Over the past decade hip-hop has been used as a rallying cry to get younger voters to the polls in key elections. These campaigns have been effective at increasing voter registration, particularly among young African-Americans. In 2000 Russell Simmons spearheaded a “Rap the Vote” initiative with the tag line “Register. Vote, Represent.” In the 2004 Presidential election, P. Diddy led the “Vote or Die” campaign. In 2008, T.I.’s voter registration campaign was titled “Respect My Vote.”
Notwithstanding the beneficial impact of these campaigns in the area of voter registration and turnout, I have always been somewhat skeptical of the term “hip hop politics.” Often, it seems, “hip-hop politics” is used as a stand in or proxy for young black and Latino people who will likely register as Democrats (hence the humored response to Republican Party chairman Michael Steele’s call to mobilize hip-hop Republicans.) The problem with that, as it see it, is that as a musical form hip-hop is filled with a wide range of ideas about the world. Hip-hop does not hold to a single political philosophy.
Moreover, not all young people of color identify with hip-hop, in fact it is alienating to many, particularly now that hip-hop produced by major record labels has such a narrow range of subjects and styles.
WATCH REV. AL SHARPTON’S TAKE ON TODAY’S HIP-HOP ARTISTS AND LEADERSHIP:
Additionally, although the experiences of the poor and urban and of color are highlighted within some of the music, the values often presented by the music, especially when you include independent labels,and independent artists, are vastly diverging. The word “hip-hop” cannot and should not stand in for an entire group or a specific political perspective.
It is even more difficult to associate hip-hop with a particular politics when the most visible representatives of “hip-hop politics” are also often representatives of corporations and corporate interests, interests that are frequently at odds with the interests of poor and working class people.
That said, I do believe that hip-hop can be an effective tool for political engagement. But rather than assuming that “hip hop politics” means something in particular, we should understand that political hip hop can inform, mobilize and inspire.
For example Public Enemy’s 1990 song “By the Time I Get to Arizona” offered an incisive critique of Arizona’s refusal to recognize a holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. This song was recently re-worked, by Chuck D. and DJ Spooky in response to recent Arizona immigration legislation that requires police officers to stop and question Arizonans who “look” like they are undocumented.
Likewise, Talib Kweli’s “Papers Please” offers a critical response to the same legislation, effectively explaining how the law is essentially institutionalizing racial profiling. It is no accident that these emcees are known for having a strong political consciousness in their work. The fact that they have functioned as social critics and educators in their artistic work grants credibility to their messages. They have real expertise in explaining and engaging issues of great importance.
Bakari Kitwana, a professor and scholar of hip-hop, is the executive director of Rap Sessions, and in that role he travels the country facilitating dialogues around political issues within hip hop, and broader issues of import to listeners to hip-hop. This is another means of using hip hop as a tool or lens for political engagement.
In the “Finding Our Folk” tour, a project that has been devoted to the right of return and reconnection to Hurricane Katrina survivors, hip-hop has been part of the New Orleans brass brand music curriculum that is the tour organizers have used to engage, raise up the voices, and foster community and self-advocacy among Katrina survivors. In their curriculum the political history of black music writ large is taught, and they illustrate how hip-hop fits into that tradition.
Two political organizations: The Hip-Hop Caucus and Green the Block to release a mixtape days ago called “Stop Offshore Drilling” which includes rhymes from artists such as Nas, Lupe Fiasco, Talib Kweli and Dead Prez. In addition to raising awareness, they have created an online petition and sponsored protest rallies in response to the BP disaster and environmental hazards generally.
It is important to understand that these examples are ones in which the music has been connected to grassroots activism. I am not referring simply to “conscious” hip-hop, but rather to rap that fits into some specific political goals and serves some uplifting and educational function for its audience.
Historically, in African-American culture music has been an important tool for healing, nurturing and social movement. One need only reflect upon the role of freedom songs in the civil rights movement, the role of soul music in the black power movement, and the role of hip-hop as what Chuck D termed “the black CNN” in the early 90s, to see strong evidence of that.
However, since the 1950s, black popular music has also been a commodity in the middle of a large, complex international industry. These two traditions are often at odds when it comes to political messages and social critique. So when we think about the possibilities for activism in hip-hop, we have to be careful to not think that music can be a substitute for the day to day work of civic and political engagement, or that celebrities represent “the people.” Instead, we must look for the music that is connected to real struggle and clear positions that serve the greater good.