Generation Vexed 

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

Page 6 of 9

Lil' Larry said his most immediate concern is racial profiling; he's had several run-ins with Oakland police who he claimed have harassed him and planted illegal drugs on him. "Illegal search and seizure," he said. "The reason they searched me was because of how I looked, they said I looked drunk walking down the street."

In an age where racism has become more insidious and covert, electoral politics do matter, according to Lil' Larry. "The president does have the power to change the world, based on what George Bush has done: Whatever the president says, that's what everybody does, right?" Still, the young man wasn't optimistic for November. "No candidates are addressing the real social issues that are going on. They're mostly focused on the big money issues," he said. "We need a guy like the guy that was here. What's his name? Kucinich? Kucinich was here with me, you know what I'm saying? With me, doing my thing, representing. So a guy like that I got respect for, because ain't no other guy here. I don't see nobody else. I don't see Al Sharpton at the rap event."

When Jay-Z introduced the term "politics as usual" to the rap vernacular with his 1996 album Reasonable Doubt, he was in all likelihood referring to street politics. But the fact remains that the political status quo has largely ignored the interests of the hip-hop generation. Kucinich may have earned Lil' Larry's props simply for showing up, but liberal as he is, the politician never once mentioned racial profiling, or police brutality -- which Leadership Excellence's Blackmon identifies as the single issue the youths she comes into contact with relate to the most.

The bottom line, author Kitwana says, is that "the issues that are gonna stick and work for the hip-hop generation are the core issues that are affecting all young people. Not just issues that are affecting young black kids."

That, however, may not be enough to inspire first-time hip-hop voters, especially when many of the community's most politically aware, socially conscious underground artists -- those idolized by young hip-hop fans -- have their own ideas for the future, which don't necessarily involve ballots. For example, neither Oakland's Boots Riley nor Peruvian-born, Bronx-based underground darling Immortal Technique advocate voting. Ironically, it took an event called "Hip-Hop the Vote" to bring them together.

On its surface, the event -- hosted at SF's DNA Lounge early this year by Mario Africa, publisher of agitprop hip-hop 'zine AWOL, and co-sponsored by several voter-registration organizations -- seemed a textbook example of the cross-pollination of hip-hop and politics. Upstairs in the green room, though, Boots revealed that the night was originally booked as a simple Coup performance -- groups including had jumped on the bandwagon, much to his displeasure. "As far as politicians and electing people into those offices, I don't endorse anybody," the performer said. "Sometimes electoral campaigns can, instead of getting people out of their seats to do something, take the energy from people that are trying to do something."

Boots thinks community interests are best served by direct-action campaigns, which he considers the most effective path to meaningful social change. "For example," he said, "even affirmative action -- we didn't get that by voting for the right people or any civil rights legislation. That happened because people were doing direct action. And politicians enacted legislation because they saw that people were doing things. So that's what I've done."

Rather than hip-hopping the vote, the Coup's leader would prefer to get his message out through live performances of songs such as "Fat Cats, Bigga Fish." The well-worn favorite from 1994's Genocide and Juice album, delivered in triple-time tempo at the DNA by Boots and the band, remains one of the most poignant analyses of ghetto economics ever recorded on wax: "The street light reflects off the piss on the ground/Which reflects off the hamburger sign as it turns 'round/Which reflects off the chrome of the BMW/Which reflects off the fact that I'm broke/Now what the fuck is new?"

Immortal Technique, meanwhile, came off like an East Coast version of Paris. His combination of conscious ideology, hardcore street attitude, and battle-rap skills have created a loud buzz around his first full-length album, Revolutionary Vol. 2, which dissed not only music industry A&Rs, but administration officials such as Paul Wolfowitz. Dressed in a red Che Guevara muscle-T, Technique played the "Rebel with a Cause" role to perfection. And during his spoken word-like renditions of songs such as "Industrial Revolution" and "Leaving the Past," audience members could be seen mouthing the lyrics: You better off askin' Ariel Sharon for compassion.

But the rapper isn't about to lend his hard-earned street cred to any White House wannabe. Moments after his set, he echoed many of Boots' key points. Technique thinks electoral politics is flawed, although he hastens to add that direct action also can be manipulated: "If you get a room full of ten-year-olds," he said, "and you ask 'em if they want universal health care, or you want ice cream, motherfuckers gon' tell you, 'No, we going to Häagen-Dazs.' Shit like that.

"To elect a new president, it's not like shit gon' change, because we're not electing a new way of life," he continued. "We're just electing a new head to the serpent, na'meen? That's all we're really doing. We're not giving the people a new choice, a new way, another vision of what politics and the economy could really be."

Author Kitwana realizes it's fashionable for hip-hop generationers to scoff at electoral politics, but he insists the generation now must use everything at its disposal. "The political system is something that we pay into in our taxes, and has a significant influence on our lives. We have to be able to use that as tool as well," he says.

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