Beats, Rhymes and Votes
November 26, 2008
There are many defining images from the 2008 presidential election, but perhaps none more iconic than street artist Shepard Fairey's Barack Obama posters. The print shows only Obama's face, head tilted, eyes gazing upward, shadowed in patriotic red, white and blue. The image's clean, minimalist format was the perfect visual for Obama's campaign, which focused on simple and savvy messaging. Not long after its release, the image appeared on everything from posters and stickers to T-shirts.
The image epitomized the convergence of urban art and politics that characterized this election year. Progressives organized record numbers of new and young voters, and proved to critics that the youth vote was a force to be reckoned with at the polls. These voters invented new ways to engage in electoral politics by making mixtapes, building mini-fashion empires and holding sold-out concerts.
With so much talent circulating, organizers from Generational Alliance's Generation Vote coalition (including WireTap) sought to bring young artists together in a space where they could express their election-cycle enthusiasm. In July 2008, Vote Hip Hop's online music, art and video contest was born.
Vote Hip Hop's purpose was to link youth civic engagement with politically inspired art and music. For nearly three months, young artists from around the nation submitted 70 songs, designs and 50 videos that showcased their desire for changes in our political process.
Vote Hip-Hop fans, along with a panel of judges, chose two winners and four runner-ups, announced on November 15th. Oakland, Calif. group Tha Faculty won in the music category for their song "Change the Nation" while fellow Oakland hip-hop group Napalm Clique took honors in the video category for "We Need a President (It's Obama!)."
Both groups were invited to perform live at a Vote Hip Hop celebration held at the Oasis in Oakland. We caught up with them to talk about their projects, and hopes for the future.
When Napalm Clique's emcee, Unity Lewis, and video producer, Trevor, aren't making music, the 26-year-old Oakland residents are in the classroom, teaching media and technology to teens in the Bay Area. Lewis and Trevor sat down with WireTap to talk about this year's historical election.
Wiretap: Where were you two on election night?
: I was downstairs at the homie F-L-O's house [in Oakland]. He's got third verse on the song. I was downstairs with him and his family in Oakland kicking back. We were cooking dinner, everybody was happy and it was a festive night. Right when we heard Obama got elected, right in front [of the house]--boop!--the police are pulling over somebody out front.
: I was over at Luka's Taproom at Broadway and Grand. We watched Barack's acceptance speech over there, and then we came back maybe two hours later and all the streets were blocked off--it was a giant block party. There was a drumming circle, people were freestyling, celebrating. People were even doing the Electric Slide. And it was just so cool because there was just so much positive energy. Nobody was rioting, nobody was getting angry with anybody. People weren't even drunk. It was just happiness.
Given that excitement, what do you want to see in the next four years?
: It would be beautiful if [Obama] could live up to everything he promised us in his plan. For some things, like energy efficiency, he was saying [that] in about ten years we could be off of the fossil fuel. That's a little bit longer than his term, even if he was to be re-elected. But he has integrity. When he speaks, I hear the integrity in his voice. I'm more liable to trust him than I would most politicians that I've seen and that I'm used to. I'm a product of the '80s. It was the Bush administration and the Reagan administration that did the most damage to the black community. When Clinton got elected, supposedly things got a little bit better. But at the same time, the prison industrial complex was built and that was holding down our society in a way.
So it's very encouraging and inspiring just to see another black male, or male of color, I should say, being able to get in the White House. And it is inspiring to see a woman running, too. I think that the whole election--the whole process--was phenomenal.
Where do you teach?
: Right now I'm teaching through a few different organizations: Oakland Leaf, Boys and Girls Moving Forward and MOHCA (Museum of Children's Art). I've been involved in community education for the last eight years--since I've been out here in Oakland. And that's really where hip-hop comes from: Community activism and organizing all the way back to the South Bronx and Afrika Bambaataa. So I'm carrying on that tradition of activism.
[During the election], it was inspiring to see all these young people getting mobilized by a candidate for the first time in history. We wanted to fuse that momentum with the hip-hop movement. That's what hip-hop is a tool for: organizing, activism and building community.
Trevor, what do you want to see in the next four years?
: What I want to see is people changing their minds, and changing the way they look at their ability to have an impact. Not only did people cast their votes in this election, but a lot of people mobilized. A lot of people got together and networked and organized in ways they never have before. People used art, people used technology, and that's what we're seeing tonight. And people were also just looking at one another in a different way to say, "Look, let's make this happen." So really, in the next four years, I just hope people look at themselves to really activate.
: I might be re-iterating a bit, but it's powerful that we're seeing Obama in the White House. What was even more powerful was seeing the steps that it took to get him there. Those steps were us.
What do you have to say to young artists out there--whether they're media makers, or emcees--to keep them inspired?
: What I have to tell young artists is to keep doing your craft. Don't worry about where it's going, what it's selling. Just keep doing your craft everyday because you'll get better as you continue [doing] what you're doing, and people will pick up on your old stuff. If you really want to be successful, you really gotta have that trail for people to follow you work. And you gotta leave that impression. Just keep working.
: Basically, anything that you envision, you can manifest. But it takes hard work. As I've heard my elders say, God only helps those who help themselves. So like Trevor was saying, you gotta put the work in and develop the catalogue. If you have vision and you stick to and believe that vision, you'll start to express that momentum toward that project to make it manifest. Anything can be manifested. Your wildest dreams can be achieved, and we're seeing that with Obama in the White House right now.
Napalm Clique's winning video "We Need A President (It's Obama!)"
Tha Faculty are a four-member rap group based in Oakland, Calif. They have toured the country performing with Youth Movement Records. Tha Faculty's D'Angelo Lemmons, a.k.a. D-Nok , sat down with us to talk about his work.
What was the motivation behind "Change The Nation"?
: My man Milli came up with the whole concept. I'm not on the song, but I come in and fill in on live shows; I'm a part of the [Faculty] group. The whole [background] with the song is that my partner was saying a lot of things on this before Barack Obama was elected. We wanted to make [a song] that anybody could listen to--suitable for everybody. "Change the Nation" was the right message for the time, and we worked it out.
How did you hear about Vote Hip Hop?
: Working with [green jobs activism group] Green for All and the Grind for the Green music series. They came at us and were like, "We got a campaign going on and if ya'll got a video, throw it on there." So we threw some videos on [the Vote Hip-Hop website].
Where were you on election night?
: I can't lie; I shed a tear. I didn't shed a tear for my[self], but it was for a lot of people who fought for equality and going somewhere in life. Now we got somebody who is a positive role model. Instead of seeing BET or VH1 all day, and how they they blow up the African male, or the African female, you feel me? So it was a very beautiful thing; I was very proud.
What do you want to see in the next four years?
: With Oakland reconstructing itself, from the [city center] to the club venues, I want to be a force to be reckoned with musically. I want to stay here in the Bay Area and represent this. I'm trying to bring back the spirit of '90s music like the Hieroglyphics Crew. Right now [Tha Faculty] are working with anybody and everybody. We don't condone some of the stuff that people say, but we accept it because that's a part of our community. We can just be humble to it.
The Faculty "Change The Nation" video
Jamilah King is the associate editor of WireTap.