If You Bump It, They Will Come

rap the vote
Rap the Vote (logo above) is one of many hip-hop based organizations trying to register voters.

Inside the studio of East Village Radio on the weekend before the New Hampshire primary, the hip-hop activists cue up their mental scripts while awkwardly climbing past each other for their turn at the mic. The low-power underground FM station broadcasts from a Manhattan storefront the size of walk-in closet. As is often the case when hip-hop and politics are brought under the same roof, things are cramped, disorganized and getting hot.

"We're back," says DJ Ariel, the mellow-voiced hostess of the Soulution Sunday Brunch. "The subject of today's show is the hip-hop generation and the youth vote -- or more specifically, the lack of the youth vote."

It's a question that has loomed among political strategists, youth activists and educators for decades, and one that seems to take on a more desperate tone every four years during the presidential election: How do we get young people to the polls? Sitting to DJ Ariel's right is George Martinez, Blackout Arts Collective cofounder, and Martha Diaz, President of the National Hip-hop Association. Both of them are right in their element. If the subject is voter apathy, they say, it's time to teach through hip-hop.

"Today's youth," says Martinez, "you can't talk to them unless you're talking about hip-hop." A professor of Political Science at Pace University, the 29-year-old was born in El Barrio and laid down his musical and political roots in the Bronx under the B-boy tag "Rithm." Diaz agrees. The former high school teacher started the National Hip-hop Association (NH2A) as a vehicle for education reform, "We need different interpretations and different insight into what's going on. We need to get young people connected and involved in the political process."

Hip-hop's recent domination of the Grammy Awards is an indisputable indicator that the underground music scene has emerged as a cultural and economic powerhouse. But as Martinez points out, hip-hop's political relevance -- at least in terms of elections -- is still up for grabs. And now, with the 2004 elections coming on fast, this has led several hip-hop organizations to declare a political call to arms among the hip-hop generation.

This might be easier said than done. The National Hip-Hop Association, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, Rock the Vote, and others are all mobilizing to carve out a slightly different, sometimes conflicting, vision of hip-hop's political identity. What's at stake is not only which white guy is sitting behind the oval office desk, but whose voice is behind the microphone of hip-hop America.

Where My Young Voters At?

martha diaz
Martha Diaz of the National Hip-hop Association

As presidential candidates crisscross the country to mine the electorate for any new or swayable voters, young voters (18 to 24 or 18 to 30 depending on whom you ask) remain as elusive and aloof as a bad dancer who's avoiding the prom. According to Political.com, this is especially true among minorities and disenfranchised youth in urban and rural areas, who have lower voter turnout rates than white suburban youth.

Multiply this generalization by the fact that young voters as a whole traditionally have the lowest turnout rate of any age group. Naina Khanna of the League of Young Voters says that only 32% of 18 to 24-year-olds voted in the 2000 presidential election. "And that's 10% lower than the number that voted in the 1992 election," she says. This is a far cry from the politically tumultuous days of the 70's when voters age 18 to 24 headed to the polls at a rate of more than 50%. The number has deflated every decade since then.

The reason for the drop? Well, the explanation most young people give is that voting is simply not an important part of their daily life, and they don't see their concerns or their beliefs reflected in the political debate. In regards to the current election, DJ Ariel relays her listener's frustration. "We have all these different characters up there telling us, "Vote for me, vote for me,' and they all sound the same . . . They don't necessarily speak to young people."

But voter apathy and low turnout among young people is a self-creating phenomenon. Kids don't vote, in part, because they don't feel politicians are addressing their concerns, and politicians aren't addressing their concerns because young people don't vote. Senior citizens, meanwhile, typically vote at a rate double that of 18 to 24-year-olds and thus have enormous influence over the agendas politicians push for. This is why on Capitol Hill sacred cows like Social Security remained untouched for years (although that may now be changing) while funds for higher education got pummeled. Lay a finger on grandma's pocket book, sonny, and you can kiss your political career goodbye.

Young people, however, don't have that kind of political sway, which leads to the sense of disempowerment and hopelessness. This is most true for inner-city youth who, with poor schools and economic disenfranchisement, oftentimes have the most to be pissed about and yet are often the last group considered up on Capitol Hill.

Developing A Political Agenda

kwame kilpatrick
Kwame Kilpatrick, Mayor of Detroit and self-proclaimed "Mayor of Hip-hop"

Yet while most young'uns turn to the soothing balm of indifference, others are drawn toward alternative means of expressing their frustration, which is where hip-hop steps up to bat. Ruth Henry, a middle-school teacher from inner city Boston, sees hip-hop as a communication tool that has filled the civic gaps for many young people. "Our hip-hop artists and our poets are becoming like our historians, our reporters and our prophets. So the power [of hip-hop] is that it is able to spread information on a local level, a national level and a global level."

Martinez knows first-hand how hip-hop can not only spread information, but can also influence politics. In 2002, he won a New York City Council seat in a heated race by campaigning under a progressive, street-wise platform of community empowerment. This soon morphed into a position under the New York State Attorney General, and Martinez is now able to boast about being the first rapper ever elected to political office.

But he's not the only hip-hop politician out there. In 2001, Kwame Kilpatrick was elected mayor of Detroit. The self-proclaimed "Mayor of Hip-hop" started his political career in the Michigan House of Representatives in 1996. At age 31, he became the youngest mayor of a major city. Though the Detroit News has criticized Kilpatrick's "pricey gangster threads" and Escalade motorcades, it also called him, "the political voice of urban youth [and] the picture of what the next generation of black leaders will look like."

Though Kilpatrick comes from within the Democratic establishment -- his mother is a Michigan congresswoman and his father is a county executive -- most hip-hoppers working within the political system originated from within the activist community. Just check out the presidential candidate with the most hard-core activist supporters, Dennis Kucinich. The Ohio Congressman brought on Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, a 32-year-old minister from St. Louis, as the "ambassador to the hip-hop community." Sekou has been organizing hip-hop house parties and concerts to get the vote of 18 to 24-year-olds who might be attracted to Kucinich's brand of progressivism. The former MC is also an activist who embraced hip-hop in his work with troubled teens. "It became a pedagogical tool for me when I was doing anti-gang work and violence prevention in the St. Louis public schools," he says.

rev. sekou
Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, Dennis Kucinich's "ambassador to the hip-hop community"

But Sekou acknowledges that hip-hop faces many challenges before it can produce a replicable strategy to influence the political system on both a local and national level. "There's some fledgling models [but] we don't know how sustaining it can be," Sekou says. "And we don't have adequate resources and even with those resources we run up against the gate-keepers within the record industry or the older activists who really don't understand the value of this demographic. They have to be willing to sit there and give up power and resources. And they say to me, 'Well do these people vote?' And my question back to them is, 'Have we given people something to vote for?'"

Sekou, however, isn't placing the blame entirely on the older generation, and acknowledges that hip-hop fans need to take responsibility and come up with a political agenda. "What are our demands? Who's our constituency?" he asks.

These are the very questions at the heart of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention taking place this June 16-19 in New Jersey, which bills itself as a "gathering of the hip-hop generation to vote on, adopt and endorse a political agenda." Working with Diaz's NH2A and other activist groups, organizer Baya Wilson sees the convention's focus as different from other hip-hop political initiatives that only deal with candidate profiles or voter registration. By utilizing delegates from around the country, the convention seeks to establish a coherent constituency. "We can go on and endorse and develop a political unity," Wilson told Martinez in a Free Speech TV interview, "So that when these politicians come to the table we can say this is who we are and this is what we want."

Empowering the hip-hop community and young people with the political weight of a constituency is also the drive behind William Upski Wimsatt's new brainchild, The League of Independent Voters. Author of the seminal hip-hop books, "Bomb the Suburbs" and "No More Prisons," Wimsatt hopes to utilize the Internet -- in the vein of Moveon.org and Meetup.com -- to not only get young people to vote, but to also organize to swing specific states in the favor of youth-minded candidates. Naina Khanna of the League says that young people need to organize, put together their platforms, and endorse certain candidates.

Social Consciousness Vs. Bling Bling

jayz and pdiddy
Jay-Z and P. Diddy (like you didn't already know that)

These may be revolutionary ideas for the youth and hip-hop community, but it's nothing new within American politics. Like-minded groups of people have long banded together in voter blocks in order to hold greater clout. Think of the Christian Right, labor unions or the NAACP; all have very clear agendas and messages which they project into the political debate to get what they want. Within hip-hop, however, there is a divide not across political boundaries (it's doubtful any Hip-Hoppers For Bush chapters will be starting up anytime soon), but between the commercial end of hip-hop and those who have an aesthetic vision of what hip-hop can and should be. While it's not the kind of conflict that destroys movements, this divergence may become more distinct and difficult to overcome as the elections approach.

mos def
Mos Def

Ever since the days of the politically-charged lyrics of Public Enemy and KRS-One, hip-hop has busted beats through the lens of social justice issues like racism, poverty, education and police brutality. Though much of what passes for mainstream hip-hop today can be dropped in the category of top-40 crap, one can still find socially-conscious lyrics of acts like the Roots, Q-Tip and Mos Def positioned on the charts between the flashy nihilism of bling-blingers like Jay-Z and Puff Daddy.

Today, many draw a line between industry-driven mainstream rap and the world of underground hip-hop. Cedric Muhammed, who pilots web-zine blackelectorate.com, pointed out in a recent interview with hip-hop radio guru Davey D, that the split between differing hip-hop factions won't make it easy to unite the scene under one political umbrella, "We have activists that don't like the academic intellectuals who don't like the entrepreneurs who don't like some of the artists who are struggling to develop a political consciousness."

Russell Simmons

russell simmons
Russell Simmons, hip-hop mogul

Back at the East Village Radio studio, the show is nearing the end and DJ Ariel pops Martinez the money-question: "Why might the NH2A be better for a project like this than, say, other hip-hop organizations?"

For anyone who has been on the hip-hop bandwidth for the last couple months, it is clear to which "other hip-hop organization" she is referring. Martinez, always the politician, answers in the affirmative. "I don't think that we're in competition and that's the beauty of the NH2A," says Martinez who sits on the Association's board. "Because the vision is to embrace all the elements of hip-hop and keep connected to the community. And in that vein we'll work with people like, for example, Russell Simmons, and if he wanted to collaborate on projects, folks are more than willing to sit down and talk."

Ah, yes, there's no leaving out Russell Simmons. The legendary founder of Def Jam Records, Simmons is credited with bringing hip-hop culture into the consciousness of mainstream America. He is Chairman of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, which draws thousands from the hip-hop diaspora to its yearly conventions for concerts, panels and workshops. The 46-year-old recently launched the more ambitious "One Mind, One Vote" campaign that hopes to register two million voters in the next six to nine months and 20 million in the next five years. To do this Simmons plans to put on 30 to 40 Hip-Hop Summits before the November presidential elections (he held the first one in Houston on Super Bowl weekend).

But for the likes of Martinez and other hip-hop activists, Simmons' good intentions in the long-run often do more harm than good. It has been noted by many that Simmons' huge success is due in part to the fact that he markets hip-hop like a brand. His political methodology is best viewed as a business model, they say, selling his Phat Farm clothing and his new Def-Con 3 energy drink while the "compassionate capitalist" slangs his political message. Because of this he has been credited -- and reviled -- more than anyone for intertwining hip-hop and commercialism.

"We recognize bullshit," says Martinez in a café next door to the radio studio. He is critical of the "rap industry elite," who encourage young people to Rock the Vote but don't advocate strong political stances and perhaps haven't even voted themselves. An example he gives is Jay-Z, who registered to vote once in 1988 but hasn't voted since. "It's what we call 'hip-hopcricy," Martinez says.

Baya Wilson also thinks that the general get-out-the-vote drives that enlist celebrities and musicians to persuade kids about how cool voting is won't work to truly engage, inspire and politicize young people, especially within the hip-hop community. "I think one of the problems is that people think that hip-hop is only about the artists. But it's also about the culture and about all of us rolled up in that." Wilson adds that much of the time people will look towards the mainstream hip-hop artists for political guidance, but a lot of those artists aren't necessarily politically aware, lacking both the background and the history.

But Cedric Muhammed, who is also the former manager of the Wu-tang Clan, says that that the problem with the hip-hop political movement is that many of the activists don't have good relationships with the artists. "A lot of us have become very preachy and we don't network. A lot of us don't like the music and we spend a lot of time condemning it as opposed to building relationships and doing business so we can get close to the artists so we can eventually influence them."

And influence is one thing that Simmons has a lot of. Within the hip-hop community Simmons is unmatched in the amount of authority and respect he commands among both industry heads and underground artists. Now with his foray into the electoral area, he has the makings of a political kingmaker. He was able to meet with every Democratic presidential candidate in the last year and has donated money to each one of their campaigns with the exception of Joseph Lieberman.

Choose Your Own Decisions?

jehmu green
Jehmu Green, head of Rock the Vote

Rev. Al Sharpton, who disappointingly wasn't granted Simmons's endorsement for President, clearly realizes his position within hip-hop. In his book, "Al on America," he cuts right to the heart of the culture's current dilemma, "[T]he question for Russell and others of the hip-hop generation is not who they're going to endorse for political office," Sharpton says, "but what they're going to endorse."

Or, as the Weekly Standard once said of Rock the Vote, "Practicing politics without content is like dancing without music. It can be done, but there's not much joy in it."

Since 1992 Rock the Vote has been one of the most successful young voter registration organizations, mostly because of its high visibility as a frequent collaborator with MTV. In order to make young people care about politics, Rock the Vote defers to a stable of famous people including Coolio, John Leguizamo and Snoop Dog as "artists who rock the vote." Its president, Jehmu Green, who once used to head women's outreach for the Democratic National Committee, has a mission similar to that of other organizations. "Looking at how close this election is going to be, young people really have the opportunity to be the swing vote," Green told Free Speech TV. And since Rock the Vote is the best established and well-known of the youth voter campaigns, it has a high likelihood of getting the most people to sign on. "We're going to register a million people directly through Rock the Vote."

But like many of the non-profits working for voter registration, Rock the Vote has to conduct itself under the guise of a nonpartisan organization. This can become problematic, say many activists. Simply registering young voters who may already be politically indifferent and then telling them to "choose" won't ensure that they'll be engaged, responsible voters.

Herding Cats

Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles the hip-hop community must overcome as it wades into the tumultuous tides of electoral politics is its own anti-establishment identity, which values independence and abhors categorization. When Free Speech TV recently asked Ralph Nader the difficulties of forming an independent party, he said, "Independent voters are notoriously independent. They don't like to organize themselves. It's like herding cats."

For the world of hip-hop it's not much different. In a third-story flat overlooking Brooklyn, New York, Chad Bozeman, a 27-year-old MC and writer shared his qualms about formulating hip-hop like a political party. Hip-hop for him is about constant change; it's about breaking expectations and denying homogeneity. "You take a little bit of jazz, a little bit of reggae, some funk beats, and constantly mix it all up." For many hip-hop kids like Bozeman, there is an inherent wariness in establishing a set of rules and beliefs for people to abide by. But if hip hop activists and politicians can win over people like Bozeman, as well as come together to create a unified agenda, hip hop can really become a vehicle for political change.

With a network of blogs, websites, and hundreds-of-thousands of foot soldiers organizing street-level concerts and events, hip-hop has huge potential to educate and mobilize young people. But as it moves into the more ordered structure that is required for registering voters, creating platforms and endorsing candidates, the hip-hop movement is facing new challenges and has found itself in a conflicted state.

Hip-hop will get out the vote, that is assured. To what degree, however, is not yet clear. One thing is certain: We'll know that the voices talking into the mic will be speaking some worthwhile shit for once.

Jared Jacang Maher, 24, is a freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado. He is a Contributing Editor for Adbusters Magazine and is a print media correspondent for Free Speech TV, the nation's first progressive TV channel. Publicly-supported, independent and non-profit, Free Speech TV is available in over 11 million U.S. homes, airing 24 hours a day via satellite and part-time on 88 community access cable stations in 23 states. Check out FSTV's special election year coverage at www.freespeech.org.

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