Hip-hop culture has proved to be a very effective means of conveying political ideas to young people. Its images and lyrics speak far more clearly to many of them than the language of mainstream politicians. And we may have seen only a hint of hip-hop’s political promise.
A year ago the press was heralding the possibility that a young, progressive and hip-hop-influenced voting bloc would decide the 2004 presidential election. Now, with President Bush re-elected and vital statewide and Congressional elections upcoming, many on the left are wondering what happened to the “hip-hop voting movement.”
“It hasn’t disappeared in any way,” says Adrienne Brown, co-founder of the youth-run, 20,000-strong League of Pissed Off Voters, which has utilized hip-hop culture as a voter-education and recruitment tool. “It’s just gotten deeper with less media attention.”
The postelection media attention that the hip-hop voting movement did receive was often less than glowing. “Immediately after the campaign was over, the media wrote that Vote or Die was a joke,” says James Gee, who served as the chief political consultant on Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs’s Citizen Change voting-awareness campaign.
“Vote or Die was ridiculous on its surface,” Ezra Klein of LA Weekly wrote earlier this year. “Was it promising immortality or execution?” The spate of negative articles that questioned the size and impact of young voters frequently downplayed the 4.6 million more 18- to 30-year-olds who voted in 2004 compared to 2000, as well as the young African-Americans who turned out in greater numbers than any other segment of the youth population.
Moreover, according to the League, African-Americans and Latinos accounted for more than half of the new voters aged 18 to 29 in 2004. There were certainly many factors that contributed to the increase, such as the Florida debacle in 2000 and the simple demographic increase in young voters. However, the political influence of hip-hop moguls such as Combs and Russell Simmons, as well as other rap stars engaged in registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, was undeniable. Massive registration drives, marketing campaigns and even music videos by the likes of Eminem and Jadakiss all helped create a heightened awareness of the importance of voting in young communities of color.
While Simmons’s Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), Combs’s Citizen Change and the nearly dozen other hip-hop-affiliated activist groups have always been officially nonpartisan, their supporters were overwhelmingly anti-Bush, which had a lot to do with their success in the last election. The consensus among the behind-the-scenes hip-hop activists is that, although John Kerry lost, youth voting-drive efforts showed the potential of organizing young people around electoral goals and pointed the way forward to a time when the mobilization of new young voters could equal the Christian right’s grassroots efforts.
In 2005 the same issues that motivated young voters last year–the war in Iraq, funding cuts in education, job losses–are still engaging and enraging them now. But their focus has shifted from the national stage to upcoming local elections, where their impact could be significant in everything ranging from school board elections to gubernatorial races over the next two years.