Generation Vexed 

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

Page 4 of 9

The nonprofit, which has offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, also hopes to energize the hip-hop generation on issues including literacy, access to good schools, economic advancement, and youth leadership. Its board members include Roc-a-Fella Records exec Damon Dash, socialist professor Dr. Manning Marable, Broadway star and recording artist Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, and NAACP top dog Kwesi Mfume.

Despite this seemingly odd mix of personalities, HSAN has produced some solid results: As of May, it claims to have passed the halfway point in its November voter-registration goal. The organization has sponsored more than a dozen "Hip-Hop Summits" in cities around the nation to bring attention to its issues, including a Philly event where organizers signed up more than 11,000 new voters by making registration a prerequisite for attendance. HSAN also has recruited an army of youth organizers and social activists in large cities who are well positioned to reach its target audience.

As president and CEO of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, Benjamin Chavis-Muhammed brings considerable credibility to the table. A former NAACP director and longtime activist in black political circles, his background adds a certain measure of gravitas to Simmons' fledgling organization. Over the phone, he jokes that although he came up in the civil rights era, he's immersed himself in hip-hop culture of late.

"Voting is not a panacea, but a necessary step in the process," he insists. Basic quality-of-life issues, he adds, are equally important, which is why HSAN is also involved with a literacy program (HipHop-Reader.com), an HIV/AIDS awareness program, and public school funding advocacy. Chavis-Muhammed boasts that his group's efforts recently convinced New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to restore $300,000 allocated for public education to the city's budget. That's real talk, as they say in the 'hood.

HSAN's president emphasizes that his organization is dedicated to base-building efforts in all fifty states. And as it grows, he says, so too does the hip-hop generation's political involvement. Conversely, the current political climate in the underground rap world has contributed greatly to HSAN's mission. "Because of the way hip-hop is evolving, there's a much more unifying consciousness," Chavis-Muhammed says. "Hip-hop culture is not just penetrating the American mainstream, it is becoming the new mainstream."

For example, he continues, "there's hip-hop penetration into economics, into politics, into religion, into philosophy, into literature. Hip-hop has an increasing impact on the major sectors not only of American society, but around the world. ... Hip-hop is not only urban, it's also suburban. It involves black youth, Latino youth, Asian youth, and white youth. And the expansion of the culture, in terms of the number of young people who consider themselves part of the hip-hop community, grows bigger every year."

There are at least some indications the political mainstream is taking notice. Chavis-Muhammed recalls that before John Kerry became the Democratic front-runner, he "used to call me up all the time." Early in the primary season, Wesley Clark quoted Outkast's "Hey Ya" at a campaign rally, imploring the crowd to "shake it like a Polaroid picture." The media have made much ado of the unusually high rates of young voters in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, not to mention Howard Dean's success with Internet campaigning. And let's not forget Kucinich, who actually hired a "hip-hop consultant" -- one Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou -- to help him stay on point with his youth outreach.

Though he wasn't intimately familiar with the culture, Kucinich took the notion of "hip-hop candidate" further than anyone. Less than a month before the Ashkenaz rally, he helped deliver a "Hip Hop State of the Union" address in San Francisco. Attendees and volunteers were treated to a live Kucinich video link and a discussion panel moderated by Davey D. Radio personality Adisa "the Bishop" Banjoko, rapper Zion of Zion-I, and Billy "Upski" Wimsatt, a former graffiti writer turned activist author, were on hand to address the unlikely marriage of hip-hop and electoral politics.

The discussion centered on how the panel members got involved with activist politics. But a disconnect was apparent -- not one of the panelists tied their personal account to Kucinich's core agenda: cutting the defense budget to pay for free universal health care and education programs. Conversely, Kucinich never once mentioned hip-hop -- hardly a good sign for someone who hoped to speak for its constituents.

Nina Fallenbaum, director of national urban outreach for the Kucinich campaign, attempted afterward to explain why Kucinich was the best candidate for the hip-hop generation: "Everyone I talk to about this stuff is hyped," she said. "From hip-hop stars making millions all the way down to the dude on the corner trying to sell me the five-dollar mix tape. Because everybody feels the injustices going on."


Whether that outrage can be turned into a consistent voting bloc, worthwhile legislation, or meaningful social change is a big unknown. As urban youth culture delves deeper into politics, however, it's becoming apparent that the movement can't just rely on enlightened rappers. For the hip-hop generation to find its political voice, it's going to need more people like Cleveland's Bakari Kitwana. Eloquent, college-educated, and fluid in the confusing syntax of policy-speak, Kitwana is both a champion and a critic of black youth culture. He has worked behind the scenes as editorial director of Third World Press, and on the cultural frontlines of print media, serving as both as politics editor and executive editor of the Source in the mid- to late '90s. [Full disclosure: This article's author has contributed to the Source in years past.]

During his stint at the magazine, Kitwana helped popularize the term "hip-hop generation," using it in place of "Generation X," which he thought did not adequately address the values and issues of the Source's three million monthly readers. In 2002, Kitwana published his second book, The Hip-Hop Generation, which firmly established him as one of the leading hip-hop intellectuals of the post-Tupac & Biggie era.

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