Hip Hop as a Political Tool

Many people who want to politically and civically engage young people see hip hop culture as the best avenue to accomplish these goals. Although hip hop culture is ubiquitous, particularly in relation to youth, such a road is fraught with landmines, given controversial rap music lyrics that tend to sensationalize violence, crime and sex and rap music videos that depict women as sex toys. However, for social change agents intent on this path, the challenge is to begin to formulate strategies that use hip hop to foster young people's interest in and engagement with issues that impact them and their communities. This new use of hip hop is a sharp departure from the more common but less effective practice of using it to either lure young people to political events or as a vehicle for young people to write and rap about issues, but not to devise ways to resolve them.

Social change agents, rather than getting mired in the entertainment aspects of hip hop, can instead use hip hop within a political or civic framework by getting young people to begin to think critically about themselves, their world and their role as citizens. In thinking about using hip-hop in a new socially and politically progressive way, I urge social change agents to consider the following:

1. Content is Not Neutral: When discussing hip hop, rather than being solely concerned with not alienating youth or simply validating their expressions, social change agents should also challenge young people to assess and analyze hip hop culture and its effects (positive and negative) on them and their communities. Some questions to consider would be: 1) What do the lyrics of a particular song really mean? Many young people listen to the beats of rap songs but not to the lyrics. 2) Who controls hip hop in terms of how rap artists are selected; what rap music is produced; how and to whom it is marketed to; what is the role of commercial radio in making rap music hits and who benefits financially from hip hop? Many young people erroneously believe that it is people like themselves rather than corporate executives who largely direct the course of mainstream hip-hop culture. 3) What personal and community values, principles and ideals does a particular rap song promote? Do the young people agree or disagree with these beliefs and why? Unfortunately, in the absence of alternative influences, many young people are using the messages and images of hardcore rap music and rap music videos to develop both their personal and public identities.

2. Focus On History: Today, many young people coming out of our public schools lack a grounding in history; a sense of what their ancestors went through so that they could have the opportunity to even think about being rap moguls or multimillionaire ball players. The perfunctory Black History Month programs invariably highlight the same three or four heroes, but in schools there is no long-term commitment to telling young people about the many and complicated steps that were necessary to secure their current freedoms and options. Regrettably, many young people have scant knowledge of slavery (some even question that it occurred or was really brutal). Despite all of the talk about the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, many young people have little knowledge about the social and political events that preceded them. This information vacuum makes young people susceptible to a "here and now" mentality that does not support collective political or social action, much less a long-term commitment to either individual or community goals.

3. Leadership Development: There needs to be a more concerted effort to fund and champion programs that tangibly expand young people's leadership capacity. The role of the leader has to be de-mystified and made accessible to a wider group of young adults. This means more programs that help young people to understand how community groups, decision-makers and elected officials operate and function to serve their constituents. Young people must be given the tools and opportunities to develop real initiatives that can affect their immediate communities. Moreover, young adults should be encouraged not only to become activists, but also elected officials on their local school boards and city councils. It is also important to stress that not everyone need be an out-in-front "leader" to be a change agent. Young people need to know that at the community level and at the state and federal levels there is a great need for behind-the-scenes players such as media relations professionals, speechwriters, fundraisers, lobbyists, policy analysts, chiefs of staffs, legislative aides and attorneys.

4. Fight Image With Image: The glitz and vitality of hip-hop is an omnipresent force in the lives of young people, often with no strong countervailing influence. The easy choice for social change agents is to get a rap artist to speak to young people they are attempting to connect with or convey a message to. However, the harder, but more productive route is to find someone young people can identify with who also can introduce them to new ideas about what they can achieve in their lives and neighborhoods. In order to construct a countervailing presence, new role models that approximate the current crop of hip hop celebrities, in age, style and ability to relate to young people has to be cultivated.
Rather than a 50-year-old law partner in a staid blue suit, a 25-year-old law associate in a Sean John outfit is perhaps a more useful success story. This young role model should not feign ghetto credentials if he does not have them, but should be someone comfortable talking about his background and the steps he took to reach his goals. It is also important that role models are conversant in hip-hop culture and its mores so that they can begin the dialogue where the young people are.

5. Thinking Beyond Voter Registration: Over the years there have been numerous voter registration efforts that have boasted thousands of new registrants, yet these activities have not translated into the hip hop generation actually voting in greater numbers. As a result of the hip hop generation's poor voting record, elected officials do not perceive it as a constituency whose concerns matter. Voter registration is an important first step, but there are other steps that are necessary to motivate new voters to actually cast a ballot. In some cases, social change agents can increase voter turnout by reminding new registrants to vote with a telephone call or email a few days before an election or by providing them with rides to and from the polls.

Other young people, however, need to be provided with a reason to vote. Surveys have consistently shown that generally young people do not vote because they have an incomplete knowledge about what creates and solves political and social problems; they do not have a clear idea about what politicians do; and cannot name candidates running for office. However, these same surveys also indicate that initially young people are concerned about their immediate neighborhoods, and then their interests expand to city, state and national issues. What many of these one-shot registration drive, benefit concerts, and hip hop confabs have not been able to do is engage in long-term voter education, helping young people to understand the role of government in remedying political and social issues and how through their own voting and civic activities can help to improve their lives and local communities.

Politically, the goal of the hip hop generation must be to move away from rhetoric and symbolic activism to real and substantive political action. It is imperative that we cultivate new leadership and establish new programs and organizations to address this generation's concerns. Hip hop culture can be one tool in the arsenal, but we can no longer afford to depend on it as the exclusive means to develop a viable hip-hop generation political constituency. Moreover, as we mature politically we will better understand that artistic expression alone will not alter flawed public policies, but it can be used to jar folks who have tuned out.

Yvonne Bynoe is the author of 'Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip Hop Culture' and is president of Urban Think Tank Institute. On Friday, June 16, 2004, she will be participating in the Women's Track of the hip hop Political Convention in Newark, NJ.

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