Turning Rhymes into Votes

Political power and the hip-hop generation
Name of Publication: 
June 1, 2004

It's difficult for most people to come up with positive social attributes for hip-hop. Mainstream America views it largely as a disruptive force, one that represents a litany of social ills perpetrated by young people: disrespect for authority, glorification of violence and misogyny, ghetto-to-glamour materialism, and rampant drug dealing and abuse. When a teenager cruises by in a low-riding, tricked-out car, rattling and thumping with bass beats, few people see in trim or her the bright future of American politics.

But Bakari Kitwana does. He sees enormous potential for a powerful voting bloc among the "hip-hop generation," those born between 1965 and 1984. He believes young people, and young black people in particular, can turn the tide of social and political neglect that has limited their options since the civil fights movement--if they can get themselves organized.

A former top editor of The Source magazine, an industry authority on rap culture, and now a visiting scholar at Kent State, Kitwana has been immersed in the culture of hip-hop since his childhood in New York, where he grew up ,alongside emerging DJs and MCs. The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture by Kitwana (2002) documents the distinct challenges facing today's youth.

They're challenges with which Kitwana is familiar--he's part of the hip-hop generation himself. Kitwana's lively lectures and publications, including his new book Why White Kids Love Hip Hop, demonstrate his intimate knowledge of a much-maligned and often overlooked demographic, as well as a hope that they can rise above what society has come to expect from them.

For Kitwana, hip-hop culture extends far beyond just beats mad rhymes. During his tenure at The Source, Kitwana observed that the unique rhythms and lyrics were catapulting young people and the issues concerning them onto the world stage in a way that no form of popular culture had before.

With the evolution of gangsta rap and the rising popularity of groups like NWA in the late 1980s, trip-bop came to encompass a lifestyle that young black people adopted wholesale, not only because their peers made the music, but because it identified situations they'd laced themselves--most of them bleak and discouraging. From local clubs to MTV broadcasts, these rappers gave voice to frustrations experienced by a majority in the hip-hop generation: joblessness and poverty, paramilitary-like police brutality in primarily black neighborhoods, skyrocketing incarceration rates, and slim educational opportunities. "In a way, hip-hop is a folk culture; it's organic," Kitwana says. "You just start talking about your experiences--all you need is your mouth."

So what would happen, Kitwana wondered, if rap enthusiasts harnessed their national exposure to create political momentum for social change? What if they could use then mouths to move people's feet, inviting them to actively oppose institutionalized black disenfranchisement? Clearly, the numbers said it could be done--dozens of hip-hop albums go multi-platinum in the first week of sales because millions of young people buy them. "Now we just need to get those millions of young people to vote," Kitwana says with a mischievous grin and throaty, laugh.

Easier said than done, given the de-politicized state of today's hip hop music. Although some artists still use their microphones as a call to action, commercial interests have co-opted a large sector of hip-hop culture's economy (look no further than P. Diddy). Also, many young black people feel resigned to cycles of violence and hopelessness, as oblivious politicians seem unwilling to deal with these crises. "Why don't young people vote? Well, this society hasn't given them anything to vote for," Kitwana insists. "At this point, they feel like, why bother?"

THIS, KITWANA believes, is partly because the "old guard"--those who spearheaded the black power movement in the 1960s--have unintentionally overlooked the issues facing those born after that era. Outside the black community, few people notice the vast and growing generation gap that exists between civil rights leaders and the hip-hop generation--but it's an understandable chasm. For starters, there are quantum differences in how culture is transmitted; while the old guard sought its identity in close-knit families, churches, and community centers, the hip-hop generation's values are "beamed in" through media and the Internet. Just as social uplift and nonviolent resistance were central to civil rights leaders, the hip-hop generation identifies with a series of firsts: In addition to being the first post-feminist generation and the first AIDS generation, they are also the first shaped by a globalized economy that invites extreme consumerism.

That means the hip-hop generation has grown up in a world that found a completely new way to marginalize young blacks. They are the first to enjoy the fruits of the civil fights movement, living in a society where rights aren't explicitly denied based on race. But this also means, Kitwana says, young black people are living in "an American dream that doesn't fit anymore." Because they grew up without legal constraints, this generation of black citizens were led to believe that they were full and equal partners in American society. But though legal restrictions have been abolished, institutionalized racism and de facto discrimination remain, producing a jarring mix of apathy and anger in those affected.

According to Kitwana, the hiphop generation needs to be given the authority to address these challenges. "Although the ideas at the core of the civil rights era are still relevant to today's political landscape (equality, inclusion, and the like)," he wrote in The Hip Hop Generation, "the manner in which they are now being articulated does not translate meaningfully into the ways these issues are manifest among the younger generation."

These statements don't indicate disrespect or ingratitude toward civil rights leaders. Rather, Kitwana simply encourages them to pass the torch to the next generation. He cites There is a River, by civil rights historian Vincent Harding, as the inspiration for this idea. The "river" in the title is a metaphor for the forward march of African Americans, kept flowing by those willing to jump in. But the book only documents the river's movement through the civil rights era. Kitwana says it can't end there: It's time for hip-hoppers to get wet. "It's our generation's turn to jump into the river of struggle to keep it moving," he exhorted a college-age audience at a recent lecture in Michigan.

But Kitwana knows that before the hip-hop generation can become part of the conversation, it must earn its right to be heard. That's why he's helping to create a coalition that will present a national political agenda for hip-hoppers, highlighting key issues (such as employment, incarceration, and education) and documenting their sociological causes. Thus far, this movement has been fueled largely by grassroots activists, underground rap, spoken-word groups, student organizations, and regional politicians such as Ras Baraka (son of poet-activist Amiri Baraka). While local action is a necessary constant, Kitwana and his colleagues are taking it to another level this summer: In June they'll host 15,000 to 20,000 delegates in Newark, New Jersey, at a symposium by and for the hip-hop generation--the Hip Hop Convention.

THE GOAL OF this event, says Kitwana, is to create a cohesive agenda on key issues the hip-hop generation faces. Before the conference, local groups will register voters; for every 50 voters, one delegate attends the convention. Following the event, Kitwana and others will present the agenda to a bipartisan group of politicians. "We used to think we were safe just voting Democrat," Kitwana says. "Obviously, that hasn't worked out too well. So now we're trying to look at politics on an issue-based level, rather than buying into party, politics."

Organizers also hope to build a political infrastructure for the long haul. That's why--though they have officially invited George Bush, John Kerry, and Ralph Nader to participate--the focus won't be on the upcoming presidential election. "We do hope the 2004 election will galvanize hip-hop voters," Kitwana says. "But the vision is more long term. We want young people to understand that politics is a process and a lifestyle, not just something you do for one day every four years."

Kitwana hopes the convention will be a defining event for people in his generation--and that it will equip them to visit the polls on a regular basis. "It's not enough just to register voters--you have to document that they actually voted," he says. "We want people to understand what a vote is for and how to use it. Telling young people to vote without giving them any other tools is wrong. We want to educate voters to understand what being part of a political process is all about and how that can bring about change."

There is a palpable urgency in Kitwana's voice. The convention's success has profound implications not only for the upcoming presidential election, but also for the hip-hop generation's second wave; Kitwana and his peers are beginning to have children of their own. This movement is driven to ensure that its sins won't be visited on its successors, that they will not fall prey to the social ills that have marked the experience of the hip-hop generation.

Kitwana describes the urgency of his generation's vocation by alluding to an unlikely source: the 1950s Hollywood classic The Ten Commandments. "There's a scene where they're crossing the Red Sea, and Joshua says to Moses, 'Stand up on that rock, to give the people walking in the back hope that they can make it through.' And that made me think about the hip-hop generation," he says. "Each generation of African Americans has stood up before their peers, and before the generation behind them, to give them hope that they could have an impact and have a place in this society. And I think it's time for the hip-hop generation to stand up and do that."

By Kate Bowman