DJs try to get out the youth vote for President Obama

September 16, 2012

The stage was set with monster speakers and an electronic turntable in a strip mall parking lot, between the Little Caesars Pizza and E-Glam Beauty Supply.

The party’s headliner was Diamond Kuts, a waify 20-something hip-hop DJ who favors big hoop earrings and, in the past few weeks, has become a fresh part of President Obama’s bid for reelection.

“You didn’t come out here to see me,” she shouted to roughly 100 fans, who snapped photos with their cellphones and had clearly come to see her. “We’re not here for anybody else but Barack Obama!”

DJ Diamond Kuts, whose given name is Tina Dunham, has 93,000 Twitter followers and a devoted audience of mostly 15- to 32-year-olds who appear in droves when she hosts block parties such as the one on a recent Saturdayin this predominantly black neighborhood. That following makes her a desirable pitchman for the Obama campaign in the final weeks of the presidential race, as the campaign refines its effort to thinly slice the electorate and reach every potential supporter.

Dunham, one of dozens of DJs who have been recruited by the campaign to help the president, has begun shouting out to Obama on Twitter, promoting him at local events like this one and talking about him during her Saturday night radio show on Power 99, one of this city’s hottest urban radio stations.

For church ladies, there is the Obama campaign’s “congregation captains” program. For college students, there is Students for Barack Obama. For young adults not on college campuses, like the afternoon dancers here in northwest Philly, there is the weeks-old DeeJays for Obama.

The goal is to appeal to young voters to register and turn out to vote.

“We’re really working to help everyone see themselves,” said Stefanie Brown, the Obama campaign’s black-vote director.

Mitt Romney’s campaign has its own strategy to reach young voters, having created Young Americans for Romney. And GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan recently tailgated with supporters before an Ohio State football game.

It is too early to know whether the DJ strategy will work. And there is the risk of offending supporters by aligning with DJs, who sometimes play music that is profane or that glorifies violence and crime.

But the Obama campaign sees the need to motivate the young people who listen religiously to DJs such as Dunham.

In 2008, the president won voters under age 30 by the widest margin of any candidate in almost four decades — defeating John McCain 66 to 32 percent.Young voters, however, are notorious for not showing up at the polls, and the Obama camp has been dogged by worries that there may not be a repeat of the excitement of 2008.

That’s where Dunham comes in.

“I was always for Obama but when they made me a part of it, I felt like okay, let’s get these teens out here registered to vote,” she said.

DJs’ special status

Anton Moore, a friend of Dunham’s who manages DJs in Philadelphia, said the idea for a network of DJs came to him in the middle of the night. Moore is 26 and an avid Obama campaign volunteer who had seen the president singing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Moore said he was lying in bed this summer and, at 2 a.m., a thought occurred to him: “DJs for Obama would be hot.”

Moore said he pitched the idea to the Obama campaign’s Pennsylvania state director, who liked it and passed it along. An Obama spokeswoman said the idea came not directly from Moore but “from collaboration with our volunteers.”

Campaign officials said it fit with their effort to run programs aimed at reaching black and Latino audiences and bring “new voices and faces into the political sphere.” In a change from 2008, the campaign named black and Latino vote directors in each of the most-contested states.

Among hip-hop music fans, DJs have long held a special status as the center of the party, spinning records and shouting into the microphone. Dunham has toured with hip-hop star Nicki Minaj, worked as a television host on BET and produced her own mix tapes.

“I have a voice, because I’m in front of a lot of kids,” she said. “Sometimes people just want to be a part of whatever I’m a part of.”

Other DJs who’ve agreed to help Obama include celebrity DJ Cassidy, who spun records at the president’s 50th birthday party, the 1980s hip-hop star D-Nice and electro-house musician Steve Aoki.

In many cases, DJs are closer to their fans than A-list celebrities and musicians. They are regular voices on urban radio, the central figures in the hottest night clubs and among the most well-known local celebrities in many places, said Debra Lee, president of BET.

“It’s very smart. DJs have taken on their own persona these days,” said Lee, who has held fundraisers for the president.

The Obama campaign also is talking to nightclub promoters in swing states, hoping to pair them with celebrity DJs and host “Obama night” parties. The group has hosted a block party in Miami — with a $25 entry fee or $100 for VIP access — to raise money for the man they call the “DJ in Chief.”

At the free block party on Sept. 8, Dunham and three other DJs spun records in front of a crowd of young people, many of whom have tuned out the television ads blanketing this important battleground state.

“We ordered from Caesars to pick up some pizza, and then we seen this,” said Marlyn Louis, 23. She held a free bag of popcorn in one hand and a snowcone in the other as she hopped to the song “Wobble Baby.” Louis said she already had registered to vote, but she thought the event was good exposure for the campaign.

Markita Wiley, an 18-year-old who lives in the neighborhood, was also registered but said most of her friends thought voting was a waste of time. “I’m trying to get them pumped,” she said, looking over at the party.

As the music played, Hot 107.9’s Abdul “DJ Damage” Muhammad said he tries to make the political events feel like parties. Instead of long speeches, he slips in quick, short messages over the beat.

“We motivate people to move and to dance, and we can also motivate people to do something bigger than themselves, which is voting,” he said loudly as the clean version of “I’m Faded” played in the background.

Ambassadors to youths

In the wrong hands, the DJ program could come off as phony, but “hip-hop music embraces the president,” said Mike Muse, who owns an independent record label in New York and has raised money for Obama’s campaign. “The DJs have a natural gift of being able to move a crowd. What better ambassadors?”

Earlier this month, Obama appeared in a pre-taped video that rapper Jay-Z played during a recent benefit concert. “Thanks for letting me crash your show, Jay,” the president said before praising the rapper as an American success story and calling on his screaming fans to vote. This week, the rapper and his wife, Beyonce, are holding a fundraiser for Obama.

There are clear risks.

Controversy sparked recently when Minaj, in the lyrics of a newly released Lil Wayne song, seemed to endorse Romney. It was Obama who cleared up the mess, explaining in a radio interview that she “likes to play different characters.” Minaj then tweeted her support for Obama and thanked him for understanding her “creative humor and sarcasm.”

Polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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