Backstage at Berkeley's Ashkenaz nightclub one evening in February, a circle of rapt hip-hop artists stood crowded around a man speaking his mind. The scene resembled an MC battle, except that the man in the center was a middle-aged white guy in a suit, who looked more like TV comedian Ray Romano than underground battle-rapper C-Rayz Walz. He didn't possess any discernible freestyle rhyming skills, though his mere presence in "the cipher" impressed many of the onlookers. After all, what other 2004 presidential candidate had bothered to show any interest in hip-hop political activism, much less put himself in the thick of an MC circle?
The man in the suit was Dennis Kucinich, and the setting was a local stump speech/performance entitled "Bands Against Bush," in which the Ohio congressman and progressive Democratic presidential hopeful shared a bill with some of the Bay's most talented underground DJs and MCs -- including turntablist crew DJs of Mass Destruction, which provided equal time for the opposition with an "Emcee Dubya" collage of George Bush quotes, laced with big beats and DJ cuts.
Despite looking awkwardly out of place, the candidate tried to relate. Hip-hop, he told the MCs, "is about the heart and spirit. It's the truth. That I get." But if anyone was expecting him to drop any hip-hop knowledge, they were sadly misled. "I can't tell you that I listen to hip-hop all the time," the politician conceded. "I don't."
When someone asked Kucinich for his favorite hip-hop song, the candidate hesitated a moment. "Anything by Tupac," he replied. The vague response still earned him an appreciative "Ooohhh!" from every non-journalist in the room, the same reaction a freestyle MC gets for a particularly devastating couplet. Pressed for specifics, Kucinich couldn't actually name one of Tupac's songs, but he did explain why he's feeling 'Pac's vibe: "He has an elegant dissatisfaction with the situation."
Again, that evasive-politician thing, but it was enough to impress one dreadlocked rapper: "We appreciate that you understand that," he said.
"Why are you still in the race?" a more cynical voice demanded. "Well, I gotta stay in it to win it," Kucinich responded, earning another "Ooohh!" despite his blatant jacking of the Lotto slogan. He then quoted Khalil Gibran, whose concept of "spirit rebellious," the candidate explained, "is what hip-hop's about."
And just how did he plan to bring the more apolitical members of the hip-hop generation into the fold? "What I'm doing is reaching out," Kucinich said. "You gotta keep reaching out."
Kucinich might just go down in history as the first big-time politician to actively reach out to the "hip-hop generation," a term that can refer to African Americans born between 1965 and 1984, or to a far broader cross section of hip-hop consumers of all races, depending on whom you ask. But that a mainstream candidate even made the effort demonstrates just how far hip-hop culture has progressed since rappers first began laying their tales of harsh ghetto realities on wax.
While major labels, under political pressure from DC heavyweights, have steered clear of controversial rappers since the early 1990s -- Paris, for instance, was dropped by Time-Warner subsidiary Tommy Boy before his song "Bush Killa" could be released -- the hip-hop underground has always maintained some level of political awareness.
Now, however, something unprecedented is happening. In recent years a fresh surge of indignation among underground hip-hoppers here and elsewhere -- spurred by what some call the War on Youth, as well as an erosion of civil liberties related to the War on Terror, and the ever-deteriorating situation in Iraq -- has manifested itself in an unforeseen level of political activity. Up-and-coming artists have increasingly turned toward lyrical activism, lent their skills to political rallies and benefits, and become personally involved in social issues. Indie rap labels are pumping out themed compilations attacking the criminal justice system and the government's warmongering. And grassroots activists are amping up outreach efforts at the street level, in an attempt to channel the hip-hop generation's angst into something more meaningful.
Some in the rap community, from grassroots proletarians to millionaire moguls, are even starting to fathom the unfathomable: They're betting that the elusive hip-hop generation can be harnessed as a true political force -- and a potential voting bloc. In recent months, national and local promoters and organizers have registered hip-hop voters in record numbers. Meanwhile, a National Hip-Hop Political Convention scheduled for June 16 in Newark, New Jersey, will bring together community organizers from cities around the country to network and pound out the first draft of what could become a national political agenda for the hip-hop generation.
There's a sense of urgency behind all these efforts that was nonexistent prior to 9/11. As Paris, one of the first West Coast rappers to specialize in political hip-hop, says, "We already know what the worst-case scenario is."
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