Juggling altruism, rank exploitation

Apr 30, 2003 at 12:00 am

The 10th annual Hip-Hop Summit, held Saturday at Cobo Hall, was a compelling juxtaposition. It was late-night TV self-help infomercial-meets-anti-war activism-meets-youth voter registration rally — all as a means to participate in a greater good under the umbrella of hip-hop culture.

The event, part of a national effort facilitated by Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, was divided into two panels, each staffed with hip-hop powers, including Eminem, Nas, Doug E. Fresh, Noreaga, Rev. Run from Run DMC, T3 from Slum Village, D12, plus managers, producers and label execs. It was moderated by HHSA’s Dr. Ben Chavis Muhammad, WJLB’s MC Serch and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.

The show, part of the NAACP Freedom Weekend, was intended as a lesson in “entrepreneurial, economic and political empowerment.” It succeeded as an informative junket on many levels.

Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, referred throughout as the nation’s only “hip-hop mayor,” entered to a standing ovation in half-filled Cobo Hall. He stepped up to the mic with an arena-ready call-to-arms: “What’s up Detroit?” he shouted. “What’s up west side? What’s up east side?” The moment was telling; despite the presence of rap luminaries like Nas and Eminem (who remained stoic and stone-faced), Kilpatrick was the most alluring one on the stage. He has the command, the carriage and charisma of a full-on pop star.

The mayor set the tone for the day by declaring that the hip-hop and rap industry is a $150 billion-a-year concern, and that Detroit has to “plug into some of that money.”

Discussions ran the gamut from voter registration, civil rights, community economic development and public education to expanding career opportunities in the recording and clothing industries.

D12’s Obie Trice was one of the more eloquent speakers, particularly when it came to the pathetic state of radio. At one point he took the WJLB program director K.J. Holiday to task saying that station doesn’t spin enough local music. “’JLB is definitely down with Detroit,” Holiday retorted, a comment that provoked discernible boos from artists in the audience.

Later, the expressive Russell Simmons acknowledged trite machismo aspects of hip-hop by saying, “It’s true, men in America are still sexist.” Moments later he added, “They tell you they a pimp and their wives run their lives.” The statement incited rounds of audience guffaws.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat who was introduced as the “Godmother of hip-hop on Capitol Hill,” gave an impassioned sermon in which she called President Bush a liar. She encouraged young people to transfer the strength of their cultural impact into political empowerment by voting. “Young people can take the president out of office,” she said.

Simmons’ Bush condemnations were also inspiring. His own “Hip-Hop Vote Team” speech hit a chord when he asserted Jay-Z, Eminem, and Nas are more adored worldwide than President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Panelist Tonya Hawkins, manager of Kem, “one of the only sisters representing the ladies,” pointed out that the best way to get ahead was to “immerse yourself in books.” Simmons concurred, saying “spoken word is from the heart; higher aspirations for humanity.”

Yet, noble themes of community and spirit, economic empowerment and artistic fidelity were at times diluted. I always cringe when a movement rooted in art, such as hip hop, focuses on the material, where success (and power) are defined by wealth and celebrity.

With many millionaires onstage giving advice, and a Clear Channel (WJLB’s owner) logo in the backdrop, there was an element of artifice. On one hand, the hip-hop community sits like doe-eyed consumers, ready for any corporation to market to them, while at the same time confusing the do-it-yourself ethos of independent, street-level hip hop with the need for pure self-exploitation for success.

The messages were sometimes mixed and there was contradiction at play; here were giants of the corporate world — Clear Channel’s WJLB, Simmons, Em, and major label artists all bestowing DIY virtues while at the same time bowing to corporate voracity as a definition of success and holding themselves up as examples. As Eminem said, “There may be 10,000 of me in Detroit who have it in their hearts to do hip hop … you’ve got to promote yourself.”

Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]