Won't Stop for Nothing
Jeff Chang is a nationally acclaimed author, but he's also much more than that. When I met him as a board member for a San Francisco-based association of progressive journalists, he was writing a book and volunteering his time to teach classes and organize fundraisers for several organizations. A year later, when he released Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, he used many of the book release parties to benefit community-based organizations across the country.
Chang will tell you he's not unusual. He sees himself as part of a movement that includes thousands of hip-hop activists, artists and fans for whom hip-hop has grown into both a global lifestyle and a form of political engagement. His work chronicles the diverse history of this movement and aims to show the world that hip-hop is much more than the Sprite, ass, cars, and diamonds you'll see on Viacom-owned MTV and BET.
Chang recently returned from a book tour for the paperback edition of Can't Stop Won't Stop. WireTap Magazine caught up with him to talk about hip-hop and national politics, lessons learned in effective youth organizing and why so many still fail to take notice of the increasing political engagement among young Americans.
WireTap: Now that we have had more than a year to look back on the organizing efforts around the Kerry-Bush battle, what are some of the lessons we learned in organizing young people?
Jeff Chang: Well, there are a few. For one, people couldn't focus at all on the candidates themselves. That kind of stuff just drove people crazy. You know, you'd come and tell people to vote and they immediately say, "What can Kerry or Bush do for me?" and what organizers had to do was deflect that and get it back down to local issues that are happening in people's backyards -- "Are you mad about how people have been policing your neighborhood? Are you mad about the way schools have been underfunded and closed? Are you mad about the fact financial aid has been completely wiped out?" You have to really de-center the presidential election in order to get people to go out and vote.
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The other surprising thing was that there was a very big desire for people to be able to express their disgust with the way that the country is going. So the other part of it was to talk about voting within the framework of political change, generally. That this is just one other tool to express your disgust with the war or the way that foreign policy is going. Or even the fact that your friends are coming home wounded and scarred or in body bags.
One of the things I've been working really hard to put out there is that there were like 4 million new voters between the ages of 18 and 29 in 2004 -- out of the 20 million that came out. In other words, here was a surge of 20 percent. Of the 4 million new voters, over 2 million of them were black and Latino, and we can probably presume urban as well. For me, that was evidence that the hip-hop generation was coming to the polls. People should take that as a major victory, but there was such a rush to judge young people because of Kerry's loss. I suspect that young people will be coming out in even bigger numbers and we'll continue to see large numbers of blacks, Latinos and urban folks getting out to vote.
WT: Now that there is more data out there showing increases in political engagement among young people, have you noticed mainstream media talking about it more?
JC: Last winter there were a number of articles that came out saying, "Oh! A lot of young people went out and voted after all!" We heard it literally a year after the fact. It was almost like a correction type of article that came out. For a while I was getting an upsurge of calls from papers because I just blogged about it. The few researchers had issued final reports, and that gave people a news peg. Again, they were interviewing people my age and older. They weren't talking to young people about this stuff.
I think generally the reporting on young people and voting has been incredibly poor. It's not hard to go walk down the street and find somebody who doesn't want to vote. It's also not hard to find someone who did vote, but there's an established frame of "young people who are politically apathetic" that was put in a place 15 years ago and hasn't been shifted. The mainstream coverage of youth voting really disgusts me. It's completely out of step with what is happening on the ground. So hopefully we will try to change that this year.
WT: Can you talk more about this frame? Why did it take root 15 years ago?
JC: It has a lot to do with the way Generation X got framed. It has to do with the Baby Boomers, well, narcissistic point of view. And mythologizing of what young people should do and what young people had done in the '60s and '70s. So, Generation X were literally the negative side of what the baby boomer generation was not. One of the frames that got established was that they weren't serious about civic engagement. And despite the fact that these frames get put out to the press, 1992 comes along and you've got the largest number of young people voting in a generation. But the frame of "apathetic people" stuck. You'd hear, "These people are not on the streets, they are not protesting the Gulf War, they are not doing this, they are not doing that. We did it better, we did first." And for whatever reasons, that frame has never been replaced.
It's affected even the quality of writing among young people. There is this rush of books written by young people about student debt. And what dismays me about all these books is that all of them take it as a given as well that young people are apathetic. And I just want to say, "God, you've been brainwashed by your parents." It's a shame, but it's still the dominant perception about young people -- that they just don't care. Even though there is all this evidence to the contrary.
WT: Which organizations are building on the lessons learned and are building a long-term presence for the hip-hop generation?
JC: Well, I am biased, but I think that the League of Young Voters is doing a lot of that heavy lifting. (Chang serves as a board director with the League.) And the difference between the League and other youth organizations is that they've got a theory about change. They've got a vision of how change gets made. And it's born out by some of the work that they've done on the ground. They've been able to assimilate the lessons of the smartest young organizers that are out there. Whether they are people like Malia Lazu or Khari Mosley or Adrienne Maree Brown, who is really one of the top organizers and peer educators in the country of any age. They've been able to process all of that talent and learn what works and what doesn't. And they've made major gains. They forced hearings into what happened in Ohio. They were able to switch folks over in Wisconsin, so that Kerry could win after he stumbled badly there. When you add all of their work up, there isn't really any other organization out there like the League.
There were a number of efforts to register voters across the country, and there were a number of efforts at youth and culture to attract young people. Music for America, Rock the Vote, America Votes has a youth section, but after the elections -- Music for America is doing fine -- but many of the other organizations closed up shop. And we all saw what happened to Rock the Vote as well. The same happened with the Hip Hop Summit Action too and Citizen Change, but the League is left standing and that's a beautiful thing -- they're in it for the long run, they are going to take in some really interesting directions in the next year.
WT: What issues do you think are going to dominate the agenda of the National Hip Hop Convention in July in Chicago?
JC: The aftermath of Katrina and the war I think are two things that are at the top of every hip-hop activist's agenda.
WT: As you have traveled across the country on a book tour, were there any common reactions or concerns at your readings or questions that kept coming up as you were doing readings?
JC: I think people are very, very concerned about -- especially up until Katrina -- people were very concerned about hip-hop representations, how hip-hop culture was and is being portrayed. And everywhere I went and still go, what I've noticed is what's changed over the last year is a critique of media consolidation. It has begun to take hold and that's new.
I mean at the beginning of last year people were just like, "This isn't our hip-hop. Can you believe what's happening on all these networks and radio stations?" And I think over the year there were a lot of things from the Tsunami Song to different controversies over different songs to actually raise the issue and turn it into something that was a national critique. As the year went on, it made it easier for me to make the connection for folks, "Hey this is what's actually happening."And for people to be like, "Oh yeah, that makes total sense. I understand that."
And that's been an interesting change that's occurred and maybe the convention would be to take that up because those concerns did reach a critical mass in 2005. 2006 may be the year that folks actually take that and move it to a whole another level of discourse and discussion. Pretty much everywhere you go -- whether people are 15 years old or 45 -- that's on everybody's mind, that's the thing that really comes out now.
The interesting thing about it is that it is a part of a critique that has to do with old folks feeling like they don't relate to young folks anymore. I am noticing a gap developing between older hip-hop folks and younger fans of the music, and I am expecting that it is just going to get worse. I was at a conference in April with Joan Morgan -- author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost and one of my favorite people in the world -- and who got up and said, "Look, I am just going to put this out there, but the hip-hop that you guys are getting nowadays just isn't as good as the hip-hop we had back in the day." And I am just going to say that -- and I am going to piss people off -- I was like, "Damn, Jim, are you serious about that?" And he was like, "Yeah I am." And I have seen that out there, and that's one of the things I am trying to bridge now to be like, "Look man, it's not any worse that it was back then and if you look at how you are sounding now compared to how you were sounding ten years ago, you should check, check the ironies, check yourself."
WT: Do you attribute some of that to media consolidation -- the fact that you don't hear as much underground hip-hop as you used to?
JC: I do, absolutely, but I think that the critique goes beyond that. I think there is an element of nostalgia that people aren't willing to give up.
WT: That seems to happen with every generation -- unless we see people doing things exactly the same way, we assume they are not doing anything or they are not doing it right.
JC: Or that theirs is a corruption of ours. I've begun to see articles saying, "We're the post hip-hop generation and here's our thing. You can have your thing, but this is our thing." I am finding that's a new kind of development, and I saw it at the Hip Hop Convention in little things that took place -- little tensions and the fact of all these books now coming out now including mine saying like Richie Perez said, "You have a short time on that historical stage. What are you going to do with it?" And if our moments passed -- fuck it. Bring the next one on. I just hope we have more open lines of communication than we had with our elders 10, 15 years ago.
WT: How much overlap do you see today between the world of hip-hop activism and commercial hip-hop?
JC: 2004 was a banner year, because if you take 2004 and compare it with 1992, what I recall is you have people like Madonna. Madonna was probably the most prominent and some other artists, but they were largely rock artists and they were largely white artists doing Rock the Vote at the time. As a result, Rap the Vote actually had to get started as a way of saying, "OK, don't forget there are a lot of folks of color out there."
In 2004, it was the other way around really. Rock the Vote was seen as an auxiliary network compared to what Citizen Change and the Hop Hop Summit Action network were doing on a major scale, and that was a major change. But what must be noted is that both of them worked. For all of the cynicism that people had about those efforts like "Oh, Vote or Die? What a stupid slogan" or "Man, you think all these people are going to run to the polls because Madonna wraps herself in an American flag?" There was a lot of skepticism that greeted those efforts as there always is. It's actually part of a larger conservative effort to de-legitimize voices other than so-called "authorities" around particular subjects. Even though you have a lot of self-proclaimed liberals making these arguments, I really think it's coming from a conservative ideological mind state. It's a conservative mind frame to want to limit the number of voices in a discourse. So whenever these efforts occur, there is a lot of cynicism around it, but the fact is that it works.
CNN is just another signifier in this huge world of noise that people are bombarded with every day. I think just the mere function of the message being out there is key to the whole thing, and what you have is that being echoed on the ground by all these organizations that are registering people to vote -- whether it be on the campuses or in the clubs. 2004 was a moment where all of these things converged. People didn't plan for it to converge but it converged, and that's why you had 4 million new voters and 2-plus million voters that were young people of color, and that's big and that's really important.