Separating rap from truth

Sep 24, 2008 at 12:00 am

The relationship between hip hop and politics can be just as polarizing as the music sometimes is. For artists like Public Enemy — with songs such as "Fight the Power," which helped shed light on largely ignored problems in the black community — hip-hop and politics mixed like water and Kool-Aid. But when artists like Ludacris record controversial songs like "Politics as Usual" (which shows support for Obama by using profane language to sip on the senator's opponents), those perfect bedfellows can suddenly repel each other like water and oil.

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick saw both sides. When the Michigan Democratic House leader was elected mayor of Detroit in 2002, he was readily identified as, for all intents and purposes, a member of the hip-hop community. He was an African-American, a ripe 31 years old. He wore a stunning diamond stud earring and readily admitted to being a rap fan. He even used lyrics from rap songs when he was campaigning. Comedian Chris Rock was the one who originally dubbed Kilpatrick the "Hip Hop Mayor," and many hip-hop heads were ecstatic about Kilpatrick's impending term at that point in time.

"It was so nice to see someone younger in office," says Kelly "K-Fresh" Frazier, a Detroit DJ. "So I was hoping his term would offer a fresh perspective on things in this city."

Detroit rapper Tasherre D'Enajetic was working as a parking valet at a local hotel when Kilpatrick came by one day while working the campaign trail. D'Enajetic remembers waiting behind the car when the driver suddenly exited the car, leaving it in the middle of the driveway. The tall, stocky and always charismatic Kilpatrick then exited the car, got in the driver's seat and parked the car himself. Kilpatrick handed Tasherre some cash, and the two pounded fists.

"You wouldn't think a cat that was pretty much locked in to be mayor of Detroit would do a task of someone who's on his payroll," Tasherre reflects. "I've seen people in way lesser positions be arrogant about that kind of stuff. For me, though, that showed he was still one of us."

But Kilpatrick unfortunately dropped the political torch that was handed to him and its flames soon engulfed the entire city. What started as allegedly using city funds for a new car, spa massages and extravagant dining evolved into rumored stripper parties at the city-owned Manoogian Mansion, whistle-blower lawsuits from police officers, and then perjury regarding his denial of an extramarital affair with chief of staff Christine Beaty. Kilpatrick was also accused of thuggish behavior earlier this year for allegedly assaulting a law officer.

Now, a jail-bound Kilpatrick has resigned from his seat as mayor — a condition of his guilty plea for obstruction of justice. He also surrendered his law license, agreed to five years of probation, and has sworn to not run for public office during that time. All told, Kilpatrick's cases have cost the city of Detroit millions of dollars.

Kwame Kilpatrick's demise sounds more like a superstar rap artist's fall from grace than that of a mayor.

In fairness to Kwame Kilpatrick, hip hop was never a clear-cut facet of his campaign. While Kilpatrick has used different elements of hip-hop culture to help identify with Detroit's younger demographic, he has also been quoted as saying that the "Hip-Hop Mayor" moniker was limiting and gimmicky for someone in such an important position.

Some members of the hip-hop community were in full support of hip hop's direct affiliation with the leader of the city; others weren't.

Detroit rapper Jahshua Smith, stage name JYoung the General, didn't like the term at all.

"They pegged him that because he's young, he's black, and he listens to rap music. While those are all elements of the demographic that listens to hip hop, there was really nothing about him that made him 'hip hop'," Smith argues. "You can't just call anybody black who's under the age of 30 'hip hop.' When you live by the categorization, you die by the categorization.

"One of the first things that would always come up in almost any article about Kwame was, 'Hip-hop mayor in trouble,'" he continues. "It just makes everyone look bad. It makes him look ill-equipped to lead because of all the trouble surrounding hip hop. And it makes hip hop look bad because that was always the scapegoat they could use when he messed up."

On the other hand, MC Serch, a radio personality at 102.7 FM, says that Kilpatrick wore the "Hip-Hop Mayor" badge proudly. Serch remembers helping to organize the Hip Hop Summit, an annual tour which sought to concretely merge hip hop and activism by bringing artists and personalities to both perform and debate political issues, when he was an on-air personality at WJLB. The 2004 summit featured such multiplatinum-selling superstars as Nas and Eminem. Kilpatrick spoke at that event and the mayor began his speech with lyrics from "It's Like That," a song by the seminal rap group Run-DMC.

"I was like, 'Wow! Look at how far we've come!'" Serch remembers. "It was like, 'Look at how far this movement has come so that a man of this stature, of this kind of power base, can resonate with this kind of audience. He's young enough to remember the [energy] of his youth that's connecting him to the politics that he's doing today. He could've easily just stood on that stage and been a typical politician who happened to be from Detroit. ... But he wore that ["Hip-Hop Mayor"] badge for every single young hip-hop fan in the audience that day."

Detroit hip-hop fans will still readily credit Kilpatrick with a lot of the city's improvement through recent years, including managing a shrinking city, construction of recreation centers, building computer labs and getting young people excited about politics. But while they acknowledge the similarities between rap's negative aspects and Kilpatrick's behavior, ultimately, they say that his tenure didn't capture the true essence of hip-hop music — that is, representing the underrepresented, being accountable and standing up for what you believe in.

"He grew up in the hip-hop generation and looked the part, to a certain extent, but I don't think he played the true essence of hip hop," Frazier says. "Politicians and rappers are a lot alike. It's all about networking and knowing people and hustling. And then in the bad ways, it's hustling, side deals and cheating around on your girls. If anything, he glorified the bad parts that have come out of rap music culture."

Serch compares Kilpatrick's rise and fall to a promising young rap artist who let the limelight get to him. He cites other politicos who have been caught in misbehavior and how they stoically and often immediately took the fall for what they did.

"That's a mayoral responsibility!" Serch says. "You have an oath to uphold the honesty and integrity of your city. ... He would've saved the city two years of embarrassment, $9 million in payouts and all this fake chivalry. The important part for maintaining credibility in hip hop is standing up for what you believe in. If you're an emcee, you're an emcee, not a rapper. Rappers talk about whatever they think is going to get them bread. As soon as he got that limelight — and as soon as he got that show money, that dough and notoriety — Kwame went from being an emcee to a rapper."

Not everyone is holding it against the guy, however. "I'm not completely mad at dude," says Tasherre D'Enajetic. "I just think he got caught up in bad judgment — the worst being the people he kept around him. If he'd just admitted his guilt from the beginning and didn't waste so much of the taxpayers' time and money, I think the people would have been more forgiving. But who knows? [Washington, D.C., mayor] Marion Barry is back in office."

Still, some artists seemed pessimistic about possible fallout against members of the hip-hop community — genre-wise, demographically and everything in between — who'd like to get involved in politics down the line.

Smith says that while young black politicians in Detroit are going to have a difficult time during the fallout period, there'll still be black community organizers nationwide who'll rise through the ranks, similar to the way presidential hopeful Barack Obama did early in his career. Musically, though, he doesn't think that anyone on the fence about rap music is going to let this situation decide whether they completely abandon it or not.

Serch agrees with Smith's sentiments. He mentions Kevin Powell, a hip-hop journalist in New York who's running for Brooklyn's 10th Congressional District this year, as evidence that, when it's done the right way, hip hop and politics can still mix perfectly. But it's all about making the distinction and the right choices.

"You have to separate the rapper from the emcee," Serch emphasizes. "And you have to separate the hip hop from the mayor."

William E. Ketchum III writes for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]