Russell Simmons was never a young voter. The 46-year-old hip-hop tycoon cast his first vote in a presidential election seven years ago, he says, at the age of 39. When he was a young man busy creating Def Jam Records and bringing rap into the mainstream, Simmons says, “I didn’t think you could be political.”
In the music scene that Simmons engineered, politics was not on the playlist. It was a question of style–and Simmons is betting that for thousands of young people, it still is. His newest project is Hip-Hop Team Vote, a voter-registration initiative launched by the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), which he co-founded with Benjamin Chavis, a former head of the NAACP (who was dismissed after being accused of using NAACP funds to defend himself against a sexual harassment suit). Luring young hip-hop fans with headliners like Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas and P. Diddy, HSAN has been promoting a political agenda that supports drug-law reform, opposes education cuts and encourages community development programs.
“It has to be in style to get people to show up,” says Simmons. An August Hip-Hop Summit in Philadelphia was stylish enough to net an estimated 11,000 new registered voters. To gain entrance to an event that featured panel discussions with LL Cool J, Wyclef Jean and other rappers, attendees had to register to vote. If they were already registered, they had to bring a friend who wasn’t. Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell credited the summit’s full-force publicity campaign (sponsored in part by Clear Channel) with signing up roughly 88,000 new Democratic and 9,000 Republican voters in a matter of weeks. Those numbers, says Penny Lee, a spokesperson from Governor Rendell’s office, are “unprecedented.” Though the outcome may tilt toward the left, Hip-Hop Team Vote is divorced from the specific issues that HSAN engages. In September, Hip-Hop Team Vote forged a partnership with Smackdown Your Vote!, a World Wrestling Entertainment endeavor that urges viewers to take national politics as seriously as professional wrestling. Neither registration drive endorses a particular candidate or party.
Meanwhile, Rock the Vote, the dinosaur that started it all by making voting cool in ’92, spiced up the Democratic race November 4 with a forum on CNN for 18-to-30-year-olds. Candidates presented their best shots at a hip thirty-second promotional video and were grilled on issues like job creation, the Patriot Act, marijuana use, partying and the Confederate flag. Morning-after media analysis cast the debate as a rare opening for non-Dean candidates to sneak in some winning punches against the front-runner before a crowd he has been actively cultivating: young voters.
In accordance with the short tradition of youth-vote mobilization, rockers, rappers and wrestlers hope to spark a good debate. But they are keeping it nonpartisan. The punks are a different story. “We are taking sides, and we want to offend a lot of people,” says NOFX’s Fat Mike (Mike Burkett), who founded a voter-registration website called Punkvoter “to expose the Bush administration and unite punks to stand against their inane policies.” The website is the first step in an effort to spur punks to vote against Bush in 2004; next is a compilation album called Rock Against Bush. There will be some twenty bands on the album–including hot sellers Green Day and Sum 41 and the more politically charged Anti-Flag–some of which will kick off a tour in March to spread the outrage, and registration booths will be on-site at every event.
The website lists a few reasons the young voting bloc should be angry at the Bush Administration: Kids under the legal drinking age are dying in Iraq, the unemployment rate hit a nine-year high in 2003, more college graduates are moving back in with their parents because they can’t find jobs. Whereas Hip-Hop Team Vote is supported by Simmons and other deep-pockets music industry types, on-the-cheap Punkvoter hopes to harness pure punk-rock rage to achieve its goals, one punk at a time. After the 2000 presidential election, says Fat Mike, “I wasn’t sleeping well because of the outcome. I thought that if only 600 NOFX fans in Florida would have voted, everything could have been different.”
Among those hoping things can be different in 2004 are, of course, the Democratic candidates. While some may be reluctant to court the votes of young people, who turned out in dismal numbers for the past two presidential elections, candidates have their eyes on the vote-mobilization efforts already under way. All the Democratic candidates except Clark (so far) have sat down with Simmons, who says he has given money to every campaign except Lieberman’s. “Young people are more giving, more loving. They put a more loving face on government,” is how Simmons describes the importance of the young vote to the 2004 elections. Fat Mike puts it another way: “It’s time to get mad.”