new york city -- in some respectsit's just what you'd expect from hiphop. Nothing starts on time. The rappers aren't where they're supposed to be. Neither are their managers. But last week's high-level gathering, put together by Def Jam records founder Russell Simmons to discuss improving hiphop and the world, was an astounding success.At this hiphop conference not a single fight breaks out, and some beefs even end up on the mend. The lineup of speakers has rappers silently rapt rather than shooting the gift or heading for the bar. Sessions actually result in tangible outcomes. In short, the summit lives up to its billing as an historic event. "We've accomplished everything we wanted to accomplish," says a beaming Russell, "and more."
It is, in fact, the third hiphop summit in eight months, a sure sign that hiphop's elite are keen on putting some of their wealth into building political clout. The first, convened by The Source last year at the Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network headquarters in Harlem, gathered community leaders, rappers and executives, but the affair was better intentioned than organized.
Soon after, Conrad Muhammad, self-appointed minister of hiphop, critic of the music's gangster mentality and leader of A Movement for CHHANGE (Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment), called for another meeting to discuss providing better images for young people and supporting hiphop leaders for political office.
It was held in May, and an ugly public beef developed between Minister Conrad and Russell. Russell called him a critic in the mould of Republican Bob Dole and said he did not have hiphop's best interests at heart. Muhammad accused Russell of "contributing mightily to the degradation" his summit was trying to address.
Russell promised his own summit would bring together hiphop leaders, black politicians and civil rights activists to work out an agenda of action.
A long list of hiphop celebrities have showed up, whether officially invited or not, including pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and DJ Hollywood; "golden age" heroes like Chuck D, Will Smith, Eric B, Queen Latifah, Naughty by Nature, Luther Campbell and LL Cool J; and the 90s crowd, including Wyclef Jean, Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie, Keith Murray, Redman, Krayzie Bone, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, Fat Joe and Black Ice. They join executives like Bad Boy's Sean "P-Diddy" Combs, So So Def's Jermaine Dupri, Def Jam's Kevin Liles and University/Motown's Haqq Islam.
The summit also attracts Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan and a host of black congressional leaders, civil rights activists and public figures including the NAACP's Kweisi Mfume, Rap the Vote's Mario Velasquez, Martin Luther King III and professors Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson.
As the sessions commence, 20-something rappers and hiphop activists often have unkind words for their elders. But the elders take the criticisms to heart, saying they're here to listen. West admits that his generation has somehow dropped the ball. Dyson demonstrates that he's paying attention by quoting verses from Nas, Lauryn Hill and Talib Kweli. Kweli is impressed: "I see the dialogue happening, and it's a beautiful thing."
A two-and-a-half-hour speech Wednesday by Farrakhan focusing on responsibility and reconciliation sets the tone. The minister says,"Society wants you to clean up the lyrics, but society doesn't want to clean itself up." He goes on to point the finger at "gangsta government.'
Gently nudging the artists toward their better selves, he says the speech he's giving that afternoon is perhaps the most important he has ever given. "One rap song," he says, "is worth a thousand of my speeches. I believe that you can change the reality of American life and racism -- that you have the power to stop it."
So the dialogues happen, aided by a decision to close much of the meeting to the media. On the first day, unscheduled speaker Tricia Rose, an NYU professor, justifies the decision. "Before hiphop became such a cultural force we had much more space to raise questions without every moment being magnified and picked up worldwide. Black culture is no longer separate from mainstream culture," says Rose. "That's why the dialogue has to happen in institutions that are not driven by profit."
And yet, the most-discussed item is all about the bottom line and the problem of censorship. Almost to a person, from Simmons to Kweli, participants voice grave concerns with the Federal Communications Commission's June 6 decision to fine a radio station for playing Eminem's The Real Slim Shady. Senator Joe Lieberman and Hillary Rodham Clinton's Media Marketing Accountability Act also looms large.
Mainstream media picks up on these lyrical content issues as hiphop leaders repeat the mantra "We're keeping it real." However, the point is made: move now or face growing opposition. A rumour circulates that Russell will get Hillary Clinton to promise to sink the bill if the guidelines are adopted. So the execs emerge with new voluntary guidelines that include expanding "Parental Advisory" and "Explicit Lyrics" stickering to all print, television and radio ads, Internet sites and posters -- and a new party line. On Thursday, Suzan Jenkins from the Recording Industry Association of America says, "The labels want to be able to provide a vehicle for parents to know what they are listening to." But is this done merely under duress?
Def Jam's Kevin Liles says, "No, we were not forced to do anything. We want to make pro-active change before the government comes in and says, "Hey, you have to do this.'"
By Thursday, a new concern has emerged: rap profiling. While Jay-Z is a no-show and Sean "P-Diddy" Combs's presence entails a heavy Fruit of Islam protective presence, James Prince, the CEO of Rap-A-Lot Records and the figure at the centre of one of the stranger profiling incidents in recent years, walks quietly through the crowd.
In December 2000, the Republican-dominated House committee on government reform looked into reports that congresswoman Maxine Waters had urged Attorney General Janet Reno to drop a drug trafficking investigation against Prince. Waters wrote that Prince had been a target of "racial profiling" by rogue DEA officers.
The DEA subsequently dropped the case, and one of the officers was reprimanded. Prince says, "I feel it's a conspiracy to destroy people like myself who try to uplift my community and help my people to dream again."
During the week of the summit, NYPD presence increases noticeably. Crews of officers fill the New York Hilton's driveway and clog the corners on Sixth Avenue. But they can't overpower the vibes upstairs.
At the end of Tuesday, Chuck D is convinced that, despite all the star power in attendance, the summit will end up with a lot of talk and not a lot of action. He's dismayed about having to help mediate between Russell and Conrad Muhammad. But as the Wednesday sessions begin, he watches as the artists start to fire each other up. In a closed-door session, Fat Joe tells the crowd, "A lot of rappers shy away from political things. I think they're scared to really say what's going on."
After Farrakhan's speech, Chuck D is as close to giddy as he can get. "I'm satisfied," he says. "All my questions are answered."
On Thursday, the fruits of the summit are on display. The public intellectuals announce the creation of university-based hiphop think tanks, with the first to be launched at Columbia. In response to one of Chuck D's recommendations, Def Jam offers an artist mentoring program, "The Hiphop House" -- part Motown, part Fame-style finishing school, part 21st-century media- and image-training boot camp -- to be built in Harlem. An alliance of the NAACP, SCLC, Nation of Islam and Rap the Vote vows to set up a hiphop political action committee and a voter registration drive.
Combs says, "The things I've seen in the last three days have touched me in such a positive way.'
One sideshow to the summit ends happily in a moment of Farrakhan-brokered reconciliation. On Tuesday, Muhammad is barred from the summit, but by the next morning Chuck D has got him back in. At the podium, Farrakhan speaks about the spat. "No leader should fight another," he warns. After the speech, Minister Conrad and Russell embrace, and with the cameras flashing, they smile.