Now that all these tens of thousands of young hip hoppers have been — and continue to be — registered to vote, the obvious question is whether or not they will actually put that weapon to use come Election Day. The second question is, if the momentum of the coast-to-coast Hip-Hop Summits actually does snowball into November, who is the candidate most likely to excite and engage the hip-hop generation?
Or as a friend of mine blurted out while discussing this very same issue: “Young people of America! Who would you rather party with?” Trying to picture either Sen. John Kerry or President George Bush partyin’ down on the dance floor, working desperately to bend and contort their aging limbs to the furious beats, is indeed a painful image. Kerry is far too much of a patrician blue blood — and sounds like one — to even pretend to be able to relate to anything hip hop. As for Bush, his equally patrician blue-blooded background combined with his exaggerated Texas cowboy swagger puts him just as far away.
In short, hip hop and Campaign 2004 are a very odd mix, or so it would appear. So once the high emotion generated by hip hop’s nationwide voter registration drive has begun to die down, what will it take to keep the fires burning all the way through to when it really counts at election time?
Isaac Robinson, who works as both the Eastern Michigan field director for Michigan Teamsters Joint Council No. 43, is also the membership director for the Michigan Young Democrats. Robinson was an active participant during the youth voter registration drive that was linked to Detroit’s Hip-Hop Summit. Contrary to my preconceived notion of how a young hip-hop generation activist might feel about someone such as Kerry, Robinson could scarcely contain his enthusiasm about the commitment of young people to participate in this year’s election, as well as other local political events. Unsurprisingly, he is a staunch Kerry supporter, but he obviously wants the message to go out that he is not the only young person in Michigan who is not troubled by Kerry’s, well, stiffness.
“From my point of view, young people are excited about getting a new president,” he said. “We’re all unified right now to elect John Kerry.”
Furthermore, Robinson seems certain that the admitted emotional high that some of the young folks may have been feeling during a celebrity-studded weekend will be sustained throughout the November elections and beyond thanks to the involvement of such local political luminaries as U.S. Rep. John Conyers and Debbie Dingell, wife of U.S. Rep. John Dingell; both of them were present at the summit and are working closely with the voter registration drive to help mold the enthusiasm into the political force that hip-hop overlord Russell Simmons keeps saying that it is, or at least can be. Although the voter registration drive was billed as a nonpartisan effort and Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) is not formally in the business of endorsing either candidate, it appears fairly obvious, with the out-front assistance of high-profile Democrats, which way most of the votes are being steered.
“It was such an inspiring weekend,” said Robinson. “It made the political process feel more fun.”
Fun? That’s one word I didn’t expect to hear, but perhaps he’s onto something. The best way to get young folks — hell, old folks too — involved in something is to make it enjoyable. Few people will volunteer for active duty if the assignment is seen to be drudge work. The only thing to be careful of with the “party over here” approach is that parties end long before the real work usually even gets started. How successful this voting drive really is will be measured by how many hip hoppers stick around after the music stops. You can lure the kids with a good party, but it’ll take something deeper to keep them on board.
Still, if even half of all those who registered follow through all the way to the polls, it may well have a significant impact on what is predicted to be quite a close presidential race.
According to the HSAN Web site (hiphopsummitactionnetwork.org), more than 75,000 new young voters have been registered in Michigan since the first Detroit Hip Hop Summit in 2003, and most of those voters are from Detroit. If this is true, then the hip-hop generation could, at least in theory, tip the balance of some elections here in Detroit where voter participation in most elections has been pretty pathetic. But until — and only if — this actually happens will such a welcome development become anything more than a nice-sounding theory. A revolution doesn’t become a revolution until the ideas are made manifest through action.
Elsewhere around the country, once again according to the HSAN site, the voter registration drive has apparently been doing incredibly well. During the six weeks leading up to the March 27th Chicago Hip Hop Summit, HSAN worked in partnership with local grassroots organizations throughout the Midwest to register more than 30,000 new voters between the ages of 18 and 35 in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio and Indiana. The Houston Hip Hop Summit, which was held in January, appears to have been the most successful one of all with more than 20,000 youths registered to vote during a two-week effort throughout a seven-county area in southeast Texas. And none of these numbers reflect those older members of the hip-hop generation who may already be registered.
If the hip hoppers actually do come out in force at the polls, I hope that calms Bill Cosby down. For those of you who haven’t already heard, the Cos recently gave a speech at an NAACP event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board where he essentially accused poor black folks of holding back the rest of the race with their poor behavior. He pounced on his poorer brethren for everything from buying $500 sneakers when they “won’t spend $200 for ‘Hooked on Phonics,’” which apparently could correct another problem that upsets the Cos no end.
“They’re standing on the corner and they can’t speak English,” he said.
It’s no secret that rap and hip hop come directly out of that culture which Cosby — and others of his generation and socioeconomic class — abhors, so my guess would be that he’s not a fan of the music. But what Cosby and those whose view he represents may be missing is that there just might be more to those beats than just bling bling-embroidered grooves, foul language, and pricey sneakers. The Hip Hop Nation is getting old enough — and wealthy enough — to begin seriously caring about the direction this country is headed because they are beginning to see how it affects them — and what they can do about it.
Stay tuned for November.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org