More Than Music and Style

"We need a national agenda to make sure that our community has more than music and style. We can't continue to do bootleg activism. We've got to do institutional activism, creating media outlets that will push our propaganda."
– Jeff Johnson, America Votes youth coordinator and commentator for BET's "Rap City"

"We're all activists. The question is, what are we active for? Are we active to forward a rightwing agenda in America, or are we active for liberation?"
– Rosa Clemente, co-founder, National Hip Hop Political Convention (NHHPC)

"Just as the Christian Coalition tapped into an existing infrastructure of conservative churches, we as a hip hop generation are tapping into an existing infrastructure that has been created by the hip hop movement."
– Bakari Kitwana, author and co-founder, NHHPC

American capitalism markets everything it can package and discards or mangles the rest. As a result, most "information" found in the marketplace is, by definition, disinformation – a "product" molded to suit a transaction, containing no reliable connection to the truth.

In the absence of a mass black political movement, the generation born after 1965 has been named for the culture it created, rather than – as with the preceding generation – the political goals for which they fought. Hip hop culture, the miraculous invention of black and Latino youth, is now marketed to the world by five multinational corporations. The social "reality" and political worldview of an entire generation (now going on two generations) has been packaged for sale to both its creators and the larger market: the planet.

Having been commercially defined as a raw demographic – a cohort of customers and product-modelers – the hip hop generation stares into a mirror that has been purposely cracked and deformed for somebody else's profit. Its activists, as brilliant as any produced at any time or place in history – and intent, like all healthy young humans, on changing the world – find that they must first confront the marketed version of themselves.

The 3,000 young people who attended the National Hip Hop Political Convention in Newark, New Jersey, June 16-20, were determined to define themselves through a politics of struggle – to begin to redraw the map of the world through the prisms of their own experience.

"We are here today as young people under the hip hop umbrella," said Ras Baraka, the 34-year-old Deputy Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and one of the organizers of the event. "Politics is about the seizure of power," Baraka told the crowd. "Some of us don't understand what that means. Our kids think that seizing power is standing on a corner and doing the things they usually do." Each of the 500 official delegates from 17 states had registered 50 voters to earn the right to represent their generation.

Baraka, who is also an assistant public school principal, doesn't show up on the Right's short list of hip hop generation "leaders." By cynically misinterpreting polling data that show black youth to be increasingly estranged from the Democratic Party, and through relentless national media exposure of young, corporate-sponsored black politicians, the Right attempts to package the hip hop generation as essentially more "conservative" than its elders. The darlings of the Right include Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford, 34, the Democratic Leadership Council's most prominent voice in the Congressional Black Caucus, and Cory Booker, the 35-year-old former Newark Councilman who, with the backing of the national conservative political and funding network, nearly captured City Hall in 2002.

What the conservatives prove is that the current younger generation contains its share of opportunists – just as did the last generation, and the one before that. But opportunists only show up when they get paid, and represent nothing but the finances of their sugar daddies. The National Hip Hop Political Convention had no deep-pocket sponsors, yet it succeeded on the strength of the organizers' peer credibility, and the near-universal desire among black youth to overturn the status quo.

Continuity of Struggle

So vacuous has American political discourse become that corporate spin-makers posing as journalists find it possible to produced 24-hour news cycles that reveal nothing at all except the political preferences of media owners. The mass marketing of attitudes and styles in place of issues and substance seeks to drain the language itself of the capacity to resist power. A generation of black youth that is imprisoned in astronomical numbers is simultaneously deployed as lifestyle models for the privileged, prison-immune classes – mass-produced insanity on its face. Yet in the continuity of black struggle, people and truths "crushed to earth" inevitably rise again to confront oppression.

"I believe that we are in this room because some slave willed us here," said Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, the 30-something Executive Director of New York Common Ground, and a mover-and-shaker of the convention. "We need a living wage for everyone. I call that a moral question."

Moral people seek to end injustice, mass media's truly taboo topic. Only by relentless avoidance of the continuity of injustices against black people can the media create the impression of vast chasms between black generations.

"Get the foot of oppression off our necks." From the hip hop perspective, 54-year-old Rev. Calvin Butts, of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, qualifies as an elder. Yet his irreducible demand, delivered at a Town Hall meeting on the first full day of the convention, was identical to that of his hip hop audience. Many were aware of Butts' history of broad brush criticism of hip hop culture. However, in the context of a shared struggle against historical oppression, differences shrink. "Organizing must be done around a moral core. That moral core must respect all of us – our women, our children, our elders," said the preacher. "Without a moral core, the revolution is wiped out."

Who would argue with that?

Rich corporations mass-market immorality (after all, they are the only ones who can), and then label their products as authentic representations of hip hop generation morals. Righteously, the organizers of the Newark convention gave primacy to the morality of struggle – to the chapter and verse of resistance.

A secular elder, Ron Daniels, currently Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a prime mover in over three decades of black political conventions, showed the seamless connections between culture, morality, and politics. "Art must be functional and committed," said Daniels. "This generation must come to the forefront and lead us to change America." Nevertheless, "We cannot, in the name of 'realness,' denigrate ourselves."

"Denigration" was the last thing on these young people's minds. At the core of the convention were perhaps a thousand committed activists – ranging from seasoned, 30-something veterans to promising neophytes – who have the potential to do great damage to the powers-that-be.

Fight the Power

In what now seems the Golden Age of socially conscious hip hop, Public Enemy's Chuck D demanded that his audiences "fight the powers that be." Born in 1960, Chuck D and his peers, the inventors of the culture, are the political and chronological links between the so-called "Black Power" and hip hop generations. Currently a host on radio's Air America network, Chuck D recalled the suppression of hip hop. "From 1979 to 1992, there was a sheer abandonment [of hip hop music by black radio programmers]," he said. They banned it."

During that period, hip hop broke out of the neighborhoods and fueled the founding of a host of independent (mostly white-owned) record labels – an explosion of musical creativity and social commentary of all kinds. But not until the early nineties, after mega-corporations moved to swallow up the genre, did black-programmed radio embrace the music of black youth. Programmers ponderously intoned that hip hop fans were too young to attract advertisers, that they were not a valuable demographic – an amazing claim, since the R & B music that carried black radio to new heights in the Sixties was also the music of youth. But many in the hip hop industry understood the real deal: Black programmers were afraid of projecting a street "image." Essentially, hip hop had an intra-black, class problem. Don Cornelius wouldn't touch it, even though his "Soul Train" TV audience skewed to the younger demos.

In one of the great ironies of African American cultural history, black radio finally embraced hip hop in the early nineties – precisely when the huge corporate record labels shifted to gangsta rap. Industry researchers discovered that hip hop's most "active" consumer base was composed of 12- and 13-year-olds – tweens – a cohort that is drawn to repetitive profanity and, not having reached the sexual pairing-off stage of development, revels in misogyny. Artists and recordings (A & R) executives put great pressure on rap acts to become more "real" – a word that became a euphemism for egregiously profane and abusive language. In no time at all, the industry began churning out music geared primarily to younger juveniles. Black radio, which had had such a problem with hip hop before the corporate-guided ascendance of gangsta rap, dived into the cesspool with wild enthusiasm. The airwaves became filled with edits, bleeps and audio interruptions that did nothing to hide the "denigrating" content.

Black middle-class propriety was trumped by the servile imperative to follow the (white) corporate leader. No one can measure the accumulated arrested development afflicting youngsters raised on a profane corporate formula designed for tweens.

New Times, New Tasks

However, the music industry's version of "real" hasn't blotted out reality for the entirety of the hip hop generation. Mutulu, of Dead Prez, sees the world, clearly. "We gotta keep going," he urged the Newark convention. "If we don't keep going, rap will continue to be drafted into the capitalist world, the crack world, the prison industrial complex."

With a seriousness that wholly contradicts hip hop stereotypes, conventioneers fanned out in the scorching sun over three connected campuses – Essex County College, Rutgers-Newark and New Jersey Institute of Technology – to attend 50 workshops on every conceivable aspect of organizing.

The "movement" that was largely demobilized by an upwardly mobile, self-conscious "leadership class" in the late sixties, was getting an update.

"We looked at cities that have higher levels of black cops," Monifa Bandele explained to a workshop titled: Why Vote? Community Voices on the Criminal Justice System. "What we saw, clear as day, is that high levels of black cops is not the solution."

Bandele is a Brooklyn leader of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, which also has chapters in Alabama, Mississippi and California – all represented at the Newark convention. Black cops are often an active or passive problem, she said, as was revealed in the 1997 torture of Abner Louima. "You would be shocked to know how many black cops were there, in the precinct [where Louima was sodomized with a mop handle], and they said nothing, they did nothing."

At a workshop on Our Schools, Our Kids and the Money, gray-bearded Junius Williams, a legendary Newark scholar/activist who directs the Rutgers Abbott Leadership Institute, spoke of a brief period when street youth were drawn to political warfare rather than mindless gang-banging.  "Had these men been around 30 or 35 years ago," said Williams, referring to local gang members who had spoken to the convention the night before, "they would have been in a group like the Black Panthers or the Young Lords."

Whether as neo-Panthers (the New Black Panther Party was represented at the convention), as hip hop advocacy journalists (former Source Magazine executive editor Bakari Kitwana co-founded the convention), or among the numerous young teachers gathered in Newark under the hip hop "umbrella," what's crucial is that youth become engaged in struggle of some kind.  Rather than whine about older politicians who refuse to get out of the way, convention co-chair Angela Woodson exhorted: "Don't wait for the old guard. If you're ready, run!"

Electoral politics, the route taken to the exclusion of all others by critical elements of a previous generation's movement, has demonstrated its hollowness in the absence of year-round, grassroots organizing. "Electoral politics is futile, until they put revolution on the ballot," said Dead Prez's Mutulu, 32. But he says it without prejudice to those who choose electoral political action – as long as they act!

Very late on a Saturday night, hours behind schedule due to failure to anticipate a flurry of amendments, the exhausted delegates to the National Hip Hop Political Convention adopted a Five-Point Agenda on Education, Economic Justice, Criminal Justice, Health and Human Rights.

Last week, hip hop music blared at the entrance to a downtown Chicago park, where a huge food- and drink-tasting festival was underway. The local chapter of the National Hip Hop Political Convention was busy, registering voters. All across the country, they are taking action.

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