Generation Vexed 

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

Page 7 of 9

It doesn't take Nostradamus or even Nas to see that hip-hop culture is at a crossroads, in search of its next evolutionary step, yet not quite certain how to proceed. The result has been a flurry of ideological soul searching at forums such as UMA Productions' "The Intersection of Hip-Hop and Politics," which took place in late February at Oakland's "We the People" auditorium, Mayor Jerry Brown's former digs. The panel discussion featured an impressive list of credentialed commentators, perhaps none better known than KRS-One, the highly respected activist MC responsible for such conscious rap classics as "You Must Learn," "Free Mumia," and "Black Cop." (His stage name is an acronym for "Knowledge reigns supreme over nearly everyone.")

The event (which was followed by a KRS/Jahi show at Sweets Ballroom) drew a young, multicolored, standing-room-only crowd, plus a handful of local politicians. Following an opening poem by a Filipino spoken word artist from Youth Speaks, host Davey D stepped to the microphone.

Hip-hop, he noted, is now thirty years old, and perfectly capable of making its own political decisions. The time had come to decide whether the hip-hop generation can play a role in the 2004 elections -- or "is it just something we dance to?" If the community indeed chooses to join the fold of electoral politics, he asked the crowd, "Do we become the by-product of some politician who uses our imagery, uses our slogans, uses our marketing techniques to get themselves into office? Or does hip-hop control itself?"

Before the panel addressed these questions, Barbara Lee, probably the closest thing America has to a hip-hop politician, took the podium to thunderous applause. "The hip-hop community has a real role in politics," she asserted. "Elected officials need to embrace your agenda if they want a future." Then, doing Kucinich one better, she quoted a well-known Tupac line: "They got money for wars but can't feed the poor."

Although KRS-One's seat was conspicuously empty, the panel proceeded to get under way. Author Jeff Chang noted the hip-hop generation's skepticism toward the political process, as well as the perceived hypocrisy of artists who criticize the system but don't vote themselves. The youth of today "came up out of the ashes of the '60s," Chang said, but they grew up in a political climate defined by Propositions 209, 227, 187, and 21, not to mention the 2000 elections, all of which contributed to their distrust of the system.

Panelist Blackmon pointed to Barbara Lee as an example of why the hip-hop generation should vote. Then, in very the next sentence, as KRS-One casually eased into his seat, she noted that "voting doesn't equal revolution."

Ricardo Chavez, a youthful Latino involved with the Los Angeles-based voter registration group La Paz, spoke of reaching out "to the kid who loves Too $hort, who loves Outkast" in regions like Bakersfield, Fresno, and Stockton -- areas with large Latino populations that don't necessarily vote Democratic. Next came spoken word performer and proud Berkeley progressive Aya De León, who admitted to being skeptical about voting in general. Still, she reasoned, "for some folks, voting is a first step."

More speakers followed, including Josh Koenig from Music for America, a Rock the Vote-type organization, who noted that "every other culture is influenced by hip-hop," and that "there are more hip-hop fans than members of the Christian Coalition."

The Coup's T-Kash cited the recent combat death in Iraq of his friend Adam Kisslinger as a reason to vote. Casualties of war, he said, represent just one example of why "there's so much at stake." He went on to suggest that politics is now more important to hip-hop because the culture has reached a new level of maturity: "Right now, we're proving that we're older, we're wiser, and we have more to say than just rap to a beat."

KRS-One was handed the mic next. A palpable current ran through the crowd in anticipation of what he might say. But if anyone expected the Blastmaster from the Boogie-Down Bronx to rubber-stamp his approval of the electoral system, they had another thing coming.

Each speaker up to that point had generally spoken in favor of voting, but KRS-One completely flipped the script. After briefly considering various philosophical angles, he proclaimed: "I rest more with the idea that the voting process is bullshit."

Nevertheless, citing the $2 billion industry the culture has generated, he added that "hip-hop has power in the political process." As KRS sees it, politics has already failed hip-hop. What good is it to vote, he reasoned, when your vote won't reform the inequalities of society, nor correct the errors in the political process?

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