of concerts was just beginning a few blocks away, many lingered, discussing how to push the agenda with the Democratic and Republican parties, setting up meetings to advance their newly minted state agendas, and beginning to make plans for the followup conference set for Chicago in 2006.
They were interrupted by Kofi, the chair of the Ohio state delegation, who had jumped up onto a ten-foot high wall and, with his arms outstretched, to scream, "We changed the world!" Then he led the crowd in dead prez's chant, a final shout-out to the thing that had brought them all together, the thing that had given them the juice to make their historic statement: "Hip-hop!"
Jeff Chang is the author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (St. Martins Press, February 2005). He is an organizer of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention.