Moving young voters with energy of hip-hop

Election 2004

The Democratic Convention

July 24, 2004|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

It has been hard to miss the always flashy hip-hop impresario P. Diddy, leading evening newscasts and cracking jokes with David Letterman.

But the Broadway actor/mega producer/fashion mogul/Hamptons-to- Cannes jet-setter isn't plugging his latest entertainment venture.

He's challenging young people to "Vote or Die." And he's pledging to make civic participation trendier than one of his supermodel-swarmed VIP parties.

From glitz to grass roots, a revolution is blaring across the airwaves and pounding the streets trying to channel the rogue energy of the elusive "Hip-Hop Generation" into a political force demanding social change.

Until now, hip-hop has been associated more with music and fashion than mainstream politics.

"Hip-hop is the most influential source for young people," said Hassan Allen-Giordano, 28, of Baltimore, who is the state director of the Maryland Voting Rights Restoration Coalition, which wants voting rights for convicted felons. "The trends, the music, the bling bling. Hip-hop stars are so influential. People will act if they just say, `Go out and vote.'"

Last week, P. Diddy launched his nonpartisan Citizen Change campaign with the help of such advisers as political guru James Carville. The multi-tiered initiative markets T-shirts emblazoned with the "Vote or Die" slogan and plans door-to-door visits to register and galvanize youth.

The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network has held rallies, concerts and educational events. Launched in 2001 and founded by hip-hop magnate Russell Simmons, the group aims to register 2 million voters by November.

And last month, nearly 5,000 hip-hop activists from 33 states and 10 countries convened for the first-ever Hip Hop Political Convention in Newark, N.J. They crafted an agenda demanding social change from equality in school funding to repealing mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses.


Organizers of the efforts say they hope to unite a generation of 18- to 35-year-olds raised on hip-hop music to vote Nov. 2. Youth groups estimate that that age group makes up a third of the electorate, but no one is sure how many fall into the category of hip-hop voters.

Political organizers have been trying to motivate younger voters for decades - typically with little success, because this group remains lowest in turnout.

Perhaps that is why, even with every rap concert, rally and bass-thumping public service announcement, it's not clear the candidates are listening or responding to their agenda.

Some hip-hop activists say they don't care.

"Our message is for the young people," said Farajii Muhammad, 25, a self-professed member of the "hip-hop generation." At 19, he co-founded a Towson-based organization called New Light Leadership Coalition, which trains youths to be political activists.

"If you are talking about a message of change, it needs to start at the bottom," he said. "Whether the candidates and politicians like it or not isn't our concern."

That message transcends each initiative targeting hip-hop voters, said Jeff Johnson, vice president of Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and an organizer of last month's Newark convention. Johnson, of Baltimore, was national youth director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People until 2003. He describes a three-pronged hip-hop political movement.

Media campaigns, such as P. Diddy's, work off the star's name-recognition to get young people to the polls.

The grass-roots energy of the Hip Hop Political Convention arms delegates with an agenda to change their communities.

Meanwhile, the action network, led by Simmons and former NAACP President Benjamin F. Chavis Muhammad, blends a squadron of top-selling artists such as Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Outkast with on-the-ground volunteers. "It's nothing different than what the [Democratic National Committee] or the [Republican National Committee] is doing," said Johnson. "It's all a mechanism to hit people at all different levels. You can ensure that one of those hits is going to be effective."

These activists believe in the energy of hip-hop, which they say continues to be misunderstood and underestimated.

They describe a hip-hop generation more diverse than the mainstream media images conveyed on MTV. It's a music born in New York in the late 1970s that has become one of the most influential elements in mainstream pop culture.

Activists say today's hip-hop generation comprises suburbanites and inner-city dwellers, all races and political stripes. About all that unites them is a love and respect for the music.

Political organizers want to use the mass appeal of hip-hop to galvanize young people who remain cynical or indifferent about politics. They also say they want to stay true to the music's origin: poetry set to music; a call to action set to raw beats and rhymes.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.