While the democrats are confident they've got the perfect Ivy League veteran to pry power from the Republicans, generation rap is honing its own strategy to reshape America. The power-brokers of hiphop, mindful that the 2000 presidential election was decided by 537 votes and that margins of fewer than 8,000 determined the winner in five states, are now pulling out the stops to energize the usually passive youth vote.
From grassroots to star-studded, there are now a flurry of voter registration drives, travelling conferences and get-out-the-vote Web sites - but are the efforts of those working on the ground being undermined by A-list rapper endorsement overkill?
A mess of off- and online debates have rap activists accusing hiphop industry execs and their rap superstar friends of hogging the limelight and practising old-style top-down politics, and the execs and artists in turn say the activists are underestimating fame's power of persuasion.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that rap albums go platinum in a week. If that's galvanized into a political force and a voting bloc, politics as we know it will never be the same," says Bakari Kitwana, author of The Hip Hop Generation.
Kitwana is co-organizer of the first annual National Hip-Hop Political Convention (NHHPC) happening June 16 to 19, which aims to tap into the 5 million progressives aged 17 to 35 who might be able to swing close elections. The confab will create a political agenda and will be composed of delegates who get their credentials by signing up 50 people to vote.
The event at Newark, New Jersey's, Rutgers University opens on Tupac's birthday and features Chuck D and Boots Riley from the Coup. But Kitwana is clear he doesn't want to create an org based on the fame game or predictable partisan politics. The NHHPC has a "leaderless leadership," he says, deliberately has no executive director and lists no fewer than 20 co-founders. But, most important, Kitwana says he doesn't want to operate out of an "old racial politics framework," and that his group is trying to develop a base that is more generational than black.
"Our message is generational, and the younger generation's message is different from any coming out of the civil rights generation," says Kitwana. All the policy issues will be developed on the convention floor, because DIY hiphoppers don't like pre-packaged programs. "We didn't want to say this is the political agenda and then hand it down. That's a mistake, and why politics doesn't appeal to this generation."
And that, he believes, is good reason to be wary of another high-profile hiphop campaign, the splashy Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HHSAN), headed up by urban culture impresario Russell Simmons and former NAACP head Benjamin Chavis, and featuring board member Sean "P-Diddy' Combs. Promising to register 4 million youth voters a year until 2008, the group travels the country holding rallies featuring rap heroes and pushing a roster of social justice causes. No one can get into the events without proof they've registered to vote.
HHSAN president Chavis is aggravated by assumptions that his group is a top-down project. "The social transformation will be led by those who command the enthusiasm and relevance of the youth, and those are the artists. Academics and activists, we need them, but they should not try to pull down people who use their celebrity for good social change," he says.
Even some, like politically-astute rapper Paris, who released the most talked-about post-9/11, anti-Dubya album, Sonic Jihad, believes it's a sad reality that the celeb messenger often trumps the message. "As a rapper, if I can persuade you to buy Rocawear, wear your pants backwards and talk and act like me, then what makes you think you wouldn't vote like me if I say it's cool?"
But despite the obvious youth appeal of stacking meetings with hiphop heavies, HHSAN is not, Chavis says, exclusive to young people and is definitely not a generational movement. Hiphop, he says, can't be narrowly defined as a bunch of rebellious baggy-trousers-wearing 20-somethings any more, because "hiphop itself is intergenerational. You can't say that Russell Simmons is not a part of the hiphop generation because he's 46. Hiphop itself is 30 years old, and within hiphop there are several generations."
Just below dominant media sightlines, potentially the most lethal and interesting of this crop of voter campaigns consists of an aggressive U.S.-wide anti-Dubya tour and accompanying Web site, www.IndyVoter.org, inspired by maverick white hiphop youth activist William Upski Wimsatt. Wimsatt is the author of Bomb The Suburbs, which described a hiphop sub-counterculture that encourages white kids (who Soundscan studies tell us are lapping up contemporary hiphop) to connect to activism and build bridges to black people.
A book tour for How To Get Stupid White Men Out Of Office, co-edited by Upski and featuring contributions from hiphop's moral conscience, Davy D, is hitting 80 cities. The tour focuses on swing states, aggressively imploring hiphoppers of all persuasions and ethnicities to do whatever it takes to ensure that Dubya's re-election bid flops.
How To implies that a hiphop-fuelled voter bloc will swing the national elections because it already has swung dozens of local elections, from city councils to the U.S. Senate. It lists 800 people under 35 in office, and documents how things like the hiphop mayor phenom is taking hold. Ras Baraka, son of civil rights activist Amiri Baraka, almost succeeded in his bid to became Newark, New Jersey's mayor. Detroit's mayor, Kwame Kirkpatrick, is an unapologetic 33-year-old hiphopper, and Alisha Thomas, a 24-year-old black woman, won a state legislature seat in Newt Gingrich country, suburban Cobb County, Georgia.
"In the 80s, as silly as it sounds, we were actually looking at KRS One and Chuck D to be our leaders," explains Upski. "But in the 90s there was a blossoming all over the country of actual organization-building institutions at the grassroots level. Now we realize that the next step is for us is to take that and build voting blocs.'
The theory may be sound, but actually getting the hiphop generation out to the polls might be something else entirely. And that isn't just a hiphop dilemma. Professor Mark Hugo Lopez at the University of Maryland Center for Civic Engagement says that despite the media hoopla around youth voting drives, the rate of voter turnout among young adults is at a historic low and declining. His research reveals that only 38 per cent of American 18-to-24-year-olds voted for president in 2000, down from 42 per cent in 1992. When 18-year-olds were granted the right to vote in 1972, the turnout of 18-to-24-year-old voters was a healthy 52 per cent. But interestingly enough, African Americans aged 15 to 24 nowadays are more likely than other youth to view voting as important.
Lopez explains that it's not that youth are all apolitical, it's simply that their energies go elsewhere. "Our study tells us that volunteering among youth has steadily gone up since 1985 in the U.S. People think they can make changes in their community more if they volunteer rather than vote."
This is exactly the pool rapper voting enthusiasts want to tap. Says Kitwana, "People in mainstream politics fear the power of hiphop. They understand that it's not organized, but if it were they couldn't do what they do.'