American Renaissance

Rappers Unite for Political Power

Fight the Power, a new documentary on BBC digital station 1Xtra, looks at the role of the hip-hop community in the US political system.

James McNally, BBC News, Mar. 3

Hip-hop artists have long flirted with politics — but in the run-up to this year’s presidential elections, something unprecedented has happened.

All the Democratic contenders — from John Kerry and Howard Dean to outsiders like Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich — have courted rap’s major players.

Even General Wesley Clark got in on the act, qualifying his admission that he knew little about hip-hop by quoting a line from an OutKast song saying they “make you shake it like a Polaroid picture”.

Just four years ago this would have been unthinkable. Indeed, the only relationship Democratic nominee Al Gore had to rap was through his wife.

In the early 1990s, Tipper Gore lobbied on behalf of the Parents’ Music Resource Center to have rap albums marked with parental guidance stickers.

Back then, though, rap held a very different position in American culture.

Rap was seen as the music of youthful black rebellion, its politics a hangover from Public Enemy’s uncompromising message of black empowerment.

But as hip-hop activist William “Upski” Wimsatt points out, rap’s political pioneers did little to marry their defiant political rhetoric to actual political action.

In the mid-1990s, though, grassroots activist groups such as the Prisons Moratorium Project and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement started to combine hip-hop and activism.

Releasing albums and holding concerts became part of a strategy to raise both funds and awareness. According to Wimsatt, this was the second step in a kind of hip-hop political evolution.

“First you had people like Public Enemy who were talking about political subjects, but not actually starting programmes to organise their community politically,” Wimsatt explains.

“Then in the mid '90s, you had people come along and realise they can actually use hip-hop as part of a strategy.”

The third logical step, he says, is to get involved in electoral politics.

And that is just what is happening. Hip-hop is influential now in a way that it simply wasn’t the time of the last elections.

Small wonder that the Democrats should try to woo rap’s movers and shakers, just as New Labour wanted to get rock stars Noel Gallagher and Damon Albarn on its side in the UK.

But the hip-hop community has plans that extend far beyond the marketing strategies of Kerry and Kucinich.

Russell Simmons, boss of Def Jam Records, has set up the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network with the expressed intention of signing up two million hip-hop generation voters before the election.

He has also been making moves into arguably the true seat of political power — lobbying — by trying to influence lawmakers on issues that affect the kind of materially deprived communities that first spawned hip-hop.

Though less powerful, Wimsatt has set up a coalition himself — The League of Pissed-Off Voters.

With the help of rap luminaries like Mos Def, he aims to set up a series of virtual voting blocs so the hip-hop generation can build real power at a political level.

So could hip-hop swing this year’s elections? Damon Dash, head of Roc-A-Fella records and board member of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, is circumspect.

“Not this year, no. Maybe in 2008,” he says. Wimsatt, however, is more optimistic.

Not only will future presidents of the United States have to be thoroughly literate in the culture of hip-hop, he also predicts that within the next 30 years there will be a hip-hop president.