Standing Up and Speaking Out

Eric Shapiro, a 20-year-old aspiring rap artist, may appear to be a stereotypical dead-end member of the hip-hop generation. But there’s much more than just rhymes and hooks that interests him.

Shapiro, who raps under the name Chino Flaco, says that among his influences was gangster rapper Too $hort, who incurred the wrath of police departments in the 1990s. A student at Laney College, in Oakland, CA, Shapiro has never voted, mainly because of a prior drug conviction. Under such a felony conviction, Shapiro not only lost his right to vote but also was stripped of his college financial aid.

Despite those setbacks, Shapiro decided to engage in the political process. He became involved in an effort to reform California’s juvenile justice system, which some believe helps turn hard-luck kids into hardcore criminals because of the system’s funding shortage and the juveniles’ lack of political power. “I got tired of people calling me apathetic,” says Shapiro. “We’re not apathetic; we’ve been disenfranchised from the voting system.”

Shapiro was among more than 3,000 members of his generation who attended the National Hip-Hop Political Convention in June on the campuses of Rutgers University and Essex County College in Newark, NJ. The meeting was the first national convention to address the political issues that resonate among the 40 million 18- to 35-year-old men and women of the “hip-hop generation” – one of the most underrepresented groups in American political life.

According to the 2000 census, 18- to 24-year-olds had the lowest voter turnout among all age groups, measuring only 36 percent, while turnout among African American and Latino youth was less than half that figure. By contrast, senior citizens of all stripes turned out at a rate of 70 percent or greater.

Yet, this younger generation wields tremendous economic clout. According to the DC-based Recording Industry Association of America, hip-hop and rap became the second-largest genre of popular music in 2002, with almost 14 percent of the market, trailing only rock, which held almost 25 percent of the $12.6 billion market.

Convention organizers believe that young people turn to hip-hop music because they have been left out of the mainstream by the two-party system and, therefore, see this growing movement as a signal to the political establishment that their economic clout can be translated into votes.

“The word ‘hip-hop’ has a bad rap,” says Bakari Kitwana, cofounder of the convention and author of The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis of African-American Culture. A former executive editor at The Source (a magazine about hip-hop music, culture and politics), Kitwana believes the hip-hop generation has been unfairly tarnished by images of scantily clad women; drug and alcohol use and an unhealthy indulgence in fast cars, $100 bills and flashy gold jewelry, which is referred to on the streets as “bling.”

“The corporate music industry and the media have played a role in defining hip-hop,” Kitwana says. “Hip-hop is not just booty-shaking and all this other crazy stuff that Bill Cosby was talking about. What the corporate industry has done is settled on a formula on what makes a successful hip-hop artist.”

Hip-hop supporters say that, in its purest form, the music shines a light on social and economic conditions that often get ignored throughout American society; hip-hop reflects the sense of abandonment and alienation that many young people feel in a society that seems neither to understand them nor to care about their ideas.

The June convention wasn’t the hip-hop generation’s first jump into political activism. Shortly after the controversial 2000 presidential election, Def Jam Recordings founder Russell Simmons launched the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), a broad coalition of recording artists, record executives and civil rights activists – including Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, who serves as president and chief executive. Since founding the organization, Simmons has led thousands of students in a walkout to protest budget cuts at New York City public schools and has lobbied New York State lawmakers in an attempt to reform the controversial Rockefeller drug laws.

By 2004, HSAN claims, it helped register more than 12 million new voters through a series of regional conferences in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta and other cities. Despite Simmons’ apparent success with HSAN, a segment of the hip-hop community is concerned that he has sacrificed many grassroots issues in pursuit of his own personal wealth and political interests. “Russell Simmons has said he wants to be the first black billionaire,” recalls rapper M1 of the group Dead Prez.

Critics charge that Simmons has failed to include rank-and-file community activists in the leadership of HSAN, except for Muhammad and, more recently, Jeff Johnson, a former youth leader at the NAACP and a participant in the Newark convention. Kitwana is more conciliatory in his views of Simmons but adds that he approached Simmons in 2002 about forming a national political convention and never received an official response.

The idea to create the National Hip-Hop Political Convention stemmed from a series of lectures by Kitwana following the publication of his book. But it was at a conference at Harvard University that Kitwana and fellow panelist Newark Deputy Mayor Ras Baraka decided to reach out to fellow activists by putting the convention together. Unlike most career politicians, Baraka has a high level of credibility with the hip-hop generation because of his work with youth in Newark and his being the son of legendary poet Amiri Baraka, who helped organize the National Black Political Convention in 1972. Unlike that convention, which was attended by mostly African American political leaders, this year’s hip-hop convention attracted a wide range of activists, scholars and performing artists, including Michael Eric Dyson, Chuck D of Public Enemy and hometown hero Wyclef Jean, who headlined a concert in Newark’s Military Park.

The convention generated a lot of interest among young people across the country. Anyone interested in becoming a convention delegate had to help register 50 voters. Together, 1,000 convention delegates signed up nearly 50,000 new voters. However, only about 400 of the delegates attended the convention, because many had logistical and financial problems that prevented them from attending. Most delegates felt that the convention would help address issues that have been ignored by the political establishment. “The Democrats are really scared to speak out,” says Juan Suarez, a delegate and youth organizer from Chicago.

Noticeably absent from the convention were any representatives from the Kerry or Bush campaigns. Officials from the Kerry campaign did not respond to an interview request. However, Mitch Manzella, executive director of New Jersey for Democracy – an offshoot of the Howard Dean campaign – acknowledged that many voters believe the party establishment has run too far from its base. “There is sort of a sense of dissatisfaction with the Kerry campaign,” says Manzella. “Many of the Dean supporters who I deal with are frustrated that the real progressive issues have not been taken up. It seems that, at least in the public media, those Democrats are playing for that centrist vote.”

Still, many veteran civil rights activists see the convention as the beginning of a new political movement. Gus Heningburg, the host of the New Jersey-based public affairs program “Positively Black,” compares activists at the National Hip-Hop Political Convention to members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which for many people was the bridge between the traditional civil rights struggle of the 1960s and the growing black power movement that emerged later in the decade. “They found their way into the civil rights movement and energized it in ways that nobody would have predicted,” Heningburg recalls.

Reverend Calvin Butts, of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, says this convention is one of the most important events to happen in the African American community in two decades. He feels the summit has served to unite the two generations, even while he admits that many in his generation have a hard time understanding today’s youth. He doesn’t believe that hip-hop’s negative image should hinder any dialogue between the two generations. After all, he says, “I had issues with the language of James Brown. I think it’s worth having a conversation [about].”

Though the convention was scheduled just before the 2004 national political conventions, Kitwana asserts that the goal was not just to affect the November election. The convention provided the opportunity to introduce a five-point platform of issues that organizers had hoped to present at the Democratic and Republican conventions. (They also planned to organize in local communities around the same set of issues.) An abbreviated version of the five-point agenda includes the following:

1. Equal funding for all public schools, mandated by federal legislation or, if need be, a constitutional amendment. The platform rejects school vouchers, demands free post-secondary education and calls for legislation to eradicate illiteracy.

2. The repeal of tax cuts for the wealthy, reparations for black Americans and full employment.

3. Reinstatement of voting and other civil and human rights for convicted criminals, the eradication of mandatory minimum sentences and the formation of civilian review boards with subpoena power at all levels of government.

4. Federal legislation for universal health care and women’s reproductive health, and increased funding for AIDS and other diseases.

5. Withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, Puerto Rico and other occupied nations, an end to further U.S. imperialism and the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that will investigate U.S. human rights abuses.

Organizers of the Newark convention were unsuccessful in getting a hearing at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. The goal was to address issues in the platform that mainstream party politicians have largely ignored. Kitwana says the Democratic Party establishment pretty much “gave us the runaround,” which he feels is a symptom of what the party really feels about the black vote in general and young black voters in particular. “This is part of a pattern with the Democratic Party when it comes to the African American community. I think there is a patronage relationship, where they think we’re supposed to be happy to be here, but we really don’t get anything back.”

Perhaps this feeling is one reason there is such low turnout in the entire African American community, not just its youth. “We can’t lay the fact that people of African descent aren’t voting entirely at the feet of the hip-hop generation,” Reverend Butts says. “People haven’t been voting for a generation.”

There are plans for a second convention in Chicago in 2006, and Kitwana envisions a five-year effort to create a national organization that can truly have a real political impact. “I never felt we could come away from the convention and have a huge impact on 2004,” he explains. “I don’t think the infrastructure is there yet. Young people are interested in the idea, but they still need a lot of political training that is just not there yet.”

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