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Where Politics and Hip Hop Collide

The slogan 'Vote or Die!' may have faded into obscurity, but hip hop's political movement didn't perish with it.
 
 
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Last Monday night, Kwame Kilpatrick went on a club crawl of Detroit's liveliest bars and nightclubs. On Tuesday night, the 35-year-old African American ex-football player partied again until the early hours of the morning, this time at an election party. He was celebrating his own victory. Kilpatrick, America's first "hip hop mayor," had won a second term in office.

Despite a first term riddled with "youthful" mistakes -- most famously he admitted using city dollars to lease a Lincoln Navigator for his wife -- Kilpatrick was resilient. He relied on his base of young African-Americans, a risky bet since young people have notoriously low voter turnout rates. But as the youngest mayor ever elected in Detroit and a member of the so-called "hip hop generation," he pulled it off.

The hip hop generation that Kilpatrick belongs to is defined loosely as minorities born between 1965 and 1984 who have grown up within a culture of hip hop music, dance, fashion and art. They are the first generation born in a post-Jim Crow society, and were raised largely in urban neighborhoods that have exemplified both the successes and ironies of the civil rights movement.

Even with legal equality, schools remained largely segregated. Despite an ever increasing black middle class, black and brown people remained over-represented among the ranks of the poor and unemployed. As the hip hop generation has come of age, many of its members have reacted to these realities by forming or participating in an array of social justice organizations. Only a few have gotten involved in electoral politics; Kilpatrick was elected in 2001, and poet and hip hop activist Ras Baraka was appointed Newark's deputy mayor in 2002 after an earlier unsuccessful run for mayor.

Like Kilpatrick himself, hip hop's growing presence in electoral politics has shown itself to be controversial, awkwardly unpredictable -- and incredibly charismatic. In 2004, it was not clear if the highly publicized hip hop voter registration drives, such as Sean "P. Diddy" Comb's "Vote or Die!" campaign (in which Kilpatrick participated), marked the beginning of a political movement, or simply a trend during a dramatic election year. A year later, it seems that hip hop's place in politics is continuing to grow. The collaborations and organizations that sprung up from the 2004 election are, for the most part, stronger than ever. If a national hip hop political movement was in its infancy last year, then this year it's beginning its uncomfortable adolescence.

"The election was really important. It was really the first time you saw this sort of effort on both the celebrity level and the grassroots level that came together around one big thing," says Jeff Chang, hip hop journalist and author of Can't Stop, Won't Stop . But he likens the trajectory of the hip hop's political movement to entropy--it tends toward disorder and randomness. "The hip hop political movement is not something that has a monolithic look to it. You're talking about folks working day in and day out on a range of issues. What unites them is the fact that there has been massive generational change since the civil rights movement. The question is, how to do you harness something that looks like entropy?"

It's a good question with about a million answers. As a political movement, hip hop is finding itself and just about everything is up for debate: who its leaders should be, who the movement represents, and how to harmonize hip hop's historical resistance against the establishment with a new urge to participate in mainstream politics. The people who made 2004 such a big year for hip hop are, in 2005, proposing very different ways to carry forward.

The Grassroots Organizers

"Hip hop has always been political," says Rosa Clemente, a New York-based activist and co-host for WBAI's (99.5 FM/NYC) show, "Where We Live." "Hip hop can be used to show resistance against oppression; that's what it was in the beginning and that's what it continues to be."

Since its birth in the Bronx, hip hop has certainly welcomed lyrics about oppression, resistance to the white establishment, and blunt challenges to government, from N.W.A.'s hit "Fuck Tha Police" in 1988, to Jadakiss' 2004 song "Why?" which asked "Why did Bush knock down the towers." With a history of Afro-centric nationalism, gangsta rap and graffiti art, hip hop had never been used as a means of assimilation into mainstream (white) culture. It has always been more likely to dismiss electoral politics in favor of localized social justice work.

Clemente, who identifies herself as a black Puerto Rican grassroots organizer, was part of the surge in the 1990s of activists who tied their social justice work closely to hip hop culture. Her professional history could be easily mistaken for notes on hip hop's political agenda. She has tackled issues including youth organizing, prison rights, African-American/Latino relations, racism in South Africa, and ethnic disparities in health care. On the roster of larger organizations she's affiliated with is the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, which was founded in Brooklyn in 1993 to focus on self-determination and community building. Through its Central Brooklyn Cop Watch and Political Prisoner Amnesty Campaign, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement also deals with two ever-present issues for African-Americans and Latinos: police brutality and discrimination in the criminal justice system. For Clemente, the key word when it comes to hip hop's political future is self-determination.

"We need to talk about building an independent party, not just joining the Green Party or the Working Families Party. People of color need to build their own political party," she says. "I'm no longer interested in dealing with progressives when they don't allow leadership to look like people of color." While white progressives may focus on social justice just as hip hop activists do, the differences have a lot to do with age, ethnicity and class. "[White progressives and liberals] will protest the war in Iraq, but they will not step in when they see cops harassing a black person in their neighborhood."

While Clemente's dream of a national independent party has yet to grow roots, for more than a decade organizations like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement have left their stamp on their local communities. On the West Coast, for instance, an organization called Youth Speaks has introduced spoken word poetry into high schools, colleges and juvenile detention centers in the Bay Area. On the East Coast, the Prison Moratorium Project in 2001 helped prevent New York City from spending $64 million to expand its juvenile detention jails and urged local officials to use that money for community youth programs. These are just two small examples of the hundreds of organizations that have made their imprint on school board issues, city council decisions and state propositions and laws.

As these types of organizations have worked locally over the years, the stage has slowly been set for hip hop to make its presence felt in national electoral politics. Many local organizations have expanded to include chapters across the nation, or joined their efforts with political groups like The League of Pissed Off Voters, which is directed by 31-year-old William "Upski" Wimsatt, co-editor of How to Get Stupid White Men Out Of Office and author of Bomb the Suburbs and No More Prisons .

New organizations like the Hip Hop Caucus, the National Hip-Hop Political Convention and the Hip Hop Summit Action Network have been formed exclusively to build a national presence. Meanwhile, hip hop's celebrities have gone into the business of national voter registration drives, first in 2000 with Rap the Vote (a spin off of MTV's Rock the Vote), then last year with P. Diddy's "Vote or Die!" and Russell Simmons' Hip Hop Summits. This has been to the dismay of some activists like Clemente, who says, "Russell and P. Diddy are hip hop capitalists, not hip hop activists!"

The Celebrities

Among the many efforts by hip hop organizations focused on the 2004 election, Russell Simmons' Hip Hop Summits received a lion's share of media attention. In the search for easily identifiable black leaders, the mainstream media latched on to Simmons, a 48-year-old millionaire and the founder of Def Jam Records and Phat Farm brand. Simmons is the chairman and founder of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), which at its start in 2000 acted more like a trade organization. Among its first actions were the creation of parental advisory labeling for CDs and a mentoring program for newly signed rappers. The organization was shaped into social force with a resolution to assist in the "political empowerment of the hip hop community."

By forming alliances between the most powerful businessmen in the industry and the largest civil rights organizations -- including the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Nation of Islam -- HSAN instantly established itself as a leader in the African-American community.

Of course, most of the nation knows HSAN for its 26 star-studded summits, which were held across the nation. The star power of the summits enticed millions of people to attend, and ultimately 2 million young people registered to vote through HSAN. Dozens of rappers made appearances, including Reverend Run of Run-DMC, Kanye West, P. Diddy, Beyonce, Lil' Romeo, Eminem, Busta Rhymes and Erykah Badu. Political figures also made appearances, of course, and provided voter education. They, however, were not the stars of the show.

Dr. Benjamin Chavis, HSAN's 57-year-old CEO, estimates that 1.3 million people who registered to vote through the HSAN actually went to the polls and voted. (For people under 30, the total vote was more than 11 million.) Those figures are backed by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which reported that "youth voter turnout increased substantially and much of this increase was driven by an increase in voting among African-American youth."

The election proves that "there are political consequences to hip hop," according to Chavis. "It would be wrong to say that hip hop is just concerned with bling bling, or hip hop is just music, or it's just fashion, or that it's just political. People try to put hip hop in one category, but it is multi-faceted. It's a global youth phenomenon with the ability to affect political change." Over the next couple years, HSAN has dropped out of hardcore politicking and is focusing on a program to promote financial literacy. Chavis says its voter registration program "Team Vote" is still active and will be kicked back into high gear for the 2008 presidential elections.

As anyone with a television knows, HSAN is not hip hop's only celebrity-led political organization. P. Diddy's "Vote or Die!" campaign, founded just four months before the election, sought to make voting "hot, sexy and relevant." More of a media blitz than a part of a movement, "Vote or Die!" got celebrity endorsements from Mary J. Blige, Paris Hilton, 50 Cent, Mya and others. However, after the election, it was reported that neither Paris Hilton nor 50 Cent had actually voted, or even registered to vote. It's not clear whether the campaign followed up to estimate how many of its new voters actually made it to the polls. The website has not been updated since 2004, and its phone numbers were no longer in service.

This type of sloppy follow-through has some activists steaming and invites outside criticism. "To have voter registration drives and not educate people about the issues is criminal to me," says Clemente. "That's why we are in the situation we are in now, with the Bush regime the second time around."

The Divide

Throughout the election year, both the mainstream media and some grassroots activists criticized celebrity-driven hip hop organizations as sometimes hypocritical in their politics, less than revolutionary, and short-sighted. To be sure, HSAN and "Vote or Die!" were not the heavyweights of voter education. This was most apparent by the faces that fronted the voting campaigns -- artists, not organizers, who were sometimes ignorant about the political issues of the 2004 election.

The New York Times called P. Diddy's campaign "insincere marketing" and made fun of the "trendy T-shirts" that were passed out to newly registered voters. The Boston Globe noted that at a summit in Bean town, Sen. Maxine Waters received "polite applause" from the crowd while musician Lloyd Banks was greeted with "near hysterics." A San Francisco Chronicle writer made fun of HSAN's goal of eliminating poverty, asking "How does that work, if what most mainstream rappers represent is part of the problem in eliminating poverty?"

"Some of the contentiousness is only natural, hip hop is evolving as a cultural phenomenon," says Chavis. "But we have never said that participating in the political process is the only way to make a change." Chavis notes that HSAN is "very grassroots" and works in collaboration with numerous other grassroots organizations to carry out its work. "If there is a divide, it's between those that consider themselves hip hop activists and those who consider themselves only involved in the music, fashion, and culture of hip hop. But that is changing. You see Talib Kweli, Common, and other rappers getting involved." Theoretically, then, more hip hop consumers will follow in their footsteps.

Despite whatever tensions exist, at least one organization has managed to bring together both celebrities and the activists who are skeptical of them: the biannual National Hip-Hop Political Convention, a national organization operating in 20 states. The first convention in 2004 was organized by people submerged in the social justice work of hip hop culture, including Jeff Chang, Rosa Clemente, Newark Deputy Mayor Ras Baraka, and Bakari Kitwana, former editor of the Source magazine and author of The Hip Hop Generation .

Grassroots organizers were joined by a handful of celebrities. Together, about 400 delegates from around the nation, including representatives from organizations like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the New Black Panther Party, created a hip hop agenda. It focused on education, economic justice, criminal justice, health and human rights and specifically called for better funding for public schools, free college education, reparations, full employment, voting rights for ex-cons, universal healthcare, funding for AIDS prevention/research, and withdrawal of troops from occupied nations.

The next National Hip-Hop Political Convention, planned for July 2006 in Chicago, promises to strengthen the national infrastructure. If it is anything like the first one, Russell Simmons, wealthy rap stars and neighborhood activists will be brainstorming together. Meanwhile, individual chapters have gotten involved in local elections. The New York chapter, for example, held a mayoral election townhall on Nov. 3.

For a movement that has many divisions, the agenda put together by the National Hip-Hop Political Convention sounds surprisingly similar to the goals expressed repeatedly by other hip hop organizations. The mission statements of HSAN and nearly all organizations that consider themselves part of the hip hop political movement are working toward similar causes: better public education, economic justice, equal and universal healthcare, reparations, racial equality in the criminal justice system, prisoners' rights, and education through the arts. Despite divisions on methodology -- some want to reform, others want revolution -- hip hop's political movement has a pretty solid focus on social justice for historically oppressed people.

As for the blurry edges of the emerging movement, Chavis is optimistic. "Hip hop transcends race and ethnicity. There is room for everybody," he says. "There are some people in the academic world who consider themselves hip hop academics and that's fine, there's nothing wrong with that. You can be a hip hop scientist, a hip hop doctor."

Clemente has some stipulations to an open door policy: "White people can join in if they are willing to support and take leadership from people of color."

To be effective politically, hip hop's activists and celebrities do not necessarily have to adhere to one set of values. "A movement takes all kinds of different fronts, and that's something that people in the left don't appreciate," Jeff Chang says. "In the right, they figure out a way to include cultural conservatives, evangelicals, corporate folks and they put it together in a movement. In the left, we've had a lot of issues over the years with partisanship and ideological division. This is a chance to unite people."

The Future

Now, a year removed from the mania of the Bush-Kerry presidential election, it seems that hip hop's venture into national politics has, at a minimum, begun to affect the way voting blocs are imagined. While white voters are largely defined by their lifestyle during campaigns -- the so-called "soccer moms" and "NASCAR dads" -- minority voters are usually defined by their race. They are viewed by candidates as two monolithic groupings: the black vote and the Latino vote. But in 2004, the hip hop vote emerged, both as a testament to the impact of popular culture on politics and an assertion of self-identification. For the next presidential election, it will be hard to ignore this new voting bloc.

As for Kilpatrick's win in Detroit, Chang cautions against reading too much into it. "Kwame Kilpatrick didn't have much of a presence at the National Hip-Hop Political Convention. When Ras Baraka runs for office next year, that will be more of an indicator, because he was the chair of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention and he has more of a decided bent toward the kind of issues at the convention. That will be more of a litmus test for the hip hop community."

Meanwhile, antagonisms about authenticity, class and methodology of the movement will surely continue to play out. The one thing that is in agreement is the potential power of hip hop to shape national politics.

Maria Luisa Tucker is an AlterNet staff writer.