Rap the Vote


Hip hop is more than a musical form or fashion craze: It is a political movement that is gaining momentum. Artists like KRS-One, Dead Prez and Talib Kweli, whose lyrics consistently focus on social and political issues, and hip hoppers like Ras Baraka and George Martinez (a.k.a. Rithm), who are running for political office, are part of a trend amongst the hip hop community to translate hip hop's legions of loyal participants into a political power to be reckoned with. Their goal, of course, is to wrest control of this nation out of the hands of politicians they see as apathetic to the concerns of the poor and working class peoples that are at the heart of the hip hop constituency. One of the main obstacle to this goal, however, is hip hoppers themselves: civic participation is notoriously low amongst urban youth of color. In fact, in recent years, many of these youth have felt like their vote is essentially worthless.

Since 1971, when 18-year-olds were first allowed to vote by passage of the 26th amendment, turnout for 18 to 20-year-olds at the polls has declined. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the 2000 presidential election only 36 percent of registered 18- to 24-year-olds voted. If youth in general are apathetic about voting, we can imagine that youth of color -- who so rarely have the opportunity to elect candidates who will represent their communities -- have an added challenge.

Simone Mason, a student at Howard University and the assistant in the National Youth Voter Empowerment program at the NAACP, says she can understand why Black youth, in particular, have a hard time believing that their vote will make a difference.

"There's a lot of disillusionment with the system," she says. "They think it's not pertinent to themselves. There are a lot of issues that they don't feel they have any control over." She mentions the 2000 elections specifically, adding that the events in Florida made a lot of young people ask: "Why should I vote?"

Philip Hales, a college senior from Mississippi, echoes these sentiments on the Bush election.

"To me the election of George W. Bush to the office of president means that my concerns as a black person will not be a political priority," he says. "In the last election, ballots disappeared from historically black schools in Florida. My relatives in the south likened that state of affairs to the fifties, when blacks did not have the right to vote. And I agree with this comparison."

It's not surprising, then, that more and more effort is being put into messages aimed at youth of color that say that voting is more than a way to be a good citizen and follow the rules -- that it is, in fact, one of the only ways to change the rules.

Where does Hip Hop come into this? You guessed it: The most successful efforts to get youth of color involved almost always involve hip hop.

Take Rap the Vote, for instance. Now an ongoing campaign co-sponsored by the 12-year-old Rock the Vote organization and the NAACP, Rap the Vote started back in the early days of MTV-inspired voting advocacy as a mere tagline on some 1992 campaign materials. The phrase resurfaced again as more than a slogan in 2000, when Russell Simmons' 360HipHop got involved. And this year, thanks to the NAACP's involvement, and endorsement and participation by artisits such as Jay-Z, Public Enemy, the Beatnuts, and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, the campaign has expanded. Beginning this summer, Rap the Vote has sponsored a series of concert tours, television spots, and town hall meetings across the country. They have also sent a van into urban neighborhoods to educate young people and help them register to vote.

It you visit the Rap the Vote web site, you'll see their "Register. Vote. Represent." message, alongside a catchy hip hop beat and an image of a fist wearing a bling-bling nuckle ring that spells out V.O.T.E across its width.

At first glance, such projects may look like token efforts to include youth of color in the world of politics, but, as the campaign's organizers will tell you, there's nothing small about it.

Channing Hawkins, of the NAACP National Youth Voter Empowerment Program, thinks it's about time someone started using hip hop to promote voting. He believes that, despite the recent push for federal spending on education, very little emphasis has been placed on educating people about their right to vote.

"Educating people about the political process -- that's integral to making this democracy work," he says. "And I don't think that message is one that's being sent: that they need to be involved, and that their involvement is necesary."

Channing also manages the Rap the Vote tour bus. And when they appear in a new neighborhood, he says, he sees young people who are energetic and enthusiastic about their right to vote -- sometimes for the first time in their lives.

"For [a young person] to find out their favorite artist might be a convicted felon, but to find out that they can still vote, that their lives have been taken away but they can be got back, I think that's been the biggest thing," he says.

-- Channing Hawkins, of the NAACP National Youth Voter Empowerment Program

"We just pull up in their neighborhoods and we have freestyle contests, or we have poetry contests," he says. "And the youth, they're just great -- because typically it's a lot of older folks in politics -- but when we're in the housing developments and on the college campuses, it just creates an instant crowd."

One of the more inspiring things, Channing says, is energizing people who, at a young age, already feel completely excluded from the system. In some cases, he says, bringing in a rap artist who has been in prison is particularly helpful.

"For [a young person] to find out their favorite artist might be a convicted felon, but to find out that they can still vote, that their lives have been taken away but they can be got back, I think that's been the biggest thing," he says.

Tai Duncan, a college sophomore from Chicago, is skeptical. She pointed out that although the celebrity based programs might be effective in terms of being something that grabs the attention of a lot youths, it may appear to people outside of the community, that the only way to get youth of color involved is to cater to an obsession with music, fashion and celebrities.

"I think if you're going for "inner city" youths whose basic role models are the people they see on MTV and BET, then I say, go for it!," says Tai. "But to reach other, more political or otherwise intellectual individuals who might have some knowledge of non-popular black figures, using political or otherwise motivational figures would be more beneficial." Jesse Jackson, Jesse White, Spike Lee were some that came to her mind.

Like Tai, some critics may wonder: Is voting a realistic a trend among young people? Lynn Lyman, of Rock the Vote, is clear about the fact that the Rap the Vote campaign is about much more than starting a trend.

"Its not about making it cool -- its about making a connection," she says. And she's right. When we hear political information from someone we already look up to and trust, most youth will be more open what they have to say.

A recent automated phone call they're currently sending out is a good example. Instead of a politician's voice, youth on their list will pick up the phone and hear L.L. Cool J talking about why they should turn out to vote. How cool is that?

"In 1998, the mayor of Newark [New Jersey] was elected with less than 25,000 votes," Ras Baraka, a spoken word artist, school administrator, and candidate for city council in Newark told the hip hop magazine "Redeye". "So the 35,000 registered voters in Newark between 18 and 35 that bump Jay-Z in their radios could actually elect the mayor of this city. And I'm sure it's like that in most urban centers."

According to Lyman the fact that it's cool is somewhat beside the point.

"It's not that someone's making it cool," Lyman adds, "its like when you get an email from a friend or when you get one from someone you don't know, you're more likely to open the one from the friend. It's the familiarity and the trust and not necessarily the coolness factor that I see working in terms of the link -- and what we find once young people are exposed to the voting message, they're more likely to stay involved."

Philip agrees. He says: "It is extremely intelligent to use these stars to inspire causes beyond what jeans to wear and what soda to drink. Succinctly put, if you can't bring the youth to the voting booth, bring it to them, and on their terms."

Sahil Merchant, Michael Gaworecki and T. Eve Greenaway all contributed to this story.


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