The Ballot, Not the Bullet 

Oakland hip-hop political activist Chuck Johnson hopes voter tallies can cut down on death tallies.

Four years ago, P. Diddy told the hip-hop generation it had to "Vote or Die." In 2008, Chuck Johnson and his nonprofit Town Business Network are telling youth and people of color that voting is a way to a better life.

Back then, Diddy's activism was seen by some as grandstanding. And thus far in this election campaign, the hip-hop generation's (HHG) political wing — which seemed to be on its way to building up a formidable base four years ago — has been conspicuously silent, with little of the dynamism or much of a presence nationally.

But while the failure of high-profile artist-activist organizations like Diddy's Vote or Die, Russell Simmons' Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, and the National Hip-Hop Political Convention to establish a coherent political agenda for the HHG would be a sticking point in any other election year, that's not the case in 2008.

Inspired both by Barack Obama's historic candidacy and the myriad of social issues affecting their local community, grassroots activists like Johnson are picking up the slack. "People really see that we need a change in this country," he says. "And I think this is a great opportunity to engage those who are normally disenfranchised."

Of course, that's not as easy as it sounds. Young people tend to vote with less regularity than any other voting bloc, and their seemingly apathetic attitude toward electoral politics gives politicians an easy out — their issues are often not taken seriously because they are the least-organized, least-vocal constituency. "At the end of the day, I know it's an uphill battle," Johnson concedes.

But with the '08 contest in full swing, and Obamamania sweeping the nation, he adds, there's never been a better time to engage potential voters. "You got McCain, you got Hillary Clinton, you got Barack .... Everybody's talking about voting right now. I think it's important now to exercise your presence," Johnson says. "I mean, some of these cats, these young cats, they don't take it serious. And it's really something that, it don't cost 'em no money, you know what I'm sayin'? ... It's free to learn, it's free to involve yourself with the understanding that, if I get involved with this and vote, I really can make a difference in my own community. Not just with Barack and them, I want them to start thinking about their local councilmember, the local official at-large, you know? Then they can really start effectively looking at it, and seeing — 'cause this space we in, the small Bay Area — you gon' see the impact of the person that you vote in."

Johnson — an Oakland resident who developed his sense of community responsibility as a producer for Soul Beat Television — established the nonprofit Town Business Network, which has adopted a youth-friendly, hip-hop-centric approach to political organizing. At a recent sit-down at Oakland's Cheese Steak Shop (for the record, Johnson ordered a chicken steak with fries), Johnson broke down his community-based agenda, and explained why this year, your vote counts more than ever.

A big part of why that is, obviously, is Obama. "Barack is a transcendent individual," Johnson said. "At no other time in our American history have you had a phenomenon like what he is." Most importantly, he says, 46-year-old Obama represents a new, younger spirit in national politics that's closer in age to HHG members than to baby boomers or WWII babies. "He's not that far from where we are. And we feel that he can be in tune with our youthfulness, our progressiveness, and moving forward this country in a different pattern."

While he feels Obama has engendered both hope and inspiration to a country that has barely survived "eight years of hell," Johnson has been attempting to empower HHG members long before the candidate was even a national figure. For the past thirteen years, Johnson's company, Young Lion Entertainment, has effected successful partnerships between community members, the artist and athlete community, and city and state organizations, ranging from Oakland's Private Industry Council to the California Prevention and Education Project. His most current project, Town Business Network, was responsible for 2007's "Vote Fa Sheezy" campaign, which attempted to introduce a political agenda to the then-popular hyphy movement by involving artists like Mistah F.A.B. and Keak Da Sneak in voter registration efforts.

Hyphy, he says, was a product not only of its environment, but also of the socioeconomic conditions surrounding it. "If you not educated, you gon' go dumb," he says. "It's not rocket science."

This year, Town Business Network has pledged to register 125,000 voters in the East Bay by October 20, mainly through word of mouth, networking, and an upcoming album called Wake Yo Game Up, for which Johnson has secured commitments from a bevy of local stars, including Too $hort, Zion-I, F.A.B., Keak, Boots Riley, San Quinn, Casual, Esinchill, E-40, and others.

On May 2, Johnson will moderate a panel, also called "Wake Yo Game Up," at the Oakland Museum of California, to discuss why people choose or choose not to vote, as well as the larger picture surrounding electoral politics and its effect on local communities. Cosponsored by KQED-TV and Town Business Network, it promises to be educational, informative, and lively. Among the panel members are Alameda Country supervisor Keith Carson, journalist/webmaster Davey-D, KMEL DJ Chuy Gomez, Malika of MTV's "Making the Band," and yours truly.

Johnson explains that his organization's mission statement is "to engage the hip-hop community around social responsibility." That means taking action not only on electoral politics, but also on social issues like HIV awareness and violent crime. "First of all, everybody knows that this murder rate is horrendous," he says. "Take Oakland, for example. We have our public-safety issues. We're trying to figure out a way to minimize some of these killings, man."

If the HHG is ever to become aware of the role it can play in American politics, both on a local level and from a national standpoint, it's becoming increasingly evident that we're going to need less celebrity-activists angling for media notoriety, like Diddy, and more community-oriented folks truly committed to making change happen, like Johnson. In other words, less sloganeering and more action. 


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