The Politics of Rap

The Positive Side of Hip Hop

Laura Rayburn

"Can't make it to ballots to choose leadership/But we can make it to Jacob's and to the dealership"

— Kanye West

To many, the words "Hip Hop" and "Political Convention" don't even belong in the same sentence.

So when cultural skeptics heard that there was an organized National Hip Hop Political Convention (NHHPC) held in Newark, N.J., late last month, they dismissed the event as yet another excuse for rappers and hangers-on to pose for photo ops and throw Cristal-soaked parties under the guise of political advancement. Of course, these would be the same people who passively accept the image of Hip Hop culture fed to them by the mass media. And we already know what that's all about.

Fortunately, for those of us who understand that Hip Hop culture originated as a voice for the disenfranchised and dispossessed, it would naturally follow that responsible leaders within the Hip Hop community would recognize their role in the battle for political power as we approach the upcoming presidential race and beyond. Using the popularity of Eminem's debut album sales of 1.7 million within the first week as a gauge, convention organizer/author Bikari Kitwana suggests in an interview with Reuters that a primary goal of the event was to "take those numbers and translate them into a concrete, identifiable voting block." It was this untapped demographic that served as the foundation for the four-day event where, according to reports, some 5,000 people attended including delegates representing approximately 30 states and Washington, D.C.

One underlying goal of the NHHPC was to bridge the gap between members of the Civil Rights generation and the so-called Hip Hop generation, the former often expressing dismay over the complacency and lack of direction of the latter. The event afforded a unique opportunity for participants in their teens to interact and debate with nationally recognized civic and community leaders about issues impacting their communities.

While a number of Rap celebrities were on hand to perform at the NHHPC, local poet/MC and community activist Divine Prince Hakiym, assistant director of Cincinnati-based Ra Poets Society, made it clear that the primary purpose of the event was to address many of the important issues facing urban communities such as criminal justice, economic disparity, healthcare reform and education.

Though appearances and panel discussions led by Wyclef Jean, Busta Rhymes and MC Lyte helped to lend a sense of celebrity to the NHHPC, many participants and delegates were more focused on the town hall meetings and caucuses where a national agenda for the convention was hammered out.

"I really didn't have time to attend any of the concerts," Hakiym says, adding that he was busy networking with other activists and artists (including M1 of the political Hip Hop duo, dead prez) as they laid the groundwork for solidifying a political presence in their respective communities. Hakiym was one of 35 delegates from Cincinnati who attended the political convention in Newark and was quick to point out that Ohio, with 42 total delegates, was second only to California in the number of people attending.

Participating in such events as the NHHPC would represent a natural progression for Hakiym who also heads up Ra Ra Enterprise's ETH2ER (Education Thru Hip Hop Entertainment Resources) program as well as facilitating weekly poetry slams for young people at Cincinnati Job Corp. Hakiym will also be a key organizer for the upcoming Cincinnati National Hip Hop Summit to be held on Labor Day Weekend.

So what does all this have to do with music? With Hip Hop culture as a rallying point, the NHHPC helped to forge the often overlooked relationship between music and political activism. By bringing people together who share a common interest in Hip Hop and cultural/political advancement, the lyrics of dead prez, Talib Kweli, Public Enemy and Black Eyed Peas are immediately transformed into identifiable action steps that will help shape the future for us and our children. Who could have imagined that a 30-year-old urban cultural phenomenon that began with B-boys, graffiti artists and street parties would represent ground zero in the quietly rumbling ground swell of political interest for the 18-30 demographic?

Hakiym further explains that "musicians, artists and poets are the voice of the people, and people will act out what they see portrayed in the media." He adds that the Ra Poets Society and other local Ra Ra artists "show and prove" what they stand for through the music and poetry that they perform, generating a following who tend to be more politically and culturally aware. If the pulsating sounds of Hip Hop music and intelligent, politically-charged lyrics happen to provide the necessary incentive to get young people to the polls in November, then his battle — and ours — is half won.

KEVIN BRITTON writes about Hip Hop music and its impact on popular culture. His column appears monthly in CityBeat.