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Fighting the Power For Real

Mark Reynolds

At the first US hip-hop political convention, generations of black activists struggle with translating good ideas into real activism.

For most Americans older than 40 or so, and a good percentage of those younger, a recent news story from Atlanta, GA might sum up all that is wrong or wrong-headed about hip-hop. The Associated Press reported that a popular rapper filmed a video in jail. I could stop there, given the all-too-frequent linkages between legal troubles and young black men in the entertainment world, but wait, there's more. The rapper, T.I., had been serving time since April in a suburban Atlanta county on a probation violation. He secured permission to shoot a video that would explain to his fans why he wouldn't be able to perform at a concert. The video, as it turned out, was shot at another jail in a neighboring county � unbeknownst to that jail's administrators. To make matters worse, another inmate, not connected to T.I., escaped during the shoot (she was caught six hours later).

T.I.'s big hit, for those of you not up on it, is "Rubber Band Man", a bass-heavy concoction with a chorus that goes, "Rubber band man/Wild as the Taliban/9 in my right/45 in my other hand". His gleefully unrepentant gangsta braggadocio is exactly the sort of violence-laden content that drives many African-American elders to believe that such music contributes to the violence that plagues the African-American 'hood. That particular argument is almost as old as hip-hop itself, but let's set it aside for now in the hope that those who feel that way could consider that hip-hop, or at least the generation that has embraced it, has more than one face.

That face was on display 16-19 June 2004 in Newark, NJ, at the first Hip-Hop Political Convention. Several hundred delegates gathered for four days of concerts, seminars and, most importantly, a session to draft and approve the first hip-hop political agenda, a platform that would serve as a blueprint for action, whether through the electoral process or direct protest.

The timing of the convention was obviously purposeful, this being a US presidential election year, and its mission speaks directly to one of the subplots emerging thus far in the run-up. The 2004 vote may likely shift on the participation of voters under 35; most whom did not vote in 2000, including many that were registered voters. Reasons commonly cited for their lack of turnout suggest that they felt no connection to the process, no sense that there was a difference between Bush and Gore, and that their vote wouldn't mean anything, anyway. This time around, the issues are a lot clearer (the war on terror, the mess in Iraq, and the lack of funding for education and health care, for starters), and various groups are hoping that these factors, and a lot of grass-roots organizing, will change participation trends.

In the hip-hop world, the most visible force in this area prior to the convention had been entrepreneur/socialite Russell Simmons and his Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. The network has made a lot of noise over the past year or so with events in several major cities that combined appearances by A-list hip-hop stars and voter registration drives. But organizers of the convention contend that such events aren't conducive to long-term political activity. People may sign registration cards, they argue, but Simmons' network has no infrastructure for dealing with those people, or the political process, once the concert ends.

The impetus for the convention sprang from a 2002 panel discussion on hip-hop and politics at Harvard University, according to Bakari Kitwana, author of The Hip-Hop Generation: The Crisis in African-American Culture (Basic Gravitas, 2002) and one of the convention's organizers. The feeling after the panel, he said, was that there needed to be some sort of mechanism to translate the ideas of the discussion into participation by the hip-hop audience. A 2003 meeting in Chicago was the first step on the road to the gathering in Newark. Local organizing committees were established in several states, and each delegate to the convention had to register 50 new voters.

The attendees seemed to be a mix of novices to the process and experienced community activists. The workshops struck a middle ground between the two, offering information on issues ranging from environmental racism to living wages. During one of the Saturday morning sessions, basic facts about how to begin the organizing process were offered. Things like starting small and staying focused are common knowledge to anyone who's ever taken on the powers that be, but this convention may have been the first time those ideas were shared within a context framed by hip-hop culture.

That brings me to the central conceit of all the talk about hip-hop and politics. It makes perfect sense to encourage the consumers of hip-hop to think and act politically, but what's really going on is the newest iteration of an age-old dilemma: how to get young people involved in the process. The obvious way to do that is to start where they are, and nowadays, where a lot of them are is hip-hop. But traditional American political operatives simply don't attempt to understand that culture, and may in fact be turned off by it, thus exacerbating the generation gap (the Thursday session of the convention was dominated by a dialogue between the hip-hop generation and their elders from the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power eras). That, and the disinterest from both political parties about issues near and dear to the hip-hop audience like the criminal justice system and the state of public education, created the void that the convention attempted to fill.

If the convention's main event is any indication, filling that void will be an arduous task. The session was supposed to begin at 2pm, but there was still a lot of setting up shop going on then. Close to an hour after that, copies of the platform were distributed to delegates and members of the press. Apparently, the state chairpersons and national core group were hammering out the document, on and on to the breaka breaka dawn, or at least until 4:30 that morning. The delegates thus had less than an hour to look it over before voting on it,

And it was a meaty thing, indeed. The five-point agenda centered on education, economic justice, criminal justice, health and human rights. This wasn't the work of T.I. fans that had stumbled into the wrong event. The initial agenda was the work of folks who had some ideas, commitment, knowledge and passion. A lot of it reads like straight-up pie-in-the-sky ("We call for implementation of curriculum that is socially practical, culturally relevant, comprehensive, developmental, and specific in nature, including but not limited to vocational training, based upon engaging students from a variety of learning styles, interest and skills" reads one portion of the education plank), but that can be said for any such document. But not too many such documents this year will also call for mandatory economic investment in underdeveloped neighborhoods, full funding for English as a Second Language programs, and statehood for the District of Columbia.

After two hours of corralling the troops and hastily making decorating state delegation signs with graffiti-inspired lettering, the session started in earnest with a quick set by agitprop rappers dead prez. They declared their disdain for the current political system ("fuck Bush, fuck Kerry", they proclaimed), but when they came out to perform, the delegates broke ranks and headed to the foot of the stage. After dead prez concluded the set with their signature song "Hip Hop" (chorus: "it's bigger than hip hop, hip hop, hip hop"), it took another few minutes for the proceedings to exit rap concert mode and get back to business.

Several of the guest speakers spoke to the significance of the gathering. Newark deputy mayor Ras Baraka, a convention organizer and one of the generation's rising political stars, explained some of the hoops he had to jump through to convince his partners in Newark city government that this convention wouldn't be " a freak fest on Broad Street", referring to the popular spring break conclaves of young African-Americans in Atlanta and elsewhere. Charles Barron, a New York City councilman and candidate for mayor, invoked the spirits of Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and civil rights matriarch Fannie Lou Hamer. Chuck D was his usual longwinded self, but concluded that "hip-hop is something that connects us all to a movement that can change things for the better". Poet Amiri Baraka, Ras' father, connected the convention to previous moments in African-American political activism like the 1972 Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. "Black power is not paradise", he advised, "it is a higher form of the struggle".

Finally, the approximately 400 delegates got down to brass tacks. While there was some obvious sophistication in the house (the education plank was amended to urge passage of a bill before Congress that would allow undocumented youths to apply for residency upon high school graduation), there was also a lot of coming to grips with Robert's Rules of Order. As time wore on, attention spans drifted and so did many of the delegates, as the state chairs weren't particularly effective in keeping their charges in tow.

The session was advertised to end at 6pm, and they had to be out of the Essex County College gym by 8. After 7, with only two of the five planks amended and ratified, the big decision became how to continue � and where. Someone suggested the steps of Newark City Hall, but it was subsequently remembered that those steps were under construction. By this time, less than a quarter of the original participants were still there. Many had planes to catch, some wanted to get to the free rap concert downtown, and some were worn out by the process. Eventually, several dozen delegates met outside in a campus common space to try to reach some degree of closure.

Ras Baraka opened up the outdoor session by reminding the last of the faithful that "democracy is messy, but that doesn't mean it's not valuable". There was lots of talk about how to finish the ratification process, lots of talk about what they'll do with the document once it's ratified, and strict adherence to Robert's dagblasted Rules, down to the bitter end.

Of course, I wasn't at the first sessions when this nation's founding fathers slogged through their procedures and issues to draft the documents that would form America, but it probably wasn't a whole lot different from this: a bunch of tired, committed idealists coming together to fight, argue, and forge something that would be the cornerstone of the world they wanted to create. It's a shame that all those grownups that decry the scantily-clad female butts on rap videos and money-chasing, gun-firing lyrics on rap songs couldn't have been there to see a new generation assume its role in the ongoing battle for a better America.

Of course, this is only the first step down a long road. The remaining delegates voted to have a policy committee finish the initial amendment process, then send the document back to the state committees for final approval. The entire process is set in the convention's bylaws to be done in time for presentation of the document to this summer's political conventions. That's when the real work will begin. They'll have a list of demands, they'll have their response from the Democrats and Republicans, and they'll go back into their 'hoods and barrios, building support, educating their communities, getting out the vote in November. They'll encounter setbacks, frustrations, tiny victories and big surprises. At the 2006 convention in Chicago, they'll measure how far they still have to go.

As dead prez raps, it's bigger than hip-hop.

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