When the seminal hip-hop group Public Enemy released their ground-breaking recording—It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back—in June of 1988, it marked a critical moment when the political verve of the 1960s had finally been synthesized with the street rhythms of the 1980s. That the recording had little impact on the seamless transition of power from Ronald Reagan to George Bush or Reverend Jesse Jackson’s attempt to become the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party spoke volumes about the context in which the recording was produced. Public Enemy lead Chuck D legitimately believed the music of Public Enemy, and hip-hop in general, would be the vehicle by which a political movement cultivated around the core issues of black urban life could be realized. On the contrary, the music of so-called “conscious” rappers and those rappers themselves was easily isolated in the absence of an actual political movement. Since that first era of the conscious rapper, many have invested in the idea of hip-hop as the likely incubator for a cross-racial progressive political movement and though the willingness of young whites to embrace the music of contemporary “conscious” rappers such as Mos Def, Rha Goddess, Talib Kweli, Mr. Lif and others represents an important component of such a movement, very little of that exchange has ever translated into concrete political action. Yvonne Bynoe is all too aware of this phenomenon and in her new book Stand & Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership, and Hip-Hop Culture she lays down a blueprint for hip-hop to begin to fully realize its revolutionary potential.
One of the most sought after political commentators of the hip-hop generation, Bynoe, a Howard University and Fordham University Law school graduate, is intent upon demystifying the idea of “political” rap or what is sometimes referred to as raptivism. As she writes in the book’s preface, “Only in discussions related to political action and young black people has the celebrity of a few rap artist and rap moguls become conflated with the political leadership,” noting how absurd the notions of “Rock activism” and “Folk activism” sound. Bynoe puts some of the blame on mainstream media for not doing the research to identify the emerging leadership of the post-Civil Rights generation, instead “deem[ing] rap artists, the most visible young Blacks in society, the new political spokesmen.” One example of this is the activist career of Lisa Williamson, whose work went virtually ignored until she transformed herself into hip-hop artist Sister Souljah and became a pawn in Bill Clinton’s move to undermine the influence of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing in 1992.
Like her contemporary Bakari Kitwana, whose Hip-Hop Generation (2002) is the perfect companion book for Stand and Deliver, Bynoe might be of the hip-hop generation, but is not defined the fetishes of the culture. As Bynoe reminds readers throughout the book “all of this is about more than Hip Hop. Hip Hop is simply the metaphor for our lives” though she cautions that “If our elders give up on Hip Hop then they’ve given up on us. If we give up on Hip Hop, then we’ve given up on ourselves.” In this latter regard Bynoe takes serious the symbolic point Todd Boyd argues in his provocative The New H.N.I.C: The Death of Civil Rights and Reign of Hip Hop (2003)—the influence of Civil Rights old guard is being surpassed by the big balling sensibilities of the Hip-hop generation. Bill O’Reilly didn’t come after Al Sharpton or Julian Bond—he came after Ludacris.
Bynoe points to the inconsistent moral standards of the old guard, observing that the “civil rights generation, in order to survive, sublimated its internal differences and put forth a united front to fight racial discrimination.” A product of such logic has been the proclivity of that generation to “overlook Reverend Jesse Jackson’s baby mama drama; Marion Barry’s crack use; and Henry Lyons embezzlement as well as the “Big Pimpin’” flamboyance of the mega pastors.” Despite this fact, Bynoe notes how quickly the civil rights generation has “castigated the Hip Hop generation for the content of its cultural products-its actual and alleged immoral or illegal conduct.” Bynoe also suggests that the Civil Rights old guard might be out of touch with contemporary crises: “while racial discrimination still exists as a rallying issue, it is not the only focus of the Hip Hop generation. They must also confront other equally pressing concerns: AIDS/HIV; the prison industrial complex; discrimination based on sexual orientation; gender equity; and economic advancement.” While Bynoe is dead-on with her analysis, there is really no significant evidence that the hip-hop generation has truly wrapped their heads around those tensions either, particularly in the case of gender and sexuality. Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s recent criticism of same-sex marriages, while appearing on Real Time with Bill Maher is such an example.
In some instances, Bynoe is quick the reinforce the value of previous social and political movements that focused on the lives of disenfranchised blacks. For example Bynoe sees any serious post-civil rights era movement as needing the synthesize elements of the Black Power movement and the Black Arts movement—a viable political apparatus that incorporates the cultural expression. While so many of the granola and Mau Mau sects within hip-hop audiences seem drawn to hip-hop’s conscious soothsayers, Bynoe finds the ideal models for hip-hop generation leaders in Ella J. Baker and her mentee Lisa Sullivan. Baker was a long time political organizer whose work spanned more than five decades and seminal civil rights organizations like the NAACP and SCLC (see Barbara Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Vision). Baker is perhaps best known as the spiritual and intellectual force behind the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—the organization that was largely responsible for bringing black youth into the movement. Identifying her as the “political grandmother” of the hip-hop generation, Bynoe writes that Baker’s legacy is the “concept of people making decisions about issues that affect their lives rather than being led by a national organization” or conscious rappers for that matter. Of Lisa Sullivan, who died in 2001 at age 40, Bynoe writes, “Like her mentor, activist Ella Baker, Sullivan shunned the limelight and did the hard and often thankless work of helping young people to realize their leadership capabilities, so that they could meet the needs of their communities.” Notably Bynoe’s comment about Baker and Sullivan resist placing any added significance on the fact that they were women—a likely product of Bynoe’s desire to challenge notions that women exist as political operatives solely in the name of gender issues.
Stand & Deliver is admittedly “descriptive” of the failure of the hip-hop generation to mount a significant and sustained political movement, but Bynoe does offer concrete advice for those of the hip-hop generation choosing electoral politics as an option. Bynoe cites Newark, NJ city councilman Cory Booker among a generation of young black politicians, including congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and the aforementioned Kwame Kilpatrick, that are poised to provide real hip-hop leadership within the realm of electoral politics. Specifically Bynoe sees Booker’s recent challenge to Newark’s black incumbent mayor Sharpe James (Booker lost the 2002 mayoral election by a small majority) as the litmus for others of the hip-hop generation to challenge well supported old guard black incumbents. Using Booker’s loss as an example, Bynoe urges his peers to possess clear qualifications for political office, build constituencies with older black voters, be clear about their relationship with the electorate, to fully “understand the impact of race, class and age” on the opinions of potential voters.
Throughout the book Bynoe eschews the vernacular and theoretical calisthenics that might be found in the books of noted hip-hop commentators like Michael Eric Dyson or the aforementioned Todd Boyd. There’s nothing “sexy” about Bynoe’s prose and indeed that the point as there is nothing glamorous about the hands-on political work that needs to be done to help organize the potential of the hip-hop generation. With thousands of hip-hop generation activist recently coming together in Newark for the first National Hip-Hop Political Convention, Stand and Deliver is indeed a timely book.