Generation Vexed 

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

Page 3 of 9

Those issues are clear enough: Davey D recalls that around the same time as Shame the Devil came out, NYC's Raptivism Records released its first No More Prisons compilation, and Brooklyn MC Talib Kweli helmed the Hip Hop for Respect project, dedicated to the memory of Amadou Diallo -- the unarmed Guinean immigrant slain in a hail of 41 gunshots from NYPD officers back in 1999, sparking widespread outrage in the black community. This suggests the prison-industrial complex and police brutality are important enough to the hip-hop generation that they aren't viewed as merely West Coast or East Coast concerns, but universal ones. Since 9/11, Davey D reports, there have been more than seventy songs by hip-hop artists directly addressing these two topics -- and few, if any, have seen commercial radio rotation.

That lack of mainstream airplay, says Davey D -- who was fired by KMEL in October 2001 after airing an interview with Barbara Lee following her historic "no" vote on the war -- is a big reason why more people haven't heard these songs. It has resulted, he says, in two camps among hip-hop fans: commercial radio listeners and a much smaller, community-minded activist crowd. The task facing political organizers is to bring the two together, by any means necessary.

Raptivism, of course, is just part of this effort. While the artists are the most visible icons of the culture, the less glamorous work happens offstage, at nonprofit youth organizations where staffers are as committed to effecting social change as they are to gaining political representation.

Oakland's Leadership Excellence is one such nonprofit. Located within view of the incandescent Fox Theatre marquee, its fifth floor offices aren't nearly as flashy or opulent -- but they are comfortable, even funky. Walking into the conference room is like being transported inside a Last Poets album cover: Three walls and part of the ceiling are covered by a vibrant mural whose central image depicts a female sun with an eye rising out of her head, shining rays of light onto various ebony characters and silhouettes. It includes positive affirmations such as "music is power" and "peace comes from the heart," and keys bearing messages ("knowledge") cracking corresponding locks ("oppression").

Dereca Blackmon, the organization's baby-faced 34-year-old executive director, not only manages the nonprofit's literacy and global exchange programs; she's also California co-chair of the upcoming National Hip Hop Political Convention.

Political organizing is a natural extension of her other community outreach efforts, and she approaches it differently than someone from a strictly political background. She's resigned, for instance, to the fact that some of the young people she works with will never vote, while others are too caught up in their own personal dramas to care about who gets elected to what. Blackmon is a proponent of voter registration, but only as it applies to base building. "For us, base building involves listening," she explains. When you're dealing directly with the youth, she says, it's important to "find out what their issues are, rather than tell them."

Blackmon's goal is to help develop a long-term political strategy for the hip-hop generation. She's working with various groups including the League of Pissed Off Voters, a national get-out-the-vote organization, to increase awareness around issues such as "better schools" and "less racial profiling" that speak directly to the concerns of people of color. One immediate goal for the hip-hop generation, Blackmon relates, is to take its commercial clout and wield it strategically. "Power respects power," she explains. "Right now the only power we have is as consumers."

Oakland promoter Jessica Tully represents another face of hip-hop activism. For the past five years, she and two partners, Dovanna Dean and Loushanna Rose, have combined entertainment, education, artistry, and sociopolitical awareness under the banner of UMA Productions. They've produced numerous star-studded events with activist themes. Their annual "We the Planet" festival in San Francisco has featured Alanis Morissette and Michael Franti. They helped put together Rolling Thunder's 2002 "Down Home Democracy Tour," a series of concerts and workshops held in various cities, with featured guests such as Erkyah Badu, Zap Mama, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, Michael Moore, and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. Last year, UMA organized a fund-raiser for Conservation International, hosted by Bill Clinton and Harrison Ford, with musical entertainment by Ledisi. Tully's company also has organized local voter registration drives, including a 2002 Rap the Vote event at what is now California College of the Arts. "It's important that we vote as a bloc," notes the 33-year-old, who refers to herself and her crew as "cultural workers."

As a former national field director for Rock the Vote, Tully is well acquainted with the game. Yet she isn't interested in simply furthering politics as usual. "There's a one-party line in mainstream media," she says. "We've gotta make this a party on the dance floor." Tully believes hip-hop and music in general are effective mediums to reach young voters, because that's what the youth responds to: "A lot of our constituency doesn't subscribe to the Oakland Tribune or The New York Times -- but they listen to lyrics."

Tully and Blackmon haven't received much mainstream media attention, but they -- and a host of other local organizers -- have found a consistent ally in KPFA's "Hard Knock Radio," which debuted in 1999. Hosted by Davey D and Anita Johnson, it's the only drive-time show in the Bay Area -- and possibly the nation -- dedicated to the social, cultural, political, and economic issues of the hip-hop generation. Recent guests have included Harry Belafonte, former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, authors Michael Eric Dyson and Farai Chideya, and artists such as Carlos Mena, Jahi, Ozomatli, Kofy Brown, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Van Hunt. "We give ample coverage to issues impacting our youth and communities of color, especially the prison-industrial complex, gentrification, education, and police brutality," producer Weyland Southon explains in an e-mail. Activism, he jokingly notes, is "not just for hippies anymore."

The recent surge in local grassroots efforts parallels a broader national campaign to engage the hip-hop generation. Russell Simmons, multimillionaire founder of Def Jam records and Phat Farm footwear, has emerged as the most visible face in this movement. In 2001, Simmons contributed his celebrity clout and some of his considerable fortune to establish the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, or HSAN, which last year announced an ambitious goal: Through an effort called "Hip-Hop Team Vote," the group vowed to sign up four million new voters every year through 2008.

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