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Vote, Dude

Hip-Hop Singers and Celebrities Try to Tap A Potentially Powerful Force -- Black Youth

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2004; Page C01


Mistakes were made. One look at the parking lot of the Martin Luther King Jr. rec center and you know that mistakes were made. In 10 minutes on this Thursday afternoon, a clutch of celebrities is supposed to pull up in a colorful bus, gambol to a podium and urge a few hundred young African Americans here in this struggling city to head to the polls on Tuesday.

But a get-out-the-youth-vote rally is nothing without young voters, and at the moment there isn't a young voter in sight.

Rallying cry: Across the country, black youths are being enticed to get-out-the-vote rallies such as this one at Case Western Reserve University on Wednesday. (Photos Brynne Shaw For The Washington Post)

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This is bumming out the advance team of the Hip-Hop Action Summit Network, a group co-founded by the civic-minded tycoon of fly, Russell Simmons, and former NAACP chairman Benjamin Chavis. The network has spent millions of dollars and three years trying to turn young African Americans into a voting bloc meaty enough to require the care, attention and, with any luck, the pandering of politicians.

For months, this nonprofit, nonpartisan outfit has been registering people to vote at hip-hop concerts -- called "summits" for a bit of extra gravitas -- where artists such as Wyclef Jean and LL Cool J performed. More recently, two buses have been crisscrossing swing states with a rotating cast of celebrities on board, all of them hoping to lure the elusive 18- to 25-year-old black voter out of hiding and into a visible, cohesive force. There is plenty of substance in the pitch -- hang around this caravan for a while and you'll eventually hear mentions in speeches about jobs, health care and the war. But style often trumps content and the network knows it. Their goal is to make voting cool.

"Hip-hop is a language that young people speak," says field organizer Jeff Johnson, a charismatic 31-year-old with a ponytail of cornrows. "Young people trust hip-hop artists more than politicians, so when Jay-Z or Puffy says, 'Go out and vote,' they're more likely to listen."

Enthusiastic crowds have assembled at every stop in Cleveland, a city that is emerging as the highly contentious epicenter of the battle for the presidency. But there was a communication snafu this afternoon, and the mayor of East Cleveland, an ample and elegant woman with short gray hair named Saratha Goggins, is surprised to learn that she's about to have company. Not just any company, either. Superhunk Tyson Beckford is on the bus now barreling her way, as is Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, the fetching villainess of "The Apprentice," and a rapper named Eightball.

"Who?" Goggins asks, sitting in the rec center lobby, shaking her head and tsk-tsking a little. "I've never heard of Eightball. I know about James Brown. If it was James Brown, I'd go get my wig."

Goggins is trying to drum up an instant crowd on the phone, and within a few minutes she's reached the superintendent at nearby Shaw High School, who promptly tells students about the imminent arrival of famous people to the neighborhood. Not even John Kerry visits when he comes to Cleveland, according to the locals, and the concept behind this hastily planned visit was to break the area's celebrity-free streak. This was Goggins's idea, actually. She begged for a drop-by on Wednesday but she never heard back from network organizers. Or rather, they called, but she didn't get the message.

"We called," whispers Maurice Henderson, part of the advance squad here, rolling his eyes. He isn't panicking , but clearly the thought of Omarosa glowering at a patch of unpopulated asphalt has focused his mind.

Fifteen minutes later, a group of about 80 kids from Shaw swarm into the parking lot. School has just let out, and though none of this sophomore-heavy crowd is of voting age, nobody seems to mind. Not Omarosa, who smiles that glistening Miss America smile of hers and improvises.

"Make sure you tell your mamas to vote," she yells into the microphone. "Then we can say to George Bush on November 2, 'You're fired!' "

Eightball comes out next, dressed in a gray jumpsuit and shaped about as close to a sphere as a man can get without actually rolling. He's wearing dark shades and mumbles that he's a man of few words, an odd admission for a rapper. He says cheerful things about voting and then shuffles off to make way for Beckford, who gets the biggest reaction. The girls let out some "That's him!" squeals and jostle for a better view.

"On November 2, you need to take what is yours!" booms Beckford.

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