How do you get a theater full of screaming teens to, first, get interested in politics and, next, shut up long enough to hear advice from some of their favorite hip-hop stars?
Ask Russell Simmons. He’s going from city to city giving it a damned good, if flawed, try.
Bizzy Bone, co-founding member of rap group Bone Thugs ’n’ Harmony, gets the award for identifying the real charge of anyone attending the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network’s second Detroit summit last Saturday. When asked what he would tell his children to watch for, if they were attending, he says, “Hmm … I would tell ’em to look for the real, and not the fake. You can tell the fake when you look in the eyes.”
Standing in the back of a press tent, which sits behind the Fox Theatre, the location of this year’s event, Bizzy almost blends into the proverbial woodwork. His biggest days as a mainstream artist are behind him, so he enjoys a certain level of anonymity. Simmons, Eminem, D12 and G-Unit are the stars today. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, despite a Metro Times exclusive exposing allegations of sexual infidelity made by former members of his security team, is very much the hometown hero, and the event’s co-host.
Despite all this, Bizzy is the one who grabs my attention. He is less than impressed with the attention the event attracts. He says he is also honored to be a part of it, since, again, it might help kids “learn the real from the fake.”
Too bad most in the crowd don’t have a chance to hear his advice.
The truth is Simmons, who has said hip hop could be powerful if it develops into a “political force,” has some housecleaning and street sweeping to do before any sort of political force is realized.
The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, which Simmons launched two years ago, has a very smart program strategy: “foster initiatives aimed at engaging the Hip-Hop generation in community development issues related to equal access to high quality public education and literacy, freedom of speech, voter education, economic advancement, and youth leadership development.”
By being noncommittal to detailed issues within these broad categories, Simmons affords himself time to hopefully work through the organization’s surface-scratching impact.
And that is not a dis. Simmons is the multimillionaire equivalent of Luke Skywalker, the Jedi who chose the light side. He is using his powers for good and, as a result, has an organization that can become a powerful symbol in hip hop and politics. If a couple of kinks are worked out, you just might see hip hop’s first lobby.
Kink No. 1 – A hierarchy of activity
It’s impossible to corral 4,000 people in one auditorium and do much more than register them to vote while offering cursory information.
They tried to say the things that mattered. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a summit co-host, champions hip hop as a culture that has written its own rules, telling the crowd, “If you let others define you, they can confine you.”
Participants on the first panel, which included Simmons, Rev. Run and local corporate reps and religious leaders, urged those in attendance to not just register to vote, but to become educated voters.
It’s good advice, but how well does it resonate with a concert crowd, many of whom are too young to go anywhere near a voting booth?
A 17-year-old kid named Kris, when explaining why he was there, said, “I’m here for the performances.” Contrast this with the thoughts of D12’s Proof, who, when asked his thoughts on the main purpose of the day, said, “To take what we’ve learned, and educate and elevate” the culture of hip hop, and you’ve got some seriously different agendas to mesh.
The afternoon workshop, which featured all of the national artists touted in the press — Em, D12, Obie Trice, Ying Yang Twins, G-Unit and Da Band’s Sarah Stokes — provided better information on music industry politics than the morning panel gave on voter education — when the people talking could be heard.
I could barely discern Ying Yang Twin D-Roc’s comedic advice on hard work over the young woman in the next isle screaming, “Young Buck! YOUNG BUCK! Sign my shoe!”
It even frustrated the narrator for both panels, WJLB morning show host MC Serch.
“Yo, I know this is exciting,” he said, “But on the real, nobody is gonna learn anything if we can’t hear what people are saying. So calm down.”
Picture having to make that announcement to 4,000 people. Now picture them listening to you.
The Hip-Hop Summit’s allure is the glut of national artists who attend, but its agenda would be better served if it broke down into smaller, controlled workshops where serious issues can be analyzed in greater detail.
Kink No. 2 – Resident evil
There are aspects of this I can’t stomach. Nike, Playstation 2 and Pirelli all have a heavy presence at the summit. They’re corporate kryptonite to hip hop’s grassroots mentality. But they owe this culture, because rappers hip enough to shout them out in their rhymes — and silly enough to give them free advertising — have made them household names in urban homes across America.
It’s time they pay up, somehow.
Kink No. 3 – Gotta look in the mirror
It was the most honest and relevant question of the day.
“I have a young lady here,” says a floor moderator, “who wants to know what all the artists here are going to do about the treatment of black women in rap music and music videos.”
“There is sexism in hip hop,” Simmons quickly confirmed, before backpedaling into “the truth is that men are sexist. Men are twisted right now. But it’s not hip hop that’s sexist. It’s men who are sexist.”
Instances come to mind here. Exiled revolutionary Assata Shakur almost leaving the Black Panther Party because of the way it subjugated women. Late comedian Robin Harris telling his woman that he wore the pants, only to have her give him a pair of hers.
“Woman, I can’t get in yo pants,” Harris snorted.
“And if you don’t adjust yo attitude, you never will.”
Show me a movement that didn’t involve and respect women on a critical level, and I’ll show you a movement that failed. Hell, the Golden Age in any society showed us this. Moreover, show me a movement with no real involvement from women, and I’ll show you a thousand lonely, horny bastards.
Hip hop’s inability to accept criticism, even from within the culture, will make the HSAN a passing fad as soon as the next president is elected. Maybe this is what Bizzy Bone was talking about when he said you can tell the fake by looking someone in the eyes. Imagine hip hop looking itself in the mirror. It might hurt. It might heal.
It might get real.Khary Kimani Turner is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org