This article was originally published by WireTap.
August 22, 2008
(Note: This article originally appeared on Zentronix)
Green Party VP nominee Rosa Clemente, a 36-year old hip-hop activist, took some time in Las Vegas at the National Hip-Hop Political Convention last month to talk candidly with us about her historic run, the state of hip-hop activism, the Green Party and its discontents, and how she really feels about Hillary Clinton and Obama. What follows are excerpts from a long interview.
Q: How did this nomination happen for you?
Cynthia called me on July 5th. It happened very quick. I didn’t hesitate because that’s just my personality. But by the time I got to the convention in Chicago, it was such a whirlwind. It was so fast, the nomination, meeting hundreds of Green Party members. It wasn’t ’til I got off that stage that I was like, holy shit. I’m gonna be on a ballot in 40 states. That is so surreal.
In 2001, I had submitted a proposal to a foundation and it was called Hip-Hop Vote. They rejected me and they said that there was no way that a hip-hop generation–no matter how it was being defined–was going to make headway in voting. They could not see young people being so engaged in the electoral political system. And it’s funny because now that’s all they do. Any foundation is trying to fund young people like Generation Vote, Russell Simmons (Hip-Hop Summit Action Network), the National Hip-Hop Political Convention.
Q: How is it that you got involved with Cynthia McKinney?
I came to know about Cynthia McKinney when she had the hearings on political prisoners in Congress. And then she started talking about Tupac and his files and trying to get the files from the FBI. I was in the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and we were working on so much around political prisoners. She started bringing me out to her brain trust as part of the Congressional Black Caucus. She was involved in the State of the Black World with Ron Daniels which I was involved with. And then she brought me out to this big Tupac event in Atlanta with Chuck D. Of course when they got her out of office, she went to Cornell to teach one of those two-week things and she just got so harassed. She got death threats. This was after the September 11 hearings where she was grilling Rumsfeld, after they arrested her–whatever the capitol police did to her. I hadn’t talked to her in a long time. I just know that I joined the Green Party in Brooklyn.
People always say they want their officials to be held accountable. Here she is, being held accountable, because her party didn’t keep to their promises in ’06 when they all got in. Pelosi and Conyers and all them finally get these ranks and–no impeachment and no pullout of the war. She actually stood to their principles. She could just have stayed in the DNC. She could have stayed the incumbent and she just didn’t.
People have always said, ‘You gotta tone it down Rosa, you’re too honest. You can’t always say what you say.’ And I think everything I did got me to this position, because I think I am genuine and I think that a lot of cats aren’t. It has come at the expense of a lot of shit. I know that. But I can’t be any other way. And I think Cynthia is just, she’s completely uncompromising. That is the most needed value right now in our movement.
Q: Were you prepared to understand what the politics of the Green Party itself was, particularly the racial politics of the Green Party? Because this ticket is a big departure and it seems like there’s been a little bit of a backlash within the Party around Cynthia’s nomination and your nomination.
I feel much of that is based on some serious misinformation on who we are as a generation but also the non-ability for most progressives to particularly see women of color leading. I’m still grasping how local people feel about the Greens. I don’t know I just, I’m ready to follow Cynthia in that regard. And second, I don’t see hip-hop being represented any way politically at the level that it should be. So I’m going with people who are at least moving out the way for us to have space.
I haven’t felt uncomfortable. The young people in the Green Party–the mostly white young people–have whole different racial and class analysis. (They) were clear that they came into politics because they had gone to some hip-hop event. They had seen Dead Prez perform, they had seen Immortal Technique, they had read something on Tupac, and they said they felt no other party was paying attention to their issues. So I don’t want to be like Pollyanna and say I ignore it. But the Greens are a national party, it’s a national organization, and there are over a hundred Greens running for all different types of offices. They nominated me and Cynthia.
Q: The hip-hop generation has been successful in terms of bringing more folks out to the polls. Every election has been landmark numbers. But the numbers that, in terms of registration, they’re mostly the college kids. How do you reach the working-class young people, the youths of color who are completely alienated, the overwhelming majority of young people who still aren’t even registed to vote?
That’s what I’m trying to stay focused on. It’s a difficult situation. You can get into the communities because you now have a name, but you might not even have the resources to get a flight there. And that’s how real it is in our campaign. Even though the Green Party has been infrastructured for 25 years, they don’t get matching funds. And the less we’re in the media, the less people know we exist so there’s no money in the coffers to do that type of campaigning which is what I want to do. I want to get to the cats that aren’t even registered to vote. I don’t give a fuck about turning no Barack Obama Democrat around. I’m not even trying to waste my time.
It’s interesting that with the new vote rising, it’s defaulting to the Democrats. Who is gonna vote for John McCain? So what it essentially is, the Democrats in the back of their minds gotta be thinking we ain’t even got to talk about these young people’s issues. There’s this fervor because of all the work we’ve been putting down since 2003–all these hip-hop organizations–there’s the fervor to get out there and to register vote but it’s essentially defaulted Democrat anyway.
I think the Greens are gonna have to put in some serious infrastructure planning for the next 20 years, if we’re gonna even move all the people who aren’t even registered to vote to have any faith in the political system. Because that’s essentially what they’re saying–they’re withholding their vote.
So what it becomes incumbent upon me to say is: am I doing this for the Green party or am I doing it for my generation? Is that connected? If it is, how does that play out? And I’m trying to stay really focused on getting to the people that are completely dissatisfied and completely marginalized, not necessarily from joining the Green Party which would be great, but to begin to tell them that this two-party system–that has to stop now. We cannot afford another two-party election. But within hip-hop, actually, that conversation becomes very difficult.
Q: How do you mean?
I think anybody running a hip-hop organization now that has a grant, they can’t just drop their shit and support the Green party. I think that’s the danger of the whole non-profit grant system that most of the hip-hop organizations are in. Finally you have a party that if 5% of the hip-hoppers voted would give us 5% of the electorate, and everybody’s scared now? Now that it’s right in front of you everybody’s backing up.
Q: Well, they’re going to Obama.
Of course. They’re either going to Obama or they’re saying they’re not, but they default to that. You have a voter registration drive, would you be pushing the Greens? We’re not even on the ballots. You can’t push us in 10 states. Most cats are not registering Republican. Default to the Democrats.
That’s gonna require a lot of cats in hip-hop making some real choices right now. Are you gonna back up a party that nominated not me, but nominated a hip-hop activist, a person that’s been out here for 7-8 years on the forefront of hip-hop work? At this moment, cats can’t say they’re for me and Cynthia because they’re afraid they’re gonna lose their GOTV money?
Q: But on the other hand, Nader didn’t have any problem raising any money. He raised millions of dollars. Has the Green party abandoned you and Cynthia?
I think [when Nader ran] in 1996 and 2000, it was so much easier to have a third party, in that the media was still at least doing its job, giving equal time. Eight years after the stolen election and Bush, the media is such a farce. The fact that they will not let Nader, Bob Barr, or Cynthia in any of the debates speaks volumes. And I think that is simply because at the end of the day, the Democratic machine and the Republican machine would rather ebb and flow power than concede power together to a third, fourth, or fifth party.
Has the Green Party abandoned us? I don’t know. I’ve only been here for less than a month. I don’t think the Green party is ready, I don’t think the apparatus is there.
Q: Is it the Green Party apparatus? Is it will? Or is it race?
I think it’s the apparatus and I think it also has to do with how you fundraise in this day and age and how media is used as it relates to young people. I don’t think they have a grasp of any of that. I truly believe that you have to market this. You have to brand it and there’s not a brand. Nader was the brand. So when Nader in 2000 gets 2% of the vote, that’s a big deal. But now 8 years later, look at how they destroyed Nader. If it wasn’t for him Gore would have won, now we’re the spoiler spoiler spoiler. So no longer are we the third party, the Green party is now the spoiler party.
Q: Talk about the platform. What do you think the Green Party has over the other parties?
This is the only party that even has social justice as its core principle. When we say ending the war, we mean all the wars. We need to get all the military out of every country, we need to begin to deal with issues of what peace can look like, how do you sustain that. Obviously, the green party is at the forefront of pushing the environment as a core value, that was innovative then. There should be an end to imprisoning young people, an immediate stop to the death penalty, a livable wage, not a minimum wage. Impeachment for George Bush and them is critical. I think if we don’t hold them accountable as a people, then anybody can do the same shit that they did.
Words are words, but we can make the words into deeds. If people would even open up the platform, they would see that neither the Democrats and Republicans would even talk about young people having rights and that we should be signing some of these international treaties, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The hardest part is to literally get people to open it up and want to be exposed.
Q: Do you think the Obama campaign is a false hope? A false kind of change?
It’s hard for me to see Obama and not feel like there’s a good heart in that. So I feel like it’s not false hope if he’s not a pessimistic or opportunistic person. Because when I see him, sometimes it’s magical. You’re like, damn. But then I weigh it. Is it just because we’ve been under 8 years of Bush and company?
When Obama comes around, first it’s historical. No matter how it goes down, it’s history. There’s a moment when I watched him become the presumptive nominee that I have to recognize that is historic. I’m married to a black man in America. I could see if you’re African American in this country and you’re over 50, that is a moment of brilliance and shine. Like, this is what I fought for. This is why I fought for the vote.
You respect that. And I don’t agree with any of the racial shit that Fox puts out on Michelle or him just like I didn’t agree with that when Hillary Clinton was running, even though I’m completely opposed to her politics. As a woman, why you talking about her ankles, her chest? She’s running for president of the United States. To me, I’ve been very clear to people–look, I’m not hating on him because he’s Barack Obama or because he’s a black man, OK? I’m hating on him because his policies are wack. (laughs) They’re wack and we should just say that. We understand the historical nature and then we get back to the accountability factor. That’s how I see it.
Q: But if you and Cynthia get elected, that would also be historic.
Wouldn’t that be incredible. (laughs) That would be amazing.
Q: But it is a question that comes up. “Why even run if you don’t really have a chance?” Especially amongst folks in the community who feel like, “We got an historic opportunity now. You don’t want to be what Nader was to Gore for us because that’s gonna devastate us so much more in so many different types of ways.” How do you answer that?
I mean history was made. But history can be good or bad. You know? Cynthia said that when she got to Washington DC, there’s a table where people sit at, where the Democrats were and the Republicans were and they had locked the doors and everybody else was looking on the outside. And she said her goal is to get 5% of the electorate so she can pull up a chair at that table. That’s what I say. I’m trying to get 5% of that electorate. I want to be at that table. I don’t want to be outside. I don’t want to be petitioning to get in anymore. Because I think once we’re at that table and we’re treated as a legitimate major party and get access to it, in the $18 million that each party gets just with taxpayer money, what we could do with that money just in spreading the platform and principles of the Green party–we would conquer this within 4 to 8 more years. I believe that.
Jeff Chang is the author of the award-winning Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation and, most recently Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip Hop.