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Impeach the President

It's been a historic political year for the hip-hop generation, but will they rock the vote on Nov. 2?

By Jeff Chang

IN THE media capital of the world, the symbols are all around. In Times Square, an electronic billboard above the NASDAQ sign counts down to election day, giving prominent play to the Rock the Vote logo and motto "Declare Yourself." Ubiquitous poster snipes feature 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, Mya and Citizen Change himself, P. Diddy, sporting fashionista "Vote or Die" T-shirts. MTV's "Choose or Lose" campaign bluntly highlights the demographic stakes: "20 Million Loud." For young people, the hum around this year's presidential election is higher than it has ever been since 1972, the year the vote was extended to 18-year-olds.

Unprecedented organizing efforts, independent of any party, have targeted the hip-hop generation. Early this year, Russell Simmons launched a swing-state blitz of high-profile hip-hop summits. In June, the historic National Hip-Hop Political Convention attracted 6,000 attendees to forge a grassroots political agenda for the hip-hop generation. Delegates from the South Bay returned to form the San Jose Hip-Hop Coup (www.sanjosehiphopcoup.com), an activist organization that has been sponsoring voter registration and education events alongside hip-hop shows and panel discussions.

Voter-registration efforts report record numbers. The National Hip-Hop Civic Engagement Project, a spin-off project of the Convention, registered 316,000 hip-hop voters in 13 states in just three months. Rock the Vote reports that its website has been receiving more than 30,000 registrations a day through its website, for a total of 1.4 million over the past year.

"You haven't seen young people galvanized, mobilized and pissed off to this degree in a long time," says Celeste Faison, the national hip-hop organizer for the League of Independent Voters (www.indyvoter.org), a dynamic new youth-oriented organization attempting to update the methods and successes of the League of Women Voters for the hip-hop generation.

With the ongoing war, rising college costs, juvenile and criminal justice reform, health care and a potential military draft topping young people's list of concerns, there is a sense of urgency. Nov. 2 is shaping up to be the most important election in a generation. "I think every generation has a point where the movement begins for them, where young people begin to take leadership to change the direction where things are going," the 20-year old Faison says. "If there is a defining moment in my lifetime, this is it."

Adisa Banjoko, the South Bay-based author of Lyrical Swords, Volume 1: Hip-Hop and Politics in the Mix (YinSumi Publishing), agrees. "I can't compare any election in my life to this one. It's a big victory for hip-hop. But it's still a baby step. We're still not being taken seriously." In fact, after the Convention, efforts this past fall to press the newly minted "hip-hop agenda" fell largely on deaf ears.

Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who has been working with the Convention's Bay Area Local Organizing Committee to educate voters on the agenda, was an exception. The only thing John Kerry and George W. Bush seem to be offering young voters now is the claim that each would not to institute a draft—a promise, most young people note, that involves doing nothing.

That leaders would continue to do nothing for the hip-hop generation is just the latest version of a politics of abandonment that stretches back to the creation-by-benign-neglect of the South Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop's cultural movement. But many have also argued that the hip-hop generation—variously termed Generation X or Y or worse by boomer hucksters—is simply apathetic. Young voter turnout has dropped by 13 percent since 1972. A 2000 study by the Panetta Institute found that most college students were not involved or even interested in electoral politics.

But the same study documented a profound voluntarist spirit--three in four of these allegedly apathetic students had worked for causes such as homelessness or the environment. These findings were echoed in the 2001 UCLA Freshman Survey, the most comprehensive annual survey of young people's attitudes, which found that an astonishing 47 percent of all freshmen had participated in organized demonstrations, three times the proportion of freshmen in 1966, the height of the civil rights movement. Political apathy is one of the most powerful, least useful boomer myths about the hip-hop generation.

Unlike boomers, the hip-hop generation came of age during an era in which faith in government was eroded, social programs were slashed and juvenile and criminal justice policies took a harshly punitive turn. Decades of the politics of abandonment and the politics of containment have produced a skeptical generation, young people who need renewed persuading that their vote actually means something. Rappers such as dead prez, Boots Riley of the Coup, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, revered as some of most progressive young voices today, say they refuse to vote because it is a wasted concession to a system that has done nothing for them. In some hip-hop circles, it is considered radical not to vote.

Interestingly, none of these rappers deny the importance of local school board elections that might shape policies that affect their own children's education. But neither can they fathom that a presidential election could ever positively affect their future. Banjoko says, "It's legitimate for hip-hop folks to be skeptical of the system. The 2000 elections broke a lot of spirits. It makes sense that people's hearts would be broken." Nonparticipation is hurt and anger masked as tough pragmatism.

To be fair, hip-hop nonvoters are not alone. More than half of the 200 million eligible voters are what leading hip-hop-gen thinker Farai Chideya calls "discouraged voters." She writes in her important new book, Trust (Soft Skull Press), "[T]he game's been fixed. Half of voters are shut out from the get-go, and the two parties haggle over who's left." In this respect, rappers like Kweli and Mos Def aren't so radical; they are simply the bleeding edge of the majority.

Clearly, these are issues that run much deeper than designer T-shirts, Times Square billboards and celebrity sound bites. "How effective is it when Andre 3000 goes and says go out and vote? I don't know," says Abel Macias of San Jose Hip-Hop Coup. Celebrity campaigns are often essentially shallow because they, as Banjoko puts it, confuse "consumer power with political power" and some hip-hop heads, big pun intended, aren't buying it. But ironically, "conscious rappers" have ceded the moral high ground on the question of political participation to personalities like Russell Simmons and P. Diddy and mainstream rappers like Jadakiss, whose hit "Why?" features a video depicting a mass protest, a tribute to Public Enemy's 1989 "Fight the Power" video and Simmons' 2002 New York City Hall demonstration against educational budget cuts.

"On a national level, Russell and P. Diddy are able to reach a lot more people," says Lizelle Festejo of the San Jose Hip-Hop Coup. "We're able to figure out what the issues are that affect people on a daily basis." If these celebrity-driven efforts begin to substantially connect with the massive national grassroots network of hip-hop activist organizations that are daily redefining progressive politics block by block, the result could be a political movement to rival hip-hop's cultural movement.

For now, this year's outburst of electoral organizing energy—and the hip-hop generation's remarkable responsiveness—is all the more notable for flying in the face of both official indifference and their own hostile skepticism toward "the system," James Bernard, executive director of the National Hip-Hop Civic Engagement Project, says that some of the change has to do with the polarized political landscape. "People see the urgency and for the first time in a long time they see the difference between the parties," he says. But he also warns, "Getting people out to actually vote takes a lot of elbow grease that may not be happening now. Republicans and Democrats don't make it any easier for us to do that job."

At the core of the emerging hip-hop politics is Faison's question "How do you work in a system that's constantly kicking you?" The answer is, in part, by nurturing the independent-mindedness that fostered hip-hop in the first place, to make a way that does not pretend to seek a reconciliation that will never come. "Young people say, 'Well they stole Florida.' They only won Florida by 537 votes. You can't allow that to happen the next time," Faison says.

To that end, her organization, the League of Independent Voters, is preparing 1 million voter guides for its 70 chapters in 18 states and throwing hip-hop parties across the country, where rappers and activists will endorse local candidates and issues. On Nov. 2, the group will lure their young voters to the polls with hip-hop culture and its voter guides. "I'm still very skeptical," Faison admits. "To organize within the system, you still have to organize outside the system. You have to balance it out."

At the other end of the hip-hop generation, the 40-year-old Bernard takes the long view. "Hopefully, this year was the beginning of a process—with the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, the National Hip-Hop Civic Engagement Project, Russell's and P. Diddy's projects. I hope people don't get demoralized if the election doesn't go the way they want it to go. This nation is looking more and more like the hip-hop nation. Like Nas said, the world will be ours. Now is just the beginning."


The San Jose Hip-Hop Coup sponsors a screening of 'A Letter to the President' at 12pm on Nov. 2 at the Ohlone Room inside the SJSU Student Union. Latest details at www.sanjosehiphopcoup.com.


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From the October 27-November 2, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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