By JONATHAN TILOVE
June 15, 2004
c.2004 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Forty years after Freedom Summer and the murders of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi, there is a nascent effort to rouse a new generation to activism by transforming hip-hop from a cultural force into a political movement _ to bring bling bling to the ballot box.
It was evident in early June at the celebrity-driven Hip-Hop Summit at Ohio State University, credited with adding some 10,000 new voters to the rolls. And it will be in further evidence beginning Wednesday at the three-day National Hip-Hop Political Convention in Newark, N.J., an issues-driven, grass-roots affair (delegates were required to register 50 new voters to be credentialed) that will try to define just what a hip-hop politics would look like.
“There’s a phrase in hip-hop _ `show and prove,”’ said James Bernard, 39, a pioneering figure in hip-hop journalism who is now devoted to political organizing. The field director for the Newark convention, Bernard has raised $1.4 million for the Hip-Hop Civic Engagement Project, a registration and get-out-the-vote drive that he will direct in 14 key states. “I think we are about to show and prove.”
Freedom Summer flowered amid one of the most fertile periods of social change in American history. Black voting rights were secured, and the voting age was lowered to 18. But in 2000, nearly two-thirds of blacks ages 18 to 24 did not vote, and the turnout among young whites was hardly any better (especially considering how many young black males cannot vote because they are in prison or, once out, in states that deny ex-felons the vote).
Some rappers, like Kanye West, 26, who headlined the Ohio State summit, are pointedly mindful of both the legacy and burden of history for a generation more used to commemorating the black freedom struggle than advancing it.
West’s father was a Black Panther. His mother is a professor of English at Chicago State University who, as he raps in “Never Let Me Down,” was taken by her grandfather to a sit-in where “at the tender of six she was arrested.”
“With that in my blood I was born to be different,” he continues. “Now n—-s can’t make it to ballots to choose leadership, but we can make it to Jacob and to the dealership.” (Jacob is the jeweler designing West’s line of diamond-studded Jesus pendants.)
“We’re talking about a generation that has not been very political,” said Hashim Shomari, 38, North Jersey coordinator for the Newark convention, who at 29 wrote the book “From the Underground: Hip Hop Culture as an Agent of Social Change.”
“What we are trying to do,” he said, “is jump-start something.”
At the very least, there is a hip-hop vibe reverberating across the political landscape on the eve of a presidential election in which any increase in turnout could prove decisive.
Most obvious is the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, a nonpartisan effort led by the industry mogul Russell Simmons. Over three years it has helped register hundreds of thousands of new voters in cities across America _ Columbus, Ohio, was the 21st _ with events headlined by the likes of Snoop Dogg, Eminem and West.
Their simple plan, said L. Alexis McGill, 27, the Princeton- and Harvard-educated political scientist who is the network’s political director, is to make voting cool and to use the infrastructure of hip-hop the way the civil rights movement used the black church.
The summits, naturally, draw more fans than activists and the Ohio State event had a desultory air, lost in the doldrums between rap show and political rally. Even audience questions were passed forward and rendered generic.
But thousands were registered and Simmons believes that, come November, hip-hop icons like Sean “P. Diddy” Combs can get out the vote. “Puffy is way more popular than George Bush, and his opinion counts,” he told reporters at Ohio State. Indeed, Simmons contends that the music has a consistent message making a generation of fans, across racial lines, empathetic with the plight and aspirations of the urban poor.
“Whether it’s Eminem or 50 Cent, they came from struggle,” Simmons said. “Kids all over the country think like they think and will vote like they vote.”
In his own conversation with reporters at the summit, Damon Dash, co-chair of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records, the major label whose artists include West, admitted that political rap does not sell and that rappers have to slip wisdom into more commercial work.
“Sometimes it’s not in our best interests to let people know how smart we are,” Dash said.
“That says it all,” observed Mark McPhail, a professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he is conducting a course on Freedom Summer on the very campus where civil rights volunteers were trained before being dispatched to Mississippi.
McPhail, author of “The Rhetoric of Racism,” believes that hip-hop only proves that young blacks are willing to cash in doing lurid parodies of black male deviance, and that it is neither emancipating them nor transforming the thinking of the young whites who listen to them. “It’s ludicrous,” he said.
Dani McClain, 25, a teacher in Cincinnati, founded the local chapter of the League of Pissed-Off Voters, which will be holding its own national convention at Ohio State in July. She was at the Ohio State summit, and like many critics sees commercial hip-hop as something awash in materialism and misogyny. But, she said, “at its root hip-hop is all about change and about speaking the truth, about where you’re from and what’s going on in your community.”
Angela Woodson, 36, the co-chair of the Newark convention, agrees. And for the community activists who will dominate that gathering, issues like drug policy, prison reform, police brutality, reparations, globalization, gentrification, AIDS and education policy are what matter most. Local campaigns loom larger than the national election.
Woodson was born weeks after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Her aunt was in Montgomery, Ala., for the bus boycott and, with Woodson’s grandmother, marched with King in Selma. Along with stories of the movement, Woodson said, she “grew up with hip-hop ever since it hit.”
But “I hated politics. I didn’t think it changed anything. I thought it totally missed everyday people.”
Then, in 1992 as she was finishing college, she met Bill Clinton at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania: “He walked up and looked you dead in the eye and asked what you wanted this America to look like.”
She has since devoted her life to state and local campaigns and helped to found Cleveland’s Blacks United in Local Democracy, instrumental in electing several challengers to the City Council.
In a milieu dominated by rhetorical flash and flourishes, Woodson is low key and mainstream. But if Bernard is right _ that “hip-hop is really coming of age” _ it may be the likes of Woodson, a skilled political operative in a swing state, who really show and prove it.