Rhyme and Resist
Consider Rock the Vote's Hip-Hop Coalition, designed to register black and Latino youth for the 1996 presidential election using the same model by which rock artists have tried to convince white youth that voting is relevant to their lives. The brainchild of rapper LL Cool J, the Hip-Hop Coalition was led by former Rock the Vote executive director Donna Frisby and involved artists Chuck D, Queen Latifah and Common Sense, among others, registering almost 70,000 youth of color, versus hundreds of thousands of white youth.
This media strategy didn't succeed as Frisby had hoped, so the coalition took its show on the road, staging political forums where rap artists and local politicians talked to teenagers about the political process. What was clear from these open forums was that, besides the political apathy characteristic of most young people, there is a deeper sense of alienation. "African-American and low-income youth feel that the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were not created with us in mind," says Frisby. "So people felt, the system isn't doing anything to help me, why should I participate in it?"
From these experiences Frisby learned that not only will programs for minority youth always be given short shrift by mainstream underwriters--the Hip-Hop Coalition never got the media support of its white counterpart--but they won't even reach their audience unless they are specifically designed for youth of color. Now she and Chuck D have a new venture, Rappers Educating All Curricula through Hip-Hop (REACH). Building on the Hip-Hop Coalition, REACH is recruiting a cadre of artists as "conduits of learning," making public appearances at schools, juvenile detention centers, community centers. In nurturing more conscious artists, Chuck D and Frisby hope more conscious art will result. The group also plans to develop educational tools incorporating hip-hop songs. "Hip-hop is first and foremost a communication tool," says Chuck D. "For the last twenty years, hip-hop has communicated to young people all across the world, people in different time zones, who speak different languages, teaching them more about English, or black hip-hop lingo, quicker than any textbook can." REACH aims to narrow the cultural and generational gap between teachers and students in the public schools, and to promote the idea that "being smart is being cool."
As described by Chuck D, however, REACH seems in many ways to be an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em approach. To compete for the short attention spans of youth, he says, social change organizations have to be like corporations. "A lot of organizations that have been out there for a long time are not really on young people's minds. In the information age, there are so many distractions. Organizations have to market themselves in a way so that they are first and foremost on young people's minds and supply the answers and options that they might need."
But political organizing isn't about supplying "answers." As Sister Souljah puts it, "Just because you have the microphone doesn't mean you know what you're talking about. Just because you can construct a rhyme doesn't mean that you know how to organize a movement or run an organization." Souljah came to broad public attention during the 1992 presidential campaign when Bill Clinton, gunning for Jesse Jackson to woo the conservative vote, distorted a statement she had made about the LA riots. But before there was Sister Souljah, rap icon, there was Lisa Williamson, activist. At Rutgers University, she was involved in campaigns against apartheid and police brutality. With the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice, she mobilized young people for various events in the black community and organized a star-studded concert at Harlem's Apollo Theater to fund a summer camp she'd developed. Impressed with her organizing skills, Chuck D christened her "Sister Souljah" and designated her minister of information for Public Enemy.
Today, Souljah is executive director of Daddy's House--the nonprofit arm of Puffy's rap empire, Bad Boy Entertainment--which runs a summer camp for urban youth and provides meals for the homeless during the holidays. "The stars we choose to celebrate are reflections of who we are as a people," she says. "Right now we celebrate those with money, but that has nothing to do with understanding history, culture or understanding your future. And I think that's missing in hip-hop right now."
Last November in an Essence profile, Combs said that he wanted to use his popularity and influence to galvanize his generation to exercise their political power in the 2000 presidential election. Last September Master P's nonprofit foundation helped finance the Million Youth March. Rap artists are clearly not political leaders--they might be better described as representatives of their record labels than of their communities--but they do have one obvious role to play if they want to foster activism. While Sullivan embodies the idea of organizing as a fundamentally grassroots undertaking, she knows that it can't survive on sweat alone. "Hip-hop is a billion-dollar industry," she says, "and there are people who can play a venture philanthropist role. But that would require educating them about different ways to be philanthropists." No doubt, Master P and Puffy get capitalism. In 1998, the two were the top-selling rap artists, with Master P earning $57 million and Combs $54 million. But "the $64,000 Question," says Sullivan, "is could [they] become what Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were for the civil rights movement? Those two guys actively financed how people got from Mississippi to Atlantic City," she recalls, referring to the historic all-black Mississippi State delegation, led by Fannie Lou Hamer, that demanded to be seated at the 1964 Democratic convention in place of the state's white segregationists.
Sullivan was the field coordinator of the Children's Defense Fund and, until 1996, manager of its Black Student Leadership Network, a service and child advocacy program. Her subsequent stint as a consultant at the Rockefeller Foundation convinced her that a movement of the hip-hop generation will have to fund itself. "Traditional foundations are not going to support this work. You have a couple of program officers in the arts and humanities who get how important youth culture is to reaching alienated young people. While they tend to be radical and politicized, the institutions that they money-out from are not anywhere comfortable supporting what a mature hip-hop political agenda could be."
For Sullivan, such an agenda would address three issue areas. Top on the list is the criminal justice system, including police brutality and the incarceration epidemic. "It's the whole criminalization of poor, urban youth," she says. "That's a policy area that folks have got to get a handle on quickly. And it's also a place where our constituency numbers--our power--if organized well, could move the policy agenda away from its current punitive, negative stance." Public education is agenda item number two: "People are being set up. This is the system that is the most dysfunctional in the country, and something drastic has to occur so that people acquire the skills and have a fighting chance in terms of the economic future. A bad public education system feeds a whole generation of young people into the criminal justice system." Finally, activists need to address people losing the vote because of incarceration: "This is about the health of American democracy. What is happening to the hip-hop community around the loss of citizenship is permanently preventing many of us from ever being able to participate in the democratic process."