Generation Vexed 

Can hip-hop attitude be harnessed as a political force?

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However you define it, it's not hard to see why the concept of a hip-hop generation might appeal to mainstream politicians. The raw numbers are a tale of potential: Only 40 percent, or 18 million, of the roughly 45 million Americans aged 18 to 35 voted in the last presidential election, according to Census tallies. Among young people of color, that percentage can reasonably be assumed to be significantly higher. Furthermore, the largest single group of nonvoters is the 18-to-24 contingent. Given that six states in the 2000 presidential race were won by fewer than 2,000 votes, and that the margin of victory in Florida was only 537 votes, it's clear the youth vote could be decisive in some regions -- and could even swing the outcome of congressional races and determine who takes the White House.

In April, citing a recent Harvard survey in which more than 60 percent of college students said they "definitely" plan to vote in November, The Christian Science Monitor noted that "young people have emerged as one of the few large demographics still up for grabs."

"Everybody's got their heels dug in on both sides of the partisan spectrum. So, the younger you are, the more undecided and less focused you are," explains pollster John Fairbank of Santa Monica-based firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates.

Harder to pin down, too. "In most all of our samples," Fairbank says, the 18-24 "sometimes isn't a large enough sample. We combine 'em with the 18-30s sometimes. When you screen them on, 'Are you going to vote in the next election?' it's always the softest -- 'well, maybe, I'm still considering,' as opposed to, the older you get: 'I'm definitely voting.'"

Fairbank speculates that the flaccid economy and the war on Iraq are issues that hit home particularly hard for the 18-24s. "It could affect them very personally, whether it's the draft, or the job market," he says. The Democratic pollster believes Kerry's proposals to expand federal student-aid programs will play well with college students, leaving the noncollegiate, voting-age members of the hip-hop generation as one of the largest potential X-factors in a race that could be decided by first-time and nontraditional voters.

But it'll be a formidable challenge, to say the least, for political organizers to reach the millions of hip-hop generationers who have never voted -- and get them to the polls. In the Bay Area, at least, a precedent exists for the sort of organizing required to make that happen. Here, perhaps more than in other regions, hip-hop artists have been willing to put themselves on the frontlines of activist movements. In 1996, for example, a group calling itself the Young Comrades, led by Coup frontman Boots Riley, declared a "Fuck the Police Day" to protest alleged misconduct by Oakland cops, and a "Take Back the Lake" rally to attack the city's anti-cruising ordinance around Lake Merritt, which they claimed was akin to racial profiling. Not long after the Comrades made a dramatic showing at a City Council meeting, the ordinance was repealed.

In 2000, the local hip-hop contingent mobilized in force against state Proposition 21, aka the Juvenile Crime and Gang Violence Prevention Act. The ballot measure was California's version of the federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which was defeated in Congress in 1994 but since been adopted, with minor alterations, by 45 states.

Hip-hop kids saw Prop. 21 as part of a taxpayer-funded war on youth. Its provisions made life considerably tougher for juvenile offenders. It lowered the age at which a person can be tried as an adult and transferred discretion in enforcing sentencing guidelines from judges to prosecutors. The No-on-21 campaign's community outreach efforts resulted in rallies and concerts around the Bay Area sponsored by groups such as Oakland's Third Eye Movement (now called Let's Get Free), Books Not Bars, and Underground Railroad, events that prominently featured local artists such as Goapele, Zion-I, the Coup, Deuce Eclipse, Local 1200, and Company of Prophets.

Though state voters ultimately approved Prop. 21, that campaign -- and a similar, successful effort against a proposed "super-sized" juvenile hall facility in Alameda County -- gave many young hip-hoppers their first real taste of grassroots activism: They may have shown up for the music, but the message resonated. "It really put that whole scene on the map -- not just in the Bay but around the country," says hip-hop radio personality and journalist Davey D, who covered the No-on-21 campaign for KPFA radio and his short-lived KMEL public affairs program "Street Knowledge." The youth organizers weren't just "spitting in the wind, making noise," he says. "They realized they had a vested interest."

From there, the doors to power began to swing open for the organizers. County Supervisor Keith Carson, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and other elected officials took note, Davey D says, because the activists had begun to develop specific strategies for community outreach. It was a "coming of age," he says, for the hip-hop generation.

Also significant, the DJ says, was that activists began reaching out to the broader hip-hop community around that time. East Oakland turf-oriented rappers the Delinquents, for instance, let organizers use their tricked-out van to pass out political flyers and posters in the 'hood -- the same way a street team would promote a new album. "This was the first time you saw these strategies," Davey D notes.

Since then, local raptivism has flourished. Over the past three years, solid albums by rappers Pitch Black, Jahi, Azeem, Zion-I, and the progressive jazz/hip-hop outfit Variable Unit have contributed to a resurgence of sociopolitically themed hip-hop. Recent activist-oriented compilations including Shame the Devil, 3rd Eye Movement, Hard Knock Records' What About Us?, and the DJs of Mass Destruction's War (If It Feels Good, Do It) have further fanned the flames with their pointed social commentaries. Taken together with higher-profile, critically acclaimed efforts such as Paris' Sonic Jihad, the Coup's Party Music, and Michael Franti's Everyone Deserves Music, they bespeak a larger social and cultural context that could ease the way for further grassroots campaigns based around hip-hop generation issues.

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