Hip hop comes of age

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If Russell Simmons’ recent Hip Hop Summit accomplishes even a fraction of its stated goals over the next several years, it could easily prove to be one of the most revolutionary things ever in the popular music industry. That’s a good thing.

Of course, there’s also the possibility that this gathering of 300-plus artists, activists, politicians and entertainment executives could be the biggest flame-out fueled by good intentions that anyone’s ever seen, but I think it’s important at this stage to sound a hopeful and positive note. Nobody else is out there trying to do what the summit supporters are doing — and which needs to be done — so they deserve some props just for making an honest attempt.

I won’t waste space yapping about the state of popular music these days; I’ll just say that it’s pathetic and leave it at that. There are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is what the record companies choose to put their marketing muscle behind and promote as the next big thing. It’s not that there aren’t any good young musicians out there — there are more than plenty. Rather, it’s that far too many of the really good young musicians can’t get their stuff heard because the music industry is too busy promoting junk and trying to convince us it’s really gold.

Anyway, I said I wasn’t gonna stray too far down that road. So let me come back to the Hip Hop Summit. I figure I have a duty to admit up front that I am neither now nor have I ever been much of a fan of rap and hip-hop. Although some groups over the years have really caught my attention in a positive way, for the most part it’s just not my thing.

But regardless of my opinion, hip-hop culture has become the biggest thing to hit the music industry in years. Hip hop is huge, and if you want just a glimpse at how powerful it has become, you don’t need to look much further than this summit. There have been hip-hop summits before, but as one rapper who has attended quite a few said, most of them were little more than an excuse for a really big and expensive party with a few pensive words and phrases thrown in for effect.

This one was different. Organized by Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records and the extremely successful Phat Farm hip-hop clothing line, and held in New York over a three-day period, the theme was “Taking Back Responsibility.”

One goal that has already been realized is the formation of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network to implement the initiatives that came out of the conference. The national headquarters will be in New York, and there will be field offices in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Minister Benjamin Muhammad (formerly Ben Chavis, former executive director of the national NAACP) will be the group’s executive director. Board members will include Simmons, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Dave Mays, Def Jam President Kevin Liles, Motown President Kedar Massenburg, Loud Records CEO Steve Rifkind and Interscope/Geffen/A&M Executive Vice President Steve Stoute.

Those lending organizational support to the effort included congressional representatives, the NAACP, the Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Million Family Movement, the Nation of Islam, Nkiru Center for Education and Culture, the Schomberg Center for Research and Culture, and Rock/Rap The Vote.

I suspect some readers may see some of the names and shake their heads. Looking at it from one narrow angle that’s easy to do, but when you use a wider lens it’s important to consider where rap and hip hop originated, the streets of New York City. That an art form that originated in the streets can now command the attention — and cooperation — of such a range of groups and individuals ought to tell you something. From top to bottom everyone realizes how influential hip hop has become, and when an art form becomes this influential, especially an art form created by African-American youth, then you’d better believe the line to control it is down the street and around the corner.

But rather than allow hip hop to be harnessed and tamed, this summit took a proactive approach aimed at not only retaining control over the music and the culture but expanding its influence beyond the music-entertainment realm and into the political. In short, hip hop realizes its power and is ready to put it to work. The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network has already formed a subcommittee to focus on political empowerment through such avenues as providing contributions to candidates who will fight for freedom of speech and other key issues affecting the hip-hop community.

Furthermore, on Sept. 27, the Congressional Black Caucus will sponsor a panel on hip hop as a direct result of the summit. Entitled “Hip-Hop and Political Empowerment,” the panel will include Russell Simmons, Recording Industry Association of America President Hillary Rosen, Mario Velasquez of Rock/Rap the Vote, and U.S. Reps. Maxine Waters, (D-Calif.), Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), James Clyburn (D-S.C.), and Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.). The primary topic for discussion will be mobilizing the hip-hop community for the 2002 elections.

The potential of this newfound coalition is enormous and, I’m sure to some groups, rather frightening. Good. The day when young people only write safe, warm and fuzzy tunes is a day I don’t want to live to see. We depend on the younger generation to scream the loudest, not only because most of them have less to lose than their elders, but because they haven’t lived long enough to let life dull the edges of their idealism — and the audacity and outrageousness that often accompanies it. Although this new organization is not being run by the young, it may be the closest that the young members of the hip-hop community will ever come to having their own political machine. Rather than simply posing defiantly as a bunch of old so-and-sos in Congress continue to spin out ill-informed speeches to mold public opinion around the contours of their own ignorance, the hip-hop community has chosen to take a stab at molding a little public opinion of its own — and influencing the national political landscape in the process.

Hip hop: it’s not just music anymore.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]
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