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.
The current blueprint aspires to mirror the tactics of civil rights-era organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). “There was a lot of autonomy throughout the SNCC network,” adds Brown. In the 1960s SNCC took the time to educate African-American voters in the South, especially young people, about how elections affect their daily lives. So far, the hip-hop voting movement hasn’t come close to achieving the scope and organizing dynamism of SNCC, but signs suggest it could be on the way.
Since November the League has focused its operation in five major regions–California, New York, Ohio/Pennsylvania, Wisconsin/Minnesota and Colorado/New Mexico–where the group is well-organized. In those areas members will be lobbying, conducting voter education and creating a strategic infrastructure to influence municipal races in the fall and spring. The size of the League’s operation varies: Usually there are six to twenty staff members based in each region. The numbers could grow, though. And, as Brown explains, there is plenty of optimism similar to that of the civil rights workers of the 1960s. “Our energy is similar. We’re in the right place at the right time,” she says.
Another important piece of the emerging movement is the National Hip-Hop Political Convention. Established in Newark, New Jersey, in the summer of 2004, the organization successfully registered 250,000 young voters before the election. In an attempt to map out a future course, the group is planning another convention focusing on the 2006 Congressional races, to be held next July 19-23 in Chicago. Though the date of the event doesn’t seem to leave much time to influence the November election three months later, the issues that will take center stage at the convention are virtually identical to any solid progressive’s shortlist of pet causes, regardless of age or race. They include the war in Iraq, education and criminal justice.
Chicago is an ideal choice for a progressive, hip-hop-infused event, since it’s home to two of hip-hop’s hottest stars (Kanye West and Common) and two of the nation’s more progressive elected officials (Senator Barack Obama and Representative Jesse Jackson Jr.). Yet neither legislator, nor any other mainstream politician, has signed on to appear at the convention. This is in line with the less-than-full embrace hip-hop activist groups have received generally from the liberal political class. Whether the pattern can be broken and alliances forged will be a key in determining whether this incipient movement will gain significant traction and national influence.
“The right wing is not just an amalgamation of pop stars, it’s a serious political movement. Unless we counter what they have, we’re going to be losing for some time,” says John Kim, who coordinated New York’s local branch of the Hip-Hop Convention.
Combs’s Citizen Change project disbanded not long after the election. Since then Combs has returned to his fashion and entertainment empire and has yet to speak publicly about his native New York City’s mayoral race or the 2006 midterm elections. Gee is currently working on New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine’s gubernatorial campaign. He hopes that Combs is not too discouraged to make his political presence felt, especially in New York City, where he believes Combs could have incredible influence. “If he takes on one issue with the same intensity he took on Vote or Die, it’ll really take off,” says Gee.
Simmons’s HSAN is still actively educating and registering voters. HSAN, which registered nearly 2 million people before Election Day 2004, is also concentrating its power locally, focusing on California and the New Jersey governor’s race. While HSAN, as a nonprofit, is legally prohibited from endorsing or supporting candidates, many of its members say politicians like Detroit’s 35-year-old Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (known by some as the “Hip-Hop Mayor”) represent the kind of qualities they’d like to see in candidates nationwide. As Alexis McGill, who served as executive director of Citizen Change, says, Kilpatrick is admired because of “what he accomplished at his age, the way he carries himself and how he stays connected culturally” with young people.
The Detroit mayor’s example is still rare, though. “Up until this point the respective parties haven’t provided enough resources, attention or support to urban young people,” says Baye Wilson, the former chair of the Hip-Hop Convention. Ostensibly the left has been given the gift of a brand new constituency, eager to vote but grappling with a dearth of viable, young minority candidates who reflect their attitudes and experiences. This begs the question: If the current crop of politicians isn’t generating interest, who are these voters to turn to?
Not the rappers and entertainers who may have originally brought them into the movement, says Kim. “Russell is a businessman. Jay-Z is a rapper and a businessman. 50 Cent is in that same realm,” he explains. “This is a certain class of individuals who have huge skills as artists and producers, but they’re not politicians.” Hopefully, similarly to what occurred with SNCC, future political leaders will be produced from within the hip-hop activist grassroots movement.
Beyond developing new leadership, the most pressing need is for a more united, organized front than was the case in 2004. Instead of working independently, activists must pool their resources and strengths to build a sustained grassroots movement, as the League of Pissed Off Voters is starting to do. If everything goes according to plan, a voting bloc as influential as the religious right, but progressive, could be firmly established.
As Kim says, “We might have to lose the next couple of elections. If a progressive wins, great. If not, too bad. But unless we build an apparatus from the ground up–it’ll never happen.”