Raps & votes

Mar 20, 2002 at 12:00 am

Last July when I wrote about the groundbreaking Hip-Hop Summit that took place in New York City that month, I confessed that I wasn’t a real fan of rap or hip-hop music. That hasn’t changed. However, I’m definitely a fan of what Summit founder Russell Simmons is trying to do by organizing and politicizing the “hip-hop nation.” And the co-founder of Def Jam Records and the extremely successful Phat Farm hip-hop clothing line is uniquely placed to pull this off.

The New York conference seemed to go extremely well and managed to attract a decent amount of well-deserved, thoughtful attention. Nevertheless it was still hard to tell at that time whether this was going to be a one-shot deal or whether it really did have legs.

In other words, was this going to be another Million Man March?

As someone who was inspired by the spectacle, I’m not sorry I went. But with no significant follow-up action, one Million Man March has faded into little more than a warm memory; it hardly registers a burp on the Richter scale. What is needed to keep the fires burning in the ongoing and ever-shifting civil rights struggle are long-term strategies and visions.

Well, I’m beginning to think — and hope — that members of the hip-hop community may just hold the key to those strategies and visions. Not surprisingly, some of the more conservative and traditional leaders seem to believe that the followers of hip-hop culture present a threat to the proper, established methods for advancing the struggle. Meanwhile, Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, who has a major fan in Simmons, has embraced the hip-hop movement even as his attempts to coordinate with mainstream black leaders have failed.

Simmons figures the old-school leaders just can’t get themselves to embrace the youth of hip hop and rap because such an embrace might be seen as too controversial.

“The civil rights leaders have the finances and infrastructure but don’t do s—t,” Simmons was quoted as saying in a recent article by Manning Marable. “We are constantly working to connect the old civil rights leaders with creative young people.”

The NAACP, the Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were all supporters of last year’s New York conference. I’m not quite sure what went wrong between then and now, but whatever it is needs to be set straight.

Following up on last year’s successful New York event, a West Coast Hip-Hop Summit was held earlier this year. The event was sponsored by Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, which is significant because of the old East Coast-West Coast rivalry that exploded in the twin murders of East Coast rapper Biggie Smalls and West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur. Both murders, though unsolved, were widely suspected of being rooted in an increasingly hostile rivalry between the two sets.

What Simmons is now promoting is a healing process. Importantly, a major part of that healing is getting the hip-hop community to realize its awesome collective political power that can be exercised at the voting booth. Strangely enough, Simmons is now coming under fire from some quarters for throwing his political support in the New York governor’s race behind the more liberal, white Andrew Cuomo, the son of very liberal ex-Gov. Mario Cuomo, rather than the more conservative black Democrat Carl McCall.

Once again for those not paying attention: the idea here is to encourage young people to vote and think at the same time. Encouraging them to act like sheep and vote as they are told defeats the purpose. It seems to me that Simmons is casting his vote based on how he weighs the issues, which means he is setting the correct example of how this whole thing is supposed to work. Period.

The West Coast Summit was organized by Summit President Minister Benjamin Muhammad (formerly NAACP President Benjamin Chavis). Hundreds of well-known performance artists, music executives, grassroots activists, public leaders and others flocked to the gathering to share views about key issues and to establish a progressive political agenda. Some of those participants included rappers Kurupt, DJ Quik, the Outlawz, Mack 10, Boo-Yaa Tribe, Mike Concepcion and the D.O.C., and comedian Steve Harvey. The keynote address was once again delivered by Minister Farrakhan, who also keynoted the New York hip-hop summit.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, the first hip-hop youth summit was held at York College in Queens.

Hip-hop artists such as Nas, Reverend Run of Run-DMC, Wu-Tang Clan, rap activist Sister Souljah and Fat Joe were all in attendance. The conference focused on building youth memberships and chapters of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network across the country. Some of the programs discussed included the “Read to Succeed Project,” which is designed to bring hip-hop artists into the public schools to emphasize literacy, and the anti-drug “Game Over” public-service campaign.

Getting the young to think politically is a good thing, and going after them where they live makes a ton of sense. Unfortunately, Simmons seems to feel that his organization can’t work with the more traditional organizations on ways to include the young in problem-solving issues; to hear Simmons, there are irreconcilable differences in their approaches. Those differences need to be reconciled — quickly. The young and the old will never agree on everything, but they definitely need to agree that they need each other.

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