Generation Vexed 

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

Page 8 of 9

"If you want anything to change, stop participating in the system," he roared. "What we need to be doing is thinking of ourselves as a nation unto itself!"

Though respectful, the audience reacted with stunned silence. After the panel concluded, the crowd walked out into the night looking more confused than energized. Outside, Kucinich staffer Nina Fallenbaum was trying to stay upbeat, despite her realization that KRS-One's defiance had severely undercut her "hip-hop candidate" dreams.

Davey D merely shrugged -- KRS was being KRS, he said, and KRS couldn't be expected to endorse anyone else's point of view. Besides, his star power contributed greatly to the attendance.

Watching it all with keen interest was Jerry Brown, who'd slipped in just as KRS was summing up. Granting a quick interview, the mayor offered that hip-hop's success in electoral politics depends on whether hip-hop can get motivated. "Artists have the credibility, and if they have the commitment, they might activate a lot of people," he said.

The mayor added a caveat, however: "As people get older, and get more property, and get a family, they tend to want to vote," he said. "But in their early years, people tend not to vote. That's the trend whether you're black, you're Chinese, you're Mexican, you're white, rich, or poor. Younger people tend not to be that activated 'cause life is too real without going through the political game. As a politician, I hate to say that, but it is true."

Without explicitly saying so, Brown implied that established politicians don't need to take young people seriously because they don't vote consistently. And so far, hip-hop has done little to change that.

Political hip-hop events might make for good entertainment, but whether they can accomplish anything significant has yet to be proved. As this article went to press, word was spreading of a rift between Simmons' camp and organizers of the National Hip Hop Political Convention over the event's focus; rumor has it that the HSAN won't be involved due to "creative differences." Simmons' focus on the celebrity aspect, it is said, is creating friction with organizers who are trying to keep a spotlight on the issues.

In her recent book Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership, and Hip-Hop Culture, Washington, DC-based attorney and hip-hop activist Yvonne Bynoe relates one problem with trying to organize around cults of personality: "If the crowd only came to see the celebrity, then once the show is over, the crowd quickly disperses without the majority of participants making a concrete commitment to further support the cause or initiative," Bynoe says. "The success of the effort should not hinge on his or her participation."

Rapper Paris bristles at the idea that artists should take a backseat when it comes to assuming leadership roles. In addition to his long history of service in the political hip-hop trenches, he points out that he has a degree in managerial economics from UC Davis. In his mind, he's as qualified to lead this revolution as anyone. If there's a leadership crisis in hip-hop, he argues, it's in hip-hop "as defined by the majors," i.e. the big record labels.

As outspoken a critic of the system as they come, Paris nevertheless supports voter registration for several reasons: "A) It doesn't cost anything. B) I don't think we should let someone else make the decision for us; even if you don't feel candidates, you gotta feel propositions, education funding, and bond measures, shit that directly affects you and your local environment ... and C) people who came before us died so that we could."

Heading into the final months of this election cycle, there's a genuine optimism among veteran organizers, a sense within the hip-hop activist community that next week's convention could be just what the movement needs to establish itself as a political entity. "The convention's gonna be great. But the incredible thing is gonna be what happens after the convention," Blackmon says. She's looking forward to meeting her counterparts from around the country, exchanging ideas, and drafting what could almost be construed as a "Hip-Hop Constitution" -- although she shudders at the imperialist implications.

Chavis-Muhammed is less inclined to get excited. "We have to be careful not to look at one single event and say that represents all the people," he cautions. "All of those events are important steps forward." The National Hip-Hop Political Convention, he says, will "make an important contribution, but no one single event is going to produce the manifesto."

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