From Pop Charts to Politics

In late July, a crowd gathered in front of the News Corporation building in Midtown Manhattan to see hip-hop star Nas -- perhaps the only rapper left who maintains both impeccable street cred and an easy fluency in American politics -- speak out against the way FOX News covers black folks.

A few protesters brandished signs chastising FOX for its coverage, but many in the crowd were there to see Nas. After all, his most recent album, an extended meditation on black identity and how we police language, reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts that day, displacing the immensely popular and cheerfully apolitical Lil' Wayne. Still the role was a new one for Nas, who as recently as 2004 was ridiculing John Kerry voters (rapping, "election done came and went/ya'll worked so hard for it/and in the end we all got dicked"). At the July protest, Nas came out late, as the soft-spoken Andre Banks, deputy director of the grass-roots black political group Color of Change, played hype man. In appearance, Nas was considerably muted. Gone were his signature chains and expensive name-brand clothes; this Nas wore a plain white T-shirt with a humble gold crucifix. He read from his prepared remarks, took a few questions, and left.

Several of the protesters didn't seem to understand why they were there. They simply heard Nas was going to show up. A few promised they would look up the Color of Change Web site as soon as they got home. But all in all, the protest was just a media event with a celebrity draw, not a successful merging of liberal politics and hip-hop culture.

This year, hip-hop has a higher political profile than ever before. After Nas protested FOX News, mega-stars like Kanye West, N.E.R.D., and Wyclef Jean performed at the Democratic National Convention. Pharcyde, Mos Def, and Atmosphere performed at the Service Employees International Union's Labor Day celebration. In late July, Barack Obama was forced to issue a denunciation of rapper Ludacris after he released a track that dissed Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Obama himself is now the standard of black leadership for the hip-hop generation, shouted out by everyone from Jay-Z ("It's the hood's Barack") to Talib Kweli ("[I] speak to the people like Barack Obama"). Even the typically apolitical Young Jeezy came out for universal health care after paying out-of-pocket for his mother's kidney transplant. Not since the 1980s heyday of groups like Public Enemy have rappers made so many references to mainstream politics.

Hip-hop has combined a black perspective with poignant social commentary from the beginning, but thus far it has failed to become a major influence on party politics. Ideally, hip-hop would be a cultural-political force akin to the Christian right, focusing on a set of core issues that reflects the concerns of its urban, mostly (but not exclusively) black constituency: the drug war, voting rights, affordable housing, education, and economic opportunity.

But in a political context, hip-hop faces a strange paradox. Hip-hop is now considered mainstream because its more superficial values -- even those it is most often criticized for -- are fundamentally American. The reason why frat boys can bump Lil' Wayne as hard as an aspiring emcee in Brooklyn is that Lil' Wayne's core values are pretty conservative. His music is about entrepreneurship, upward mobility, masculine potency, and a binary understanding of power and authority. Rapper David Banner had it right when he told Congress in 2007 that presenting these sentiments in a commercial and artistic context is "the American way." And as Obama told Vibe magazine in 2005, his problem with hip-hop was that "the underlying values are so square. It's about bling. It's entirely cynical, entirely materialistic ... [it] doesn't challenge the social order at all." In other words, what makes hip-hop widely accessible as entertainment is the same thing that holds it back from being a political force.

Half the battle is over: Hip-hop is now firmly ensconced in the cultural mainstream. But for it to become a political movement as well, it has to learn to push its issues out of the margins and into the center, while still retaining its broad fan base. What makes politicians distance themselves from rappers even as they quietly accept their campaign donations (and allows hip-hop to remain attractive to youth) is the fact that this critical but openly honest embrace of the American dream and its underside is expressed with a black aesthetic that remains revolutionary. Hip-hop's popularity thus undercuts itself; to be politically viable it has to be somewhat mainstream, but to maintain its vitality, it must remain fresh -- and revolutionary. It has to have a vision of society as it would like it to be, which is terribly difficult for an art form whose most poignant and effective moments have often focused exclusively on how America falls short of its ideals.

In judging whether or not hip-hop's cultural ubiquity could metastasize into a movement, it's probably best to start where the culture began: with the young black voters. While traditionally, African Americans of all classes and ages have voted Democratic, that may be changing. In her 2008 book, Party Crashing: How the Hip-Hop Generation Declared Political Independence, Keli Goff points out that young black voters are less partisan than their parents, noting that only between 50 percent and 60 percent identify as Democrats. She further argues that emerging generational and class divisions will soon end the Democrats' hold on the black vote. Her theory may eventually prove true, but at least two things have delayed this from happening: the rise of Barack Obama, whose candidacy has galvanized the hip-hop generation as never before, and the continuing hostility of the Republican Party toward black voters.

If Goff is correct that emerging class differences will eventually trump race, this has major implications for hip-hop as a political force. Politically, it remains tethered to the concerns of the black working class and poor -- which are concerns that upper- and middle-class black folks share as long as race remains a dominant issue in American politics. Liz Havstad of the advocacy group Hip Hop Caucus describes its target constituents as "the geniuses outside the academy," those 20-somethings who haven't been to college and whose political energy has proven difficult to harness, but whom companies spend millions of dollars studying as consumers. The catch is that once this generation of black voters has the means and the money to finance a movement on a national level, they may no longer be interested in the issues that once drove them. This may prove to be a fatal weakness in creating a broader movement.

Goff argues that this isn't necessarily the case. "The onus is on the organization to frame [issues] in a way that they are accessible to people from all walks of life," she says. She points to the strong opposition to the drug war from libertarians as evidence that the political concerns of those who identify with hip-hop could find a broader audience.

But how to reach that audience? Deploying a celebrity draw is effective in the short term, but ultimately the interest dissipates quickly. (Even though Nas' presence at the FOX protest was a draw for people who might not otherwise be interested in politics, the event itself seemed unlikely to change that.) Hip-hop-based movements have had more success in organizing around individual issues like the Rockefeller drug laws, but becoming a movement requires a broad-based agenda that grows out of those local victories. In her book, Goff quotes Alexis McGill, the former political director for hip-hop entrepreneur and activist Russell Simmons' campaign, who says, "I don't think it's effective to organize around being black. I think it's effective to organize around class, education, criminal justice -- things that affect us disproportionately because we are black."

So far, groups organized around hip-hop themes have proven to be most effective when organized around these issues. Simmons, aside from his highly publicized voter drives, was a part of the campaign to reform the draconian Rockefeller drug laws in New York state (although the eventual reforms were small, and the campaign continues, some of the harshest penalties were repealed). The League of Young Voters has chapters in eight states and has lobbied on the local level for everything from re-enfranchising ex-felons in Pittsburgh to preventing cops in New Mexico from wearing guns on school campuses. The Hip Hop Caucus lobbies directly on Capitol Hill and received an award from the Institute for Policy Studies for its work on issues related to Hurricane Katrina.

The challenge for building a broad cultural/political movement based around hip-hop will be discovering how to enlist those who might not immediately see themselves reflected in the culture, and beyond that, retaining hip-hop's fresh and revolutionary aesthetic while keeping the movement mainstream enough that politicians don't feel the need to distance themselves from it. It faces an old double standard associated with political movements grounded in the black community: how to convince people outside the culture that its goals are not racially exclusive. Shifting the appeal of hip-hop away from what makes it most accessible, those traditional cultural values of status and money, and toward a more progressive agenda will prove to be most difficult.

Hip-hop can "help people come to consciousness," says Rob "Biko" Baker of the League of Young Voters. He points out that the Christian right is supported by a bevy of powerful, well-financed groups, and adds that, for a movement based on hip-hop to be effective as more than just a funnel for social discontent, "we need strong institutions ... we're talking about jobs, schools. We're not trying to throw rocks at tanks."

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