Newark, New Jersey - Is my hiphop generation finally waking from its BET-induced slumber? I ponder this as I enter the Metropolitan Baptist Church for the first National Hip-Hop Political Convention on June 16. Six thousand participants, four days of meetings, endless venues, and suddenly the aim of developing a rapster political agenda, though noble, seems as dicey as getting Eminem fans to share common ground with the Coup.
Given that we're in a church, the first thing I do under my breath is thank the Lord that there's another summit - staged by the Hip Hop Summit Action Network - going on today in New Orleans. That means we'll be spared apolitical C-list rappers like BG and Choppa speaking on things they know nothing about, not to mention rap impresario Russell Simmons hawking produce from his Def Jam empire.
The congregation here looks like something out of a dream: a room filled with nattily attired pastors, dreadlocks, obvious X-Clan and Public Enemy disciples, hiphop profs, publishers, MCs and 50 Cent fans in G-Unit Ts.
Standing out from the pack are a crew of youth decked out in red Ts that read "Voices for Working Families." The leader, Lisa Fager, says they drove up from Washington, DC, to promote their All Souls To The Polls campaign. "On November 2 at 11:02 am we can show the impact of hiphop on this year's election," she says. "We're gonna walk with people to the polls."
The panel on spirituality, a loosey-goosey spin on the role of religion in civil rights, is more pep rally than potential-voter tally. Ordained minister Michael Eric Dyson, a popular professor of religious and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania , rather than condemn hiphop excesses, actually jumps into the fray, sermonizing like an MC, flipping verses lifted from Tupac or Kanye West's Jesus Walks, to raucous cheers.
While Black Electorate's The Streets Are Political CDs are being handed out, Dyson lays out his coup de gras. "Racism, sexism, classism, homophobia are forms of evil," he says.
Moments later, the Reverend Calvin Butts, a minister who earned a rep bulldozing hiphop CDs that he deemed improper, runs through a role call of deceased right-wing adversaries of the black community, led by Ronald Reagan, before muttering, "They all dead - good." What presidential campaign will he support? "There's not much of a difference between Democrats and Republicans. If you vote for Lucifer or Beelzebub, you catch the same hell."
During the Q&A sessions, some of the fault lines become clearer. When a delegate from Denver asks the panellists, "How do black nationalist politics differ from hiphop politics?" the room goes silent. M. A. Smith, an elderly gentleman with a ruffled afro and a baseball cap who describes himself as an original Black Panther, rushes the mike and berates organizers for not having more Black Panther party involvement. Things get hectic, and Smith runs out of the venue amidst jeers, claps and everything in between.
The arts and culture panel, intended to trace the evolution of black music and art, is an even fierier affair. It features M-1 of rap duo Dead Prez, the most respected raptivists on the planet, and native American hiphop photographer and lecturer Ernie Paniccoli. You don't know hiphop or activism until you see the ponytailed Paniccoli's lectures/tirades. Wearing bright matching red pants, shoes and a shirt flaunting the Zulu nation symbol, he tells the audience, "I hope you feel like crap when you leave. If you leave here and you feel good, you ain't gonna make a change."
He then performs a call-and-response number, Imagine, in which he evokes a world where we "have a real choice for president" and folks "stop eating processed foods." My personal Panicolli moment occurs when he asks delegates, "What other race would allow their women to be viewed as whores and prostitutes?"
I quiz him later as to whether he has any faith in the electoral process. "I don't care if it's a Republican or a Democrat - both of them were slaveholders and land stealers." He locks eyes with me and says, "I'm a big red alarm clock. I wake you up. If this movement does nothing but wake people up and unite 'em, then it's a good thing."
M-1 of Dead Prez, the next speaker, is from the Panicollian school, despite being half his age. The question of who wins the election is irrelevant, he says. "There's two sides to this world, there's the oppressor and the oppressed. To talk about voting, that's not what I'm here to do. If you could vote for freedom, then I'd vote for it."
On day three, you'd have to have been cloned like the secret agents in The Matrix to attend all the sessions. Topics include Why We Don't Have Any Money: Reparations, Gentrification And Your Badass Credit; 9/11 Is A Joke; Health Disparities In Communities Of Colour; Reading Misogyny; and Organizing The Organizers.
But the must-see of the whole shebang is Gang Education And Outreach. The chair, Newark deputy-mayor Ras Baraka, who has traded in his trademark suit and tie for a Bill Russell Boston Celtics throwback basketball jersey, says it's time to get dirty. Peering down the front row, I see seats occupied by brothers in military attire, red, black and green wristbands, berets and combat boots.
The entrance to the auditorium is cleverly used for recruitment of future revolutionaries. Flyers are handed out imploring youth to join the New Black Panther Party "if you are tired of what's goin' on in the 'hood." A leaflet pumps the "national shout and pledge," which asks participants to make certain commitments. (Number 6 reads: "I pledge that I will not poison my mind and body with drugs or anything destructive.") The Take 5 program urges folks to take five friends or family members to the polls.
Invited guests include prominent members of gang education orgs L.A. Gang Truce, Peace in the Hood and Crips. But it's the unscheduled appearance of Fred Hampton Jr. that generates the most oohs and aahs. Son of the murdered Black Panther leader, Hampton has come here to sledgehammer home his opinions. He carries onstage a large billboard that reads, "The Original Victims of Terrorism" showing graphic pictures of folks who died via violent acts on Chicago streets.
"Every day is September 11 in the black and colonized community," says Hampton. "All them pictures of Abu Ghraib, Baghdad, that's a cakewalk compared to what's going on in (Chicago's) Cook County jail."
Hampton then suggests that there could be FBI or CIA spies in the room. Whispers echo through the auditorium, and delegates peer around looking for suspects, snitches. As the meet starts to turn into a scene out of an American propaganda movie, a young woman named Tiffany charges the mike to alert attendees that a stabbing has taken place between a Crip and Blood a few blocks away.
This session appears to be too raw for folks like Chioma Oruh, a dreadlocked woman working on Ralph Nader's presidential campaign. Her confusing question on the purpose of gang education organizations gets not so casually dismissed by the panelists. Have Nader reps come here to court the hiphop vote? "He's not reaching out as much as he's trying to understand," says Oruh.
On the last day, many agree that this convention is as explosive, contradictory and complex as rap music itself. Hiphop voter apathy or not, the folks assembled here are uniformly impressed by Matthew Arnett, a tall, shaggy-haired, geekish guy from Chicago. "I came here on a tour bus from Minneapolis, to Chicago, Kalamazoo, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Harlem, and then here. We went to all the ghettos and projects. We're out there trying to register people to vote." But, he continues, "I gotta be honest. I'm not huge on the electoral politics thing, but there are many fronts we can struggle on."
If there's any consensus, it can be found in the sympathetic reaction to Face, from the Crips Street Organization. Face became an activist after his friend died in his arms due to gang violence. "When I saw that, I went under for six months. My pants still got the blood on them," he says, decked out in an army fatigue hat and khaki button-down. If you're looking for a reason to be hopeful, you've found it in him.