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Rhyme and Resist | The Nation

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Rhyme and Resist

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If you ain't talkin' about endin' exploitation/then you just another sambo in syndication/always sayin' words that's gon' bring about elation/never doin' shit that's gon' bring us vindication/and while we getting strangled by the slave-wage grippers/you wanna do the same,/and say we should put you in business?/so you'll be next to the ruling class, lyin' in a ditch/cuz when we start this revolution all you prolly do is snitch.
        --The Coup, "Busterismology"

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"Justice for Amadou Diallo!" has been the rallying cry throughout New York since four police officers gunned down the unarmed, 22-year-old West African immigrant as he stood outside his Bronx ap

Once all this activism matures, it's hard to say whether it will resemble hip-hop, or the left, as we know it. But a few operations on the ground suggest some necessary features. First off, it has to be youth led and defined.

At the weekly rally for A Movement for CHHANGE, everyone is frisked as they enter the National Black Theater in Harlem, women on the left, men on the right. "Hip-hop minister" Conrad Muhammad, the motive force behind the group, is waging a mass voter registration drive in preparation for 2001, when he hopes to sponsor a convention to announce a bloc of young urban voters with the political clout to influence the mayoral agenda. The minister's roots lie in the Nation of Islam, but at the rally he sounds more like a Southern Baptist preacher.

"Would you, please, brother, register today?" Muhammad pleads with a dreadlocked black man sitting with his wife. Their new baby just had a harrowing hospital stay. They're relieved that the baby is healthy and that insurance will pay for the visit, but initially neither was a certainty. After the minister's hourlong pitch, the man is still unconvinced that casting a ballot and then hounding politicians, of any color, will assure strong black communities of healthcare, good schools and intact families.

Voter registration is an odd, and hard, sell coming from a man who, until three years ago, never cast a ballot and, while minister of the Nation of Islam's Mosque #7 in Harlem, preached against it. But Muhammad, 34, tries. It's mid-November 1998, the same week Kwame Ture, a k a Stokeley Carmichael, died and the Madd Rapper, a k a Deric "D-Dot" Angeletti, ambushed and battered the then-editor in chief of the hip-hop magazine Blaze. Someone, Muhammad figures, ought to be the bridge between the civil rights tradition and the hip-hop generation, and it might as well be him.

He appeals to that sense of competition supposedly at the core of hip-hop: "If Kwame at 21 could go down to Lowndes County and register his people to vote, so can we." He appeals to a sense of shame: "This is the talented tenth that Du Bois said was supposed to come up with solutions to the problems of our people, and here they are fighting and killing each other up in corporate offices. Brothers and sisters, you know we got to make a change from that kind of craziness." He goads: "Talkin' 'bout you a nationalist, you don't believe in the system. You're a part of the system!" He suggests outright poverty: "Somebody had to say, 'I'll forgo the riches of this world to make sure that my people are in power.' If Stokeley died with $10 in his pocket I'd be surprised." He pushes the willingness-to-suffer motif that characterized the early civil rights movement: "James Meredith decided to have a march against fear. We need one of those today in the 'hood, where dope is being sold, people are destroying themselves, frivolity and ignorance are robbing this generation of its substance. Meredith marched by himself--of course, he was shot down. You make that kind of stand, you're going to be shot down." At long last, he gets to his point: "If A Movement for CHHANGE can organize the youth, get them off these street corners, get them registered, make them conscious, active players in the political landscape, maybe we can vote Sharpton into office as mayor or Jesse as President."

The grandmothers of the amen gallery in the audience punctuate each exhortation with cheers, and a few raised fists. The young folks quietly mull over the prospects: poverty, suffering, Sharpton, Jesse. At one point, a 17-year-old decked in the "ghetto fabulous" hip-hop style--baggy jeans, boots, black satin do-rag, huge rhinestone studs weighing down each lobe--challenges the voter registration model of political empowerment. "They [politicians] always say things, do things, but soon as they get in office, they don't say and do what they're supposed to. The community that I live in is mostly, like, a drug environment. And they're always talking about, we're going to get the drug dealers, we're going to bust them, we're going to stop all the gangs, we're going to stop all the black-on-black crime, we're going to have our own businessmen. And they never follow their word, so what's the sense in voting?"

"Let's put you in office," says Muhammad. "In 2001, when forty-two City Council seats come up [in New York City], let's run you."

"Run me?" the young brother asks incredulously, biting a delighted grin. He is clearly interested in the idea of being involved, even a leader, in his community. But if these are the terms, he and his peers don't seem so sure.

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